& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Last Night of the World – Joyce Wayne

Joyce Wayne and her new novel Last Night of the World

The relationship between the West and Russia has remained troubled for over a century. Both are unable to overcome deep-rooted animosity that is based on an unwillingness to understand the perspective of the other side.

Winston Churchill, who had termed Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” at the height of World War II, realised that the compromise of befriending Stalin to defeat the Nazis was a mistake and quickly made amends.

The ensuing Cold War that lasted for a better part of the 20th century caused the world to be divided into two distinct camps, inimical to each other and one that precariously co-existed (with stockpiles of nuclear weapons aimed at each other) in the maniacal Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The collapse of Soviet Union in the 1990s did bring about a temporary truce and cooperation, but that didn’t last long, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has taken the relations to a new nadir. If it was the annexation of Crimea some years ago that brought the two on the verge of a war, it is the poisoning of a former spy that has caused an unprecedented diplomatic row. The West and Russia always find a reason to bicker.

Communism is dead everywhere, and it’d be hard to find a serious defender of the October Revolution a century later.  Although one is pleasantly surprised to find a strong and sizeable section of the millennials who prefer socialism to the inherent indecency of a form of government where the government appears keener to defend a corporation's right to profit rather than defend the rights of a human being to live.  

For a considerably long time, there were many across the globe who were convinced that the communism represented the best and the most representative form of a government that was of the people, by the people and for the people, and that only the communists ensured a true form of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Stalin’s murderous excesses shattered those illusions quickly and decisively in the developed world, and the socialist fantasies harboured by the elite in West were abandoned hastily. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic Gulag Archipelago exhausted the last remaining illusions about communism, although it was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that became a precursor of the narration of disillusionment with the communist dream.

And yet, in large parts of the developing world in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the communist ideology successfully took strong roots and flourished for many decades after the West flushed it out and came down heavily on its sympathisers. The exile of Charlie Chaplin is a stunning example of this reappraisal. 

The cruel fate of the communist sympathisers in the Western societies has not found adequate representation in popular culture or literature. Yes, the excesses of the McCarthy have been periodically portrayed in Hollywood films because Joseph McCarthy, the philistine, had a blacklist of Hollywood personalities branded as communist sympathisers.

While reading Joyce Wayne’s Last Night of the World (Mosaic Press, April 2018), I couldn’t help but think of the swift and sudden extinguishing of the communist dream. Joyce’s second novel evocatively brings alive the story of the post-World War II Soviet Spy Scandal, which rocked Canada and ushered in the Cold War.

The novel combines the racy pace of an espionage thriller with a mellow unfolding of love and loss. It’s a gripping narration of the inner and outward journey of Freda Linton, a young Jewish woman, who flees the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis, and works for the Communist cause only to be used and disillusioned; Freda is a survivor who sacrifices all and gives everything that is hers in return for chimerical longings.

I was unaware of the spy scandal that rocked the Canadian public life in the 1940s. The novel was, therefore, educative. It recreates a murky and sordid world of comrades who are spies and is centred on Freda, the spy who is used by the Canadian Communist Party on behalf of the Soviets to ensnare highly placed public figures in the Canadian establishment to get hold of secrets that would assist the communist cause. Freda is a true example of naïve commitment to a lost cause.

Nikolai Zabotin, Freda’s boss and lover, and a charming functionary in the high-powered world where diplomacy and politics meet, dispatches her to the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories to get nuclear secrets that would assist the Soviets in building nuclear weapons. Zabotin has to decide on which side of history he wants to be and guide Freda accordingly. 

What they decide will determine their future and the future of the world.

The novel brings to life an era that saw large sections of the Canadian establishment branded as anti-national and how it is permanently banished into oblivion even though nothing concrete was ever proved about their alleged involvement. 

The tragic case of Fred Rose is a classic example of how public mood can be and is swayed away from the truth to grievously harm people who don’t necessarily subscribe to the prevailing dogmas of the day.

Donald Trump is re-enacting McCarthyism in America right now, and nobody is able to stop him. Paraxodically, he is Putin's friend.

Last Night of the World also recreates the world of Jewish newcomers fleeing the Nazis in East Europe. The section that describes the Nazi cruelties on the Jewish people are terrifying and one has to stop reading and take a break. The pathos is palpable in the compromises and adjustments that Freda has to make in the brave new world where she has to sleep unwillingly with men (invariably much older) for what is considered as greater good.

