& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 06, 2017


It’s only in the realm of fiction that the past and the present can be made to coexist. Both on the screen and on the stage, interspersing of the past and the present compels the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and, when the playwright and/or the director gets it right, this commingling of time and space creates incredibly poignancy that is heartwarming.

As GRAMMA, the latest offering by Sawitri Theatre Group reached its climax, I was disappointed that the play would end soon. Yes, the grandmother had passed away, but, I argued with myself, the play could’ve gone on for a bit with by switching over to the story Samantha and Raj. In these two characters, playwright Jasmine Sawant created characters that were endearing in their youthful innocence.

And as far as I could tell, they couldn’t have been part of the original memoir. 

The play is based on Dr. Jane Fraser’s memoir of her grandmother Lillie Carberry (1865-1949), and Jasmine makes it relevant to our times by incorporating characters in the present. Adopting an Indian theatre tradition of having a narrator (sutradhar), Jasmine turns Samantha and Raj into narrators of the story of the eponymous GRAMMA’s life.

Lillie’s story epitomises the lives of Canadian women and families living in Mississauga from mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. But she's not the docile and domesticated archetypal woman of her times. Lillie's an independent woman with a steely determination to do whatever she wants to do. Out of necessity, such strong-willed people (and especially women) lead a life that to others may seem lonely but that's not so. They prefer their solitude without feeling lonely. Lillie’s best pals are trees outside her the many homes that she lives during her lifetime.

The gradually changing dynamics of human relations between all the characters are evocatively portrayed and the witty and perceptive exchanges between Lillie and her daughter and her mother make the characters come alive. Lillie’s relationship with her mother and daughter also reveals her deceptively dominant (and manipulative) nature, all of which is conveyed in a few pithy lines. Her late marriage and relatively early widowhood strengthen her character even more.  The loss of her babies makes her a hard woman, who has learnt that it's only she who can adequately console herself to overcome her immense losses. 

Lillie's an intelligent woman with strong opinions on worldly matters; she doesn’t mince her words expressing unconventional views such as the futility of war. She lives through two World Wars. Jasmine makes that early 20th century period relevant to present times and makes a strong political statement by including in the narrative the contribution of Indian armed forces (then part of the British colonial army) to the war efforts. Although it’s a part of prattle between Samantha and Raj, it underscores the fact that this contribution has never been adequately acknowledged (the latest example is Nolan’s Dunkirk).

The material progress ushered in through technology that the Canadian society experiences in the early 20th century (such as the telephone and the automobile) and the growth of urbanisation in Mississauga (localities such as Derry Road and Meadowvale) in particular and the Peel region in general personalises the play for the local audience, nearly all of whom would’ve been familiar with the geography.  

Both Sawitri Theatre Group and Jasmine need to be acknowledged for producing a play that is as Canadian as it can ever be. It's a welcome departure from what the group's been doing in the past few years. I’m sure this is the first of many such efforts to follow. 


GRAMMA's author - Dr. Jane Fraser
Playwright - Jasmine Sawant
Director - Christina Collins
Producer - Nitin Sawant
Production Design - Joseph Pagnan
Sound Design - Christina Collins & Sid Sawant
Costume Design - Shruti Shah
Projection Design - Nitin Sawant
Choreography - Akhila Jog, Shruti Shah & Raina Desai


Lillie Carberry / Little Brown - Amy Osborne
Samantha Fraser - Ivana Bittnerova
Raj Nilan - Carlos Felipe Martinez
Isabelle Carberry & Grace Brown / Grace Emerson - Lucy Winkle
Henry Brown & Luther Emerson & Rag and Bones Man & Janitor - Jesse Anderson

Makeup - Akhila Jog
Stage Manager - Jeremy Pearson
Technical Director - Keyoor Shah
Production Assistant, Props & Wardrobe - Raina Desai
Makeup Assistant & Wardrobe - Forrest Jamie
Assistant to Stage Manager - Devansh Shah
Set Build - Keyoor Shah & Nitin Sawant
Marketing & Administration - Jasmine Sawant

Postcard & Cover Design - Arti Bakhle
House Program - Shamy Kaul
Period Costumes / Props - Courtesy Heritage Mississauga
Antique piano and table - Carol Ambrault
Antique chair - David Huband
Piano Tuning - David Patterson
Rocking chair - Emma Ryan

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Modi's India - I

He came, he saw, he conquered

In July 2017, I returned to Bombay after three years, on my third trip to the city that shaped me, after immigrating to Canada in 2008. It was my first trip to Modi’s India. Narendra Modi had swept the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 and during the last three years steadily, and with supreme confidence, consolidated his and his party’s hold over India. Three years later, the entire Hindi-speaking belt and more states are under the BJP’s control either directly or in an alliance. From my conversations with a cross-section of people, I gathered that he is assured a two-thirds majority in the 2019 general elections.

Whether one likes him or not, Narendra Modi is the most important leader that has emerged in the 21st century in India. He has no competition, not in his own party, and definitely not in the opposition. Rahul Gandhi continues to flounder (apparently he’s lost 27 consecutive elections), and with him, the Congress, having recently secured a lone victory in the Punjab, which all agree was a vote against the Badals and not one in favour of the Congress. The party is has been reduced to a fringe outfit with a presence in Karnataka, and Puducherry in the South; Himachal Pradesh (besides the Punjab) in the North; Mizoram and Meghalaya in the North East.  

What about the other opposition stars? Arvind Kejriwal remains Quixotic and unpredictable, although he won an impressive victory in Delhi, many of his comrades have left him. Mamata Banerjee has replaced the CPM in West Bengal, and from all appearances, is unshakeable in Kolkata despite BJP’s rather desperate attempt to foster communal tension. It’s the turn of the Communists to rule Kerala for now, but the Left is in shambles in India. With Nitish Kumar doing what comes naturally to socialists – conveniently consorting with the communalists when it suits their needs – the BJP, by all accounts, has never had it so good in terms of the geographical spread of political power.

