& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Alyque Padamsee

Alyque Padamsee was a celebrity, an important member of the South Bombay elite that rules India through an intricate network of connections controlling all spheres of human activity by rigid social hierarchies. This is old money that understands the power differential in the Indian society and wields power efficiently and imperceptibly.

Padamsee was able to rise about his social privileges and transform himself into a man of the masses. He was a legend in his lifetime; at one time called God by admirers and acolytes who were by and large agnostic, atheist or not particularly religious. While his contributions to the world of advertising are stuff of Indian advertising folklore, his contribution to the idea of India and India’s secular ethos are what I find endearing and substantive.

I didn’t know Alyque Padamsee personally. But I met him once in April 1998 for an interview for the Satellites over South Asia, project. It was an Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, project that explored the broadcasting revolution in South Asia. I was involved with unraveling the economic and commercial aspects of this revolution (my research paper was called The New Media Market) and talking to Padamsee was critical to understand how advertising industry influenced television content.

William Crawley, the co-coordinator of the project accompanied me to the interview, conducted at the Sea Lounge restaurant of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel (the original Taj). Both William and David Page, the other coordinator, were former BBC journalists.

One of the main aspects of our project was to understand the impact of advertising on television, and whether commercialization would also help sustain socially relevant broadcasting that reflected the Indian reality. A great example before us was Govind Nihalani’s tele serial Tamas, which was critically acclaimed and popular with the masses. 

William and I (and for that matter the entire team that worked on the project) were skeptical whether advertising would support good television rather than take the easy route of chasing popular programming.

Padamsee, of course, didn’t share our concern, and on several occasions, the conversation became heated. I reproduce below a brief extract of the interview just to give an idea of the testy exchange.

 Crawley: One percent of Indian population is a huge number in global terms, but it does not mean that their lifestyle as shown on television commercials is the lifestyle of common Indians.

Padamsee: No, I don’t mean this. The advertisement on television shows you variety. The farmer’s lifestyle, for instance. The tractor commercial, the fertilizer commercial. I have made tractor commercials for Escorts which show the changes taking place in the lifestyle and working methods of the farmers.

Crawley: It’s not a glamorized imagery?

Padamsee: It’s always glamorized when you are selling products. Glamourized yet but not untrue. The farmer’s field is better kept, the village is somewhat cleaner, doesn’t have so much cow dung lying around everywhere. In that sense it is glamorized. But his aspirations, more or less his lifestyle are reflected.

Crawley: The question is: has the advent of satellite television changes the way in which people watch television and the way in which it impacts the society and the way in which advertisers watch television?

Padamsee: I would say the biggest thing about television is the way in which it has changed people’s perception of what they can be. I have found that where ever TV is frequently watched, not only people’s lifestyles, but needs begin to change. You might say, ‘Aah, but that’s terrible, they are being urbanized’. But the whole world is being urbanized…it is marvelous that everything is getting urbanized. I am sure there are several bad points about urbanization, there is pollution and all sorts of things.

But in India, pollution is as much a village phenomenon as it is an urban phenomenon. You can smell it half a mile outside of any village. There is just no system. An Indian village, I am sorry to say, is one enormous slum. There are no latrines. People defecate in gutters. There is no drainage system. There is nothing, You just go to one of the 600,000 villages in India to know that.

Bhatt: This is precisely what I want to understand from you. Advertising has defined television as it is today. And yet, it doesn’t show anything that you are talking about.

Padamsee: What am I talking about?

Bhatt: A village in India is nothing but a glorified slum.
Padamsee: Obviously you can’t show that, advertising is there to sell goods.

Bhatt (interrupting): You are also known for social consciousness advertising. And that is something that one doesn’t see on television in the post-satellite revolution.

Padamsee: It’s there in the news reels. Advertising’s business is not to show ugly reality, it is to show beautiful dreams. That is the purpose of advertising throughout the world. People in Nike shoes commercials are always beautifully muscled. They are not shown as scrawny and straggly, which most people are.

Bhatt: But shouldn’t advertising be directed towards particular kind of programming also?

Padamsee: No, no.

