& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Draupadi Project

In the Hindu mythology, Draupadi is one of the five significant women, along with Sita (Ram’s wife), Tara (Vali’s wife), Mandodari (Ravan’s wife), Savitri (Satyavan’s wife). These women played important roles in their lives of their respective husbands to change their destinies, which was sort of unheard of and unexpected in a predominantly male society then (and even now).

According to some versions, Draupadi was an adopted daughter of Draupad. By any account, Draupadi’s life was a mess after she got married because she was forced to share herself with five husbands merely on a casual remark made by their mother.

When Arjun won Draupadi in a Swayamvar based on a test of his archery skills and took his new acquisition to show off to his mother, Kunti, his mother, apparently too busy to even look at what he was showing, instructed him, “Share with your brothers.”

For Draupadi that must have been a domestic nightmare tough to adjust to and handle. While polyandry may seem like liberation for a woman in what was then a patently unjust patriarchal system of exploitation, in reality, it wasn’t so.

Draupadi’s life tells us that having five husbands is no guarantee for safety.  She was molested and disrobed in the presence of all her husbands and her elders by her husbands’ cousins in public.

Ganapati and Vyas who sort of co-authored the epic Mahabharat may have realised the heinous nature of the molestation and gave it a slightly more tolerable twist by making Krishna magically appear and give Draupadi reams of robes so that she wouldn’t be seen in the nude in public.

By any standard, this is a horrific tale of a woman being robbed of her dignity as much as it a story that keeps repeating itself – the stupefying and deafening silence of men in the face of such an atrocity.

At a time when all the men sitting in the Hastinapur durbar of Dhritarashtra should have stopped Dushasana from dragging Draupadi by her hair, make her sit on his thigh and attempt to disrobe her, they preferred silence, or impotent rage (as expressed by Bhim).

Sharada Eswar’s The Draupadi Project is a retelling of the myth in a contemporary setting. Draupadi was also known as Panchali, the daughter of the king of Panchal. In Eswar’s version, Panchali is a young 19-year-old girl who has been imprisoned and is rationalising her situation and circumstances by chatting with herself, while imagining that she’s chatting with Draupadi.

The young woman is seeking answers that all women seek – her status in a society that perennially objectifies her and has little or no use except for reproduction or pleasure.

The backdrop of this monologue is an internecine war between a state and its own people. It could be anywhere in the world – the indigenous women in Canada seeking justice, the Tamil rebel in Sri Lanka or the tribal women in Sukama (India).

For those who don’t know, the Naxals (Moaists rebels) killed 25 Indian soldiers in Sukama, India last week, in retaliation for the repeated rape and molestation of Sukama women by Indian soldiers.

Eswar’s play is an excellent attempt to bring the focus back on the status of women in general and women in a developing world where they have to fight the state even for their basic right to survive.

Panchali is a naïve participant in a war that she doesn’t want and doesn’t understand; she is used as a pawn to fit into a larger scheme of things that she doesn’t quite grasp. Her immediate connection to her situation is her brother and her young lover.

As the introduction to the play explains, “Confined in a cell, the young woman wrestles with a multitude of voices, the futility of war and the role and status of a woman in today’s society.”

The Theatre Centre at Queen Street, the venue for the play, afforded the required intimacy between the audience and the character that is necessary to comprehend the utter desolation that the character experiences as a woman.


A Tamasha Arts Production Created and performed by Sharada Eswar, directed and dramturged by Karin Randoja, projection design by Melissa Joakim and stage management by Sasha Tate-Howarth. For RISER Project: Production management by Deborah Lim, lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak, publicity by FLIP Publicity (Carrie Sager), produced by Why Not Theatre (Ravi Jain, Owais Lightwala, Kelly Read).

Friday, April 28, 2017

Vinod Khanna

Vinod Khanna with Bhagwan Rajneesh
In 2006, when I was working with the US Commercial Service, I was invited to a get together in Bombay’s tony Malabar Hill to meet US importers. The discussion was primarily about chickpeas for most of the evening, until Vinod Khanna walked in, close to midnight.

At that time, in the mid-2000s, he was well past his prime; his best days as a star were behind him. He was into politics and represented the Bharatiya Janata Party. I’d quit active journalism a decade back, but continued to be in contact with some political leaders in Maharashtra, and got chatting with the star about them. He was affable, unassuming, and attentive. I called Mahrukh on my cellphone and requested Vinod Khanna to talk to her. She was dazed, half-asleep but delighted to talk to him.
There was so much I wanted to ask him about his movies, tell him about his incredible range, share with him, but he lost interest and moved on to other guests. He loved the admiration he was getting at the party.

Vinod Khanna was a star of the 1970s, a decade that belonged to Amitabh Bachchan. It’s often been said that had Vinod Khanna not turned a sanyasi and joined Bhagwan Rajneesh, he’d have eventually become # 1, displacing Amitabh Bachchan.