People who claimed to be in the know confided that the Modi government has initiated several policy decisions that will have a great impact on the Indian economy. Among the measures that are being touted as Modi’s major achievements include the demonetisation of high denomination currency in 2016, which definitely caused chaos including reported deaths of over 50 Indians who stood in queues to exchange their unusable money for usable ones.

However, after the demonetisation decision, the BJP won a spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh and brought in a firebrand Yogi Adityanath, a rabid proponent of the militant Hindutva ideology, as the chief minister of India’s most populous state.  Modi’s supporters claimed that India’s poor and dispossessed had welcomed Modi’s demonetisation decision and its stated purpose that it’d reduce unaccounted money (black money) in the economy. The move was expected to usher in a new era in the Indian economy and turn India into a cashless society; however, cash was still the king in Bombay, Dehli, Baroda and Poona that I visited during my trip.

Soon thereafter, the Modi government also implemented the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has once again caused consternation in a sizeable section of India’s entrepreneurial sections. Again, Modi supporters have rushed to defend the decision claiming that only those businesses that are unwilling to be transparent are opposing the GST.  Undoubtedly, there are tangible benefits to the GST, as has been seen in many developing countries globally, and especially in Canada. It may be pertinent to recall here that the previous Indian government had consulted Canada rather extensively on the implementation of the GST.

However, the idea of a single tax regime that the GST was to bring about in the Indian economy remains elusive, although to be fair, it’s still rather early to judge the impact of the new tax. A close friend, who has been a small entrepreneur and an importer, was ambivalent about the impact of the GST on his kitchen appliances import business. He was happy that octroi duty (which reeked of rampant corruption) had been done away with, but the overall tax had increased substantially on imported appliances, which cater to the high net worth consumers.

Had this affected his business, I asked. Not really, he said, the number of high net worth consumers in India is steadily rising. This is the cumulative effect of 25 years of economic liberalisation.

The other measure that Modi supporters claim will give long term benefit to the Indian economy is the repeal of obsolete laws which continue to keep the economy shackled to the bureaucracy and slowing the pace of economic reforms. As per the latest news report over 1,100 (out of over 1,800) laws have already been repealed, and the Modi government continues to stay on course to repeal all the obsolete laws before its term ends. Undoubtedly, this will provide a major impetus in the future for economic growth.

Notwithstanding the concerns over the compromise of privacy, the implementation of the Aadhaar card for a billion plus Indians will assist the government administration in streamlining its services to the people, when implemented completely. The Aadhaar card is similar to Canada’s Social Insurance Number card, but with a photograph. Its stated objective is to usher in transparency by linking bank and tax information to it. It’s not complete and will take a long time to become an effective administrative tool for the government.

The global business and investor community and foreign governments have greater confidence about the future of the Indian economy than ever before. At a Canada – India bilateral business conference held in Bombay in early July, the Export Development Canada (EDC) informed the participants that it’d actively seek project finance opportunities in India, which is a clear departure from its previous practice and policy. In the past it focused primarily on transactional finance, assisting Canadian exporters in entering the Indian market. Representatives of other Canadian as well as multilateral agencies expressed confidence in the Indian economy and the way the Modi government is handling the economy. There was a consensus that the new banking regulation ordinance will finally begin to resolve the vexatious issue of bad business loans. One representative of a Canadian company claimed that no other economy in the world provided such a long-range growth and returns potential as India.

The media, by and large, is supportive of Modi personally and also of his government. What I noticed is a sudden rise in the number of right-of-center intellectuals who have begun to regularly put up a sophisticated defence of both Modi and his government’s policies, while minutely examining the shortfalls of his opponents. I didn’t have access to television at home, and therefore missed the firebrand journalism of Arnab Goswami (a phenomenon that has captured the Indian mindset and set the political agenda). I read the Times of India between July 3 and July 25; it continues to be the pro-establishment newspaper that it has always been, but hasn’t completely abandoned its values and sold its soul as I feared it’d have. It did a remarkable news report on how the common Indian Muslim is feeling insecure in Modi’s India. 

Politically and economically, it’d seem, Modi is unassailable. And he made it all look so easy. He came, he saw and he conquered. 

Modi's India - II

The angry “Hindu”

Modi’s unbridled popularity and achievements should have ensured perennial exultation by his supporters of their leader’s unparalleled success.

That, however, is not the case. On the contrary, it’s claimed that large sections of the majority Hindu community in India are angry. Very angry. Logically, there is really no cause for the “Hindu” to be so angry. After all, a government that is totally committed to the “Hindu” is in power and is likely to be in power for the foreseeable future. Moreover, many of its policies are all tailored to assuage the majority religion.

It’s this “Hindu” anger that has set India on fire and has had the minorities scampering for cover.  If we believe the proponents of the militant Hindutva ideology, the “Hindu” is angry with all Indian minorities (both religious and caste-based). But he is especially angry with the Muslims, for many reasons, but mainly because they eat beef and have the azaan on the public address systems early in the morning. I was emphatically told that the “Hindu” is angry with the liberal left also because they have scuttled the rise of true nationalism in India and have dominated the public discourse with issues that are inimical to the “Hindu” interests.

The angry “Hindu” has made it impossible in India for anyone to consume beef, and it’d be pertinent to remember that beef is consumed not just by the Muslims and Christians but also by Hindu Dalits. Laws have been and are being passed in several Indian states which penalise the consumption of beef. The Indian government has banned the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter. The incumbent chief minister of Gujarat, the state which propelled Modi to power in Delhi, has proclaimed that it is his fervent desire to turn Gujarat into a vegetarian state.