Bhatt: It was possible for Govinf Nihalani to make a serial like Tamas before the satellite revolution began. Would it be possible for him or someone else to make a similar kind of serial today and show it on one of the major channels?

Padamsee: Oh yes, I think so. If you have got your sponsors right. Some companies have a certain outlook. Say the Tatas, for instance. Or I would even say people like BPL, who are quite serious about their image and would bring classical music to television or bring a heart surgery to India or would sponsor a medical conference. There are lots of advertisers who have what you might call a philanthropic outlook. But you can’t expect people who are in the business of selling goods to show farmers in ugly light.

Bhatt: Which is the ‘real’ light.

Padamsee: But still ugly. The farmer does not like it. I have made films for Hindustan Level before the advent of television. These were very realistic film but were rejected by the larger audience they were meant for. The criticism about advertising does not take into account what advertising is all about. Advertising is not documentation. Yes, we need documentary film makers and excellent ones as that, like perhaps Govind Nihalani.

Padamsee was aware of his celebrity status and took it rather seriously. It was mid-morning and the restaurant had a few regulars coming and going, all of them duly nodding at Padamsee in acknowledgement and on occasion briefly stopping by at our table to indulge in light banter.

Not once did Padamsee lose patience, and not once did he waver from his conviction that the purpose of advertising was to sell. It was a cracker of an interview, and although it was meant for the project, I couldn’t resist the temptation of getting it published. My friend Sambit Bal, at that time the editor of Gentlemen magazine published it in its entirety.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

This Land of Freedom, Canada

Gavin Barrett organizes the Tartan Turban Secret Reading series in the offices of Barrett and Welsh in Toronto's east end. He’s been doing this for the last year-and-a-half. 
It’s a wonderful reading series that provides a venue once a month for authors, poets and artists to come together for a few hours in the evening and share their creations with an appreciative and supportive audience. 
Gavin, being Gavin, credits me for being the co-founder of the series, although frankly, I do nothing more than show up for the readings.
This past week, I heard a beautiful poem This Land of Freedom, Canada by Teresa Hall, a Toronto east end poet. She read the poem during the open mic session. 
Before reading the poem, she spoke of her family – a Polish dad and a Scottish mother, and the children, walking along Yonge Street looking for a home.
It reminded me of our own walk down Lawrence Ave West a decade ago. 
Mahrukh, Che and I took a bus from Malton, got off at the intersection of Lawrence Ave and Good Shepherd Road, and then began to walk back, finally reaching Keele and Lawrence, where we rented an apartment at 1440 Lawrence Ave West. 
Teresa Hall’s poem is about a Canada that all newcomers understand while going through perennial hardships. The poem This Land of Freedom, Canada has been published in Canadian Stories Magazine in 2016, The Bluffs Voice in 2018 for Canada Day and then on exhibit at the Agincourt Public Library for the month of September and finally featured in Nuit Blanche, Faces of Scarborough, Scarborough Civic Centre.
Teresa Hall

This Land of Freedom, Canada
You came into this Land of freedom,
with chains around your mind and soul.
With unbound hands and heavy heart,
which way to turn, which way to go?
I can show you places, where thoughts
can tumble out like thistle-down upon
the wind, to take root and grow.
Here - in this ancient Land of Inuit and native
son, where voyageurs once rode wild rivers
above the granite shield, and where battles
were fought and won, so long ago...
This Land of healing grace, of
star-filled nights and scarlet sunsets
'cross a mountain view. Of northern
lights, musk ox and polar bear,
of prairie farmers, wheat and caribou.
Land of the fishermen and red-rimmed soil,
of cities with their towering spires where
workers toil. She will embrace you too!
This Land of quiet strength will break away
those chains. Your children's children
will one day say, my forebears, came,
then found what they were searching for,

in this Land of freedom, Canada.

Monday, October 15, 2018

For me, writing a novel is a holistic endeavour: Ian Thomas Shaw

Ian Thomas Snaw
Ian Thomas Shaw’s second novel Quill of the Dove will be launched in April 2019. It is a blend of literary fiction and a political thriller. Framed by contemporary events in the Middle East, the novel covers two distinct time periods: 2007 mainly in Europe, the Palestinian Territories and Israel and Lebanon from 1975 to 1982.

