& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Shashi Kapoor

Shashi Kapoor in Utsav

Shashi Kapoor was one of the most underrated actors of his time. He was always restrained and preferred to underplay rather than go over the top in his performances, as most of his contemporaries did.

I want to talk about just two scenes where he held his own when pitted against actors who were considered superior.

The first is, of course, from Deewar (1975, director: Yash Chopra). In the scene which has become one of the five most memorable scenes in the history of Hindi cinema (Mera paas Ma hai),  Shashi Kapoor is subdued and calm as opposed to Amitabh Bachchan’s fire and brimstone persona.  In the 1970s, when Amitabh Bachchan was a colossus, Shashi Kapoor held his own in the scene and in the film.

The scene in Deewar was written for Vijay, the character Amitabh Bachchan enacts, and it showcased his versatility – the tall, imposing personality, his swanky, foreign car, his black shirt and grey suit, his hands in the jacket’s pockets, and the rich baritone with which he berates his younger brother Ravi for his obduracy and obstinacy in persisting with a principled way of life even though it has only ensured penury.

The audience loved the scene more because of the muted but emphatic manner in which Shashi Kapoor conveys his disappointment with his brother’s criminality through his expressive eyes, and modulating his soft voice. 

The other one is from Junoon (1979, director: Shyam Benegal). The film has Shashi Kapoor playing the character of Javed, a Pathan, who is an esteemed member of the local Muslim aristocracy in a small town in the then United Provinces, during the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857.

His younger brother Sarfaraz, played by Naseeruddin Shah, is the firebrand revolutionary who is part of the mutinous cavalry battling the English soldiers across the Indo-Gangetic plains.

Javed is besotted with a young English girl (Nafisa Ali, in her first film), and holds her family captive in his haveli, much to the annoyance of the younger brother, who berates him to join the armed struggle to overthrow the English forces. Shabana Azmi plays the neglected wife.

Shashi Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah have two memorable scenes together. The first is at the beginning when Sarfaraz urges Javed to join him in the armed struggle, and Javed displays utter cynicism towards the cause as well as the people leading the rebellion.

(watch from 2.42)

The second scene is when Sarfaraz returns from the battle, wounded and bruised, and angrily pounces upon Javed’s pet pigeons and flinging them out from their pigeonholes. Javed just pulls him away wordlessly.

Shashi Kapoor shows the shocked disbelief and the despondency of the rebellion’s defeat in Delhi with his eyes, without uttering a word.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Charles Pachter Canada's Artist

The first time I heard of Charles Pachter was in the Walrus magazine when I saw his famous painting of the Canadian flag. It was a simple and yet a magnetic image of the red maple leaf in a red and white background.

The painting compelled me to do a Google search on Pachter and I discovered a Canadian institution who enjoys a global reputation for his iconic work on the British royalty and the Canadian moose, the Toronto Streetcar. 

He was also a friend of my friend Ali Adil Khan, the art connoisseur, who is a pillar of Canada’s new art establishment.  

In 2016, when Mawenzi House Publishers and I were looking for a cover for my debut novel, we approached Ali to help us. Among the suggestions that we got from him was a self-portrait of Charles Pachter called Decoy, painted in 1968.

I immediately selected it to be the cover of my novel because the boy-man in the sketch had a somewhat perplexed and anguished look on his face and uncertainty and hesitancy in his gaze. To me, it was as near a representation of Rafiq, the lead protagonist of my novel.

Thanks to Ali’s influence, Pachter gave us the permission to use the sketch for free and it became the cover of my novel. Through Ali, we were also able to invite Pachter to the launch program at the Gladstone last November, and surprisingly, he came and stayed till the end.

As a person with some understanding of marketing, I believe that one of the reasons Belief has done well is because of the unique cover that we were able to manage, thanks to Pachter.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of the launch of his biography Charles Pachter Canada’s Artist by Leonard Wise (Dundurn), I went to his famous studio-home behind AGO in the Grange. The place is an art gallery that utilises limited space effectively and efficiently with postmodern minimalism.  

Leonard Wise’s biography is a lush coffee table book with many illustrations of Pachter’s works and an endearing Appreciation by Margaret Atwood.