According to an estimate, 26 people have been lynched to death because they were suspected to have either consumed beef or suspected of intending to massacre cows. This includes a callow 15-year-old Haryanvi lad Junaid who was lynched by a mob at Delhi while returning home from Eid shopping. The resulting uproar which included impromptu #NotInMyName rallies across India and brought the enraged but largely impotent saner elements of the Indian society out on the streets in several cities. The uproar, however, was short-lived and the lynching incidents have continued sporadically.

What I found shocking was the process of normalisation of such an unacceptable proposition. During my stay, I saw newspapers publishing laudatory news features on “scientists” who had developed kits that can detect and differentiate cow’s meat from other varieties of red meat. It’d appear that nobody in the media or in the public domain even thinks it is necessary or relevant to ask whether Indians can be so brazenly deprived of their right to choose their diet. 

The Dalits are the other group of minorities that have seen rising violence against them all across India, and especially in Gujarat. It suits the leadership to remain quiet about such issues. When it does speak, it equivocates. 

Modi's India - III

Controlling the mind-space

Under Modi, Battleship Hindutva that includes several organisations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has launched a systematic takeover of India’s institutions. This process is at once obnoxious and abhorrent because in a democracy institutions acquire an identity through a constructed as well as a lived tradition and culture and constantly strive to remain independent of the government of the day.  Battleship Hindutva is attempting to wrest control of national institutions to simultaneously set the agenda and to change the paradigm of national discourse. It has already succeeded in controlling large sections of the media and is working hard to control the academia.

I met a professor of a nationally-reputed university who narrated an alarming incident. This professor had organised a seminar on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s relevance in today’s India. One of the speakers – a Dalit academician – while describing the present political situation turned critical of the present regime. After the seminar concluded, the professor who had organised it was summoned by the Vice Chancellor of the university and summarily told that in future all such seminars would require prior approval by the university and the vice chancellor’s office would vet the list of speakers as well as control their message.

This control is also being extended to the judiciary, which enjoys a reputation of being independent in the public perception. But the most disturbing is the creeping government control over the Indian Armed Forces, which nearly all Indians revere. The deification of the Indian Armed Forces and the Para-Military Forces by the Indian masses abetted by the media is a major concern. This deification has resulted in a consistent and blatant violation of human rights of many Indian citizens such as the people of Kashmir, the North East and the Adivasi (India’s Indigenous people) across India. The Indian and the state governments justify the excesses of the Indian Armed Forces in the name of protecting Indian interests and fighting “terrorism”.

In every which way possible, the present regime is controlling and directing the public discourse and simultaneously doing its best to keep the “Hindu” angry. And this angry “Hindu” is pushing the envelope of what is acceptable. It is no longer about Nehru’s perfidy; that is a given and has become passé. Now, it is banning Urdu words, Tagore and a lot more that has gone into constructing the Indian identity. Words such as sicular and presstitutes are routinely bandied about in the social media especially to describe anyone who so much as squeaks against the prevailing wisdom. And to any outsider, the prevailing wisdom is shockingly at variance with reality.

A friend who was always a right-wing sympathiser, (and there is nothing wrong with being a right-wing sympathiser) has during the last few years (probably after Modi’s ascension) turned into a vociferous advocate of Hindutva. He argued – passionately, too – that Hindutva is secular. When I pointed to a column by Akaar Patel, where he describes Hindutva, my friend nearly jumped from the sofa and shrieked, “Akaar Patel should be shot dead.”  I sat in silence, mentally devising a polite way to abandon the conversation, too dumbstruck at this vehemence and hate. Prior to this rather abrupt declaration, this friend, who is highly educated and affluent, also declared that there is really no point in India being a democracy. Citing China’s example, he said if a dictatorship can lead to faster development and control anti-nationals (he meant Muslims, but didn’t say so), then India should turn into a dictatorship. Incidentally, for the original proponent of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar, the militant ideology was larger than Hinduism. He said, “Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only a spiritual or religious history…but history in full. Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.”

A consistent defence that I heard from all quarters of the Modi regime is that it is making the bureaucracy work more efficiently. There is less corruption and the rule of law apparently seems to prevail more often than not, and this evidently had been sorely lacking for the last few decades. So, even if his regime may on occasions be seen as a bit despotic and authoritarian, it needs to be tolerated as there is no alternative to him. The older generation will remember this argument being bandied about by a cross-section of Indians during Indira Gandhi’s rule and especially during the Emergency (including by those Indians who were opposed to Mrs. Gandhi) in the 1970s. Then the Jan Sangh leadership, which had all been pushed behind bars by Indira, had justifiably termed her fascist. But nobody who supports Modi acknowledges this as a valid comparison.

At present, apparently, a large section of the Indians are enamoured by Modi and are unwilling to take seriously the generally prevailing perception that his regime has directly benefitted certain business houses such as Adani and Ambani. Perhaps the main reason why the Indian public is willing to give a long rope to Modi and his bunch of merry men is that in the previous decade under the Congress regime, corruption has become all pervasive, or at least that’s how the previous regime is remembered. Dr. Manmohan Singh, who should be credited for pulling hundreds of millions of Indians out of stark poverty because of economic liberalisation, is instead often compared to Mahabharata’s Bhishma pitamah, who despite being the elder statesman in Dhritarashtra’s durbar, allowed Draupadi’s molestation.  

Modi’s India – IV

Hail Hindutva!

