& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 24

With Sonal, Karpur and Anu
Religion has always divided the world. Throughout history, the most abominable atrocities on humans have been perpetrated in the name of religion. All religions profess peace and brotherhood, but it takes little to arouse the hatred of believers who resort to extreme violence against non-believers and doubters.

Civilisation has had an uneasy relationship with religion and that unease continues to worsen regardless of any material progress that humans have made since the dawn of history. In fact, it’d be right to state that development – in terms of material well being, which is a direct result of better education, has done next to nothing to reduce global intolerance.

In the last three decades we have seen the twin rise of globalisation resulting in an integration of the world economies and paradoxically the rise of ethnic identities that tend to disintegrate into amoeba-like ever-shrinking groups.

In 2014, I stopped doing my monthly column ‘Mayank’s Immigrant Adventures’ for the Canadian Immigrant magazine. But the uncertainty that arose after my ouster from the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, made me take up freelance assignments for the magazine. Canadian Immigrant’s editor Margaret Jetelina suggested that I do a feature on the status of religion in Canada.

Divine Diversity became the cover story of the magazine. The feature explored the subterranean tensions that the Canadian society experiences but conceals by projecting tolerance and acceptance of its multicultural ethos. Tahir Gora, who’d just launched his TAG TV, spoke passionately about how immigrants who’d lived their life in secular ethos, took to strict adherence to religious dogmas after immigration.

If you wish to read the feature, here’s the link: Divine Diversity – Is it time to talk about religion in Canada; and here’s a link to a related post on this blog: Intolerance. Spur Festival also organised a panel discussion on religion in Canada, which expectedly turned out to be immensely engaging. Here’s a link to the post on that panel discussion: The role of religion in contemporary society.

In 2015, Mawenzi House Publishers, published The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada – Culture, Politics and Self, which is an invaluable volume on understanding the deep-rooted prejudice that seemingly tolerant societies such as the Canadian societies harbour against minority religions.

Describing the Muslim situation in Canada (circa 2015), Nurjehan Aziz, who edited the volume, noted about the essays, “…one observation was almost universal: recently in Canada Muslims have found themselves the objects of vilification and discrimination. Being a Muslim then means being a victim.”

Here’s the link to the post on the book: A book all non-Muslims in Canada must read.
I was invited to contribute an essay to this collection, and I wrote about my life with Mahrukh – Married to a Believer. All marriages are a maze of complexities, ours (Mahrukh’s and mine) has been especially so because of our distinct cultural moorings. Even in the face of often insurmountable differences over the last two decades, we have been steadfast in our commitment to our marriage and to creating a better future for our son.

The essay was subsequently reproduced in two online publications, both edited by my senior colleagues during my journalism days. Javed Anand, who along with Teesta Setalvad continues to fight the Hindutva regime of Narendra Modi, reproduced it in Sabrang, and Ashok Upadhyay reproduced it in the Beacon.

In December 2015, Mahrukh and Che went to India to visit Mahrukh’s family, and I went to meet my sister Sonal and her children. We met after more than a decade. Sonal and I share a relationship that has no filter. We share many traits and are always frank with each other about everything. 

It’s been a relationship that’s had its ups and downs. Both of us grew up in Teli Gali and share a lifetime of memories. We shared our family's affinity for Ganapati, something that I outgrew abruptly in my adolescence (except as an important component of Indian history), but she retains; Sonal has an exquisite collection of Ganapati idols.

I was especially thrilled to meet Karpur after so long. I’m particularly close to my nephew and share both an emotional and an intellectual bond with him. We spent a day together in New York, visiting the MOMA and other museums. My niece Anu was a mere child when she’d come to India, now she’d grown into a confident young woman who (just like her mom) believed in fearlessly voicing her views.