From the book, I learnt the story behind the Painted Flag. Wise notes:

“One of the Atwood poems, “eath of a Young Son by Drowning,” ends with the line, “I planted him in this country like a flag.” Charles has often surmised that this may have led him to a new phase of his painting. In any case, one summer night in 1980, at his farm in Oro-Medonite, he constructed a flimsy, homemade flagpole – out of two-by-fours, hastily nailed together – to which he attached a small rayon Canadian flag that he had purchased at a Canadian Tire store in Orillia. He manoeuvred the unwieldy mast into a fence-post hole,  lay down in a hammock to survey his handiwork as the sun set, and watched the flag unfurl, undulating slowly in the breeze, rocking back and forth like a primitive mobile at the top of its slender stem. The effect of wind, light, and motion struck him immediately…

In March 1981, Charles began painting variations of the flag at his Grange Place studio, one after the other. Swept along by the possibilities of different compositions based on the effects of wind and light, he could have continued ad infinitum. But eventually he became “flagged out,” and after completing thirty paintings, he began preparing for an exhibition of these new works.

The Painted Flag exhibition opened on November 7, 1981, the day after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had coincidentally announced that the constitution was being patriated to Canada…In her November 14, 1981, Toronto Star review of the show, Lisa Bowen stated, “there is humour and excitement, colour and texture in this astonishing show.” John Bentley Mays in the Globe and Mail had a different view, labelling it “over-the-couch art for the walls of patriotic dentists.”

The book also has innumerable anecdotes from Pachter’s memorable life, such as his 30-second encounter with        Queen Elizabeth.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “this is such an honour. Forty-three years ago I painted you as the queen of Canada riding a moose, and it became one of my best-known images. Thanks to you I’ve made a living all these years.”  

She smiled radiantly, and said, “How amusing!”

The exchange lasted only thirty seconds but that was long enough for a Reuters photographer to take their picture. The next morning the byline “Artist who painted Queen on Moose meets queen” was in the Daily Telegraph. Charles emailed the photo to John Hondreich, the publisher of the Toronto Star, who published the 1973 picture of Charles with Queen on the Moose next to the 2015 picture of him meeting the queen in London.”

Let me conclude this post with a paragraph from Margaret Atwood’s Appreciation.

“…in a career that has now lasted three decades, Pachter has continued vigorously to explore his several media, to diversify his imagery, and to structure and restructure his visual world. In doing so he has restructured the world around him, and has changed profoundly the way we look at our own familiar iconography, even our own banalities. His output has been immense, his wit and versatility have remained constant, and his range continues to broaden. His is a sophisticated art which draws upon many techniques and evokes many echoes, yet it remains strongly individual, and firmly rooted in a ground which Pachter has both excavated and cultivated himself.”

Masala chai

That tea’s origins are in South China and not in India is really not all that material because  Indian tea – chai – is uniquely Indian.

No tea in the world is like chai.

And a true connoisseur knows that chai has innumerable variations in the Indian subcontinent – right from the Kashmiri kahwa to the chiliya ki chai of restaurants in Bombay’s Muslim bastis (chiliya is a Gujarati Muslim community). 

Moreover, every region has many minor and major differences in the making of the concoction that affects its taste.

The amazing thing about chai is the various memories that get associated with the process that is nothing more than consuming tea.

My earliest memories of having chai are with my grandmother in the narrow kitchen and living room of our two-room tenement (chawl). I was to have milk and she’d have tea, and every day I’d argue that I wanted tea, too. And she’d promise that I’d have it when I was a grownup. I’d insist and she’d then pour a bit into my milk glass.

I also remember the tea I had at my aunt’s home. It’d green tea, mint, ginger, and just a few drops of milk in the tea. It was potent and invigorating.  

Everyone who’s lived in Bombay knows the pleasures of having a cutting chai in a small glass especially during the monsoon, and if you also managed to get a vada pao with it, that was the nearest you could get to heaven without dying.

During my years in college, I hung around a teashop nearby owned by a senior citizen known to the world only by his surname – Dubey – who made tea that nobody else in the world could. His popularity and fame were such that it was impossible on occasions to find a place in the teashop that was at best unhygienic. A young lad came and periodically wiped the tables with a wet cloth and every time he did that more flies hovered around the sticky tabletop.

I remember going to buy the tea leaves, my grandmother instructed me to always buy mamri cha (black tea prepared by the traditional crush tear curl – CTC – process).  Yes, there was branded tea those days, as now, but we were sort of poor then to afford branded tea.

During my years in journalism, tea became an addiction, and like many of my colleagues, it was normal to consume more than a dozen cups (glass) of tea all day and Old Monk rum with Coke in evening every day.  And, of course, smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes daily. Remember this little personal factoid when you wonder why I died at a relatively young age.