French journalist Marc Taragon has spent the last thirty years attempting to bring to readers the truth about the wars and political intrigue in the Middle East.

Unsparing in his criticism of extremists in the region, he has earned many enemies. Taragon agrees to be interviewed by a young Canadian journalist, Marie Boivin, not knowing that Marie has a hidden agenda: to discover through Taragon the truth about her childhood.

Before Marie finds the answers she seeks, she is enmeshed in Taragon's plan to broker a private peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. In the isolated Greek village of Arkassa on the island of Karpathos, Taragon succeeds in persuading a dissident Palestinian leader and a left-wing Israeli politician to negotiate a far-reaching agreement that challenges hard-liners on both sides. 

The action moves quickly through Europe and the Middle East as Taragon, Marie and their associates try to stay one step ahead of deadly opponents of their initiative.

Ian was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the last 33 years, he has worked as a diplomat and as an international development worker, living in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He currently lives in Aylmer, Quebec.

In an interview, Ian says, “In writing Quill of the Dove, I wanted to provide a perspective where individuals, not governments, armies, militias or political movements, were at the centre.”

You have worked as a development aid activist and a diplomat in the Middle East. Your latest novel Quill of the Dove is set in the Middle East. It attempts a personal narrative, a path to self-discovery, and a recapitulation of the region’s tortured history.

Why did you choose such a challenging subject?

I have always felt a great affinity for the peoples of the Middle East, whether they be Arabs, Jews, Druze or Kurds and have been dismayed at how the political leaders of the region have put their egos ahead of the welfare of the common people, often egged on by foreign backers. Unfortunately, many novels on the Middle East fall into the trap of catering to one side or the other of these conflicts, which are nurtured by the narcissism of the region’s leaders and serve the strategic interests of bigger countries.  In writing Quill of the Dove, I wanted to provide a perspective where individuals, not governments, armies, militias or political movements, were at the centre.

Are you satisfied with the results?

As a writer, I am, but I will leave it to the readers to decide whether the novel rises to their expectations.

What does the title of the novel mean?

The central character of Quill of the Dove is a journalist who deeply believes in pacifism. The quill is both the quill as an instrument for writing and as the feather of the dove, a symbol for peace. The novel is a eulogy to the courageous work of those journalists who denounce atrocities committed against civilians.

Your debut novel Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls was set in South East Asia. The second novel is set in the Middle East. Both have a Canadian connection. Why do you choose foreign locales as settings of your novels?

I belong to that generation of Canadians who in their youth saw the world as their oyster. Our economy was strong. Unionized summer jobs paid well, and after high school and during university, I, and many of my classmates, travelled the world. We didn't stay in fancy hotels or take trains or airplanes to hop around the countries we travelled in.

Instead, we put out our thumbs to hitch rides, slept in cheap youth hostels or sometimes by the side of the road, and mustered our language skills to connect with the people we met along the way. I look around today and don't see many young Canadians able to travel as freely as we did. So, in part, my novels are a way to harvest my own experiences and those of others to share with young Canadians and bridge the divide between them and the incredible world beyond Canada's borders.

You are active in the literary circles in Ottawa, you recently emceed a literary event, you founded the Ottawa Review of Books, you have organised a literary festival Prose in the Park for a few years. What motivates you to get so deeply involved with literary activities?

By nature, I am a strong organizer with a bias for action. After publishing my first novel, I started going to literary events in Ottawa, only to find that attendance was often dismal. I remember attending a reading in a bookstore with three outstanding Ottawa writers a few years back; I was one of three people in the audience. 

Two months later, the bookstore went out of business and these writers haven't experienced any real success in their writing despite their skills. At another event organized by the local literary festival, twenty people sat in the audience for a Governor-General winner.

There were many other examples that convinced me that I could draw on my organizational skills to make a contribution to the literary community in Ottawa and elsewhere. I strongly believe that for literature to prevail against video games and reality TV in Canada, a strong community of writers needs to be built, and I am very motivated to do my part in building that community.