I don’t buy that at all. In those days, as Jitendra has famously said, Amitabh Bachchan occupied all positions from 1 to 10, and the ranking for the rest began from 11. Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, and Shatrughan Sinha were all competing for the second spot, and Vinod Khanna’s exit created space for Shatrughan Sinha. 
Vinod Khanna gave his best with Amitabh Bachchan. It’s perhaps to Amitabh Bachchan’s credit that every actor who has acted with him gave a superlative performance/s. Shashi Kapoor in Dewaar, Vinod Khanna in Hera Pheri, Dharmendra in Ram Balraam, Sanjeev Kumar in Trishul, Shatrughan Sinha in Kaala Pathar.

According to news reports published after Vinod Khanna’s passing away, Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna worked together in ten movies, but it’s really only five films between 1976 and 1978 that really defined the team. These films were Hera Pheri (1976), Parvarish (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Khoon Paasina (1977), Muqadaar Ka Sikandar (1978). 

Among the Vinod Khanna movies that I can watch endlessly include all the ones with Amitabh Bachchan;

Raj N Sippy’s Inkaar, 1978, the efficient cop, who prefers to let the bad guy hog the limelight secure in his conviction that he’d get him in the end. The film is remembered more for Amjad Khan’s menacing portrayal of a kidnapper and the all-time Helen hit Mungada (playback Usha Mangeshkar, music Rajesh Roshan);
Gulzar’s Imitihaan, 1974, for downplaying his star appeal to appear ordinary; the film’s more popular number is Kishore’s Ruk Jana Nahin, but Lata’s Roz Sham Aati Thi is equally memorable (music Laxmikant Pyarelal);

Raj Khosla’s Mera Goan Mera Desh, 1971, the film that launched Vinod Khanna into stardom; Jabbar Singh came four years before Gabbar Singh, and while the latter was pure evil, Jabbar set the template for villainous characters for the next decade and more. Laxmi Chhaya’s vamp and Laxmikant Pyarelal’s music made the film special. (Aaya Aaya Atariya Pe Koi Chor, playback Lata Mangeshkar, music Laxmikant Pyarelal).

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Dawn Promislow: My thoughts about The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

Guest post by Dawn Promislow 

The Guest Cat

by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland. Published 2014, Picador.

It's not often that you read a book, a work of fiction, that is so like life that it takes your breath away. This novel is deceptively simple and follows a man who is a writer (the narrator), his wife, and a cat, through a slim 140 pages. Nothing much ‘happens,’ there are the day-to-day comings and goings of a stray cat, and dealings with a neighbour.

I read the book with increasing wonder at the ordinariness, captivated by the simple days of this writer (days I could identify with, being a writer myself), which gesture toward something larger. The narrator stakes out his story in a geographic way, almost the way a cat stalks—so quietly—taking mastery of its surroundings. He describes in detail his house and surroundings, very simple surroundings, but surroundings which accrue weight and meaning in an allusive and elusive way, over the course of the novel. By a magical sleight of hand, the ending comes upon you—much as a stealthy cat does—and is profound.

I haven’t read anything as devastating in a while, or as haunting. It’s devastating in the way some, perhaps most, life events actually are: events and moments seemingly small and insignificant, yet accruing weight over time; mysterious in their happening, mysterious in their import, mysterious in how we manage them; essentially unpredictable and out of our control. Some actions are final, and cannot be undone. This novel, quiet and understated as it is, carries the weight of truth, and of tragedy, even in the manner of classical Greek tragedy.

The over-arching artistry of The Guest Cat, however, lies in the first-person narration. The fictional narrator—who is also, we feel, the writer himself (Takashi Hiraide)—takes control, by telling of these events, and shaping them, and making them into a book. Of course all books are this: a writer taking control of his or her story, and making an order, a sense, of it. But this book, it seems to me, is a particularly perfect example of this, a particularly moving and profound one.

Friday, March 31, 2017

what makes the world stop still

My father’s mother -- Harvilas – was a widow for 44 years before she died. 

Devi – my mother’s mother – had married a man old enough to be her father. It was his second marriage.  Devi also lived as a widow for nearly four decades.

My grandmother’s sister Jaisukh was a widow, too.

I don’t know who named her Jaisukh.  It means Hail (Jai) Happiness (Sukh)! The name turned out to be inappropriate because Jaisukh saw no happiness in her life. Yet, she always made all of us feel that she was contended and happy. She smiled easily. 

Well into her eighties, she would giggle just as an eight-year-old would, but her eyes were sunken and sad.

She kept herself busy, always busy, almost deliberately so, perhaps afraid of being alone. Her life was lost in lives of her sisters’ families, their children and their grandchildren.

But her only family was her mother and when she died, Jaisukh lost her will to live.  She died soon thereafter. 