The first time I had Earl Grey tea was appropriately in England and since then, I’ve been hooked to it. Another memory of tea is when I interviewed the Chinese consul in Bombay for a report in Business India. Apparently, it is customary to keep serving tea to a guest if the guest empties the small porcelain teacup. I was unaware of that and must’ve easily consumed a few litres of tea before I left the consulate at Worli.

One of the most surprising discoveries I made about the shared heritage between China and India was on the streets of Shanghai when I along with my former colleague and friend Tushar Pania, who’s now a bigshot in India’s Reliance Industries.

It was rather late in the night, but the streets of the city were still fairly busy. We came across a man selling all sorts of drinks (non-alcoholic). We decided to buy something to drink and picked a bottle. The man didn’t know a word of English and we didn’t know a word of Mandarin. By frantic hand gestures, we managed to ask him what the drink was, and he shouted “cha”. 

We took that to mean something in Mandarin, paid him and took a swig from the bottle. It turned out exactly what he said it was – “cha” (tea). Apparently, tea is called cha in Mandarin, too (please confirm Mandarin speakers), as it is in Gujarati.

The last time I met Tushar earlier this year, we had cutting chai on the street outside his office building in Bombay’s Nariman Point – again made in the most unhygienic conditions imaginable, but unbeatable in flavour and aroma.

In Canada, I’ve been exposed to teas from across the world. I’d no idea that there were so many different tea producing regions in the world. Tea is big business, and there are many branded tea franchises in the business who offer a wide variety of tea. 

Continued in the post below

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Marco Hülser's Masala Chai

Continued from the post above

It was with such a heavy baggage of the past (and all of the aforementioned is but a mere glimpse) that I bought tickets to see the documentary Masala Chai at the recently-concluded Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto’s Innis Townhall. Marco Hülser is a German filmmaker who’d been fascinated by India’s intoxication with tea for several years, compelling him to document it fascination on film.

Masala Chai is a multilayered documentary that explores the lives of five individuals involved in selling chai to customers. The documentary follows the lives of five different tea makers: Yogesh, a US-educated business owner of a posh teahouse in Pune; Mohammad, an elderly tea-maker who has worked in film production for 40 years; Gouri, an outspoken teen assisting with her family tea stall in Kolkata; and Sushanta and Subodh, who run small tea stalls in Darjeeling and Delhi, respectively.

Each of the tea sellers has a story to tell, and while they narrate their stories, we learn of the multifaceted, nuanced, multilayered society that is India. All of them except Yogesh are living on the margins and in extreme poverty.

The filmmaker shows India as it is, without embellishments, and without trying to create false hopes in the audience’s hearts and minds that somehow the conditions of the tea sellers will miraculously and dramatically improve.

These people belong to those strata of the society that gets adversely affected by the minutest calamity – whether personal or because of an official policy change such as demonetisation. Hülser succeeds in extracting personal stories from each of these people, without ever seeming to be intruding. And all of them have strong narratives.

Yogesh is ambitious and wants to emulate the big American-style barista coffee shops. But he doesn’t have the deep pockets to compete with the Starbucks of the world. He tries hard to give his customers an experience of having a hot beverage in cool environs but knows and understands that it isn’t going to be easy to survive and make money in a tough market.

Khan, who makes tea for filmmaking unit, is looking forward to retiring. He came to Bombay to find a life in the movies but ended up making tea for people who make movies. He believes his children will continue the business. Gouri is enthusiastic young entrepreneur assisting her dad in the business of making and serving tea from a roadside stall in Kolkata. She believes in being perfect in making tea and believes in satisfying her customers; unlike her dad, who she says, only wants to make money.

Subodh has also experienced the hard knocks of life and branched out on his own, with his own roadside tea business in old Delhi. He has taken a few apprentices, who are immigrant labourers (just as he was many years ago) from Bihar and who will eventually start their own ventures somewhere in Delhi.

The perkiest and precocious protagonist of the documentary is, of course,  Sushanta, who has married to a man from a lower caste and is the subject of scorn and ridicule by her family. Yet, she gamely continues to assist her husband in his tea business and rears her daughter be cajoling her to focus on education because it’s only through education, she believes, that her daughter can change her life.