The book is structured as tightly woven, breezy spy thriller. And it retains its momentum and pace throughout. However, the climax, set in Chernobyl, is really the pièce de résistance. Joyce’s imagination, as well as creative prowess, take flight here while depicting the desolation of the place devastated by the nuclear disaster; she creates imagery that has the quality of ethereal otherworldliness.

Last Night of the World is an important book because even though it is about an era long gone in Canadian history, it is a stark reminder that we are never too far from facing such hostilities suddenly and for no logical reason.

Read an extract from the book here: Extract

Buy the book here: Last Night of the World 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A decade in Toronto – 8

2009 ended on an upbeat note for us
2009 was a year when women helped me at every step. When the year began, I didn’t know most of them. They were strangers willing to help a stranger.  They believed in his abilities and his potential. 

That list had so far included Maggie Sivappa, Joyce Wayne, Jasmine D’Costa, Margaret Jetelina, and Isabel Huggan. To that list was now added Asha Luthra, at that time the President of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC).

The ICCC is the organisation that made me a Canadian and welcomed me to its close-knit, family-like membership with open arms. Almost overnight, from knowing less than hundred people in Canada, I now knew over a few hundred.

With Asha and Satish
The ICCC’s then leadership – Asha Luthra, Neena Gupta, Satish Thakkar, Harjit Kalsi, Pankaj Mehra, Imtiaz Seyid, Kundan Joshi and many others – accorded me the privilege of working for an institution that has over the last four decades come to define the Indo-Canadian community in Toronto.

Nearly everything that I have today as a Canadian flows from my association with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce; the Chamber has nurtured me as a mother nurtures a child.
A majority of the leadership and membership of the Chamber comprised Punjabis and they accepted me as one of their own, much as the Marathis of Bombay.

I’d applied for the position of the Executive Director in 2008, soon after Gavin Barrett told me about it, and I’d been interviewed at the plush downtown offices of Gowlings, where Neena Gupta was a partner.

The interview panel comprised two former Presidents – Sunil Jagasia and Krish Krishnan, along with Neena Gupta, at that time the Corporate Secretary and, of course, Asha Luthra, the incumbent president.

With the founding President of ICCC, Kishore Doshi
Subsequently, for six to eight months, I heard nothing from anyone. Then, in June 2009, Neena Gupta invited me to the ICCC’s Annual Awards and Gala Night at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It was a glittering evening where the who’s who of Canadian mainstream was present.

Then again, deafening silence for a few more months. Then, when I was all ready to apply for a job as a journalist, I got a call again from Asha and went for another interview. This time the interview was at the ICCC’s office at 45 Sheppard Avenue East. Asha offered me a job as the Chief Administration Officer of the Chamber, and I immediately accepted it.

In October 2009, I began my first regular job in Canada. It’d taken a year and three months for me to get proper employment, and even today, I remain indebted to the then leadership of the ICCC for giving me not just a job but a life to my family. 

The first thing we did when I got my salary that month was to buy furniture – a couch from a Russian-owned furniture shop at Keele and Finch. And then in December, on boxing day, we bought a television.

Ruth & Rakhee
The Chamber already had two-member staff – Rakhee Shah, a young, sprightly Gujarati woman who spoke fluent Tamil and who’d managed the administration of the Chamber effortlessly; and Ruth, a Kenyan-Canadian who was the Chamber’s membership coordinator. Unfortunately, within a few months, both Rakhee and Ruth were out of the Chamber.

Ruth was eased out to make way for Tarun Verma, a young immigrant from Chandigarh, and Rakhee had to leave because of sudden hospitalisation. Subsequently, Pawan Chankotra joined the Chamber during PBDCanada2011. He continues to serve the Chamber.

With Pawan and Tarun
The ICCC was at that time over three decades old organisation and its membership and leadership comprised a close-knit circle of first-generation entrepreneurs and professionals and thanks to its leadership at that time, especially Asha and Satish, I came in close contact with a number of prominent business leaders in the Indo-Canadian community.

The first event that I participated because of my association with the ICCC was the Mahutsav organised by Harpreet Sethi, a dynamic entrepreneur. The ICCC’s own Holiday Dinner and Dance followed this program in November 2009, and the year closed with an Open House for attracting new members.