You have done two novels in a decade. How would you describe your writing process?

I love to talk about my plots with people, especially with people who know something about the politics and societies of the regions that I write about. It is surprising how often others who are not writers can offer ideas to build fascinating stories. For example, my first novel drew on a number of anecdotes that a Vietnamese-Canadian friend told me about her “boat-child” experience leaving Vietnam and her integration into Canadian society when she arrived in this country.

As I questioned her about her experiences, I soon realized that through fiction, I could lend a voice to her and many others who had similar experiences. At that time, no Vietnamese-Canadian was writing in English although Kim Thuy was making her debut writing in French so I wrote Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls. I am proud to say that through my writing collective, Deux Voiliers Publishing, two Vietnamese-Canadian writers were later able to join the community of Canadian writers with some exciting novels.

I am also a structured writer who first prepares an outline of entire novels with each chapter containing a one-paragraph synopsis. For Quill of the Dove, I sought the views of 25 beta readers on one or more of the three drafts. Every beta reader was able to offer some good insights into what was working and what was not. Of course, you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros to take the collective criticism that comes from so many early readers. Finally, I also write keeping in mind the final product, i.e. the number of pages, number of chapters, dimensions of the novel and imagery that can be used for the cover design. For me, writing a novel is a holistic endeavour.

Are you working on anything right now?

Yes, I am in the process of formulating a novel about the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru. I have never been to Peru but my late brother spent fourteen years there and spoke often of his experiences there. I speak Spanish and am familiar with the politics of Latin America. To develop this novel, I plan to travel to Peru relatively soon. The plot I have in mind will centre around a teenage girl with a younger brother. Her parents are teachers in a small town in an area of Peru where the Shining Path guerrillas are receiving support from the local population. I hope to explore how innocent people were caught in the dirty war between the Peruvian government and the revolutionaries.

Title: Quill of the Dove
Trade Paperback
6"x9" 304 pages
Other Formats: E-Book
ISBN 978-1-771833783
Guernica Editions (MiroLand)
Price: $24.95
Publication Date: April 1, 2019

Canadian Manda Group
In Canada, contact your local rep.
or send general inquiries to:
In the US, contact Tan Light Sales
Manager at sales@lpg.ca

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

I am an engaged writer, I’m interested in novels of ideas: Manjushree Thapa

Born in Kathmandu, and having lived in many countries, Manjushree Thapa is now a Canadian novelist, essayist, and editor. Her novel All of Us in Our Lives, published in Canada by Freehand Books and in India by Aleph Book Company, was launched last month in Toronto. In an interview, Manjushree says her writing has always been rooted in Nepal, "and will continue to be."

Manjushree Thapa at the launch of her book
at Another Story Bookshop
You’ve been a Canadian for a fairly long time, but only now have published a novel in Canada. Is the prolonged delay because of an unwillingness to adapt and accept your new Canadian identity?  

I moved to Canada from Nepal in 2008, mid-career, with several published books, and a novel in its final stages, Seasons of Flight. It took a few years to see that novel through to publication.

Then I began All of Us in Our Own Lives. I finished its first draft at the Writers’ Trust residency at Pierre Berton’s house in Dawson City, the Yukon, in the winter of 2011. It’s taken this long for it to be completed and published. I think it took me this long because it’s the first book I wrote about Nepal from afar. I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.

And the Canadian literary world maybe didn’t know what to do with a writer like me, who migrated to Canada fully formed. My writing has always been rooted in Nepal, and will continue to be. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for it, even though none of my earlier writing had been published here. I suppose that’s why it’s particularly meaningful to me that All Of Us in Our Own Lives found a home with Freehand Books. This is the first time I feel like I may be related, in some way, to the world of Canadian literature.