Hülser is able to not only show these petty self-employed folks in the midst of their poverty and squalor but is also able to successfully portray their aspirations and through them the aspirations of the millions of Indians such as them. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many bookstores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accreted to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression, or so I thought.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his perspective on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going... Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance, and everything else that I lumped under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things has happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book that came out recently, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry,  Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

(Shane Joseph is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the author of four novels and three collections of short stories. His work After the Flood won the best fantasy novel award at Write Canada in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His collection of short stories,  Crossing Limbo (Morning Rain Publishing) was released in June 2017. 

For details visit his website at www.shanejoseph.com)

Reviews of Crossing Limbo could be read at:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


After three-and-a-half decades, I saw Casablanca (director: Michael Curtiz) again. It was the first time in a cinema house. The first time I saw it was in the early 1980s at Bombay’s (Mumbai) American Centre. The United States of America’s diplomatic thrust in those days was to saturate Indians with Hollywood’s and Madison Avenue’s soft power.

Casablanca introduced me to Rick Blaine, the owner of the swinging nightclub and gambling den (Rick's Café Américain), the most happening place in a city otherwise charged with wartime tension. Humphrey Bogart essayed the role. Casablanca also had the inimitable Ingrid Bergman, a stunning natural beauty who was also a consummate actor, performing the role of Ilsa Lund, the woman torn between her husband (Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid) and her former lover (Rick, Humphrey Bogart).

What lifts Casablanca and makes it extraordinary is a melange of memorable scenes. Permit me to describe just two that are my favourite.

The first is when Ilsa walks into Rick’s café, with her husband Victor Laszlo, the guerrilla leader of the Resistance. She doesn’t know who Rick is, but immediately realises his identity when she sees Sam in the café, playing the piano. Dooley Wilson performed this pivotal role of the piano player and singer at Rick’s nightclub.

Ilsa strides across to Sam and after a few awkward moments where she extracts information about Rick from an unwilling Sam, requests Sam to sing As Time Goes By, a song that he sang when Rick and Ilsa were in love in Paris. “Play it Sam, for old time’s sake,” she says. And as a reluctant Sam begins to sing the song, Rick storms from the bar and shouts at Sam, “Sam I thought I told you never to play…”

Another scene that remains etched in one’s memory, long after the movie is over, is when it’s time for Ilsa and Victor to leave Casablanca for Lisbon. Rick manages to convince Ilsa to escape from Casablanca to Lisbon onward to the United States of America. He promises her that he would go with her, and dump Laszlo. But at the airport, as the aircraft is about to take off, Rick tells, no, he forces Ilsa that she should accompany her husband.  Two of the film’s classic lines “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you kid” are part of this scene.

Made in 1942, at a time when the Second World War was at its peak and Hitler’s armies were scourging large parts of Europe, Casablanca was Hollywood’s (and America’s) propaganda tool that worked remarkably well in creating public opinion against the Nazis. In all these years since I don’t think I’ve seen any male actor with such rough and raw appeal as Bogart; Harrison Ford comes close, but not quite.  Three of Bogart’s best films are the Maltase Falcon, the African Queen and, of course, Casablanca.

The Yonge-Dundas Cineplex was nearly full Sunday afternoon and an appreciative audience clapped when the film ended and the credits rolled up. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ashoak Upadhyay's The Beacon

Ashoak Upadhyay is an idiosyncratic man. He’s a leftist intellectual, an economist, a journalist, a novelist and now the editor of The Beacon online magazine promoting long-form writing.

I’ve known him since the early 1990s. He was my colleague at the Observer group, though we worked at different publications, and then he was my editor at Business India, where we routinely argued over matters that, in retrospect, seem so utterly irrelevant. 

But he was a great editor to work with. In particular, I remember a report that he conceived and for which I did the field work on the burgeoning entrepreneurialism in Dharavi slum (in those days it was called Asia’s largest slum). Subsequently, another senior journalist turned the idea into a book.

A few years back, Ashoak published his debut novel – The Hungry Edge. It’s a layered tale consisting of stories within stories and is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.(Read an earlier blog about the novel here: The Hungry Edge)

Ashoak is a great guy to be around because he can (and often does) talk on every subject with great erudition. This erudition springs from his being extremely well-read and knowledgeable and also because he is opinionated and biased. 

It’s this combination of being expertise and bias that must have led him to launch The Beacon.

I'm sharing a recent email exchange with him where he talks about his website:

What motivated you to launch The Beacon?

The paucity of essay-length writings that are not knee-jerk responses to events as they occur or are boringly academic. Less journalism, even less pedantry, more readability, imaginative analyses, contemplation. Long form writing with long shelf lives that can be read after the contingent moment has passed.