As with any organisation of this size and spread, there were (and are) different factions in the ICCC’s leadership and one group couldn’t get along with another group. However, all the groups worked for the interest of the Chamber, even if they couldn’t find common ground to work together. 

And everyone supported me despite their own differences. I was able to create a new, forceful and dynamic profile of the Chamber and its leadership by constantly interacting with its membership, stakeholders and sponsors.

My interactions with Satish developed a personal bond that has lasted for many years. Asha Luthra, Pankaj Mehra and Imtiaz Seyid deeply enriched my understanding of not just the ICCC but also of the Indo-Canadian community. From the quietly efficient Harjit Kalsi, I learnt the intricacies of organising mega events with over a thousand guests. 

There were so many others who enriched me professionally in the first few months of my association with the ICCC – Kundan and Surbhi Joshi, Vinay Nagpal, Jim Sahdra, and others. In the years to follow, there'd be many more.

There were community leaders such as Yogesh Sharma, who invited me to his home and introduced me to a group of Marwaris which included Naval Bajaj and Dharam Jain, Sampat Poddar and Rakesh Goenka, among others. Naval and Dharam were instrumental in ousting me from the Chamber five years later, but that’s another story and it’ll have to wait to be told. They remain friends.

I also met Vasu Chanchlani and Aditya Jha and developed a great personal rapport with both. Vasu is no longer with us, but Aditya performs the role of an older brother in my life, a person to whom I turn to when I need advice.


2009 ended on an upbeat note for us. Finally, we were well on our way to settling down in Canada. The risk and gamble that we’d taken in 2002 seem all working out just fine (see the photo at the top of the post). 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

SAWITRI Theatre Group's 15 years


Recently, SAWITRI Theatre Group celebrated its 15th anniversary at the Art Gallery of Mississauga at a glittering program attended by theatre connoisseurs and friends of SAWITRI’s dynamic founders Jasmine and Nitin Sawant.

The theatre group has been an important part of my personal journey in Canada in the last decade. It reintroduced me to the theatre and gave me an opportunity to enjoy the tremendous joy one experiences when actors perform on stage.

The first time I heard about SAWITRI was when Jawaid Danish invited me to Rang Manch Canada’s Hindustani Drama Festival in 2011 that he held in Mississauga. Jasmine and Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah were present at the roundtable discussion held prior to the festival Challenges of Staging Indian Drama in Canada and Experiences of Desi Talents in Mainstream Showbiz.

About a year later, SAWITRI performed its play Saree Kahaniyaan (The Saree Stories) written by Jasmine, performed by Shruti and Naimesh, with Jasmine as the sutradhar (narrator). Since then, I’ve tried not miss a Sawitri play. The group has mounted a major play and several smaller staging annually.

SAWITRI has a frequent presence on this blog. If you’re interested, you may read the blogs of the different SAWITRI plays here:
Over the years, the group has created an audience for South Asian theatre and shaped the sensibilities of this audience by providing it with a rich variety of theatre experience in all the major contemporary languages of Bombay – Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English.

Jasmine and Nitin Sawant
Recently, prior to the celebrations of its 15th anniversary, I had the opportunity to sit with Nitin and Jasmine and chat with them at length about their group.

The group's name is an acronym. SAWITRI stands for South Asian Women's Intercultural Research Initiative. It's also derived from the character in Mahabharata. Jasmine is clearly the driving force behind the group, although she readily admits that too many supporters have played a crucial and critical role in making SAWITRI the institution that it has become today.  

Among their steadfast supporters is legion of friends who have become an integral part of the group and includes the legendary Lata Pada, the globally renowned danseuse and the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations. Among the supporters that Jasmine and Nitin acknowledge for having contributed tremendously include Prakash Date, who directs all the Marathi plays that SAWITRI produces. Keyoor Shah is an integral part of the team who takes care of the technical aspects of the production and is also a member of the set-building team. 


Jasmine and Nitin also acknowledge the role of the co-founder Shobha Hatte-Belgaumkar who was a part of SAWITRI for the first 5 years, as was Nain Amyn who took care of wardrobe, make-up, etc. After 5 years, they both wanted a bigger canvas to express themselves. Shobha moved on to pursue her own acting career and Nain moved on to become a part of Mosaic Festival along with Asma Mehmood.