If you’re interested, read the posts about my New York museums tour:  New York art museums, and The Most Arrogant Man in France

A church in New York - the traditional
and the modern cheek by jowl

In 2015, Hasmukh – my aunt – managed to send me Harischandra’s (my granddad and Hasmukh’s dad) The Scarlet Muse, a book of Polish poems translated into English. Hasmukh was the matrilineal head of our extended family in many ways, and her influence on all of us, continues after she has passed away.

Here’s the link to the post: The Scarlet Muse

Devendra Joshi, a friend more than a relative, sent me a recording on the significance of Harischandra on Gujarati literature, and surprisingly, the podcast didn’t mention my father Meghnad, a poet, novelist, essayist and a man of letters in Gujarati literature. That provoked me to write about Meghnad’s relationship with his father (Harischandra committed suicide when Meghnad was just 15-years-old). I also translated Meghnad’s poem on his dad from Gujarati into English.

See the post here: Remembering a Family Man

Sunday, February 03, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 23

2015 was a significant improvement on 2014. My new job at Simmons da Silva introduced me to a number of colleagues, many of them became friends; a couple of them still are, although I’ve moved on from that incredibly dynamic firm.

The leadership of the firm is forward looking and progressive, committed to multicultural ethos, despite a majority of its members being white (or as Stephen Harper would refer as “old stock Canadians”). 

Although being a five-decades-old firm, and law being an endemically conservative profession, thanks to its leadership, Simmons da Silva constantly strives for professional excellence.

Howard Simmons

At the firm, I knew Puneet, who'd created the opportunity for me to work there, and Pathik Baxi, a person who owns the term ‘laid back’. After joining, I instantly became friends with Howard Simmons, the founder of the firm. Howard is a rare free-thinking intellectual in a profession that encourages and often ensures regimentation.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, I got to know nearly 40 individuals who worked at the firm. In any work environment, some colleagues become more important than others. And, as I said at the beginning of this blog, a couple of them remain important, even though I’ve not been able to maintain contact with them as regularly as I’d want to.

When my colleagues surprised me by
celebrating my birthday - the first time in more
than two decades that I celebrated my birthday
in such a manner

However, since there are people in our midst who have the tendency to turn everything pure and magical into prurient and ugly, I shall refrain from naming those who are still important to me only because I have no desire to embarrass them, and because what I shared with them was special and will remain so forever.

May 2015 was the last time the Festival of South Asian Festival of Literature and the Arts (renamed as the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts in 2015) was organised by the indefatigable team of MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz.

I was involved directly in organizing the East Asian panel with the help of Diana Tso, a playwright and actor. Sang Kim moderated the discussion on ‘Is Asian-Canadian a helpful label in terms of the Canadian canon’ and included the following eminent Asian-Canadian authors as panelists: Denis Chong, C Fong Hsiung, Madeleine Thien, Diana Tso, and Terry Watada.

The festival filled a vacuum in the cultural landscape of Toronto because it gave representation to authors who were invited from across the developing world, and to Canadian voices that seldom found representation in mainstream cultural programming. 

However, it clearly needed a larger professional organisational strength that the group of volunteers was unable to provide. 2015 turned out to be the last of a great series.

If interested in reading more, click here:  FSALA-15

In the summer of 2015, my friend Kumar Ketkar and his wife Sharada Sathe came to Toronto. It gave me an opportunity to invite a few friends over to my place (the party room of Lexington on the Green) to celebrate a warm evening together. 

All those invited were friends who’d helped me in my journey to become a Canadian, and while not everyone invited was able to come, those who did, contributed substantially to making the evening memorable and loads of fun.

Kumar and Sharada with friends
What I remember most about that evening was the selfless and unselfconscious manner in which Jasmine Sawant took the responsibility of doing the dishes after the party.  

Nitin and Jasmine then invited Kumar and Sharada to meet with their Marathi-speaking group for another dinner reception. It turned out to be a grand success. Both Kumar and Sharada are committed liberal progressives who have spent their entire life for the left ideological causes. 