What is it that you're trying to achieve through it

Different ways of seeing and thinking about, our diversities, differences and frailties. Conversations across races, communities, genders and cultures.    

In a crowded space will Beacon achieve that you envisage it should?

The space is crowded with platforms or media urging obvious thought, even more obvious actions on the contingent; there can never be enough platforms that make readers think heterogeneously and without the categories they have been told to think with.

And what are you doing to make it more relevant to a younger demographic?

Despite the dominating categories of homogenized thinking and action being pressed upon them, the young have the capacity to imagine, to see life in its variety, to see difference as intrinsic to the human race. The Beacon offers them the windows to the ineffable, the imagined, to the possible in the impossible.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

She knew India’s heartbeat

In the centenary year of her birth and thirty-three years after her assassination, Indira Gandhi remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

‘Indira is India’

To some, she was the daughter of India. To many, she was India. Dev Kant Barooah famously proclaimed, “Indira is India and India is Indira” at the height of her popularity in the 1970s. She was the Durga for MF Husain. Rabindranath Tagore called her Priyadarshini. To her critics, such as Ram Manohar Lohia, she was the “gungi gudiya”, a notion she dispelled quickly once her ascent to power commenced.

In a patriarchal society steeped in moribund traditions she epitomised the universal mother figure, revered, adored, admired, and on occasions feared and maligned. Throughout her political career and even after her assassination, Indians have both deified and demonised Indira Gandhi.

Indira was a political behemoth that shaped the destiny of India. From 1966 to 1984, she was, unarguably, the most popular leader in India.  It is a measure of her enduring appeal that several decades after she had passed into history, the people of India continue to remember her as one of the best Prime Ministers of India.

In her biography on Indira, her friend Pupul Jaykar, describes her as, “A woman so closely tuned to the country and its people; so complex, so skilful, so far seeing, so concerned, so capable of an insightful listening, so moved by beauty; and yet, at times, so primeval, so obsessive, so brittle, even trivial – a woman who refused to be measured, who laid her own ground rule.”

Ambition and zeal

Questions about her ability have continued to be raised both during her lifetime and surprisingly even after her death. There is a small yet vocal section that believes her ascension to glory was because she was Nehru’s daughter.  Indira’s rise was measured, and events in her life propelled her to gradually occupy the centre stage. Being born in an illustrious family definitely helped, as did being a father’s daughter. However, what contributed to her rise as a leader of the masses was an inherent zeal to be of service to the people of India and a matching acumen to realize her ambitions. 

Nehru, ever the democrat, had said, “This business of picking up an individual successor is something I find quite alien in my way of thinking. I am not trying to start a dynasty. How terrible it would be if I, after all I have said about the processes of democratic government, were to attempt to handpick a successor. The best I can do for India is to help our people as a whole to generate new leadership as it may be needed.”

Indira’s education was mixed, varied, and one that encompassed different streams. It included stints at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, Oxford, schools in Switzerland, Delhi, Bombay, and Poona. However, she didn’t complete her studies. The atmosphere at home, and being Jawaharlal’s daughter and Motilal’s granddaughter undoubtedly drew her into the freedom struggle. As a teenager, she formed the Vanar Sena in 1930, when the Congress launched the Purna Swaraj movement; during the Quit India movement in 1942, when Indira was 22-years-old, she was imprisoned.

Earlier that year (1942), she married Feroze Gandhi, against her father’s wishes. She met Feroze in England and had been attracted to his radical, leftist ideas, but also confessed that “One of the reasons I got married was that I was determined to have children”.  A 30-year-old Indira greeted the dawn of India’s independence, working with the Mahatma in Delhi to bring calm to the victims of religious violence that had engulfed the subcontinent. She became Nehru’s shadow when he became India’s first Prime Minister.

Immersed in Congress

It was only a matter of time before Indira began working for the Congress party. She became a member of the party’s working and electoral committees in 1955 and earned notoriety for recommending the dismissal of India’s first Communist government in Kerala. The dismissal of the EMS Namboodripad government also revealed an authoritarian streak that would manifest more prominently a decade-and-a-half later.

