& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 35

With Dr. Lakshmanan
Is ideology nothing more than belief? Often, I have not been able to distinguish between those who fervently swear by an ideology from those who are religious. There is a deep sense of fanaticism about both. They are unwilling to question their belief and are deeply suspicious of any point of view that differs from their own.

I’m no exception. I’m not religious, but nearly everyone who knows me will say that I’m ideological.

Ideology is problematic because it reduces complex and multifaceted issues into binaries of left and right. It precludes the possibility of reaching a better, and a more holistic answer that would include all opposing viewpoints in finding solutions.

Most challenges have straightforward administrative solutions that don’t require ideologically driven approach to resolving them. In fact, ideology-based approach to resolving these challenges unnecessarily complicates the situation.

But there is no denying the centrality of ideology in nearly all human endeavour. Ideology is rooted in our lives and is the main cause of our societies riven with division and friction.

In 2018, I developed close working relationship with several people whose ideological orientation was diametrically opposite to my own. It was at once a strange, enervating yet enlightening experience. This happened with I joined the Canada India Foundation.

My tenure at Simmons da Silva had reached a dead end by early 2018. I could continue working there forever, if I was happy with the limited responsibilities that had been given to me.

With Pankaj Dave
I was looking for alternatives and that came my way when I met Anil Shah at a get together that was organised by the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce. At that time, he was the National Convener of the Canada India Foundation, and the foundation was looking for an executive director.

I met Anilbhai (as he’s usually called) along with Pankaj Dave in February 2018 and discussed the possibility of my joining the foundation. They didn’t show much interest but asked me to start freelancing for the foundation. I started doing that in March and by May, the Foundation offered me a job.

Leaving Simmons da Silva was not easy. I had strong emotional bonds with some of my colleagues. But more importantly, leaving would be perceived as betraying Puneet, who had stood by me and offered me a job when I needed one. It was with a deeply forlorn feeling that I walked out of the law firm’s Brampton office late May 2018 to join the CIF.

To me, the decision to join and work at the foundation was based on my professional competence and the foundation’s requirements – these matched perfectly. Not for a moment did it occur to me that I would be working for an organisation that had a distinct ideological mooring which on many occasions would be diametrically opposed to my own. I suppose that is true in most such relationship.

As an employee, one is required to perform all assigned tasks professionally and competently irrespective of one’s own way of thinking. And that is what I did throughout my brief tenure at the foundation.

The foundation is a public policy think tank formed in 2007. It has some of the most distinguished Indo-Canadians as its members, individuals who have contributed time and money to hasten the integration of Indo-Canadian community into the Canadian mainstream and improve Canada India bilateral relations. It is a non-partisan organisation and has consistently raised many issues that are often not discussed out of a strange adherence to political correctness.

I interacted closely with the core team comprising Anilbhai, Satish Thakkar and Pankaj Dave, and developed close ties with them. I also developed close working relationships with Ajit Someshwar, Ramesh Chotai and V. I. Lakshmanan.

Mayur Dave, who’d been introduced to me a couple of years ago, became a close friend.

During my brief tenure, and thanks in a great measure to the dedicated team of members, I was able to work towards a positive transformation of the foundation and increased its membership and programs.

I worked at Anilbhai’s Ni-Met Metals Inc. office in Oakville and was again in the midst of a multicultural environment, although the staff was predominantly Gujarati-speaking.

My tenure there was enlivened because of my constant interactions, arguments and debate with the members of the Foundation on many contentious issues.

It also offered me an opportunity to examine my own views on many issues that are important to me; issues that form the basis of my existence, belief and behaviour.
Issues such as secularism, the role of religion in public life and in the life of an individual, the responsibilities of the state toward the protection of the minorities, and similar other matters.

Examining my views on all these matters was an unusual experience because I had to evaluate the veracity of my opinion and consider the validity of opposing opinions.

I discovered that if one is able to build and maintain a level of trust with the person who holds a differing point of view, it is possible to conduct a civilized debate that can lead to a better understanding of the issue under debate.

It helps narrow down the differences to one or two core issues that are purely ideological.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 34

Creativity - what is it? What isn't it?

