& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, February 29, 2016

Tahir Gora's Rang Mahal

‘It has taken an Urdu fiction writer more than half a century, after Manto, to garner enough courage to express human sexuality in a popular idiom’

Tahir Gora is a journalist and a writer who has over the past two decades attempted to forge an unconventional path. He is holds controversial views, and doesn’t mind expressing them with complete candor. Tahir's opinions are unpalatable to many adherents of Islam. His political position is to the right of centre, and to his credit, he steadfastly holds to his position.

I support him generally in his fight against obscurantism, but that is about it. On practically all other matters, we differ radically and vehemently. 
And yet, I count him among the few friends I have in Canada. That is because as a person, Tahir is warm, sincere and extremely loving.  
Tahir and Haleema at their 25 th wedding anniversary recently 

Recently, I spoke to him on my show Living Multiculturalism. The show is on TAG TV, a channel Tahir launched in 2014. On my show, I talk to authors, poets, musicians and artists. We talk about being creative in Canada, in a multicultural ethos.

Tahir, besides being an activist and a journalist, is a reputed author. He prefers to write fiction in Urdu, and explains that as a writer he is able to be true to himself when he writes in his language. A couple of years ago his controversial novel Rang Mahal was published both in India and Pakistan.

The novel explores the angst of the Pakistani diaspora in Canada. “It has elements of nostalgia for Lahore, as well as the reality of Canada,” Tahir says. During an hour-long conversation we traversed through a wide range of topics including the significance of experience and imagination for an author, He obliquely referred to the controversy that had been created in Pakistan when the novel was published in Aaj magazine. As a result, the novel was first published in a book form in India, and subsequently in Pakistan.

Recently, Tahir drew my attention to a review of his novel by Irfan Javed in Pakistan’s Friday Times. Here it is: “The most conspicuous and ground breaking novel appeared at the end of 2013 in literary magazine “Aaj”. Canada based writer Tahir Aslam Gora’s “Rung Mahal” is a riveting account of the lives of the Pakistani diaspora in Canada. Its diction is original, eloquent, absorbing and innovative. It has taken an Urdu fiction writer more than half a century, after Manto, to garner enough courage to express human sexuality in a popular idiom. It portrays the lives and psychological conflicts of Pakistanis based in Canada, with a rare insight into revealing glimpses of personal experiences. The story shuttles between the past and the present, bringing to life characters that follow their adopted country’s life style alongside those whose insecurity in an alien world pushes them to seek refuge in extreme versions of religion. Unfortunately the story ends rather abruptly but leaves enough room for a sequel. At times I felt that the excessive dose of sensuality laced with out-of-place sexual content was unnecessary and extraneous. It is a blessing that religious zealots don’t read literary novels any more, otherwise by now its publisher would have sought refuge in Canada along with Mr. Gora.”

That is undoubtedly wholesome praise.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Street Soldiers

Street Soldiers is stark and disturbing. It’s a story of immigrant dreams built on fragile foundations getting caved under by misfortune. It’s the story of Sunny, a young lad who goes astray when fate punctures his cocooned world.

After his policeman father is killed in a random act of violence, Sunny, his mother and his brother are forced to move in with their grandmother, and Sunny has to change his school. In the school, he is bullied relentlessly, and in trying to escape his tormentors, he accepts help and support from a gang of drug peddlers.

This starts a chain of events leading to his mother throwing him out of their grandmother’s home, and Sunny getting increasingly involved with the drug business. On the way to the denouement, he falls in love with and marries the gang leader’s sister.

Soon, his world collapses when internecine gang warfare erupts, and his comrades are shot dead. In trying to save his friend’s life, Sunny unwittingly kills the big don’s son. This leads to inevitable violence as the story moves towards a macabre conclusion with everyone except Sunny dying in a shootout.

The directors Jay and Lily Ahluwalia have a commendable eye for detail, and are able to capture the closeted, claustrophobic world of drugs and guns. The quiet desperation with which every member of the gang lives his life is clinically and unglamorously portrayed. 
There are no redeeming features in this life of the young gangsters that is largely lived in cars, garages and warehouses. The young foot soldiers who work for the don know that they are mere pawns and have no future, and would rather snort cocaine than do anything else.

For a first time effort, Street Soldiers is good. Sid Sawant who plays Sunny is easily the most impressive of the cast. To an author-backed role, Sawant brings vulnerability, uncertainty, and tenuousness. The young actor underplays his role and is at ease and controlled in depicting the quick spiral of destruction that the character’s life becomes. Nish Raisi as Jassi, and Lionel Boodlal as Ronnie, are also competent.

The women in the film – Priya (Sachel Metoo), Neha (Shruti Shah), grandmother (Jasmine Sawant) – don’t have a major part to show their talent; Shruti Shah effectively modulates her voice while conveying the desolation of a woman who has lost everything.

The cinematography is stark and brutal, and eschews depicting Toronto through a touristy prism. The stark suburbia that forms the urban sprawl of Greater Toronto Area is hammered with an unblinking monotony. The music score is contemporary, and often pulsating; the editing, however, is occasionally patchy.

Directors: Lily Ahluwalia and Jay Walia
Writer: Jay Walia
Cast: Sid Sawant, Nish Raisi, Lionel Boodlal, Steve Kasan, Afroz Khan, Sechal Metoo, Shruti Shah, Jasmine Sawant
Executive Producer: Surindar Ahluwalia
Producer: Jay Walia, Ron Walia
Original Music: Andre Mina, Emad Mina, San Thurai, Manjeet Uppal                  
Cinematography: Chris Berry                
Editing: Jay Walia            

Sound Department: Agah Bahari
About Time Productions

Thursday, February 25, 2016

River of Flesh and Other Stories

Ruchira Gupta, the globally renowned anti-sex trafficking activist, has edited a compilation of short fiction from the Indian subcontinent on the theme of prostitution. The volume River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction (published by Speaking Tiger) has short fiction by some of the most prominent names in subcontinental literature such as Premchand, Sadat Hasan Manto, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Kamleshwar, Qurratulain Hyder, Kamala Das, Ismat Chugtai, Krishen Chander, Amrita Pritam, among many others.