In 1958, she separated from Feroze and began to devote more time to the Congress. She became the fourth woman President of the party in 1959 (Anne Besant, Nellie Sengupta and Sarojini Naidu had been the other three).  In September 1960, Feroze suffered a stroke in the Parliament, but went to the hospital only a couple of days later when the pain in his chest became acute and unbearable. Indira was in Kerala and rushed back to Delhi, but her estranged husband passed away the next morning – on 8 September 1960. For Indira, it was “as though somebody had cut me into two.”

After the Chinese debacle in 1962, when Nehru faced defeat both on the battlefield and psychologically, Indira ensured that VK Krishna Menon was sidelined. Menon was Nehru’s main adviser on the China policy. Nehru never recovered from this disillusionment and in 1964 passed away into history.

About her father, Indira said, “He was the humanity in a human being, He was deeply sensitive. He was far more of a poet than a politician. Someone one has said that out of a person’s quarrels with society comes out literature, but out of one’s inner conflict comes out poetry. I think in my father both these were there. There was a conflict with the status quo of the society as well as a conflict within himself.”

During the short-lived Lal Bahadur Shastri government, Indira was responsible for Information and Broadcasting portfolio. Upon his untimely death in Tashkent, the cabal of the Congress’s Syndicate (K. Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy) thought it fit to hoist Indira as the Prime Minister, harbouring delusions that they would be the puppeteers and Indira, their dumb doll, would dance to their tunes.

Durga incarnation

She had no patience for the old guard. After the Congress’s lacklustre win in the 1967 elections, Indira moved in with the stealth of a cougar, and split the party in 1969, jettisoning the geriatric leadership and creating her own Congress. She nationalised the banks in 1969 which gave a tremendous impetus to economic growth, and especially the agricultural sector. Bank nationalisation made it possible for farmers to avail of loans turning the green revolution into a success. Within the next two years, Indira created an aura of invincibility. She was determined to take a hard-line on everything.

1971 was a significant year for Indira and for India. In the name of equality, she also abolished the privy purses. She also turned American ambivalence in geopolitical equations to her advantage and signed a 20-year peace, friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union. Garibi hatao got her an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, and she used this new legitimacy to bury MA Jinnah’s two-nation theory by creating a third one – Bangladesh in the winter of 1971. The US President Richard Nixon dispatched the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, but Indira couldn't care less. Atal Behari Vajpayee, always the one to capture the nation’s mood in words, declared Indira was “Durga astride the tiger,” and later denied ever having said so.

Such was her cocky confidence, recounts Sam Maneckshaw, the field marshal who gave the Indian armed forces their finest hour, that when they met after the war, she summarily asked him about the rumours that he was planning to overthrow her elected government and bring in army rule. “What if I did?” asked Maneckshaw. “You wouldn't dare,” replied Mrs. Gandhi calmly.

Indira could do no wrong. But such admiration resulted in heightened expectations, and she wasn’t equipped to deal with them. Inevitably, the rot set in. Her lack of patience for her opponents and a complete absence of scruples caused major problems. Unfulfilled aspirations can be a dangerous thing in a democracy, and Indira realised this in 1973-74 when out of nowhere Jayaprakash Narayan (J.P.) launched the Nav Nirman agitation and George Fernandes called for the great railway strike. The nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1974 did not help her fight the rising tide of anger.

Emergency’s excesses

The Allahabad High Court set aside Indira’s election in 1975 on technical grounds; she appealed, but Justice VR Krishna Iyer who heard the appeal only issued a conditional stay on the Allahabad judgement, permitting Indira to attend the Parliament but preventing her from voting. The opposition immediately demanded her resignation.
Her son Sanjay and other Congress leaders urged her not to resign. Indira agreed to their advice. As she told Dom Moraes, “What else could I have done except stay? You know the state the country was in. What would have happened if there had been nobody to lead it? I was the only person who could, you know.”

In June 1975, Indira declared an internal Emergency, and suspended democratic rights. She sent the entire opposition behind bars and muzzled the press. She argued that when the opposition advised the armed forces not to take orders from the government, a grave and unprecedented situation had been created which would have led to anarchy and chaos. The only way to effectively deal with this eventuality was to declare an internal Emergency.

Indira justified Emergency thus: “Our opponents wanted to paralyse the work of the Central Government and we found ourselves in a serious situation. And we took certain steps. But many of the friends in the country were rather puzzled as to what has Indiraji done? What will happen to the country now? But we felt that the country has developed a disease and, if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure…So we gave this bitter medicine to the nation…Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step…But we saw that it worked just as the dose of the doctor worked.”