You begin to seek creative avenues of self-expression when you develop a sense of belonging to a place. But the economic reality of being a relatively recent immigrant doesn’t permit creative self-expression because you are tied down to an office routine. In such a scenario, the only available option is to enjoy the creativity of professional artists who are able to find time and energy and the motivation to stay committed to their art.
By 2017, I was a confirmed Torontonian, or at least that’s what I felt. My sense of belonging to the place was, as they say, all-encompassing.
My debut novel was published, I was now a co-founder of an immensely interesting reading series (although I didn’t next-to-nothing for it), and I continued to stay engaged with people who were actively pursuing avenues for creative expression. That included finding time to go to see plays, movies, performances and occasionally writing expressionistic pieces about my no-longer-new life in Toronto.
Jasmine Sawant’s play GRAMMA, staged by the SAWITRI Theatre Group, was a remarkably original attempt at combining the past with the present and memoir with fiction. Moreover, the play marked a clear departure for both the playwright and the group – it was probably the first time that both had worked on Canadian material. Had this play been produced and staged in a mainstream milieu, it’d have got more attention than it otherwise did; but then that’s the reality of Canada.
I bought tickets to Broken Images (a play written by Girish Karnad in 2004) because Shabana Azmi was to perform the roles of Manjula and Malini. The tickets I could afford were for the second floor balcony, and much to my annoyance, the organisers had invited a number of people who occupied prime seating, while those who’d paid for their tickets (like I had) were scattered on the balconies of the spacious  Living Arts Centre in Mississauga.
But leaving aside pettiness, Shabana Azmi’s performance was a tour de force. There are few who can match Shabana Azmi’s histrionic abilities, and those who were privileged to see her perform on stage should consider themselves fortunate.
At the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, I went to see Hansal Mehta directed Omerta, a film that narrates the life of Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British national who took to jihad, killed Daniel Pearl, the American journalist, and nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan. Rajkummar Rao’s performance is chillingly perfect.
A program on WB Yeats, the Irish poet, organised as part of the Spur Festival in 2017, turned out to be deeply insightful and surprisingly entertaining thanks to the biopic by Alan Gilsenan (Vision: A Life of WB Yeats).
That year, the third edition of Literature Matters featured poet Karen Solie and novelist Esi Edugyan, both renowned, multiple award-winning writers. Solie is a poet, and Esi Edugyan is a novelist. Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, moderated the program.
I blogged:

"Solie spoke about ‘On Folly: Poetry and Mistakes’ and Edugyan on The Wrong Door: Some Meditations. She her talk by quoting from Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam), most famous work The Praise of Folly, where the humanist theologian and one of the pioneers of the Protestant Reformation asked: What is more foolish? The poet or the poetry?
"Solie’s tongue-in-cheek answer: People are generally happy when they see a tradesperson – a plumber or an electrician; that is not often the case when they see a poet.  That, she added, had to do with more people agreeing that they hate poetry than on what poetry is.
"In a talk that was peppered with quotes from many poets and writers, Solie made the case that follies and mistakes are integral to creativity and that everything that a writer does is no more natural than other things in the world. A writer’s responsibility, therefore, is to remain open, vulnerable, and basically write down everything that’s inside the head on paper.
"Solie observed that the definition of word folly has evolved to become narrower; in its pristine sense, it also meant delight, fakery, a dwelling place, in addition to failure or a mistake. She said fear is a necessary ingredient for good writing, and that fear, too, had many shades and connotations, just as mistakes are essential to creativity.
"The subject of Edugyan’s talk was The Wrong Door: Some Meditations. She began with the example of the proverbial person from Porlock, who disturbs Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic era English poet, while he was penning Kubla Khan (A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment).
"The story goes that Coleridge, in an opium-induced haze, was writing a poem that apparently was flowing naturally and was practically getting itself written, was disturbed by this person from Porlock, who had mistaken knocked on Coleridge's door. By the time this person left, the poem has evaporated from his mind, and mere fragments were of it left.
"Edugyan said every writer needs a metaphorical wrong door that intruders may knock on to disturb someone else and leave the writer alone to create. Every writer fears the sudden, thought-scattering disturbance that ruins her work. She said solitude and silence are essential requirements for a writer because only through silence can she cut out the external to hear the internal."
I wrote a piece on Weston Village, which is five minutes walk from home. It’s a poor neighbourhood that reminds me of my very own Teli Gali, where I grew up and lived for three decades. Diaspora Dialogues selected it in 2018 and Donna Mitchell St. Bernard interpreted it for the Hello Neighbour program. And another piece that addressed the growing protest against cultural appropriation (Whose voice is it anyway?). My piece, published in the New Canadian Media, focused upon my dilemma of writing about a Muslim family in my debut novel Belief.
2017 ended and the tenth year of our life in Canada began. It’d be a year that brought many changes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

READING: ENOUGH FOR A LIFETIME


Guest Post


By Fraser Sutherland

I taught myself to read before a school taught me the alphabet. This happens to children more often than one might think so I make no special claim to have been some kind of autodidactic prodigy. From a very early age reading became a way of life; it was in fact another way to live. Apart from helping my father milk Jerseys and shovel manure on the farm, and helping my mother set the table and look after my crippled brother, I was a solitary child. But someone who reads a lot is never truly solitary. A book is always company.