Here’s a post about Kumar’s visit to Toronto when we went to the Toronto Reference Library: Erasmus of Rotterdam

2015 was also important for another reason – Stephen Harper lost the federal elections. He lost because of an exclusionary political agenda that targeted Muslim immigrants during the last years of his tenure. 

In retrospect, I think, Harper’s sharp exclusionary bend was probably a couple of years before its time.

By 2016-17, the tumultuous events across Europe (in the wake of the Syrian crisis and the ceaseless influx of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa) and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump’s extremism in the Presidential elections in the United States the forces that Harper tried to unleash in Canada had gained ascendency in the political narrative across most of North America and Europe.

Despite this obvious shortcoming in his politics, I admire Harper for his visionary leadership in improving Canada’s relations with India. He went to India on two occasions during his tenure and expanded the Canadian trade office network across India. And more pertinently, he understood and encouraged the role that Indo-Canadians have and can play in improving bilateral ties.

Also, he was Canada’s prime minister when I arrived in Canada in 2008 and became a citizen in 2014. These are significant landmarks in my life and Harper was an integral part of it. Thanks to my involvement with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, I was able to meet him on a couple of occasions.

With Stephen Harper and the ICCC leadership

I voted for the first time in a Canadian election hopeful that my vote would make a difference in making Canada a more just society, a society that treats all its citizens with respect. As they say, the jury is out on that one.

We lost many stalwarts in 2015, among them were: Charles Correa, the eminent architect from Bombay; novelist Gunter Grass; Narayan Desai, Mahatma Gandhi’s executive assistant and an eminent pacifist; Lee Kwan Yew, the creator of modern Singapore.

Vinod Mehta, one of India’s finest editors; and Praful Bidwai, an activist journalist, also passed away. And we lost RK Laxman, the legendary cartoonist of the Times of India, the creator of the Common Man. Laxman shaped the sensibilities of three generations of Indians by his cartoons. I shared the same workspace with him briefly when I worked for the Times Group. Here's the link to a post that narrates my encounter with him:

Uncommon encounter with the creator of common man

In India, Hindu fundamentalists assassinated Govind Pansare, a Communist, and MM Kalbargi, a Kannada academic. A couple of years ago in 2013, they had assassinated Narendra Dabholkar, and a couple of years later, in 2017, they'd assassinate Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was vociferous in her opposition to the right-wing Hindutva nationalist politics that has come to control India. 

I remain worried for my more outspoken friends in India, and have often told them that in case they perceive any threat to their lives, they should immediately hop on to a plane and reach Toronto. I'd help them in every way possible to get settled here and continue to wage their ideological battle.

I lost a friend – Najia Alavi, a Pakistani-Canadian, and an active member of Communications, Advertising, Marketing Professionals (CAMP), Canada’s first voluntary organization for the marketing fraternity. She died by drowning while on a family vacation in Dubai.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

George Fernandes

George Fernandes in Muzzafarpur jail

It was 1998, a few months before I’d leave journalism to join the US government as a media advisor. I was at Business India as an assistant editor covering the interface between business and governments. I was at the Mumbai Municipal Corporation building waiting for my appointment with the Municipal Commissioner. In the waiting lounge were George Fernandes and Sharad Rao. Fernandes, if I recall right, was recently appointed minister in the AB Vajpayee government (Vajpayee’s second stint).

As a journalist, I’d maintained cordial ties with Sharad Rao, but I’d no real connection with Fernandes. However, when he saw me there, he beckoned me and asked about Meghnad, who had passed away a year ago in 1997. He asked about Durga, about how I was doing, put his hand on my shoulder and patted me. Sharad Rao stood beside him with tears welling up in his eyes. Just then, they were called for their appointment.

George Fernandes, the firebrand trade union leader, who was now a minister again, hadn’t forgotten his roots or his old supporters.

Meghnad was a close associate of Fernandes when he began his journey into national politics. The 1967 elections, when Fernandes defeated SK Patil, was historical in many ways, and especially so personally to our family because Meghnad worked tirelessly with a bunch of other young men and women to help Fernandes win.