Unquestionably, the Emergency was an abomination. Nothing can justify it, and the excesses that followed in its name – such as the forced sterilisations – alienated the people from Indira. Sanjay’s rise during this period also ensured that effective power moved away from Indira and vested in her son.

Democrat at heart

What needs to be emphasised (and it is something that is not explained by any of the numerous Indira critics) was that she need not have called for an election in March 1977. Why did she do it? No dictator in the world has done that or not ensured his/her own victory after having called for an election. Indira lost decisively.  However, even when she was routed, her magic worked in south India, and the Congress won all the 153 Parliament seats at stake in the four southern states.  About her electoral defeat, Indira said, “People have always thought that I was imagining things and overreacting, but there has been a deep conspiracy and it was bound to overtake us.”

The Janata interregnum proved to be a comprehensive disaster politically and the experiment disintegrated within a couple of years. Indira’s persecution under the Shah Commission helped in hastening her return – first to the Parliament in 1978 and then to form the government in 1980.

Sanjay, clearly her favourite son, died in a plane crash in 1982, a dénouement that perhaps Indira had anticipated. She worried about Sanjay in a letter written to a friend, “Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at that age – rough edges and all – that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear.” In a move that left nothing to the imagination about her dynastic designs, she forced a reluctant Rajiv to join public life.

Indira’s return and second stint were fraught with uncertainty. She was now keen to abandon her pet prejudices. She was aspiring for a prominent place in history, comparable to the one her father had and was not going to settle for anything less. To help build that image, India hosted the Asian Games in 1982, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in 1983 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Goa.

However, India had changed and Indians were not as susceptible to their leaders’ charms. Moreover, the Indian media, after having been made to crawl during the Emergency, was in no mood to give any quarters. Arun Shourie, a World Bank economist, who was emerging as the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, had already changed the rules of the game. His grand expose of Abdul Rehman Antulay, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, (‘Indira Gandhi as Commerce’) had set new benchmarks in investigative journalism in India.

Coinciding with the NAM Summit, Shourie (and Shekhar Gupta) pieced together the story of the Nellie massacre (1983) in Assam.  India Today published it and timed it to coincide with the NAM Summit to create maximum havoc. The Summit was inaugurated on March 12 and India Today’s cover on Nellie hit newsstands on March 15. The global media gave precedence to the Nellie massacre and not the NAM Summit.

Punjab crisis

The crises in Punjab, which had been simmering slowly for a few years, suddenly boiled over with the meteoric rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the monk with a machinegun. He turned the holiest of holy Sikh shrines into an armed fortress and began to mastermind an operation that would have led to another vivisection of Indian. Indira approved of the controversial Operation Bluestar in June 1984 to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple complex.

In his memoirs, the former President of India Pranab Mukherjee said, “Some believe that this course of action could have been avoided. But the reality was that Bhindranwale and his followers had occupied and taken control of the Golden Temple, disregarding its sanctity. Extremists had turned it into a fortress and a base for operations aimed at the separation of Punjab from India. I still vividly recall Mrs. Gandhi telling me, ‘Pranab, I know the consequences.’ She understood the situation well and was clear that there was no other option. Aware that her own life was at risk, she took a conscious decision to go ahead in the best interest of the nation.”

Indira achieved a decisive military victory but permanently wounded the Sikh psyche. On October 31, 1984, in retaliation to Operation Bluestar, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, Indira’s two Sikh bodyguards, showered her with a barrage of bullets, even as Peter Ustinov waited to interview her for an Irish television channel. She had disregarded her intelligence apparatus’s advice to replace her Sikh bodyguards, stating it would negate India’s secular principles.

Coincidentally, a day before she was assassinated, at a rally in Orrisa, Indira, as if having a premonition about her assassination, had rather grandiosely proclaimed, “I am not concerned whether I live or die, and till I breathe, I will continue to serve, and when I die, I can say that each drop of my blood will be for India.” 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

When Gavin met John

‘Do you mouthwash when you toothpaste?’

Gavin & John Irving

Although both of us are from Bombay and must’ve moved in contiguous circles of friends in the 1980s, I met Gavin Barrett in 2009 in Toronto.

He is that guy every newcomer from India with some experience in media goes to meet in the hope of making the right connection and to get a career start.

He didn’t belie his reputation. He informed me of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce job that I eventually got (my first real job in Canada).

Gavin has since become a dear friend, applauding every small milestone of my life in Canada, cheering every small achievement, egging me on to go a step further. He has always been there for me, a quiet but strong presence.  