Only in recent years have I come to realize just how much reading has dominated my life.  I married someone, a children’s librarian, who read even more than I did though, unlike me, she had a penchant for rereading her favourites. For her, reading, like eating or sleep, was one of the essential functions.  Ultimately it did not save her from suicidal despair, but on many occasions it’s saved me. To read is to enter a parallel world in which, as an absorbed onlooker, one is always welcome.

When I told someone I wanted to compile a list of books that in my lifetime had impressed me in some way he said I’d do better to list really  bad books, giving them the equivalent of a skull-and-crossbones poison symbol. Some books haven’t just been tedious, they’ve made me want to do physical damage to them, like the time an Andy Warhol film, Chelsea Girls, once made me want to rush up and stab the screen. Overwriting or logorrhea, as in John Cowper Powys’s swollen novel Wolf Solent will do it.  One hazard of travelling is to be trapped without suitable reading matter, and it’s almost as bad to be trapped with execrable reading matter.  I still remember an overnight ferry trip I took from Barcelona to Palma, Majorca  in which the only thing at hand to read was Jack London’s dreadful novel Martin Eden.  Nightmarish.

Realizing how reading has consumed so much of  my life, I embarked on the dusty, laborious task of listing all the books that have in some way been meaningful to me. It’s part of my ongoing project to make  sense of my life.  Surely reading all those books, all those days and weeks and months chasing letters of the alphabet across a page, hasn’t been a waste of time. Surely. Now, to slide one’s eyes down the rows of the spreadsheet I set up for the titles of notable books,  makes me envious of the writers who were famous during their lifetimes. True, most didn’t enjoy the celebrity. A few  got rich, but riches brings problems too.

Typically I voluntarily read between 120 and 150 books a year, two or three books a week, and have maintained that pace for many years.  Most have come from a public library. Toronto’s public library system is so good that alone is enough of a reason to live in the city. I record the author and title at the back of my daybook (I won’t dignify it by calling it a diary.) Only a few are rare ones that I think deserve rereading or somehow belong to the permanent furniture of my mind. Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, for example. Or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Titles can also come from the legacy lists of university English courses I took  in my early 20s, or at least the ones that stuck. I’m happy to omit Joseph Conrad’s dreary Nostromo and Henry James’s baroquely affected  The Ambassadors maybe I’d feel differently if I read them now, but I don’t think so. I have a weakness for diaries and memoirs. Titles can also come from  lists that I seemingly made for the sheer joy of making lists. I follow up book reviewsthere can never be enough book reviewsand other readers’ recommendations. They give me a book, I read it for better or worse. Skimming and scanning used-and-antiquarian bookshops, fund-raising or charity book sales, books spread out on a newspaper or in cartons on a sidewalk all are resources.  I’ve read almost all of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark,  Anthony Powell, Ernest Hemingway, and my longstanding American friend Elizabeth Spencer.  I’ve extensively read far too many poets to mention but their number certainly includes Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin.

Yet there’s always a chance I will find something invaluable that I haven’t read, such as another Donald E. Westlake novel starring Dortmunder, his accident-prone thief, or a P.G. Wodehouse dealing with Lord Emsworth and his adored prizewinning pig the Empress of Blandings. Or maybe a similar comic triumph such as the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of  a Nobody. I know I will never find another Wind in the Willows, which is unique. To my childhood mind it was the greatest book ever written or illustrated. Kenneth Grahame wrote it, Ernest Shepard did the illustrations.

I’ve neglected to mention one vital source of authors and titles for my lifetime spreadsheet, which now numbers about 3,200 titles, and growing by the week. I refer to books already on my shelves.  After all, they wouldn’t be on my shelves if I hadn’t already favoured them. It’s a motley assortment. It includes not just masterpieces, far from it, but books that have some geographical or generational connection with me, say, the Rev. J P. MacPhie’s Pictonians at Home and Abroad (1914), a compendium of local boys from Pictou County, Nova Scotia where I come from who made good.  Sutherlands related to me were not among them.

On the shelves, too, are books whose titles or contents charmed me, such as Barbara Ann Kipfer’s 14,000 Ways To Be Happy: I keep trying to find useful pointers toward happiness in it. Or the books have a vocational link: dictionaries, reference works, or other books I consulted, edited, or contributed to. I have an 1821 edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, though I can’t say I’ve used it much.  Cookbooks are found in my kitchen, logically enough. History, philosophy, psychology, and general nonfiction populate the dining room, novels the living room, reference books and biography the office, poetry and crime fiction the bedroom. No books in the bathroom.

I close with a quotation taken from, fittingly, a book, Maggie Ferguson’s fine biography of that wonderful Orkney writer, George Mackay Brown.  I like to think the sentiment applies to me. Ferguson: “The biography of an artist, George once wrote, is really a pattern of those experiences and images that enter deeply into his consciousness and set the rhythm and tone of his work.”