Aniruddh Sawant was one of the founding directors of SAWITRI along with Nitin and Keyoor when SAWITRI was first incorporated. Jasmine recalls, "No matter where he was in the country he always flew back to see a SAWITRI performance and had solid and spot-on constructive criticism's to offer which went a long way in improving the quality of our performances." He was a Drama Major from Cawthra Park High School and a tremendous artist. "I cannot tell you how much we miss his feedback," she says.

Apart from auditioning and acting in SAWITRI productions when he is cast, Siddhant (Sid) Sawant is responsible for the photoshoots for our posters and many a time for providing music for the productions. He too is a Drama Major from Cawthra Park High School.

Both Jasmine and Nitin derive tremendous satisfaction from their success and the journey that they commenced in 2003. Shruti has been an integral part of their journey. The Group was keen to produce socially relevant theatre; in 2006, it produced the powerful women-oriented play From Here to There (Janice Goveas).  

A year later, the group was registered as a not-for-profit, with a board of directors.  Jasmine and Nitin teamed up with Prakash Date to produce तो मी नव्हेच for the Marathi Bhashik Mandal. Subsequently, in 2009 SAWITRI produced Mahasagar, its first Marathi play. It was directed by Prakash Date. 


Without ceasing its shorter productions, the Group was now keen to do major plays. In 2011, during the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (FSALA), the Group met Mahesh Dattani, the renowned Indian playwright who has an awesome global reputation for writing powerful plays on contemporary issues. The first collaboration between SAWITRI and Dattani was Where There’s a Will. Subsequently, it also staged Seven Steps Around Fire and Dance Like a Man.

Both Nitin and Jasmine take pride in discovering and nurturing talent in different spheres of theatre – from direction to production design and from stage lighting to costumes. Gabriel Grey, Christina Collins, Joe Pagnan are some of the professionals who are regularly involved with SAWITRI productions.

A self-funded entity for most of its existence, the group has managed to get some official grants lately but such grants cover generally about 20 percent of the entire production cost. As a not-for-profit, the group distributes all the extra resources generated amongst the professionals who work to put up the performance.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

SPPPFFy by Anu Vittal


Anu Vittal is an arts entrepreneur and a multifaceted personality well known in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), especially amongst the South Asian community. She recently published a book Create Happiness by Being SPPPFFy™: Millions of happy people in happy places!

SPPPFFy = Spiritual, Physical, Personal, Professional, Financial and Family/Friends!

These six fundamental verticals of focus will change your life to create a happy YOU!
She launched it simultaneously in Canada and in India. The book is a self-help guide to creating self-awareness and shows a path to attaining happiness. In the introduction to the book, Anu asks, “Would you like to create happiness in less than sixty minutes?” And then she responds, “Most of us are born, then grow up, go to school, university, get married, have x number of kids, work till 65 and then retire. And throughout this process, we are always ‘doing’ life with the aim of finding this elusive thing called ‘happiness’.

Anu believes that to live this way is an omission of life itself! “We spend our lives being busy looking for happiness externally rather than internally. The reason for most of life’s issues – health, complicated relationships, poor performance at work, mental depression, financial debt, etc. – stem from a lack of control over one’s feelings, which in turn stems from allowing external circumstances to control us. And this is where we fail in our pursuit of happiness.”

Anu’s recently-launched book introduces a structured program for empowering people with a proven process of being SPPPFFy™ to create “happy moments” in all areas of life. The acronym stands for Spiritual, Physical, Personal, Professional, Financial and Family/Friends! These six fundamental verticals of focus will change your life to create a happy YOU!

In 60 minutes of single-minded focus, you will learn to design moments of joy and how to live life fully in those very moments. It provides an easy-to-follow, step-by-step methodology aimed at daily internal investments in YOU to guarantee the result of valuing your authentic self and improving on it.

You will become a better version of the new you every day. You can have all that you want in abundance – love, wealth, health, a happy family, and lots of loving close friends. It also teaches you how to “create happiness” in the “now” moments so that you can live a more fruitful life for yourself and the world around you.

A Q&A with Anu Vittal

Anu Vittal
Describe SPPPFFy

The acronym spppffy™ stands for spiritual, physical, personal, professional, and financial and last but not least family and friends! This acronym came to me quite by chance. In Canada, we often use the word spiffy (slang for smart) and when I first heard this word from my manager, I was baffled because I misheard it as “scruffy.” And only when my manager understood the bewildered look on my face as I looked down to view my outfit, did he realize that I did not know the meaning of the word spiffy. So he explained it to me and I was thrilled with the compliment, looking very spiffy indeed – in my tan boots, smart kilted skirt, maroon pullover and a tan leather jacket to match my new boots.