Unlike her sister and other widows in my family who had seen married life, albeit briefly, Jaisukh did not know married life at all. 

She was married when she was nine.
She became a widow before she reached puberty. 
She was a virgin widow.
And she lived as a widow for more than 70 years.

When Jaisukh died, we did not shed tears; we were happy her misery was finally over.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Trip to South Asia without leaving Mississauga

Earlier this year, I wrote sample columns for a South Asian weekly and sent it to its editor following a brief chat. The weekly is part of a media conglomerate. I was told the final decision would be made by another editor. After waiting for a couple of months, I realize that the weekly is not interested in using them. Well, for whatever they're worth, I'm reproducing them here.

Riding MiWay’s route 42 is like taking a trip in South Asia

I don’t own a car, never have, never will. I live in Toronto and work in Brampton. I change three buses to go to work and three buses to return home. It takes me about an hour in the morning, and about hour-and-twenty-minutes in the evening. The highlight of my commute is the bus ride on the MiWay route 42, which I board at Airport Road.
Nearly all commuters in the morning (around 7:15 am) are South Asians, and nearly all of them are busy chatting on their phone with their dear ones “back home”. One can hear different South Asian languages, and often multiple dialect of a language. News and information, joys and sorrows and a bit of gossip, are shared.
Daughters complain about their in-laws to their mothers on the phone, international students lie or boast to their parents, depending upon their latest results. Remittance details are given or taken down, and on occasions, marriage proposals are discussed, with photos shared on WhatsApp.
The best (or the worst, if you’re not a South Asian) part of the commute on the bus is the pungent smell of South Asian curry that most commuters carry in their lunch bags. South Asian curry is an acquired taste. To most non-South Asians, it’s only hot and spicy. It has a distinct odour that often makes stomachs churn involuntarily and violently.
In winters, when the temperature is deep in the minuses, and the temperature inside the bus is what you’d find in South Asian tropics (touching +30° C), the bus smells like a South Asian kitchen. I’ve seen non-South Asians gag as they enter the bus and breathe deeply as they alight, having held their breath for long.
So, if you’re feeling homesick and feel like going “back home”, just take a trip in MiWay bus’s route 42.

Feeling cold, are you?

Here’s a quick quiz: How to spot a South Asian male in winter?
He’s that guy who’s wearing a minimum of six layers above the waist and four layers below, his head is wrapped around in two thick woolen caps, a muffler, earmuffs, he also has a woolen neck warmer, and he’s wearing fake Ray Bans.

He’s also wearing two pairs of gloves on each hand, and two pairs of socks on each foot, he’s inserted toe warmers in the boots. This guy lives and works in the GTA, where the winters are generally not as severe as they are in other parts of Canada. He wears this external shield for almost six months in a year.

In the morning, before leaving for work, he’ll check CP24 not for news, but for the temperature, and then take immense pride that “it’s minus 1 today, but it feels like minus 7.” He instructs his wife to also bundle up like him, but she is a South Asian wife, she is more sensible and better acclimatized, and she’s no longer in South Asia, so she totally ignores her husband.

At the workplace, he needs 15 minutes each in morning and evening to take off and put on the multiple layers of warm clothes. Throughout the day, he continues to wear an ugly sweater that his mother knitted for him and sent it to him through his neighbour’s aunt’s cousin’s daughter-in-law who is from the same town, and who was coming to Brampton. 

Although he’ll complain about “how cold Canada is” for eight months in a year,  but when he calls his mother “back home” once every other day, he’ll boast, “it is very cold now, you know, minus 20, and there is snow everywhere.  You’re better off in Sawai Madhopur.”

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In defence of free speech

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to separate the idea of free speech from hate speech. Admittedly, the line between the two is often ill-defined and obscure, and while all attempts at hate speech need to be prevented, it is equally important not to put any unnecessary restraints on free speech, especially on any form of artistic expression.
What should be extremely worrisome in this context is the authority that the government automatically assumes in arbitrating on matters of art and taste - matters that are always subjective.

Considering the extremely subjective nature of any artistic endeavour, it is likely, especially in these divisive days, where nearly everything is segregated into ‘us’ and ‘them’, that an expression of art – whether it is a painting or a film or a documentary – may likely offend some sensibilities, even when it appeals to others.
India has a long and sordid history of the ignorant officials interfering in artistic endeavours, especially in the public exhibition of films. In spheres where such control is not possible by the government machinery, ideological vigilantism is encouraged to impose unofficial censorship on art by acts of vandalism and violence.

India has an unsavory history of restricting freedom of expression. From banning of books that narrate blasphemous verses to withholding certification to exhibit films that are perceived to be controversial, and from tearing down paintings that don’t adhere to a specific ideologically-driven belief system, to driving away globally-renowned artists from their homeland to die in an alien land, Indians are intolerant of a contrarian view.