A senior journalist told me at Bombay’s Press Club that it helps the BJP to keep the national mood constantly on the boil because such a supercharged atmosphere gives it great electoral dividends. This was true in the past and is more so today. The journalist also said that by keeping alive such issues, the real issues that India faces continue to remain unresolved. Nobody is asking questions about the absence of job creation, or the crises in the agrarian sector. The Modi regime’s game plan is to keep the affluent sections of the Indian population happy and satisfied, and it does this by maintaining a tight leash on inflation and by keeping the stock market indices high.

My peregrinations to four cities during my recent visit reinforced my belief that India will abandon – sooner rather than later – the shibboleth of secularism as easily as it did socialism in the 1980s. The next Modi government will pave the way for a Hindu Rashtra in India. It probably won’t tamper too much with the Indian constitution but it will definitely change the character of India’s nationhood. Will a majority of Indians oppose or support this development? A friend in Toronto had an interesting insight. He believes that the groundswell of support for Modi and for his policies seem to indicate that there was already a large reservoir of latent sympathy for the Hindutva cause amongst a majority of Indians and that Modi’s arrival sparked off a public frenzy that is unlikely to abate anytime soon. It’s hard to argue against this opinion because of what I witnessed in India. However, many people I spoke to don’t share this view and believe that India’s diversity will defeat all attempts to impose a simplistic interpretation of nationalism.

The political pendulum will swing back towards equilibrium eventually. And that eventuality, if it were to ever materialise, is both welcome and worrisome. Welcome because it’ll restore equilibrium in the Indian political space. But worrisome as well because many fear that when the BJP begins to concede ground to others, Battleship Hindutva’s foot soldiers will unleash untrammelled terror on not just the minorities but also on those who defend secular values and oppose Hindutva. Already, these hotheads have done to death Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar (among others) who are opposed to the Hindutva ideology. If the tide turns against the prevailing political structure, it is imminently possible that Hindutva’s opponents will be victimised.

As a person of Indian origin, but no longer an Indian citizen, I’m often questioned by the legion of Modi supporters in the diaspora as well as by my Indian friends what right I have to talk about India in such a partisan manner, and consistently oppose Modi even when he’s doing everything he can to push India forward. I’m always accused of being partisan when I highlight the continuing human rights violations against India’s religious and caste minorities. There are many like me similarly accused and there really is just one answer – I do it because I believe in the idea of India. Another journalist friend, who’s been engaged in this battle of ideas, told me that the idea of India as a pluralistic society is the reality of India. This reality is not an artificial construct; it is inherent in all Indians. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru strengthened this reality by infusing what MJ Akbar, in his masterly biography of Nehru, describes as the Nehruvian Pancha Sheela (five principles): Secularism, reason, free-thinking, science and progress.

In Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani defines Indianness.  “The puzzle of India’s unity and of Indianness raised a variety of contending responses within the nationalist movement that brought India to independence. Nehru’s was only one among these, and it was in no sense typical of nationalism as a whole “Indian nationalism” is a somewhat misleading and cultural ferment and experimentation inaugurated in the late nineteenth century. The various, often oblique, currents that constituted this phase extended well beyond the confines of a political movement such as the Congress, with its high political, bilingual discourse. The possible basis for a common community was argued with ingenuity and imagination in the vernacular languages, especially in the regions like Bengal and Maharashtra that had been exposed longest to the British, where a sense of regional identity only came into being as people tried to define a larger ‘Indian’ community. The belief that Indian nationalism had subsequently to unite and subordinate these regional identities is thus a curious misreading of the relationship between nation and region in India. In fact, a sense of region and nation emerged together, through parallel self-definitions – and this point is essential to any understanding of the distinctive, layered character of Indianness. The content and styles of these diverse explorations of a common community were neither uniform nor consistent, and the picture painted by nationalist historiographers of independent India, of a rising arc of nationalist self-consciousness from the ‘Renaissance’ in nineteenth-century Bengal to a culmination in 1947, is at best sentimental.”

But a lot of unclean water has flown down the Ganga during the last 70 years, and it’s time for a new definition of Indian nationhood that, Modi and his followers would have us believe, is more rooted to India’s culture. Therefore, let’s all rise and Hail Hindutva!

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Minerva Reader

My friend Lisa de Nikolits has recently started The Minerva Reader, “a site showcasing unsung literary heroes,” and she featured my debut novel Belief on the site earlier this week.

Lisa is a Toronto-based novelist.  When I first saw the site recently, I was intrigued by its name – the Minerva Reader. Lisa explains why she choose that name:

“But why call it Minerva? Because back in 1995, in Johannesburg, South Africa, I saw an advert for a publishing house in London, UK. They called themselves Minerva and were incredibly good at passing themselves off as the traditional publisher which was also called Minerva, only the latter was legit and they published beautiful, unusual literary works.

"The shysters I contacted operated a smooth scam and I was taken for a ride. Later reports say “They went bust (in 2002) because they were a scam. They were sued by more than 40 of their authors, and were the subject of two exposés on the BBC.” And that’s good to know!

"Now, many years later, I am about to publish my seventh book with my dearly beloved publisher, Inanna Publications – so yes, after a wobbly start, the goddesses have indeed been kind to me!”

I’m reproducing the content below. The link to the site is: www.theminervareader.com

Mayank Bhatt immigrated to Toronto in 2008 from Mumbai (Bombay), where he worked as a journalist. His short stories have been published in TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto and Canadian Voices II. In Canada he has worked as a security guard, an administrator, and an arts festival organizer. He lives in Toronto with his family. He is the author of Belief (Mawenzi House).

I thought this novel was a timely, touching, well-written book and while Mayank was featured in the Toronto Star and the Quill & Quire and was not therefore entirely unsung, I wanted to give the book another shoutout.

