& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 28


I’ve been writing these blogs on my decade in Toronto since 2018. When I began, I’d hoped to complete the entire narrative of ten years in 52 weeks. But as that line from Robert Burns’s poem To the Mouse famously predicts, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley,” my resolve crumbled in the face of rapidly changing circumstances sometime in the spring 2018.

And a project that was to be completed last December, continues to drag.

Recently, I also complied all the posts into a Word document and realised that I’ve put together over 30,000 words so far (2008 to 2016) and I guess, when this exercise will be completed, it’ll all add up to nearly 40,000 words. In these days of shortening attention spans and the habit of reading falling side, 40,000 words is about the right sort of length for a decade of life.

Upon re-reading some of the posts, two things struck me:

The first was that most of the posts are based on my blog, which is sort of obvious because I’ve been blogging for the last decade, and the blog has become some sort of an unofficial journal, albeit one that mainly focuses on books and authors, poets, and book-related events.

To overcome that anomaly, I’ve taken some inputs from Facebook, to connect the narrative to my life, and to provide some context to the changes in my life in the last decade with what happened in the world.

I’m skeptical whether I’ve succeeded.  

The second was that I realized that this is a sanitized version of my life in Toronto, and I’ve kept out unpleasantness. I’ve commented on this briefly in one of my earlier posts, too. Nobody’s life is without unpleasantness, mine is no exception; if you’re looking for a life without unpleasantness, you’re likely to find it only on Instagram.

We choose not to dwell too much on unpleasantness primarily because those experiences are caused by our own expectations; expectation of what we want others to do for us or not do to us. And these others are not strangers that we exchange glances with and nod ever-so-slightly to on public transit, but people we consider our own – family, friends, co-workers, neighbours.

Before I’m accused of transmogrifying into a fake Baba, a sort of Buddha of Suburbia (and suburbia here being Toronto’s West End), let me quickly return to the narrative, with just a brief digression: I interviewed Hanif Kureshi after his debut novel was launched in India for The Daily at Strand Books. He was mildly annoyed at everyone constantly referring to him as following Rushdie’s footsteps.

I want to focus on the arts (mostly popular) in this post.

Popular Hindi cinema is a passion for both Mahrukh and I. We don’t miss any opportunity to go to a Hindi movie, especially if it has one of the three Khans in it. Lately, of course, two of the three Khans have only given duds, but they remain our perennial favourites.

All the three Khans gave memorable films in 2016. Fan was Shahrukh Khan’s valiant effort to move away from the stereotypical roles and do what he perceived to be different and challenging. It bombed comprehensively. Perhaps not as badly as his 2018 dud Zero. But Aamir Khan’s Dangal and Salman Khan’s Sultan (both based on wrestling theme) were tremendous hits.

I’ve found the moviegoing experience in Toronto so unique that I’m always tempted to write about it every time I go to see a movie. After going to the downmarket Albion cinema to watch Hindi movies for the first couple of years, we changed over to the Cineplex at Yonge and Dundas.

Here’s a brief passage of what I wrote about the cinema venue when we went to see Dangal:

I’d have thought that the first-generation immigrants such as Mahrukh and I would comprise a majority of the audience at the Cineplex in downtown Toronto because that is the kind of audience that comes to see Hindi movie in cinema halls.

However, for Dangal there were a good number of second and third generation Indo-Canadians, and a substantial number of students from India enrolled in Canadian universities.

All making for a rather raucous audience that was totally involved in the film; clapping, cheering, grunting, sighing and exhaling as the story unfolded.

Wisely, Cineplex had permitted audiences to get in half-an-hour before the show time, and the sprawling hall for screen 13 had filled up in no time. Once again, the sight of so many northeastern Indians surprised me.

A lot of nachos were being consumed, and a lot of Coke was being drunk. The smell of food was at once overpowering and nauseating.

In addition, there was almost a muted roar inside the hall; this is because wherever there are Indians, there is immense and unceasing chattering. As the movie began, there were a few whistles and a lot of clapping when Aamir Khan came on the screen.