India’s thin-skinned sensitivity to anything that differs from its self-image as the world’s largest democracy and a rapidly-growing economy is legendary and growing exponentially under a regime that views everything from a narrowly defined cultural nationalism.
Anything that portrays the country in any other way is not tolerated. The controversy over Reza Aslan’s documentary on an obscure sect of Hindus that is part of a larger series on Believers on CNN is now the ire of nearly every Indian or person of Indian origin with access to social media. (Read an opinion piece here: Scroll

This is hardly surprising. But what has come as a shock is that such ultra sensitivity is even present in Canada. Recently, Parks Canada did not permit the making of a film (Hard Powder) that depicts an indigenous person as a gang leader.  This, in my view, is political correctness being taken to the extreme. (Read news report here: CBC)
Yes, it is stereotypical to portray indigenous people as criminals, but to me the solution to the ethical dilemma that the tussle between free and hate speech is simple: If something bothers you, don’t see it or read it. There are many who may not be offended by it. And there are many who may be offended by what you find artistically, ideologically or factually inoffensive.  

For governments, the simple path to follow in all such matters should be not to fund anything that may be perceived as hate speech by any (even the minutest) section of the society. It should not be the arbiter of taste, and never assume the power to decide what the people should read and watch.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Terrorist, the Security Guard and the Emergence of a New Voice

The ancient Greeks told us that those whom Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. That may have been true in the ancient times. These days, the Gods turn them into novelists.

Writing a novel for the first time is guaranteed to drive anyone crazy. It was plain stupidity that made me embark upon this misadventure. It all began during the graveyard shifts at a condo in Toronto where I began working as a security guard soon after I immigrated to Canada in 2008. As a security guard, you mostly sit around and do nothing. But doing nothing for prolonged periods of time is boring. I decided to write a short story.
The idea for the story came from my apartment building at Keele and Lawrence, known colloquially as Gujarat Bhawan (Gujarat is a province in India, and Bhawan means a building) amongst the South Asian immigrants of the area. They were like me – qualified, experienced and doing survival jobs. It was entirely conceivable that the absence of tangible success could easily lead them to getting embroiled in unsavoury misadventures.
I began to explore the theme of immigration and linked it to terrorism. My purpose was not to get into a polemical argument. I was keen to explore terrorism’s impact on an immigrant family. Young people make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes drastically alter their lives and the lives of their families. I wanted to understand how a family would cope (or not cope) with a son involved in a terror plot.
I began to write sometime in December 2008 – my first winter in Canada. I showed the story to a resident, who suggested I enter it in a short story competition. That’s when I came across Diaspora Dialogues’ short fiction mentoring program. Diaspora Dialogues promotes diversity in fiction, poetry and drama.
Surprisingly, I was selected and MG Vassanji, one of the finest contemporary novelists in the world, became my mentor. I had the privilege of working with him for three months and the short story was published in Diaspora Dialogues’ TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto in 2010.
I should have stopped here and gone back to living my life.
But no, I decided that my story was good enough to be turned into a novel. I enrolled in to the writing program at Humber School for Writers. Days turned into months and then into years, and I struggled with my manuscript. Whoever claims that writing is fun is a congenital liar. A former good friend advised me to abandon the idea of completing the novel. I almost abandoned him, but continued to work on my manuscript.
Finally, when I could do nothing more to the manuscript, I began to look for agents because I was told that agents could get better deals. I wrote to an agent and she promptly asked me to send the manuscript. I did so and didn’t hear back from her, ever. Then I wrote to another agent. She responded within a day. No, she said, we’re not interested. I gamely struggled for a few more months, and then gave up. The manuscript languished for a couple of years.
Eventually, a friend suggested I send the manuscript to Mawenzi House. I was reluctant considering MG Vassanji had mentored me and Nurjehan Aziz, the publisher of Mawenzi House, is MG Vassanji’s wife. The friend assured me that the publishing house would take a professional decision. With some trepidation, I sent my manuscript.
It was accepted.
A process that had started soon after I landed in Canada came to fruition in September 2016 when the novel was finally published. It looked stunning. The cover image is a self-portrait by Charles Patcher, the renowned Canadian artist. Many of my friends, members of my family, total strangers have helped me in the writing this novel, some by evaluating the manuscript critically, others by providing me with the right passage from the Qur’an, some others by providing legal background.
As I was busy informing my friends and acquaintances of my novel, I heard back from Antanas Sileika of the Humber School for Writers. He said he had read a review in Quill and Quire. I rushed to the nearest bookshop to buy the magazine. It was a brief but good review. I’m not sure how well or badly the book will do. But its publication and a good review are more than I ever imagined for it.
In mid-November, I read from the published book at the condo where I worked as a security guard, and where I first began writing the novel. It was one the most exhilarating moments of my life.
That Sunday afternoon, many residents who had helped a security guard and his family settle in Canada were eagerly listening to an author talk about his experiences. This was overwhelming, and every bit worth the effort.