My review of Belief on Goodreads:

A sensitive, eloquent and timely novel. Beautifully written, Belief brings moving insights not only into the lonely immigrant experience, but, in particular, examines in detail the religious and racial tensions that Muslims suffer today The book also explores familial relationships that carry the unwieldy weight of traditions and legacies from former homelands, as well as the scars from battles fought there. Marriage, aging, love, complicated sibling tangles – all these are magnified and brought into focus under the microscope of Mayank Bhatt's thoughtful observations.

The Quill & Quire Review of Belief

Novelist Mayank Bhatt, who immigrated to Canada from Mumbai in 2008, delivers a taut, timely debut focused on one immigrant family and the devastating experience that threatens to destroy the life they have struggled to build in their new country.

Having left their home in the 1990s to escape recurrent violence between Hindus and Muslims, Abdul and Ruksana Latif and their two adult children, Ziram and Rafiq, find themselves “misfits in Canada as much as they had been, as Muslims, in India.”

Nevertheless, by the fall of 2008, the Latifs are relatively settled, with a home they own and jobs that promise more than mere survival. The family’s comfortable existence is thrown into turmoil when it is revealed that Rafiq may be involved in a terrorist plot to blow up a number of locations in and around Toronto. Rafiq’s questionable treatment at the hands of the justice system, and the family’s fear regarding the potential repercussions from his alleged crime, illustrate their terribly vulnerable position in Canadian society.

In part, Belief may be read as a cautionary tale urging those with extremist leanings to “steer a calmer, more sober path.” But even more importantly, it reads as a message to mainstream Canada that the isolation and marginalization of the immigrant experience have the potential to result in unintended consequences when faced with individuals who “[don’t] know what one could do about an unjust system except fight it.”

At the novel’s end, the future for the Latifs is undetermined. It is clear that their lives have been irrevocably altered, though not entirely for the worse. Through the experience of arrest and interrogation, Rafiq is forced to re-evaluate his religious faith, as well as his understanding of his parents; in so doing, he gains a clearer perspective on the older generation’s struggles.
Bhatt’s illuminating, plain-spoken novel could be instrumental in generating substantive discussion about the immigrant experience in a country that is still a long way from understanding what that really entails.

Quill & Quire, reviewer Dana Hansen. Publisher, Mawenzi House.

Monday, June 26, 2017

If there's no place for Junaids in India, whither India?

Fifteen-year-old Hafiz Junaid was lynched in a railroad coach a day before Eid by a mob that saw in him only a Muslim and therefore an enemy. They didn’t see him as a child that he was, a mere lad, callow and uncertain, with a long life before him that they – the ferocious mob – extinguished with such force that the photographs of the railroad coach in which he was lynched seemed bathed in blood. The murderers were remorseless. They killed him because they suspected he was a beef eater, and because he was of a different religion. The police didn’t see any religion in Junaid’s murder and blandly reported a death.

In India, murders of the minorities whether religious or caste-based are commonplace, and so Junaid’s death will quickly become a statistic and forgotten. But let everyone who believes in the idea of India as a place where differences are accepted (as opposed to merely tolerated) and allowed to flourish protest in every which way they can. This is not how you treat a 15-year-old lad. If a 15-year-old wants to sit down in a railroad coach, you offer him a seat; you don’t launch a murderous attack on him and his brothers. A people who allow this to happen have ceased to be human, and are complicit in Junaid’s murder. A leadership that remains unperturbed over such a heinous crime is diabolical and complicit in Junaid’s murder.

What exactly is my right to voice concern when I’m thousands of miles away in a remote city in North America, safely ensconced in my home, secure in a society that at least seemingly respects the law of the land and protects my rights as a visible minority? Perhaps I don’t have any right to talk, leave aside question or protest what is happening in India, a place which is inside me despite the nine years I’ve lived away from it. India doesn’t leave you, ever. I’ve tried hard, I try hard every day. But it stays embedded inside you, hardwired in your brains. And so, whether the Indians recognise my right or doesn’t grant me one, I will protest in the only way I can – by writing about it, by talking about it, by telling everyone who will listen, and everyone who won’t.

Let Junaid’s murder awaken all those who believe that right to a dignified and safe life is a prerequisite of a civilised society. If a society cannot ensure dignity and safety of its citizens, it has no place in a civilised world, howsoever exalted its hoary past may have been. India must end this madness of hatred against Muslims. Every Indian – whether living in India or outside – must realise that this hatred is destroying India, and do all that is necessary to stop this hatred.

Junaid could well have been your son, your grandson, your brother. How would you feel is your son, grandson, brother had been so mercilessly lynched?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Piroj Wadia

Piroj Wadia
The last time I met Piroj was in 2013 when I was in Bombay. I was getting ready to meet her next month when I’d be in Bombay again after a gap of four long years.

But my friend has decided to leave, abruptly and all too suddenly. 

We met at what used to the Wayside Inn, that unique Kala Ghoda eatery that had turned into a nondescript Asian food place. We were happy to meet each other, after so many years. We couldn’t recall when we had last met before that afternoon. I’d called her in 2011 when I was in Bombay, but we couldn’t meet then.

Decades had gone by from the time when we worked together at The Daily, where she’d become the features editor. Her sojourn at The Daily wouldn’t last long because by then (the late 1980s, early 1990s), the tabloid had transmogrified into something rather strange; different from what it was during RK Karanjia’s times. 

There were swift turnarounds in the editorial department, many talented and some not-so-talented journalists came and left. Piroj, along with a few others, were holding a rapidly crumbling edifice of a once-great institution. She left to return to active entertainment journalism, the field she had come from. 

At our lunch in 2013, it didn’t seem like we were meeting after decades. We picked up threads of incidences from our shared past. I had ceased to be an active journalist for nearly two decades. I was keen to know about people who were once so important to our professional lives. Piroj knew where everyone was and how they’d reached where they were. The afternoon evaporated in reverie and nostalgia. It felt great talking to her.