Fernandes’s meetings would be held in our two-room tenement at Princess Street. These young men and women shared a vision of a new India that would be just, would ensure equality and where workers’ rights were not trampled upon. Surprising many political observers, Fernandes won handsomely and went to the Indian Parliament.

Sharad Rao and Meghnad were among the many of Fernandes’s lieutenants who had the opportunity to join him; Meghnad didn’t because he wasn’t sure how he’d support his fledgling family. Sharad Rao did and prospered.

Meghnad continued to work at Mafatlal’s and in the mid-1970s launched the first trade union with Fernandes and Sharad Rao at the Mafatlal Centre in Nariman Point. This was after Arvind Mafatlal, the head of the Mafatlal group, threatened Meghnad to get him arrested under the draconian MISA.

During the Emergency, Meghnad became – like many others – a conduit for information sharing through informal networks. There’d be heated debates amongst his friends on the torture that Fernandes’s associates such as Snehalata Reddy had to face.

After George’s arrest, his election victory, the formation of the Janata Party, the political equations changed. Meghnad didn’t share the visceral anti-Indira Gandhi sentiments that had brought all the opposition together.

He was deeply suspicious of Morarji Desai’s brand of Gandhian politics, as he was of the Jana Sangh brand of ultra nationalism. In fact, the socialists (especially of the SSP variety) were vociferous in their demand that the dual membership of the Jan Sanghis – into RSS and the Janata Party – shouldn’t be allowed, which eventually split the Janata Party.

Meghnad and his generation totally supported Fernandes’s decisions as a minister in the Janata government to drive IMB and Coke out of India. Throughout the 1980s, Fernandes remained a towering figure for many. The anti-Congressism of those days is similar to the anti-Modi politics of today – it united every political party. And Fernandes was a key figure in that schema.

There were some irksome decisions and actions that Fernandes took then – such as joining forces with Bal Thackrey to defeat Datta Samant in the 1980s – which were an indication of pliable politics that George would adopt rather dexterously and shamelessly in the future.

Throughout his political career, the sole focus of Fernandes’s politics was the defeat of Congress at any cost. In the mid-1990s, he’d no qualms joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party. I remember telling Durga, after the second Vajpayee government was formed, that it was good that Meghnad had passed away before he’d have to see the ultimate capitulation of the socialist dream.

The next decade saw the total and willing immersion of Fernandes into the quagmire of political shenanigans, including accusations of corruption and bribery, leading to his resignation and then subsequent political humiliation by the likes of Nitesh Kumar, leaders whom he’d created.

But Fernandes will be remembered for standing up for justice, giving hope and allowing the common Indian and especially Mumbaikar to dream of a better tomorrow.  

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 22

L to R: Kumar Ketkar, Sharada Sathe, Mayank Bhatt and Jatin Desai
at the launch of the Marathi translation of Belief

A trip to India is an effective way to put perspective into life. The recent trip – I returned a couple of days – was unique in many ways. After a long time, I was part of a business delegation visiting multiple cities (New Delhi and Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar) on official business. Then, when some of our delegates left for Varanasi, to participate in the annual jamboree of the Indian diaspora, I went home to Bombay to participate in the launch of my novel Belief’s Marathi translation.

Ten days of hectic, whirlwind jet setting may seem glamorous but I’m just too old to handle such an adrenaline rush, and after the first four days into the tour, I was practically immobilized by the pollution in New Delhi and Gandhinagar. Fortunately, I recovered in time for the book launch in Bombay and then had to rest for the next couple of days before returning home.

After a decade out of Bombay, I no longer belong to that city. Yes, it is a part of me and will always be, but I have no place in it anymore. Surprisingly, I don’t feel sad about it at all. The biggest reason, of course, is that people whom I’ve known for all my life, have moved on, and justifiably so. It becomes difficult for them to find time for me at my convenience; I’d think it’d be as difficult for me to find time for them in Toronto, if they visited unannounced and made demands on my time.