Published in the Winter 2017 issue of Write - the magazine of The Writers' Union of Canada

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Jawaid Danish wins the prestigious Ghalib Award

Jawaid Danish with the Ghalib Award
Jawaid Danish is a celebrated playwright in Urdu who has pioneered the portrayal of the problems and pleasures of the diaspora in his plays. Recently, he was awarded the prestigious Ghalib Award by the Ghalib Institute Delhi, a Government of India undertaking for his path-breaking creativity. GAB has a freewheeling chat with Jawaid

Q. Congratulations on the latest award. You seem to have made a habit of winning awards with a monotonous regularity. Please give more details about the award.

A. I’m flattered and humbled. I’m not in the habit of receiving such international awards.  It’s a pleasant surprise to receive the prestigious Ghalib Award for Drama – 2016.

Good heavens! It’s taken over 45 years for my plays to be considered worthy of such awards! Just kidding.

I was invited for the Sadaf International Award for Drama 2016 in Doha Qatar, recently, and while I was travelling with my Datangoi performances across the Middle East, I got this news while we were in Jeddah that I was being honoured with the Ghalib Award. The Doha award was for ₹100,000, and the Ghalib award for ₹75,000, I’ll definitely cherish the Ghalib award because of its historical significance.

Let me give some background about the Ghalib Awards. The Ghalib Institute was established in New Delhi in 1971 by the then President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed. It’s a fitting memorial to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. It’s managed by a Trust. The Drama Awards (along with other categories) were launched in 1973, with the purpose of promoting Urdu drama and literature. Among the award winners have been stalwarts of Indian Urdu drama and literature such as Ismat Chughtai, Habib Tanvir, Sheela Bhatia, Kartar Singh Duggal, Mohammed Hasan, A.R. Kardar, Rajinder Singh Bedi. I’m honoured and humbled to be in such august company.

Q. You have pioneered diasporic writing in Urdu in Canada. Your stories and plays are different from other writers in Urdu because you focus on the lives of immigrants in Canada. What motivates you to write about immigrants?

A.  My diasporic plays, or as they’re better known as Mahjari drama in Urdu, are different from the creations of other diaspora writers. The difference is that my plays are diasporic in theme and content, they talk about Canada and immigrant Canadians. There is not a single book of diasporic dramas or for that matter any other Indian language besides English at least in Canada, and perhaps anywhere in the West. Yes, there’s poetry, fiction, novel, but no plays on the problems and pleasures of immigrants.

As an immigrant myself, I’m especially interested in the lives of immigrants. I believe that unless you as a creative person have not experience through the cultural, emotional and psychological turmoil and tested yourself, you cannot write on immigrant issues with any empathy. There are better and mature plays written in most of the languages including Urdu in India, but none of them captures issues we face in everyday life as immigrants. It’s a different world, completely different experience.

Q. Which of your creations will withstand the test of time, and why?

A. I have 12 published Books to my credit, but I believe my collection Hijrat Ke Tamashey (Plays of Migrations) will stand the test of time.  It’s 26 years since the first edition was published, and up to now it has gone into reprint three times and the fourth edition is coming out next month.

The play is important because it was the first play of its kind, dealing with the life of immigrants. Prior to that, there were no plays on this subject in Urdu. A Bengali version, titled Bhopa has been published twice. Many of the plays in that collection have been translated into Hindi, English and Swedish. 

It’s received numerous awards; an M. Phil was done on the play by a student of Urdu literature at the Delhi University in 2013. A 13-episode serial was produced by Omni TV during 2007, which has had five reruns so far; it’s also been dubbed in English, too.  A telefilm Bara Shayer Chota Admi was produced with local artists in Toronto in 2013; it’s a controversial play from this book. 

My theatre group Rangmanch Canada has been active in organising an annual Hindustani Drama Festivals, showcasing the rich heritage of Indian Theatre, with multilingual drama presentations (not just in Urdu). I’m bridging the language barrier and bringing communities together.

Jawaid performing Dastangoi
Q. You brought Dastangoi to Canada and toured with it to the Middle East recently. Explain what this verbal narrative form and what does it seek to achieve?

A. I love challenges, I always try to do something different, some venture which is not been tested in Canada before.

Dastangoi is my new found love, It’s a Persian word, dastan mean tales and goi, is to tell a tale. It’s a 16th century Urdu oral storytelling art form.  One of the earliest references in print to Dastangoi is a 19th-century text containing 46 volumes of the adventures of Amir Hamza, titles Dastan e Amir Hamza. This art form reached its zenith in the 19th century, but it’s said to have died with the demise of Mir Baqar Ali in 1928.

Shamsur Rahman Faroqi revived it in the 21st century.  In recent years, it became popular in India, especially Delhi with Mahmood Faroqi and many others, with new tales and subjects.