We left promising each other to exchange emails more frequently and, of course, to interact on Facebook. But life has its own agenda, and when you live in a different time zone, it becomes impossible to translate your concern into anything tangible. She sent me a clipping from a feature she did on Parsis in Hindi cinema for a Parsi magazine in Dubai, and we did exchange emails on occasions.

She wrote about her deteriorating health and how she was actively scouting for assignments. I tried to assist her by reconnecting her with common friends but nothing apparently came of it. 
I wish I could’ve been of help to her.  

Farewell, my friend. You’re being missed.

Read a book review by Piroj for my blog: Two tales and a city

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Festival of Literary Diversity-2017

From L to R: Mayank, Katherena, Naben and Jen
To those who respect status quo, diversity is a contentious concept that connotes the absence of merit, tokenism, arbitrary categorisation and even exclusion. On the other hand, to its advocates, an absence of diversity is a perennial dominance of majoritarian culture and an enforced opacity that prevents conversations about different identities that make up the Canadian mosaic. 

In a multiracial, multicultural society, diversity is necessary to ensure that different cultures and voices find adequate representation. In the world of writing and publishing, the absence of diversity is probably not as glaring as it was some years back, although opinions would differ. In the Canadian context, many small presses are aggressively putting out works of authors from diverse backgrounds. It doesn’t mean that it’s time now to sit back and rest; a lot more needs to be done and ceaselessly.

In this context, Jael Richardson’s The Festival of Literary Diversity is a breakthrough event that has suddenly created space for Canadian authors from a diverse background.  I interviewed Jael prior to the first FOLD for TAG TV (watch the interview here: Jael Richardson).  Her dedication and commitment come through in the interview. I attended the first edition of the festival in 2016 and was enthralled by the level of participation – both by authors and readers – at the festival’s main venue, the PAMA.

See post about the first FOLD here: Faith and Fiction.

Thanks to my publishers Mawenzi House, I was invited to the second edition of FOLD as a panellist. It was my first-ever participation in a literary festival as a published author, and it was undoubtedly a privilege to be on the same panel with Canada’s latest literary phenomenon Katherena Vermette, whose The Break has won many accolades; and Jen Sookfong Lee (Shelter).  The subject of the discussion was What a Crime, and the moderator Naben Ruthnum, a journalist-author, who had read all the three works and asked pertinent questions. Of course, Katherena and Jen were far more evocative and interesting in their responses as compared to me. 

I also participated in several other panel discussions and was able to meet and interact with many authors such as Amanda Leduc, Eden Robinson, Kamal Al-Solaylee, Gary Barwin, and my friends Farzana and Sheniz. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Whose voice is it anyway?

Image take from Native Appropriations website

There is a fierce and polarising debate going on in the Canadian media and literary circles over ‘cultural appropriation’.  As with any debate, it has many sides, but not all get reflected in the angry interactions on media, and especially on social media. 

An edited version of the following piece that I wrote for my friend George Abraham was published in the New Canadian Media in January (Whose Voice is it Anyway?). 

Here’s the original piece, for whatever it’s worth.

Last year my debut novel Belief was published in Canada. It’s a story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream, and just when, after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, everything seems to be falling into place, the family discovers their son’s evident involvement involved in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours and inform a police officer known to the neighbours. It leads to the son’s arrest. The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story because it deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants. Hearteningly, one (of the three) reviewers of the novel understood the nuanced and calibrated approach I’ve adopted in portraying this difference. Author Veena Gokhale, in her review in Montreal Serai, an online literary journal, observes, “Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend.”

This is an important issue because in the desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make that critical distinction that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same. While writing my novel, I had a simple objective to achieve – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with the society, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction? I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalization and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate. I’d still want to believe that for the parents there wouldn’t be much to differentiate. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is not radicalised and is not a terrorist.

The other challenge of portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada was posed by the fact that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil? I was born in a Hindu family, where but for my grandmother nobody really practised the religion regularly and ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades. When I was young Bombay was proudly cosmopolitan.

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed firsthand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered. And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here). Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be something that he isn’t quite – a native; his defence is that he feels like one, even if genetically he may not be.

To frame the issue in the Indian context (which I can claim to know better): should an upper caste Brahmin be allowed to depict the life of a Dalit (the so-called lower caste that was considered untouchable, till the Indian Constitution banned such practices)? The example that came to my mind was of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati (Deliverance). Premchand, one of the foremost Hindi language writers of the 20th century, was born into the upper caste but was a radical progressive who advocate equality. His short story Sadgati is an evocative tale of the plight of a Dalit. Satyajit Ray, the iconic 20th-century filmmaker, who also belonged to the upper caste, turned it into a cinematic classic.

Let me hasten to add here that the exploitation of the Dalits in India continues even today in all forms – economic, cultural, social, and political – despite innumerable laws that are meant to prevent it, and that it is about time opportunities especially in the arts are created for them.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and sincerely advised that I abandon the misadventure. I was of course not going to do that mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience. I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief, my debut novel, and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Matter of Geography – Jasmine D’Costa

Different areas of old Bombay had their own individualistic and peculiar characteristics acquired from the different ethnic groups that dominated those areas. For the first ten years of my life, at the intersection of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street in old Bombay. 

My grandfather's father came to Bombay in the late 1890s, and since then, for a little over a hundred years,  we lived in Bombay for four generations, till I decided to make Toronto my home in the 21st century.

From north of that intersection, Kalbadevi Road was predominantly a Gujarati locality, right up to Bhuleshwar. The temple of Mumbadevi, the goddess that gives Bombay its name – Mumbai, is on this road. The cotton market (Mulji Jetha), the gold market (Zaveri Bazar), the hardware (of the hammer and nails variety, because then there were no computers) market (Lohar Chawl) were all linked to Kalbadevi Road and the Princess Street.