Friends at the book launch
However, the book launch turned out to be a tremendous success and most of my friends and some of my family members did manage to find time to be there at the Mumbai Press Club. A special thank you to all those who made time to be with me, and for all those who couldn’t – well, thank you for trying.

During the visit, I met Neerav Patel, the eminent Gujarati Dalit poet. He’s been a social media friend ever since he visited Toronto to be a part of the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts in 2015. 

Neerav believes that I should turn my ‘A Decade in Toronto’ series into a book. That’s a flattering thought, but I don’t think my experiences in Toronto are markedly different from those of hundreds of thousands of other immigrants.

But let's leave that for the later. And for now just continue with the saga of recollection.

This week, I’ll focus on authors and books.

In 2014 Ramchandra Guha came to Toronto’s Munk Centre to launch his book Gandhi Before India (which is about Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 to 1915). Guha spoke about Tolstoy’s influence on Gandhi and how the young Gandhi, who had just embarked upon Tolstoy's pacifism, was confident that his practice of non-violence non-cooperation would transform the world.

If interested, read more: Gandhi Before India

That year, MJ Akbar, by then firmly in the Hindutva camp, visited the Munk Centre, and gave a scintillating insight into India, the Empire and the First World War. The lecture was to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and Akbar gave an original interpretation to end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one.

Akbar’s reputation is besmirched and seemingly beyond repair. When I mentioned his name at my book launch in Bombay, in reference to a question, there were visible frowns from my women friends.

I’m too insignificant to defend Akbar and indeed the allegations against him if true are indefensible. However, that shouldn’t take away from his achievements as a journalist, editor, historian and a fine raconteur.

If interested, read more:

The two books that I read and loved were MG Vassanji’s India: A Place Within, and his memoir And Home was Kariakoo. Of course, India: A Place Within is a special book; undoubtedly one of the finest on India. “This country that I’ve come so brazenly to rediscover goes as deep as it is vast and diverse. It’s only oneself one ever discovers,” Vassanji says.

If interested, read more: India: A Place Within

That year, I also attempted my first translation of my father’s poem from Gujarati into English. A son’s poem to his dead father remains a favourite because it is applicable to everyone who reach a certain age when angst overrule all other emotions. 

And finally, one of the most insightful sessions on immigrant writing was a six-week program on Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience conducted by Sanja Ivanov then of the University of Waterloo (and now at the University of Toronto) at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (Spadina and College).

We read and discussed five stories by four authors:  Roman Berman, Massage Therapist and The Second Strongest Man (from David Bezmozgis’s collection Natasha and Other Stories); The Inert Landscapes of Gyorgy Ferenc (from Tamas Bobozy’s Last Notes and Other Stories); Squatter (from Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Firozsha Baag); and No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences (from Dionne Brand’s Sans Souci and Other Stories).

Let me conclude this blog – hopefully the last for 2014 – with a quote from Tamas Bobozy’s story, which incidentally, captures the quintessential bleakness that all immigrants experience when they return home after living in Canada.

“It was only many weeks later, when I’d fully realized what it was to lose a country – after I had gone astray in the streets of a city I thought I knew as well as myself, after I’d seen the growth of apartments on the outskirts of Debrecen, after I’d stepped onto the Hortobagy and been unable to shake the sense of infinite distance between the soles of my shoes and the ground they stood upon – that I remembered where I’d last seen the smile Akos had worn at the airport. You see, either everything had changed in Hungary, or I had changed, and what was most disquieting about the trip for me was not only that I couldn’t stabilize my sense of being in the country, but that I couldn’t even fix upon the country I was trying to stabilize myself in relation to.

“The greatest nightmare was that both of us had changed – the country and myself – and that we were constantly changing, which made the possibility of us ever connecting again a matter of complete chance, the intersection of two bodies on random flight patterns, ruled by equations so different there was little chance of us resting, even for a second, on the same co-ordinates.”

I began this blog by saying the same thing – about not being able to relate to my Bombay anymore.