Hence the word stuck in my head, and I often thought about it – I said to myself we all work on being spiffy on the outside but what about working from within and being spppffy™ on the inside.

So I invented this step-by-step process by which you are investing in you on a daily basis along six verticals I termed it as “being spppffy™”. So that you can become a better version of yourself every single day in all areas of life. The process itself involves a detailed life audit followed by a swot analysis, and customized smart goal setting methodology to meet the needs of each client.  These types of daily investments in your heart+mind+soul = happiness as you “renew” each day – so shall you reap the rewards of being spppffy™!

How difficult or easy is it to train oneself in controlling one’s mind, one’s reactions to the external stimuli?

I believe the brain is like any other muscle in our body - therefore we need to train it regularly. When we are breaking down a muscle in the gym whilst weight training we experience pain but we tell ourselves to breathe into it and to visualize how strong our muscles are becoming as we tear and build them.

Similarly, all our life experiences are providing us with an opportunity to expand our consciousness and evolve into a better version of our authentic self. This is why our reactions to various life situations make all the difference in realizing your full potential. If you react in a negative way to the same experience, it will provide you with a negative response which will make you unhappy. But by choosing to respond to a life situation in a positive manner it will provide you with a happy state. We all know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Take for example a balloon – you fill it will helium it will rise and if you fill it with air it will drop to the ground. The choice to react is always yours and that’s what makes all the difference. Ultimately, we are the sum total of all your reactions to every experience. All experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us is the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow. And in staying in this awareness of self is the secret to happiness.

That’s why we say happiness is an “inside job”.

Do you think that in the case of most human beings, the problems that the face are a result of their perceived lack of control over the circumstances of their lives? Please elaborate.

Perception is the reality and in most cases, we seem to let our beliefs and perceived paradigms of society guide us forward instead of the actual reality as experienced by us. We tend to want to hang on to what is familiar than to understand and adopt the unfamiliar. That’s why scientists stand apart as they question the reality and create a law based on the “truality” of facts.

The truth is everything we see and absorb from a sensory perspective is unique to each human being even if you are looking at the very same thing or having the very same experience. This is where dialoguing with your brain becomes so important to be able to collaborate and train your mind to tell it what “exactly” you want it to think and do.
We believe that our brain creates thoughts that guide us but the fact is – it’s the other way around. The self or the “I” which is connected to the supreme conscious has the intelligence and the ability to instruct the brain to develop thoughts, ideas which leads to feelings and frequencies we want to bring into our aura.

These will then become the guiding tools to evaluate any life situation or problem in a true manner and then resolve them with ease to give you peace of mind and essentially a HAPPY YOU!

You are an art entrepreneur, how has your entrepreneurialism influenced your perceptions and how did lead to the realisation that resulted in the creation of SPPPFFy?

As an entrepreneur converted into an Artrepreneur I was able to combine my passion for art with my expertise in business innovation. I have always been someone who has based my theories on reality as I see it and on laws of nature or quantum physics or business. Because the neutrality of these laws is based on proven facts or researched scientific discoveries. So in my quest for a spiritual path, I started studying E=MC2 and metaphysics which provided me with a lot of explanations that gave me a clearer understanding as I started to practice spirituality.


I realized as multi-dimensional beings we need to intentional make investments in various pillars of our life to maximize our fullest potential. Therefore the 6 verticals of SPPPFFy, however, I also realized that the secret hiding place of happiness is in the innermost sanctum of self. Hence, I encouraged myself to practice living in each moment or living in the “now” in the best possible manner.  Over the last 5 years, I have realized this is the only way to live life “being spiffy” inside out and right side up!

Sunday, March 04, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 7



Che and Mahrukh on our weekly bus ride
Che in his new glasses

Immigration is all about losing one’s identity and gaining a new one. It is about finding oneself in a new environment, making friends, trusting strangers. Often, this process is not easy. In our case, we came to Toronto without knowing anyone here. So, we had no choice but to trust strangers. And, in retrospect, it’s worked out well.

In the middle of the Sheridan program, Joyce Wayne recommended me to Antanas Sileika, the dean at Humber School for Writers, to volunteer for its week-long intensive writing program conducted annually in summer. My co-students never forgave me for what they subsequently described was "blatant favouritism." 

