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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. 

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