The road parallel to Kalbadevi Road – Jagannath Shankar Seth Road – is the one that I’m more familiar with as that’s the one I took to go to my school every day. This road was predominantly Marathi in character. Till the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this road has a significant presence of the Christian community, too. To its west is the famous Parsi Dairy Farm and it leads up to the Marine Drive flyover. To its south is Dhobitalao. Jagannath Shankar Seth Road led to Chira Bazar, Thakurdwar, the St. Teresa’s church. The road to the right of this intersection went to Prathna Samaj and to the left went to Charni Road station.

Pydhonie, which was to the north of Kalbadevi Road, was predominantly Muslim, and further north was Mazagaon, which had a significant presence of Christians. Bombay was cosmopolitan, but its localities were insular, dominated by a specific ethnicity. This world gradually changed, as many locals moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and the 1980s. I haven’t been to the old areas of Bombay in a very, very, long time. But it stays etched sharply in my mind.

Reading Jasmine D’Costa’s A Matter of Geography revived those memories. The novel, Jasmine’s first, is set in Mazagaon, and is a story of a handful of neighbours who live in the Billimora Building, which is what Bombay calls a chawl (single-file tenements, connected by a corridor, with shared toilets).

The novel is about the love between Peter and Anna, what separates them, brings them together and keeps them apart. It is set in the backdrop of the 1992-93 communal violence between the Hindus and the Muslims after the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya (a town in north India, linked to the birth of the Hindu God Ram according to the mythological classic epic Ramayan).

Jasmine’s book brings alive the horrors of the communal carnage that left hundreds dead across India and broke the back of Bombay, changing it completely and permanently. A significant part of the novel is about the valiant efforts a group of Christian families undertake to save the lives of their Muslim neighbours – Ali and his mother (Saving Ali) from the rampaging Hindutva mobs.  The beauty of the novel is that the violence and the constant tension that forms its backdrop doesn’t ever overwhelm. Jasmine’s pithy observations about people and their lives keep the tone of the novel light and often hilarious.

Also, the characters that form the novel are all sharply carved, each distinct in their own unusual way. Anna, of course, is the one that is developed most lovingly by the author. The unpleasantness that makes her immigrate to Canada makes her stronger. When she returns to Bombay after a long time, as a mature, level-headed young woman, she is a caring person who is unwilling to be swayed by emotions and makes hard choices both for herself and for Peter.

The title of the book gets explained in what turns out to be the books most heart-wrenching scene when Anna decides that although she loves Peter and Peter loves her, she would return to Canada without him, and not want him to wait for her, because Canada is no place for first generation immigrants who are in their late 30s or older. Those who come to Canada when they are young have a generally successful and better life than those who come here when they are older. 

This passage, where Anna describes to Peter the slow disillusionment her parents experience after immigrating, is one of the most severe indictments I've read (fiction or non-fiction) of Canada’s utter failure at integrating its newcomers to enable them to have more fulfilling lives. Jasmine writes with empathy, which is a rare gift; and she writes with confidence.

The novel is published by Mosaic Press. Click here to buy the book: A Matter of Geography

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interview with Koom Kankesan

 Koom Kankesan is a novelist and a graphic art aficionado

Koom participating at the Toronto Comic Jam

Koom Kankesan was born in Sri Lanka. While his family lived abroad, the civil war in Sri Lanka broke out and this caused them to seek a new home. They eventually settled in Canada and have lived here since the late eighties. He has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. Koom contributed arts journalism to various publications before becoming a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Since working as a teacher, he has taken semesters off now and again to work on his fiction. The Tamil Dream, his new book, is his most ambitious to date. It looks at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how it affected Tamils here in Canada. Besides literature and film, Koom has deep interests in history and science, and an enduring love for comic books.

What explains your interest in graphic novels?

Let me rephrase that question to say 'what explains your interest in comics'? Way before I ever heard the term graphic novels, I was engrossed by comics of all kinds: newspaper strips, technical manual illustrations, cereal box mascots, superhero stuff, cartoon animation, anything that made use of pictures and words. I think that the term graphic novel is just a way of classy-ing up the form and I sort of wish that Will Eisner had never coined it. I suppose everything eventually tends towards class-ism and the seeking of prestige and status, and so this half-acceptance of the comics medium by the arbiters of culture is a double-edged sword. It was almost better when comics was left alone to authentically be itself, its joyous carefree self. Comics still retains some of that - you can approach most comics creators in a direct way that you can't with literary writers or filmmakers, but there might be the danger of this inherent classism or snobbishness in the future.

But yeah - to come back to your question, I was mesmerised by comics from the first moment I laid eyes on them. We were poor, living in England, and I can remember when my father bought a black and white Marvel comics reprint issue of Spiderman and the Valkyrie. I was maybe about five. I was just mesmerised by the way the pictures (and later words) fit together, the way the perspective could move up the side of a building and into the air. It was like you were flying. There was a magic to it. Of course, film also shares this magic and I love film too. Later, I would obsessively take out volumes of Tintin and Asterix from the library and there was something about entering this other world, this mirror cartoony world of ideal forms which were stylised in a certain way, their flat sheen and colour, their sensibility, that I found irresistible. Tintin remains one of my all-time favourite works to this day.

·         Have you attempted to do a graphic novel?