The program was to commence in July at Humber’s picturesque Lakeshore Boulevard campus. I dressed in my best official suit to meet Antanas, but by the time I could reach the campus, a brief but intense rainstorm drenched me to my bones.

Antanas welcomed me to the program and placed me in an all-women group led by author Isabel Huggan. I Googled her name and went to the Amesbury library to borrow Isabel's linked short story collection The Elizabeth Stories. Reading it before meeting her made my interaction with her easy. My new acquaintance with Canadian literature – thanks to having browsed through the two volumes of Canadian literature in English that Joyce had insisted all her students at Sheridan buy – also helped.

The Elizabeth Stories is a fine collection of short stories. Isabel was pleased that I’d read it and liked it. Her group, which I assisted, comprised seven women, all working on their manuscripts and all deeply engaged in the process of creating. Isabel’s approach to writing was introspective. And she also gave me my writing mantra: “All writing is rewriting.”

The one session that remains etched in my memory even though nearly a decade has passed by, involved remembering a favourite photograph from one’s life and looking for what is missing in that photograph.

With the Humber Summer Workshop group
The exercise took all the participants in different directions, and many of them teared up when describing their experience of talking about their favourite photograph and then for the first time ever looking for what was missing in the photo. I guess Isabel’s purpose for conducting this exercise was to make all the participants understand the importance of unburdening one’s emotions and be true to oneself.

There were several simultaneous sessions going on at that time conducted by illustrious authors. They included Wayson Choy, Martin Amis, and Nino Ricci. I couldn’t have celebrated my first anniversary in Toronto any better. The Humber School’s summer workshop was perhaps instrumental in many ways in determining the course of my life.

I’ve written about the experience on this blog as well in the Canadian Immigrant experience. 

If you’re interested in reading more, please click on these links:
Mahrukh at 1440 Lawrence Ave W



All Writing is rewriting (Canadian Immigrant column)



2009 was turning out to be an extremely fruitful year. My interest in writing had propelled me into a new world and I was making new friends all the time. I signed up for several author groups on email and went to a session of Writers and Editors Network at a nice little traditional tavern in Islington.

Jasmine D’Costa was the president of this association. She is a banker from Bombay and has devoted her life to creating literature since she immigrated to Canada. Jasmine’s collection of short stories was published in May 2009 and it was tremendously well received. 

Over the years, she has consistently encouraged many of us newcomers with aspirations to become writers. She published extracts from my novel as short stories in two volumes she edited.

(Read about Jasmine here: Asian Writers; I used the term ‘Asian’ to describe South Asian writers, without realising then than Asian in North America only meant people from the Far East or South East Asia).

At Jasmine’s event at WEN, the main speaker was Robert Morgan, the publisher of BookLandPress. Subsequently, Robert held a workshop on publishing at the Runnymede branch of the Toronto library. Yoko and I participated in the session (Robert Morgan’s tips for writers).

I learnt that BookLandPress conducted an annual novel competition, which was decided on the basis of the first 50 pages of the manuscript. I decided to build my short story into a novel, by giving a backstory to the four main characters.

I fished out an incomplete manuscript that I’d started several years ago in Bombay when I decided to write fiction after reading my friend Richard Rothman’s collection of phantasmagorical short stories. In a small way, I was instrumental in egging Richard to get his stories published.

Robert’s BookLandPress didn’t accept my submission, but that was only to be expected and by now, I was serious about working harder on my fiction. I got Mahrukh to edit the short story that I’d been working on for several months now and submitted it to the Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto not-for-profit that promotes creative expressions in diverse people, for the short-form mentoring program.

I submitted the short story (The New Canadians) in May 2009 without any expectation of being selected for the mentoring program. But I was pleasantly surprised when I got an email in June 2009 informing me of my selection. It was a moment that I’d been waiting for. 

The Diaspora Dialogues group 
I was among a select few aspiring writers selected by Diaspora Dialogues for the mentoring program; the list included a great group of creative people who have gone on to become acclaimed authors Leslie Shimotakahara and poets such as Michael Fraser, and among them was Dawn Promislow, who is today a dear friend.