Books are both experiences and images.



  • Fraser Sutherland is a poet, editor, and lexicographer who lives in Toronto. The most recent of his 17 books is the poetry collection The Philosophy of As If.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 33

Mahrukh
Che

 Che’s mental health struggles continued and yet he steadily made progress. He completed his high school but had to drop out of the college program in broadcast journalism. 

Much to his parents’ surprise, he began working at Blue Jays on 8 April 2017. He was still a few months short of 20; and he found this job without anyone's assistance, applied for it and got it. It was a minimum wage job, but it was a proud moment for his mom and dad.


Our house was slowly become a home. Mahrukh single-handedly transformed it by adding bits and pieces of furniture, house plants, home appliances and a million other things that gave it a distinct identity that was a reflection of her personality.

By 2017, three years into my second job in Canada, I was in a dilemma – whether to continue in a steady employment or look for something that better fitted my abilities and aptitude.

My colleagues at a baseball game
in a playing field behind our office
What kept me in the job was the company of my many colleagues. I enjoyed my daily interactions with all of them, especially with those with whom I could talk about issues of contemporary relevance. 

In particular, I cherish the memory of debating with one colleague who read my novel with interest and eagerly discussed critical aspects of the story; she gave me a memoir of a pious Muslim’s decision to convert to Christianity.

I continued to supplement my income by doing freelance for Anand Raj Giri, a publisher based in the Middle East, and content writing for the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce.

OOO-----OOO-----OOO

In 2017 Jagmeet Singh was elected leader of the National Democratic Party. He is the first non-white person to lead a political party in Canada. It is unlikely he will ever be the Prime Minister because there is a glass ceiling that non-whites will not be able to breach for a long time to occupy the Prime Minister’s post in Canada.

Jagmeet Singh’s ascension opened old wounds and created new ones. Singh is a vociferous critic of India’s record on human rights, especially of India’s treatment of its minorities. On this issue, Singh finds broad acceptance from different segments of Canadian and Indian voices. 

However, his refusal to unequivocally condemn the terrorists responsible for the 1985 Air India bombing continues to rile the political establishment in both the countries.

In 1984, I was in the Punjab for all summer, living with the family of my friend Rajinder Singh Bhelley, a Sikh, in Mandi Gobindgarh; that visit and prolonged stay changed forever my perception about the Punjab situation and gave me an insight to understand the incidents that changed India’s history in 1984.

There is no denying the significant impact the anti-Sikh riots in India in 1984 have had on the Sikh psyche globally, including and especially in Canada. Surprisingly, the impact is palpably noticeable even on a generation that was born in Canada and after 1984 and did not have any firsthand experience of the crisis that engulfed the Punjab in the 1970s and the 1980s.

The Indian state imploded politically, allowing the Pakistan-backed extremists to take control of the state, leading to an unimaginable carnage of both the Hindus and the Sikhs. India’s Indian National Congress party is to be held responsible for fomenting the problem, if not creating it.

But a lot of water has flowed down the five rivers of the Punjab, and the separatist sentiments that were ingrained in the Sikh psyche have all but evaporated. At present, and for at least two-and-a-half decades, the demand for a separate country for Sikhs – Khalistan – is only heard outside India.

Over the last decade in Canada, I’ve often been surprised to see some prominent Sikhs identify themselves on the basis of their faith, and distinct from Indo-Canadians. Canada gives right to its citizens to hold an opinion and express it freely even if it is at variance with that of the majority.

This freedom is politicised. In the name of free speech, a vocal section of the Sikh population has turned the legitimate campaign for human rights of the religious and caste minorities in India into a political weapon to influence the outcome of Canadian elections.

OOO-----OOO-----OOO


The Harvey Weinstein’s case exploded in 2017 and unleashed the #MeToo movement globally. This is a political movement that has changed the power equation in favour of women, especially in the workplace.

Nearly all men are guilty of impropriety in their interaction with women colleagues in the workplace.  And for men to behave properly is the least that a constantly changing work environment requires, especially when women are constantly proving themselves better at everything that men do.

As in any revolution, the changes that the #MeToo movement will bring about will unfold over the next decade or so. The first and the much-needed change will be the end of discriminatory pay structure and implementation for equal pay for women. But for the revolution to make any meaningful change, it will have to become truly universal, and not be limited to the socially developed western democracies.

OOO-----OOO-----OOO

At the Toronto International Film Festival, I saw Anurag Kshyap’s Mukkabaaz and Hansal Mehta’s Omerta, and I saw Sachin – a billion dreams on a newly-installed Android box at home, a technology that welcomingly subverts the stranglehold of cable television on home entertainment. Shabana Azmi came to Mississauga to perform Broken Images (written by Girish Karnad), and SWATRI group staged GRAMMA.