I took the challenge of reviving this forgotten art form in Canada but wove the tales of our immigrant experiences.

The format style and dress code remain the same traditional 16th century, but the tales I’m telling are of present day immigrant life, problems and pleasures. It’s unique because I’m telling the story of five different characters, with five different dictions and dialects; it’s called Boli tholi in brij bhasha and Hindustani.  This form needs a captivating voice, and I use it to my full satisfaction. I’m confident that my audiences in Canada and overseas will remember 'Dastan Hijraton Ki’ for a long time.

Q.  Who among your contemporaries do you consider as writers of calibre in Urdu language?

A. We have some celebrated Urdu writers in Canada, but in my field (playwright) there is no contemporary. The stage of Urdu drama is vacant. We often have some Urdu plays staged, some are a comedy and some commercial plays, but the question is there is no published collection of Urdu drama in Canada.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Foot Soldier of the Constitution: A Memoir

Religious violence is endemic to the Indian subcontinent. Its unpleasant legacy of hatred may be traced to the formation of religion-based nationalistic ideologies in the 19th century. 

However, it has grown exponentially after India became an avowedly democratic nation after its Independence from the British rule; a nation that constitutionally guaranteed universal rights to all its citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs.

There are many reasons the Indian State has not been able to find an effective and a lasting solution to the menace of religious violence. 

Primarily, it is the presence (and the ascendency) of political forces that espouse Hindutva – the majoritarian ideology which denies the minorities the basic human rights.
The present government in New Delhi, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (but is a coalition of over 40 political parties called the National democratic Alliance), has seen an unprecedented revival of ideology-driven intolerance against all minorities both religious and caste based.

The Hindutva forces have, in particular, targetted India's Muslims.

Innumerable incidents have been recorded since 2014 when Narendra Modi won the parliamentary elections and became the Prime Minister of India. These incidents are proof of a rapid and comprehensive deterioration of the values enshrined in India’s constitution.
The Modi government is on a mission to change the ethos of Indian nationhood that has traditionally been based on acceptance of differences and respect for diversity. 

These values found a reflection in the Indian constitution, which also ensured affirmative action in favour of those sections of the society that had been traditionally subjected to a subservient existence.
The Modi government’s mission to change Indian ethos includes (but is not limited to) to a naked assertion of Hindutva ideology in all spheres of the Indian polity, including, dismayingly, even the judiciary and the media.
The Indian civil service has been steadily infiltrated by the Hindutva ideologues, and the executive arm of the government is under despotic control of the Prime Minister of India and his thuggish henchman Amit Shah, the head of the ruling BJP.

It is important to keep this perspective in mind when reading Teesta Setalvad’s memoir Foot Soldier of the Constitution. The memoir is a historical testament to the genocide of Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat, and the epic battle she has waged against the State apparatus hijacked by the Hindutva forces led by Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and who is culpable in the carnage.

Nearly two thousand Indians were killed in the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, and most of them were Muslims. Religious violence of this magnitude is rare but not uncommon in India, where every decade or so, subterranean tensions bubble over, leading to rioting and deaths mostly of Muslims. Where the 2002 Gujarat riots have proven to be different is in the unprecedented number of culprits being convicted for their role in the riots.

This is because of Setalvad’s indomitable courage and dogged persistence and perseverance.

As a friend of the author, Amir Rizvi, notes on the social media, “Teesta Setalvad is the first and only person in India who has sent 117 killers to jail, including the closest friends of Modi.”
MJ Akbar, who for four decades, was India's foremost chronicler of atrocities against all minorities, and who is now, unconscionably, serving as a junior minister under Modi, also praised Setalvad before he joined the dark side. 

He wrote: “The important, and vital, point is that justice survived the malfeasance of the system; perhaps that is the only point. The courts were assisted by the dedication and sheer determined obstinacy of civil society leaders like Teesta Setalvad, who refused to be defeated by the acquittal of the accused by a court in Gujarat, and went to the Supreme Court...Thank God for Teesta Setalvad and the Supreme Court. And thank God for a free media too. We will see if media has the tenacity of a Teesta Setalvad or not.” (Peace of Justice, 26 February 2006, Asian Age).
The slim book is an exhaustive detail of the cases that Setalvad has pursued to bring justice to the victims and victim-survivors of the Gujarat carnage. 

It comprehensively lists the failure of the Indian State in defending its Muslim citizens and records its failure to bring justice to those who faced utter desolation as a result of the riots.

Faced with impregnable walls of officialdom, Setalvad’s frustration is palpable in many places in the book. 