I've always been drawn to comics but never really had the confidence to do my own. When I was younger, I drew one or two or three-page strips for university publications but they were sporadic and took a lot of work and I always had to look at photos for reference. So I never really developed the confidence or horsepower to do my own stuff. That was around the time (in the mid to late nineties) when I met Seth and he was kind enough to give me some pointers and set a few assignments for me. I tearfully worked through his assignments but never felt great about them and ended up abandoning my efforts and turning to writing prose. It's always been one of my deepest regrets that I didn't persevere, sketch regularly, and take advantage of Seth's generosity and time. It wasn't a lack of skill on my part, but a lack of effort and confidence. His popularity and fame blew up a few years later so I was very lucky to know him when I did.

I've always been drawn to comics though. It possesses a sensibility and magic that is different from literature or film (although there are relations), and have always come back to them. I sort of see myself as somewhat of a failed fiction writer (no one reads my stuff) so I've been thinking of trying to get back to my roots and interests in terms of comics and sci-fi. A few years ago, I tried to work with an animator who said he'd be interested in doing a graphic novel with me but he just couldn't commit. Animators are always inundated with work and if you can't pay someone upfront, it can be an unreasonable expectation that they will simply carry out your project and illustrate it in the hope of future rewards or glory. 

Koom at the Erie Art Museum in PA
with Klaus Janson (left) and John Totleben (right)
Who are your favourite prominent Canadian graphic novelists? Why?

There is so much coming out now that there's no way I can stay abreast of it all. Koyama Press is celebrating its tenth anniversary and I feel like I don't really have a sense of everything they're doing and their presence on the comics landscape yet. Back in the 90s, I used to read Drawn & Quarterly's sporadic anthologies but of course, now they are an international player that sources many artists from the U.S. and other parts of the world, as well as Canada. Back in those days, I used to follow the work of Seth, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown (the 'Toronto three') and they were three of my favourites in terms of indie comics creators. Joe Matt isn't Canadian but he lived here for a long time - now I believe he's in L.A. - but I loved the humour and self-evisceration in his work and that led me to the work of Seth and Chester. As mentioned before, Seth was kind enough to give me some pointers and that's how I knew him. His work is immaculately beautiful and stylised and there's such a deep appreciation for comics history and the form that informs his work that I don't think I fully appreciated him back then. I just thought of him as this local artist that was producing autobiographical comics. I loved Chester's weirdness, especially in Ed the Happy Clown and some of those other absurd short stories, but he - like Seth - has gone on to carve this very reputable body of work that's both idiosyncratic and weighty at the same time. I don't think anybody back then realised or foresaw how respected and recognised these creators on the outskirts would become. Did D & Q help create the wave of respectability or were they buffeted by it? It's sort of a chicken and egg philosophical conundrum. It's one of those interesting tides of cultural history that only the most zealous anticipated.

I've been influenced by many comics that were not Canadian though. As I mentioned before, living in England, I devoured Tintin by Herge and that has become something (both in its aesthetics as well as its values) that has worked its way into the core of my being. If there's anybody whose influence I will never be able to escape (and that's a good thing), it's the work of Alan Moore. I don't need to go into why his work (and he, himself) are phenomenal - even the stuff that I write about being Tamil, which you'd think is very remote from Moore's body of work, is heavily influenced by Moore's oeuvre. I was also heavily affected and influenced by Frank Miller's storytelling and writing in the 80s. He was such a stellar poetic writer that seemed to lose his touch once the 80s was over. Sin City became so heavy handed and seemed to go against the natural intelligence and dynamic creativity of his earlier stuff. Paul Chadwick's Concrete is another personal favourite that has had a great effect on me - its gentility, humility, intelligence and unequalled sensitivity to life and knowledge is unparalleled and I think it's a great pity than Chadwick's work is somewhat neglected or forgotten. Jaime Hernandez, and his brother Gilbert's early Palomar work have also really moved and affected me. Once you start talking about this stuff, it's hard to know when to stop. It's such a rich field, and fascinating, like watching a universe unfold.

You were teaching a graphic novel appreciation course at U of T some years ago, what sort of a program was that?

That was something I was hoping to repeat but it ended up being a one-time thing. I'm loosely affiliated with the creative writing department in the Continuing Education division at U of T. They already have somebody teaching a 'making comics' class, so I suggested a graphic novel appreciation class. There was enough enthusiasm to fill up one section but the following year and the year after that, we couldn't get enough people to run the class. We read a representation of what are considered great graphic novels. Only the first one was superhero based - Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born Again. The class was composed of young adults who loved comics and mostly, we deconstructed the language of comics and techniques in the books we looked at, using Scott McCloud's wonderful Understanding Comics as our guide.

What I learned from teaching that course was how far behind the times I was. Most of the books on the list were older (by the likes of Moore, Tomine, Chadwick, Spiegelman, etc.) and they were all by males. It was a good experience for me because it showed me that the current audience for comics and the sensibility out there has changed considerably from when I was getting into alternative comics. I did give students the option as to whether they wanted to write analyses or write comics scripts of their own - most of them went the analysis route. I was working at an alternative high school six years ago and there, I got the chance to design a comics course which I think they continued to run. It was a Grade 11 Media Studies/Art course where we did a combination of analysing comics and drawing our own. It was quite enjoyable and I used my meagre budget to buy copies of Watchmen and Batman: Year One for the students to read. Unfortunately, I teach at a regular high school now and there's no way I could set up or teach something like that. I'm at a smaller, more conventional school, and unfortunately, right now, we don't even run a Media Studies class. So there you have it - the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, comics seems to be this universal language that they're employing for all kinds of instruction and education so I have no doubt that it'll be much more integrated into everything given a couple of generations.

Thanks for taking the time to ask me about my love for and interest in comics!

Here's a recording of a conversation between Seth and Michael Deforge, held at the University of Toronto in March 2017. The conversation was part of a symposium called 'Making History: The Cartoon World of Seth'. Click here to listen to recording: Seth