For a more involved piece, I suggest you read the post on The Sultan Experience in Toronto. Salman Khan is one-of-a-kind, helluva of superstar. The audience participation for any of his film is qualitatively different.

2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and it was a great reason to write about Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogyMaqbool (2003, based on Macbeth), Omkara (2006, based on Othello) and Haider (2014, based on Hamlet). Street Soldiers, a local, Toronto production, was an exceptional film that handled the drug scene in Toronto with a rare maturity and panache. Some of the actors in the film were theatre veterans (from the SAWITRI Theatre) and their performances were expectedly stellar.

In 2016, I suggested to Tushar Unnadkat, who’d been given charge of the annual community festival organised at Gerrard Street’s Little India. I suggested to him to have a literary component to the festival and he invited me to organise and moderate a panel discussion on South Asian Canadian theatre. He agreed with his usual alacrity. I invited all the South Asian theatre veterans I knew to participate in the panel discussion.

The panelists were: Jasmine Sawant, actor, producer, writer, manager, and the Co-Founder and Artistic Co-Director of the award-winning SAWITRI Theatre Group, based in Mississauga; Jawaid Danish, a playwright-poet and translator, and the artistic Director of Rangmanch-Canada, a not for profit Indian Theatrical Group; Ravi Jain is a Toronto-based stage writer, director, performer who works in both small indie productions and large commercial theatre; and Dalbir Singh, a PhD Candidate in Theatre and South Asian studies at the University of Toronto, and recipient of the Heather McCallum award for Emerging Scholars. At the panel discussion, we were also joined by Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah (both of SAWITRI), Andy Hazra of York University, Sally Jones of Rasik Arts, and Tushar Unadkat. I’d also suggested to invite Rahul Verma of Teesri Duniya from Montreal for the discussion, but budgetary constraints prevented his participation.

It was a fruitful and engaging discussion that explored the limitations, challenges and prospects of the topic we decided to discuss. The focal point was what is South Asian and what is Canadian, and does the canon have space for non-English language theatre. I’d urge you to read a report on the discussion here: South Asian Canadian theatre

That year, Ravi Jain’s company also brought Piya Baharupiya (Hindi adaption of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) to Toronto, and SAWITRI brought Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhure. Both were exceptionally good.



Monday, March 11, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 27


March 2016
In 2012, my family physician Dr. Bertram Wing King asked me whether I felt tired all the time. I replied in a matter of fact manner, saying that I couldn’t afford to be tired. And it was true. When you immigrate to Canada when you’re past the median age, it’s difficult to settle quickly and acquire a lifestyle that one is accustomed to back home.

So, both Mahrukh and I had to do whatever it took to acquire a comfortable lifestyle for us. Not having – and not wanting to have – a car helped immensely. The resultant sacrifice – of long commutes, which tend to be horrible in the winter, and an utter ignorance of the self-realisation inducing long drives on the highways.

I was being factual when I responded to my family physician. I genuinely couldn’t afford to be tired. Dr. King was worried about my kidneys. But I got caught up with a million things and health was put on the backburner.

June 2016
Then four years later, in 2016, I went to get my foot checked. I’d sprained it and the pain continued seemingly endlessly.  He recommended blood tests and when the results came in, he immediately told me to go see Dr. Melvin Silverman, a nephrologist – a kidney specialist.

Dr. Silverman saw the test results and told me that my creatinine levels were abnormally high. As the kidneys become impaired for any reason, the creatinine level in the blood will rise due to poor clearance of creatinine by the kidneys.

Abnormally high levels of creatinine thus warn of possible malfunction or failure of the kidneys. It is for this reason that standard blood tests routinely check the amount of creatinine in the blood.

September 2016
Dr. Silverman said I had Glomerulonephritis, which is an inflammation of the glomeruli, which are structures in one’s kidneys that are made up of tiny blood vessels. These knots of vessels help filter blood and remove excess fluids. If the glomeruli are damaged, the kidneys will stop working properly and one can go into kidney failure.