To be honest, I didn’t quite feel Canadian till I became a citizen in 2016. Before that, as a permanent resident, I took an interest, of course, in my milieu. I’d read many Canadian authors before moving here, but didn’t know much about the intricacies of the Canadian literary world – the institutions that shape it, and the writers they produce. It took a few years of reading to get my bearings. I now follow the Canadian literary world’s goings-on, though I do still feel some confusion about being an insider-outsider to it. But then the world of Canadian literature can be quite cliquish and inward looking. I suspect that many writers feel out of place in it as perhaps is fitting, given the revival of Indigenous literature. I’ve learned the most by reading writers such as Eden Robinson, Thomas King, and Lee Maracle. They’ve reframed the entire world of Canadian literature. Perhaps it’s right for all of us to feel a bit like outsiders here.

You’re a rare, authentic, grounded feminine voice to have emerged from South Asia and your oeuvre is rich, diverse and eclectic. Is your latest novel All of Us in Our Own Lives your first attempt at what is generally described (often derisively) as immigrant literature?

Immigrant literature, if I understand the term, refers to literature about what Salman Rushdie called 'the imaginary homeland’ - the homeland of the immigrant writer’s ancestry, perhaps viewed somewhat nostalgically upon an experience of loss through migration.

I started writing as a Nepali writer based in Nepal, and I remain creatively rooted in the contemporary moment. It’s true that I’m an immigrant writer now. But I don’t think this automatically makes the content of my writing immigrant literature. That is a sensibility that I haven’t ever adopted. I am, in fact, decidedly anti-nostalgic. I grew up in Nepal, the US, and Canada, and my family has lived in many other countries - Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Switzerland, India. I was formed by this constant feeling of displacement, and see myself more as a writer of the contemporary global moment. I always try to bring in as much of the world as possible into my work, rather than a duality between my ‘imaginary homeland’ and where I now live.

That said, if someone sees me as a writer of immigrant literature, I don’t particularly mind. There’s a lot of confusion around these terms, and I don’t take the term ‘immigrant literature’ as derisive.

You’re multilingual and a renowned translator, and yet you prefer English. Why?

My family lived in Ottawa when I was just learning to speak. English is my first language, even though Nepali is my mother tongue. I’m far more fluent in English, with a much greater range of expression. 

I did at one point start to write in Nepali, but quickly realized that it would be a better use of my skills to become a good translator of Nepali literature, rather than a mediocre Nepali writer. A good literary translator a rare thing. It has also led to a deeper engagement with the world of Nepali literature. It’s become my way to pay tribute to Nepal, which has a rich literary scene.

Do you see a natural progression in your journey as an author? What are the broad themes that your fiction attempts to help understand?

I am what is called an engaged writer, that is, a writer who takes on large social and political themes. I’m interested in novels of ideas and start with concepts that I then flesh out into specific characters’ personal stories. 

The theme of All Of Us in Our Own Lives is interdependence, as understood in Buddhism: the interdependent nature of the rising and extinguishing of people’s suffering. The world of international aid, and particularly the women’s empowerment industry, became a way to flesh out that concept by having characters whose trajectories would otherwise never intersect come together and spark personal growth and change in one another.  

My main growth as a writer has to do with aesthetics. When I started out as a writer, I was not always in control of my material. I’d start out meaning to write a picaresque and end up, four years later, with a nineteenth-century novel with some picaresque elements. The form would get away from me, or the characters would. Over the years my writing has grown more controlled. I feel like I now end up writing the books I set out to write.   

You have produced quality creative nonfiction. Is the process of creating the same with fiction and nonfiction?

Those processes are completely different. I love writing nonfiction because it’s straightforward. I conduct the necessary research, and then find the best possible form to illuminate my material. There isn’t the existential angst that comes with fiction-writing. Or maybe I’m less ambitious about my aesthetics in nonfiction. 

With fiction, I am keenly aware that I have complete creative freedom: I can write anything at all. And so I’m filled with doubt. Why write this when I can be writing something else? What is at stake in the writing of this story? Why have I chosen this character, this style, this tone, this word? What is the right form for this story? And the eternal question - is fiction dead? 

Every decision is marked by doubt. This makes writing more difficult. Fiction writing feels a thousand times more angst-ridden than nonfiction writing. Yet here I am, launching into a new novel. I can’t seem to stop.

Read an excerpt from Manjushree's novel below.

Buy the novel: All of Us in Our Own Lives

Publisher's website: Freehand Book

Author's website: Manjushree Thapa