She observes, “Close to fifteen years after independent India’s worst ever state sponsored carnage directed against the Muslim minority, issues of state impunity for mass crimes, accountability to the Constitution, deliverance of justice, fair compensation and reparation, citizenship rights and an on-going climate of fear and intimidation remain.”
At another place, she laments, “India is at best an electoral democracy tottering or edging often towards majoritarianism and mobocracy. In a constitutional democracy, the last word of dissent should have a legitimate place and should be respected.
“The rights of the voiceless and the marginalised – the victims of deep institutional communal, caste and class bias – need to be taken not just seriously, but brought on par with the resourceful defences put forward by the State that is backed by its vast administrative and monetary arsenal.
“Institutions such as the Judiciary, especially the higher Judiciary, exist in the Constitutional scheme to correct this imbalance, otherwise bent in all senses, towards absolute State power. This is not the case in our time. The power of the State, therefore, remains near complete.”
The book is an important chronicle of the death and devastation wreaked upon the Muslims of Gujarat and the facile attempts by the state apparatus to cover-up the crime. 

It proves (not that proof was ever needed) that behind the glib shibboleths of secularism and democracy the Indian State is deeply prejudicial and inimical to its Muslims citizens.
The horrific details of the genocide in the book will shock an average reader who is largely dependent upon mainstream and social media for news, views and information.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Literature Matters - III: Solitude, Mistakes & Creativity

Edugyan (far left), Kamboureli (centre) and Solie (right)
The third annual Literature Matters – the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature Lecture Series featured Karen Solie, and Esi Edugyan, both renowned, multiple award-winning writers. Solie is a poet, and Esi Edugyan is a novelist. Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, moderated the program.

Karen Solie is the author of four collections of poetry. Her third collection Pigeon won the 2010 Pat Luwther Award, Trillium Poetry Prize, and the Griffin Prize. Her most recent, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (2015) was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. She was the 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust Latner Poetry Prize and received the 2016 Canada Council for the Arts Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award.

Before the program commenced, the organisers had prepared a slideshow that was presented on the screen of the Isabel Bader Theatre’s stage. It contained extracts from both the poet’s and the novelist’s works, all remarkable in their pithy observations. The liked the following lines from Solie’s poem from the collection The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out.

My unknown presence
was my weapon. I waited for him
to initiate the next stage
of our lives.

Solie’s subject was On Folly: Poetry and Mistakes. She began her talk by quoting from Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam), most famous work The Praise of Folly, where the humanist theologian and one of the pioneers of the Protestant Reformation asked: What is more foolish? The poet or the poetry? Solie’s tongue-in-cheek answer: People are generally when they see a tradesperson – a plumber or an electrician; that is not often the case when they see a poet.  That, she added, had to do with more people agreeing that they hate poetry than on what it is.

In a talk that was peppered with quotes from many poets and writers, Solie made the case that follies and mistakes are integral to creativity and that everything that a writer does is no more natural than other things in the world. A writer’s responsibility, therefore, is to remain open, vulnerable, and basically get everything that’s inside the head down a paper.

Solie observed that the definition of word folly has evolved to become narrower; in its pristine sense, it also meant delight, fakery, a dwelling place, in addition to failure or a mistake. She said fear is a necessary ingredient for good writing, and that fear, too, had many shades and connotations, just as mistakes are essential to creativity. During the Q&A later, she said that fear for her is the fear of being terrible in the many ways that one can be terrible.

Solie said poetry is about ‘and’ not ‘or’, and quoted Meena Alexander’s poem Question Time

We have poetry
So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.

Solie answering an audience question as
Kamboureli and Edugyan listen
Esi Edugyan is a renowned novelist, whose second novel Half-Blood Moon won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction, and the Ethel Wilson Award for the USA’s Hurston-Wright Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Prize for Fiction. It was shortlisted for many other awards including the Man Booker and the Governor-General Award. In 2014 she published her first collection of a nonfiction book, Dreaming of Elsewhere, a meditation on the relationship between home and belonging.

The subject of Edugyan’s talk was The Wrong Door: Some Meditations. She began with the example of the proverbial person from Porlock, who disturbs Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic era English poet, while he was penning Kubla Khan (A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment).

The story goes that Coleridge, in an opium-induced haze, was writing a poem that apparently was flowing naturally and was practically getting itself written, was disturbed by this person from Porlock, who had mistaken knocked on Coleridge's door. By the time this person left, the poem has evaporated from his mind, and mere fragments were of it left.

Edugyan said every writer needs a metaphorical wrong door that intruders may knock on to disturb someone else and leave the writer alone to create. Every writer fears the sudden, thought-scattering disturbance that ruins her work. She said solitude and silence are essential requirements for a writer because only through silence can she cut out the external to hear the internal.

Losing a thought or an idea because of the din that surrounds a writer is commonplace, especially in these days of social media distractions. Edugyan quoted Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost) where she traces the origin of the word ‘lost’ to the Norse word los. Solnit says, “The word ‘lost,’ comes from the Old Norse ‘los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”

We must go away to allow ourselves to perform miracles, Edugyan observed. She said even though the writer writes for everyone, she should accept that not everyone will like what she writes and that the role of art and creativity is to depict the world faithfully, even if it is unsavoury. Edugyan also emphasised the significance of privacy. She said that the role of privacy in creation is being redefined constantly, especially in this post-privacy world, a writer should realise that public intimacy turns into banality, and loss of privacy has the greatest ability to destroy the artist. Silence, she said, exists beyond the spectacle and words are within us waiting to be made whole.