Glomerulonephritis is a serious illness that can be life-threatening and requires immediate treatment. The condition is sometimes called nephritis. There can be both acute (sudden) glomerulonephritis and chronic (long-term or recurring) glomerulonephritis.

Apparently, the only manifestation of this abnormality is a sudden loss of weight, and 2016 at the Annual Gala of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, everyone commented on how thin I'd become. 

The specialist recommended biopsy just to check the problem wasn’t malignant. In September 2019 I was admitted for a day at St. Michael’s Hospital for a biopsy. Fortunately, the kidney failure wasn’t cancerous and was only a localised phenomenon.

However, it forever and almost completely changed my life. For starters, my diet changed. I was no longer supposed to have a protein rich diet because my kidneys couldn’t process protein adequately. I changed over to having salad for lunch, and fruits. I was instructed to exercise, which I did for about a week and then stopped.

My kidneys were smaller than they were supposed to be, and perhaps the only reason I could think of for their malformation was the serious bout of pneumonia as a baby; apparently it was so severe that it caused swelling of my kidneys. The illness had two long-lasting effects on my health. The first was my teeth, which didn’t grow normally after my milk teeth fell (and about which I will write when I come to 2017), and the other was the failure of my kidneys.

The biggest impact of this condition was mental; almost overnight, I became mentally old. My outlook to life changed. There was a growing impatience but also a sense of acceptance of life in its many and myriad forms. I was no longer eager as before to change my circumstances and strangely I wasn’t willing to accept them either.

My condition had a salutary affect on my relationship with Mahrukh and especially with Che. Mahrukh has taken pains to ensure that I get the right diet every day, and for that she has worked hard; Che grew up to shoulder more responsibilities. Gradually, over the next year or so, he also realised the necessity for having a proper training and education.

2016 was to become a big year for me in Canada. It was the year when I finally became a published novelist.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 26

Let’s continue with the film theme for the last post for 2015. I saw The Best of Enemies at Bell Lightbox; a documentary that’s a feast for political junkies and students of journalism. It’s a documentary on the epic television battle between the conservative William F Buckley Jr and liberal Gore Vidal; a debate that shaped television journalism for the next five decades.

Pico Iyer has moulded global consciousness in many ways, and it was an absolute delight to hear him speak at the launch of Ratna Omidvar’s Global Diversity Exchange. Iyer gave us The Global Soul, a treatise that has shaped our understanding of the immigrant culture that is slowly taking over the world, even if the phenomenon is causing tremendous heartburn in large swathes of Europe and North America, causing political upheavals that has brought the extreme right wing to power in many countries in the developed world.

But the inexorable decline in the population in these parts of the world, and the continuing rise in Africa and Asia will see the "great unwashed" showup at the airports and on the shores, and it’ll be difficult to stop their flow for long.

Pico Iyer believed then that Canada, and especially Toronto, understands immigration.  
He says,

“I came away with a sense of possibility I hadn’t felt as I’d traveled to other of the globe’s defining multicultures, whether in Singapore or Cape Town or Melbourne, on the one hand, or in Paris and London and Bombay, on the other. On paper, at least the logic was clear: Toronto was the most multicultural city in the world, according to the UN’s official statistics and it was also, statistically, the safest big city in North America and, by general consensus, the best organized. Put the two facts together, and you could believe that a multiculture could go beyond the nation—states we knew and give a new meaning to that outdated term, the “Commonwealth.” Add further my sense that Toronto had the most exciting literary culture in the English-speaking world, and you could believe that it not only offered an example of how a country could be even greater than the sum of its parts, but presented visions of what that post-national future might look like.”

Two performances that I saw that year stay etched in my memory – the Swatri Group’s Gujarati play કાય પણ ઍક ફૂલ નુ નાં બોલો તો and the other was a two-part dance ballet Woman: A Search by Mrudanga Dance Academy. 