Helen Walsh, the head of Diaspora Dialogues, has since then been a constant support in all my efforts to become an author. On several occasions, she has provided me with a platform and put me before an audience. She got Diaspora Dialogues to audio record my blog about my first Christmas in Toronto; she selected me as a speaker at the fantastic Spur festival that she organises annually; she got me interviewed recently when she relaunched Diaspora Dialogues.

And, of course, she’s also had an indirect role to play in the publishing of Belief, but I’ll talk about that later. Julia Chan, then at the Diaspora Dialogues, was also extremely supportive.

I remember when my submission was under consideration at Diaspora Dialogues, I was reading The Assassin’s Song (2007) by MG Vassanji, which I’d borrowed from the Amesbury Park branch of the Toronto library. It is one of the finest novels that I’ve read, and in my humble opinion, one of Vassanji’s best. The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (2003) and The Book of Secrets (1994) got him the Giller Prize. 

Serendipitously, Vassanji was to be my mentor. Mahrukh declared, "Allah only listens to you!" (Needless to say, that assessment riled my atheist sensibilities comprehensively, but for once, I wasn't complaining).

Not entirely unexpectedly, Vassanji turned out to be a tough mentor. He was a Guru in the true sense. I consider him my Guru even today; a status that, I’m sure, he’d find deeply embarrassing, if not entirely offensive.

He’d little patience with niceties, clear, incisive and blunt in his comments. And I was the eager student.

Here’s an extract from the first email I got from him: 

“This story, to be honest, is in the ‘good immigrant’ or ‘grateful immigrant’ mode. It has a message about citizenship. But it is not realistic; it does not dig deep into human motives and behaviour. This, of course, is how I see it. It is the kind of story that may find a place in a community or government magazine. I don't know what you have in mind.”

My interaction with him started in July and continued till September 2009. By then, the story had metamorphosed into a completely different being, vastly improved, with much depth, nearly all the excrescences removed, or at least so I thought. 

In a later episode of this memoir, I’ll write about how he made me rewrite this story, which had become the first chapter of the novel, more than 17 times, and even after that remained dissatisfied.

Read about this unique experience here: Write Stuff (Canadian Immigrant column)

By October 2009, I’d to submit the completed story to Diaspora Dialogues for consideration in its annual short story publication – TOK: Writing the New Toronto. I wasn’t sure whether it’d be accepted, considering there were so many good aspirants. It seemed a long and agonizing wait although it was only two months before I learnt in mid-December from Helen that my story was accepted for TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, the collection was edited by Helen.

2009 was turning out to be a year that I’d remember forever. Thanks to Joyce’s efforts, I got an internship in Ontario government’s ministry of community and social services. It was a temporary job that held the promise of being turned into permanent after some years. I was out of the internship within a month.

Mahrukh in her Medix uniform
And, it was now Mahrukh’s turn to go to school. She decided that she’d do a program in social work and joined Medix College in October 2009. I’d never seen her as excited as she was when she began her program.

Mahrukh has always remained an unassuming person, who shuns any sort of limelight, and never pushes herself upfront to let the world become aware of tremendous and varied skills. She’s highly educated, has remarkable editing skills, and is a natural people’s person; one of the most affable persons. For the first time, she was determined to get what she knew she deserved.

Of course, she can be completely horrible with me when she gets mad, but that’d be true in any marriage that has lasted two decades and more, and one shan't talk about it now. 
Che at his school concert
Che was already a Canadian and was talking like one. When we told his school teacher that he was now speaking with a Canadian accent, she corrected us and said, “No, he’s losing his Indian accent.” Sometime later that year, he also had to start wearing glasses, at approximately the same age as when I’d had to wear glasses. But, of course, Mahrukh blamed me, claiming that it was my preference for warm lighting in our home that'd caused our son’s weak eyesight.

Finally, we’d commenced our process of settling down and setting our roots in Toronto.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

A decade in Toronto – 6

2009 was our first new year in Toronto and it began with a lot of promise. I started my program in journalism at the Sheridan College in Oakville. I was returning to school after a gap of over 25 years. The journalism class comprised students who were just like me – practising or former journalists from across the world who were trying to get a toehold in the profession in Canada.

It was ironic that after nearly two decades in journalism, both as a working journalist and as a teacher, I was returning to journalism as a student. But I was keen to learn and unlearn. The Sheridan college campus at Oakville was as impressive as any that I’d seen or imagined, and the most interesting part of it all was the daily commute from Toronto to Oakville on the GO train.