“Over the twenty-one stories in this collection, a system of abuse by customers, pimps, brothel-keepers, lovers, husbands and recruiters is delicately uncovered,” Ruchira says in the book’s Introduction. The unifying theme of all the stories is the inherently exploitative relationship that prostitution imposes on the woman.

There is nothing alluring or romantic about it, and the popular myth created primarily by cinema (Devdas, based on Sharad Chandra Chattopadhyay’s story) that depict prostitution as acceptable, is nothing more than that – an elaborately constructed myth.

Ruchira Gupta
Ruchira has seen the hellish world of prostitutes from uncomfortably up close. In the Introduction to the book she notes, “I was told that some women chose prostitution over marriage, that they find freedom from patriarchal structures in prostitution, that college girls prostitute themselves for the sake of consumerism – to buy shoes, lipstick, bags, clothes, perfume…I was told that prostitution was a livelihood choice many women make when confronted with sweat-shop work, domestic servitude and oppressive marriages.”

“As an activist, organizing girls and women suffering from inter-generational prostitution in red-light districts and caste-ghettoes, the reality I saw was vastly different. I witnessed prostituted women struggle to access even their most basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and protection from violence. I saw women live and die in debt bondage. I came to know of the huge profits which pimps and brothel-keepers make. I saw girls and women chewed up and spit out by the brothel system.”

Another unifying theme of the stories is the economic destitution of the prostitutes. Nearly all the stories are about economically underprivileged women, and in the Indian context that also means they are from the so-called lower or backward castes.

The collection is a response to this hellish world, and emerged from a suggestion from Rakshanda Jalil who suggested “an anthology of stories by progressive writers from undivided India which provides insights into the link between women’s inequality and prostitution.” Gradually, the book expanded to include stories from other regions and languages of India.”

Not surprisingly, many of the stories also bring out the abject condition of the woman who is not the prostitute – the wife, who is reduced to a mute spectator even as the husband openly seeks ‘pleasures’ outside.

“The term ‘sex-worker’ cannot erase the trauma of body-invasion. Nor can any kind of legislation do away with the shock of body-penetration. There is no glossing over the fact that prostitution is an inherently exploitative practice, more akin to slavery than to occupation….River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction is our attempt to de-normalize the effort to legitimize the exploitation of women.”

Diversity in the media

When I came to Canada, I did a program in journalism, hoping that I would be able to restart my career as a journalist that I had abandoned because the publication I worked for couldn’t pay journalists the wages that had been promised.

That was two decades ago. Life took an unexpected trajectory, and I ventured into media and trade promotion – vocations that I enjoyed; acquiring considerable experience in diverse spheres such as administration, marketing, market research, media relations, conceptualizing material deliverables for intangibles.

I never lost interest in journalism, and freelanced regularly, and also taught aspiring journalist.

When I immigrated to Canada eight years ago, I decided I’d return to journalism – the vocation that moulded me.  I completed a certificate program in journalism from Sheridan College, even getting a silver medal for topping the class. I did some freelance work, and was a columnist for the Canadian Immigrant magazine, but that was about it.

The mainstream media wouldn’t look at me or journalists like me who were trained outside Canada. Everyone in the media establishment expressed and continues to express their misgivings at this state of affairs.

Op-ed fulminations are made periodically, but the media – like any other Canadian mainstream establishment – continues to ignore the emerging reality of Canada. That reality is that the country’s demographics are rapidly changing, and the emerging diversity of voices needs to be reflected in all the apparatuses of the civil society.

Diversity in the media involves many aspects.

Diversity in the newsroom: Journalists from diverse backgrounds and cultures need to find a place in the mainstream media

Diversity in news: News stories that reflect the lives of new Canadians and are culturally sensitive to their sensibilities need to find more space in the mainstream media

Diversity that is all encompassing: Diversity is not merely restricted to race; it must account for gender and sexual orientation

Diversity that is sensitive: News stories need to be culturally sensitive to the sensibilities of the minorities

The Massey College organized a splendid discussion on Whose News? Reflections on Diversity in the Media. The panelists were Hannah Sung, Kamal Al-Solaylee, and Desmond Cole. Each panelist provided a unique perspective on a range of issues that Canadian journalism is facing at present.

The panelists emphasized that media diversity should become a continuous process; they also cautioned that diversity shouldn’t become a window dressing, and nor should it be misused.

Sung, a journalist with Globe and Mail, narrated the organizational challenges to keep diversity on the agenda and to bring about a desired degree of change in terms of diversity in the newsroom.

Al-Solaylee, an award winning novelist, and a journalism teacher, cautioned against a unidimensional conversation on the subject and urged for the inclusion of “white men” into the conversation. He said that diversity has its limits and these should be recognized.

Cole, a freelance journalist, wanted a more robust response from the media to wanton bigotry by public figures. 

Over the past few months, I have started doing a television show on TAG TV (which is internet based) called Living Multiculturalism. TAG TV is attempting to create a platform for all those that the mainstream media ignores. The response to my program - both from the participants (authors, musicians, artists) and audience - has been robust. 

I have come to believe after my experience that the myth of the mainstream prevents good media alternatives to emerge, and if one of willing to and able to ignore the lure of the so-called mainstream, it is possible to create content that is genuinely original and of a superlative quality.