And in addition to Akshya Mukul’s important book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, I read MG Vassanji’s masterly memoirs, And Home was Karikoo. It’s an insider’s perspective that has an outsider’s objectivity.

Here’s a passage that is especially relevant to most first-generation immigrants:

“…I left the country after high school; therefore, I missed the hardships that others endured in the years that followed. What right do I have to show this outrage? It is easy for me, the comfort of my situation in North America, to condemn the nation’s reliance on foreign aid. To which I answer that leaving a place does not sever one’s ties to it, one’s feeling of concern and belonging. We are tied to our schools, our universities, our families, even when we’ve left them – then why not to the place of our childhood, of our memories? Surely a returnee has some claim to the land which formed him – which is not in some godforsaken corner of the globe but in the centre of one’s imagination. And surely distance lends objectivity, allows one to see a place as the world see it.

The series Literature Matters was launched in 2015 by Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature. The first program featured Thomas King and Naomi Klein, and the subject was climate change. Klein’s epic This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. Climate Change is a book that will continue to remain relevant for a long time, and will become the basis of policy when young people (such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal) take power away from the three generations that have destroyed our home planet’s environment.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 25

Che and his classmates with
Toronto Mayor John Tory, promoting cricket
Che is to the left of Mayor Tory

2015 was the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India after over two decades’ stay in South Africa (he returned to India on 9th January). He had left for South Africa in 1893, a year that is significant to Indian history (and I’ve written about this earlier, too) as it was in 1893 that Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago, transforming the world’s comprehension of a civilisation. It was also the year when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak launched the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav to bring about caste unity.

Gandhi went to South Africa as a lawyer and returned from South Africa as a leader of the masses, equipped to take on the might of an empire. He would transform Indian society and in following decades and have a tremendous impact and influence on the 20th century movements that led to the end of colonialism, the rise of the underclass (the unwashed masses) across the world, and the assertion of fundamental human rights to protect one’s identity.

To commemorate the Mahatma’s return from South Africa, the Government of India launched the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2003 – a three-day congregation of the Indian diaspora that commenced (until Narendra Modi changed the date, for no reason except probably his ideological distaste for all things Gandhian) on January 9 every year.

For 2015, the Government of India produced posters highlighting Gandhi’s rise as a leader in South Africa. I have reproduced one here (these are taken from an earlier blog on the subject: A Pravasi Comes Home). 2019 is the 150th year of the Mahatma.


Today, when nationalism is acquiring dangerous dimensions, and there is a tendency (especially in India) to call anyone who disagrees with the official Hindutva line as an “anti-national”, it’d be relevant to understand Gandhiji’s views on nationalism.

During the Vaikom Satyagraha (anti-untouchability agitation), Gandhiji defined his nationalism thus: “My idea of nationalism is that my country may become free—free that if need be the whole of the country may die—so that the human race may live. There is no room here for race hatred.” (Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings (p. 164). Edited By Irfan Habib. Rupa Publications. Kindle Edition.)

For a unique perspective on the ongoing Sabrimala agitation and its linkage to the Vaikom Satyagraha, read Ramchandra’s Guha’s article: Remembering the Vaikom Satyagraha in the light of Sabrimala

The Pulwama attack by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 44 Indian soldiers has dominated social media in India and in the Indian diaspora abroad. I have often wondered how effective Gandhiji would have been with his satyagraha and nonviolence if he’d faced religious fundamentalists of today. There’s little doubt that he’d have been assassinated all over again, and in double quick time.

There’s a Nathuram Godse in all religions because fundamentalism is an ideology, not religion, and fundamentalists use only those parts of religion that preach intolerance against other religions.

Masood Azhar’s supporters (the perfidious Pakistani establishment) can justify that he is fighting the good fight for his fellow Muslims in Kashmir. But, there’s little to distinguish his thought process from Godse’s. Azhar regularly masterminds the massacre of innocents in the hope that he can bend the Indian state to do his ideological bidding – leave Kashmir. Godse assassinated a man who influenced an entire civilisation to do his bidding for living peaceably together.