With Yoko, Nelson and Mike at Sheridan
The class comprised students from South America, the Caribbean, South Asia, Japan, and Africa - an interesting bunch of highly talented individuals, who were extremely independent-minded and like most journalists were not natural team players. 

Some became great friends during the duration of the course of the program. Yoko Morgenstern and Nelson Alvarado Jourde are friends I dearly miss.  Yoko is in Germany and visits Toronto infrequently, Nelson is back in Peru, and I haven’t met him in years.

With Yoko, Nelson, Mike and Joyce Wayne
The teachers were all equally interesting; Teenaz Javat is now a friend. She is a Bombayite who has had the privilege of working as a journalist in India and Pakistan. I have fond memories of Patricia Bradbury. She made the classroom come alive with her engaging, animated teaching. She also introduced us to Katherine Govier, the renowned and accomplished author, and now an activist for swifter, seamless integration of immigrants into the Canadian mainstream.

Of course, the hero of the program was Joyce Wayne, the program coordinator of the Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Journalists. A veteran professor, extremely well-read, a true heart liberal, with a permanent glint of mischief in her eyes, Joyce propelled the program to great heights and constantly challenged its participants to strive to do better.  One of my regrets (and I have many) was not to have done English literature at the university. With Joyce at Sheridan, I finally found a mentor who was as interested in literature as I am.

It was an evening program, so I had to change my shift timing and I returned to the night shift at the condo. After a while the hectic schedule became strenuous, and by April 2009, it was impossible for me to get enough sleep during the day, go to Sheridan in the evening, and then do the night shift at the condo. On a couple of occasions, the patrol who roamed around in a vehicle at night caught me napping.  I decided to quit my job as a security guard.

I was confident that at the end of the Sheridan program, I’d at least get an internship placement somewhere. A major lacuna in the Sheridan program was the absence of a design component. To complete that gap, I joined the Yorkdale Adult Learning Centre’s web designing program; a free program meant for newcomers.  It was an enriching experience. I was now spending several hours at a high school had both eager adult newcomer students and regular school students who were my son’s age.  

Yorkdale group

At Yorkdale, I met a bunch of fun-loving group of Latinos from South America. The classroom had students of all ages and from everywhere – Africa, South Asia, South America, Eastern Europe – all of us sharing a sort of desperation: of getting a proper job. I wrote about my encounter with two religiously devout fellow students.  Click here to read: Question of identity.

Around the same time, I also joined a memoir writing workshop conducted by Allyson Latta at the North York branch of the Toronto public library. After quitting my security guard job, I had the entire day free for myself. Latta’s class was a perfect fit for me; the sessions taught me to look inside myself for stories. Click here to read about Latta’s memoir writing sessions: Allyson Latta.

When Che turned 12, Mahrukh began working at a telemarketing company but was inexplicably laid off, despite doing well. Then, she worked as a data entry operator but the two-people company, operating from a basement on Dufferin and Lawrence disappeared when it was time to pay wages. She was singularly unfortunate in getting steady, sustainable employment; it caused her immense frustration, but she remained cheerful despite the adverse circumstances.

We didn’t let these reversals deter us from exploring our neighbourhoods. On weekends, we’d get into the GO bus or the GO train and go to different towns near Toronto. Even when we were still to know the lay of the land, we did an open-top bus ride in Toronto, within a month of our arrival. On my first birthday in Toronto, we went to the Niagara Falls; it was all that we thought it’d be, and then some.  The most memorable part of our trip: The butterfly garden; we’d never seen anything as exotic and exciting as this garden.  

For me, there can be nothing more exciting than riding the streetcars in the rains. We’ve done the Queen Street streetcar ride more frequently than we’d care to remember – all the way from Long Branch to Neville Park. That year (2009) we went to our first Toronto Auto Show and continued doing so for the next few years. 

When I recall the number of road trips that we did in our early years, the one that stays etched in my mind is the one to Stouffville, ON, to take rides on the model trains.  Click here to read about it: Day trip. Some years later, the federal government used extracts from this blog in its booklet for newcomers.

I was increasingly veering towards writing and started working on freelance assignments for the Canadian Immigrant and the New Canadian magazines. I had also begun work on improving and updating my short story that I’d written in December.  In May 2009, I sent the short story to Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto not-for-profit that promotes creative expressions in diverse people. This simple act of courage (courage because rejections can be depressing) was to change my life.