Inexplicably, he prefers to remain in the shadows, and hide his awesome talent as a poet, for which he has a well-established reputation in India.

He is one of the 14 featured poets in a formidable collection edited by Ranjit Hoskote (Reasons for Belonging – Fourteen contemporary Indian poets) published in 2002.

Let me present one gem from that collection:

Dream in a Train, of a Library

Thoughts and taxicabs fly,
Head rests against cold steel,
Sunned mind turns to sky,
Samples rest, simple rest.

Air-conditioned magazine racks,
Face on cool table, muted avocado whispers
Opposite gigantic Zoroastrian figures, holy wood
A cat eats a college, wipes its whiskers.

A rock shatters in a hundred strokes, brings new order
Where kittens shred the weather into clouds.
The ninety-ninth stroke becomes a border.
Nuns break habits, wear beige shrouds.

But light bends through reluctant lashes,
What once were visions are now flashes
Of an evening’s soft-lit sky –
As dreams begin, they die.

John Irving scribbling on Gavin's copy of Son of Circus

avin got his first poem and his first ad copy published almost at the same time and decided (wisely) that advertising was where is future was. After a few years at Lintas, he immigrated to Hong Kong in the early 1990s and from there to Toronto in 1996.

In Toronto, he launched Barrett and Welsh, a Canadian ad agency specializing in multicultural marketing. He’s obviously good at this because the agency continues to win many awards.

Gavin is a believer, but a firm adherent to the principles of secularism, pluralism and human rights. He was among the band of activists who opposed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Toronto in 2015 by shouting slogans and raising black flags. 

And, of course, he continues to write exquisite poems.  

We continued to meet and interact on social media. When my debut novel Belief was launched, he was at the launch, when my first piece of fiction (a short story) was published in TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, he was at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto library, when I was a panelist at the Spur festival, he was in the audience.

The only time he didn’t participate in my reading was when the Festival of Literary Diversity invited me to read. He couldn’t come to Brampton but made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Gavin proposed I co-curate with him a reading series. He called it the Tartan Turban Secret Summer Readings. The raison d'etre of the (not so) secret reading series was to celebrate Canada.

“The idea is to provide a platform for minority writers who have very few such platforms, but at the same time the idea is not to leave out others who may want to celebrate Canada’s multiculturalism, diversity and indigenous heritage, and have the talent to share,” Gavin said.

The readings were held at the B&W patio, and series caught on like wildfire. We originally planned to wind up after summer, as it’d get chilly in the fall but we’ve continued inside the always-expanding offices of the agency. 

Gavin curated the first series, I did the next, Terri Favro did the third one, Sang Kim did the fourth, Koom Kankesan the fifth one, Rashi Khilnani will do the sixth one in November. We hope to go on for at least a year.

While planning for the fifth series, I asked him whether he would be interested in accompanying me to the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) program where the legendary American novelist John Irving was to chat with John Boyne, the bestselling Irish novelist.

Unquestionably, Irving is one of the finest novelists we have, and in my opinion, The World According to Garp (1978), a genre-bending, deeply-humane, although peppered with an incredible degree of violence, is one of the finest 20th-century novels. (Read the previous post on the novel here: Garp)

Gavin was ecstatic to know that Irving was in Toronto (read on to know the reason). He readily agreed to accompany me and was in fact at the venue – the functional yet aesthetic Fleck Dance Theatre at the Harbourfront Centre, which is the traditional home for IFOA – long before I reached all the way from Brampton.  

The chat between the two Johns was interesting because it focused on the craft of writing. Then, after the chat, both the Johns sat at the book signing table to sign their books. Gavin and I stood in the queue, too to meet Irving.

When it was our turn at the table to talk to the legendary author, Gavin pulled out Irving’s Son of the Circus (1994). The book is set in Bombay and quotes an ad headline ‘Do you mouthwash when you toothpaste?

John Irving autographs Gavin's ad headline

Would you believe it? This was Gavin’s first ever ad headline, and when he showed the headline in the novel to Irving, the author’s jaw dropped in amazement. 

“Don’t tell me,” Irving exclaimed, “you mean, you’re the guy who wrote that line? I’m so thrilled to meet you.”

Gavin stood there like a schoolboy, beaming from ear to ear. I stood beside both taking photographs with my smartphone. Louise Dennys, Irving’s legendary publisher at Penguin Random House took some more photos of the three of us.

It was a memorable day for Gavin.