A brief Q&A followed the readings, where both Solie and Edugyan stressed the need for solitude. Solie spoke of the eternal conundrum: We don’t write to please people, and yet, we want people to read what we write. Edugyan spoke of the adverse effects of being a celebrity on the process of creativity.

Read about the previous two Literature Matters here:

Literature Matters – II

Friday, January 27, 2017

‘Breaking the Waves’ by Daisuke Takeya

Daisuke Takeya reciting a poem (photo by Artur Augustynowicz)
Earlier this month, I participated in the closing reception of Daisuke Takeya's exhibition of paintings and installation at the Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto. 

Daisuke is a Canadian-Japanese artist who works both in Toronto and Tokyo. He calls himself an “interdisciplinary artist whose practice is comprised of the exploration of nature and plausibility in contemporary society, and hinges on all kinds of double meanings.” He has lived and worked globally, having studied art in New York.

His exhibition at the Cutts Gallery titled ‘Breaking the Waves’ was his fourth solo show. The title is from Lars von Trier’s 1996 film of the same name, which depicted a traumatic story of love, life and death. Daisuke explained that the film had resonated with him and influenced his artistic explorations especially after the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor meltdown disaster of 2011 that hit Japan’s east coast. 

Earlier, talking to me during an interview on TAG TV (which is yet to be aired), Daisuke said that as an artist he evolved dramatically from realistic and figurative paintings to exploring emptiness after his five-year involvement for the rehabilitation of the survivors of that disaster.

Venice (Home to Yayoi Kusama’s
1959 No. 2) Cutts Gallery
In interpreting emptiness, Daisuke uses large canvas space to depict the sky, and at the bottom of the canvas is a thin, minuscule skyline of different cities. 

The Kara (emptiness) series of paintings force viewers to see urban space as a small, insignificant, and quintessentially artificial creation of humankind, dwarfed by the vastness of nature’s immense creation – the magnificent sky. 

The urban skyline depicted are of Toronto, Niagara Falls, rural Fukushima, the South China Sea, Jomon, the oldest known civilization of Japan; Gaylang, Singapore’s redlight district and Okawa Elementary School.

Memoirs of Fukushima
Cutts Gallery
The Kara series were exhibited in one room of the Cutts Gallery. In the other room there were two life-sized paintings: a portrait of a Lolita girl from Fukushima, and of a Canadian indie music star Clara Venice as a mermaid.

Both exuded a distinct surreal aura, not necessarily in the way they are painted (realism) but in the way Daisuke situates and contextualises them. 

The overwhelming effect they created in the exhibition space, juxtaposed as they were with the centrepiece of the exhibition, was dramatic and unsettling, and ultimately surreal.

These two paintings along with the centrepiece installation formed a part of a triptych monument dedicated to the 2011 tsunami disaster in Japan.  The installation was a smorgasbord of abstraction, realism, mixing of different media, a combination of disaster debris, neon signs, Kara paintings and figurative, realistic (as opposed to sensual) nudes

It boldly proclaimed the underlying theme of the exhibition: that manipulation of nature in the name of development and progress only results in decay, disintegration; and that all of it is almost always deliberately. 

The highlight of the closing reception was a performance by Istvan Kantor, who performed the ‘Ravaged Pieta’ in the installation space, blending in with Daisuke’s art and simultaneously transforming it. 

Istvan Kantor and Louise Liliefeldt performing the Ravaged Pieta

Kantor is a renowned exponent of Neoism and a Governor General Award winner for performing art. He interpreted tsunami to mean gentrification that has led to the extinction of urban communities in recent decades. His cry was also against what he describes as 'shinyism' of art that is controlled by corporate tastes. 

The highlight of the performance was at the climax when Kantor pushed a needle into his vein and began to bleed rather profusely much to the gaping astonishment of the audience. It was by all accounts a spellbinding act.

From the social media, I learnt that Ravaged Pieta was a mash-up performance led by Kantor, and accompanied by Lynda Cheng - Vocal/Performance, Louise Liliefeldt -Performance/Tableau Vivant, Vivienne Wilder - Music Performance. 

Louise Liliefeldt is a longtime collaborator of Kantor, and is globally known for her pioneering durational tableau vivant action/performances and installation works. Vivienne Wilder is a skilled musician/artist, lead vocalist and bass player in several bands. She has become integral to Kantor's performances in recent years. Lynda Cheng is a social worker with unceasing passion for helping homeless people. She also contributes her talents to the arts and regularly shares the stage with Kantor.