In this context, I want to briefly return to the nationalism debate. My former colleague Sudheendra Kulkarni walked out of a television debate recently when the host (the abominable Arnab Goswami) called Sachin Tendulkar anti-national.

Kulkarni's voluminous Music of the Spinning Wheel has a fascinating anecdote of a meeting between the Mahatma and Romain Rolland (Kulkarni presented the book to me when I met him in 2017). 

“I played him the Andante from the Fifth Symphony, and, on Gandhi’s request, returned to the piano and played Gluck’s Elysian Fields from Orfeo, the first orchestral piece and the flute melody,” writes Rolland.
Kulkarni says, “Since Gandhi never showed much interest in Western classical music, we can ask ourselves the question: Why did he expressly ask Rolland to play him Beethoven?” There are many answers to this question, Kulkarni says, and then adds: “…there is another, more important, reason behind Gandhi’s request to Rolland to play Beethoven for him. That reason was Mirabehn.”
What follows is a fascinating narration of a little-known history:
“Strange though it may seem, Beethoven had played a pivotal role in bringing Madeleine Slade to Gandhi. She fell in love with Beethoven’s music when, at age of fifteen, she first heard a composition by him, Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 She writes in her autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, that her whole being was stirred by it; she played it over and over again…She learnt French so that she could read about Beethoven’s life in Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (the 10 volume novel that got him the Literature Nobel)…”
Upon meeting Rolland, she was advised her that “the only living person worthy of the sort of veneration you have felt for Beethoven is Mahatma Gandhi.” Of course, Madeleine had never heard of the Mahatma. Then, after she had read Rolland’s book on the Mahatma (which he had written without having met him), she decided to visit India.
Kulkarni writes, “(Rolland)…had been himself craving deeply for many years to receive Gandhi in Villeneuve and to let him experience Beethoven’s sublime music. In a letter to Mirabehn on 25 April 1927 (that is, four years before Gandhi came to meet Rolland), he had written” “If Gandhi knew him (Beethoven), he would have recognized in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”
“Earlier, too, in his letter to Mahadev Desai on 24 February 1924, Rolland had described Beethoven as ‘our European Mahatma’ who ‘sings in his Ode to Joy; Let us – millions of human beings – embrace each other.’”

***

Akshya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India was published in 2015 – the year when the first high-profile lynching of a Muslim allegedly for beef consumption occurred in India. (Dadri lynching)

It was just a year after Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister of India, and there would be many lynchings in the next three years.

Mukul's book gave a perspective to the rise of Hindutva ideology. It linked the rise to the ferment in the Indian society in the late 19th and early 20th century when for the first time since the medieval era, the Hindu identify began to manifest itself socially, culturally, economically, and politically on the Indian subcontinent.

The business class (and in India’s case, the class and the caste almost always subsume) consolidated the Hindu identity by coalescing the other two upper castes (Brahmins and the Kshatriyas) into a force that began to influence the political and sociocultural landscape.

In retrospect, what is surprising is that the subterranean influences that these forces unleashed have remained relevant and have grown in influence to dominate public life in the 21st century. They were reined in and controlled only because of the enduring combined influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mukul’s book also gives deep insights into the relationship that the Indian elite shared – it was a nurturing relationship that overlooked ideological differences in preference of protecting class (and caste) interests. To read more, click here: The ties that bind the elite.

****

A cinematic experience that I’ll never forget was to see Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights I, II and III at the Toronto International Film Festival, which celebrated four decades in 2015. The film comprises three parts - The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One. It is about contemporary Portugal – altogether 383 minutes that narrates the transformation of the Portuguese society through fantasy; especially graphic is the depiction of the relationship between a young woman and a banker. The film is an epic.

My motivation in choosing this all-day film was to know about contemporary society in Portugal, a country that has historical links to India.

To read more about the film, click here: Arabian Nights I, II, III