& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best of GAB

I'm busy writing, and haven't finished reading Empire of Illusion.

So, here's an end-of-the-year best of GAB. I've included some explanation to justify the selection.

Best wishes for the New Year.

December 08: Jesus, Jinnah & Atal Behari

(I wrote about my favourite history book Richard Tucker's Ranade and the Roots of Indian Nationalism. Later discovered, reading MJ Akbar's column, that Jinnah had changed his birthday from October 20 to December 25. October 20 is also an important date for me)

January 09:
White Tiger

(Quite simply one of the best books I read this year. Also, my blog comes up in many searches when readers of the book Google the Great Socialist and White Tiger.)

February 09:
Fun Home

(My first adult graphic novel. Amazingly sensitive and touching. I discovered a wonderful art form that economises on words but not on emotions.)

March 09:
Running in the family

(I hadn't read Ondaatje before. This was a great introduction. Then, I read In the Skin of the Lion, the most definitive book on Toronto.)

April 09:
It’s raining

(I always got drenched in the first rains in Mumbai. Tried doing that in Toronto and almost fell ill. Also wrote about Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon. The book has Jawaharlal Nehru's quote about being disappointed with Bombay's monsoon. See the quote below.)

& Nehru on Bombay's monsoon

(Used photographs from Rahul Gandhi's website.)

Asian writers

(Met Jasmine D'Costa for the first time, and read her wonderful collection of short stories Curry is Thicker than Water.)

June :
VS Naipaul

(Reading a master; awestruck.)

Writer as God

(This piece was a result of an intense internal turmoil.)

A Streetcar Named Desire

(Nick Noorani wrote back. I was surprised, overjoyed.)

Festival of South Asian Literature & Arts

(Met MG Vassanji for the first time.)

Princess of Serendip

(I met Dionne Brand a month later; she has a warm heart.)

Canadian Voices

(A marvelous collection of fiction and poetry by new voices in Canada)

Global Soul

(Realised that I'll always be an outsider anywhere I go.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

GAB is One

About a year ago last December I decided that the best way I could get around the problem of being published in Canada was to start a blog.

Writing a blog had been on my mind even in India. However, a combination of factors – primarily being hooked to television – prevented me from writing regularly. Some friends did encourage me to write, but those attempts were few and far between.

My reading hadn’t stopped. I read as if my life depended upon it; indiscriminately. Although for many years, I had ceased to read fiction. That changed in Toronto thanks to an easy access to a public library within walking distance from home. I began to read Canadian fiction and discovered so many great writers. Also got to know a couple of them personally.

I wrote my first short story and then began to develop it into a novel. It’ll be a while before the novel is anywhere near being completed. I was a bit foolhardy to enter a half-finished manuscript in a competition. Not surprisingly, I was nowhere near the winners.

I’ve enrolled at Humber to work on my manuscript with MG Vassanji. He helped me work on my short story thanks to Diaspora Dialogues’ mentoring program. Diaspora Dialogues has accepted the short story for publication. The fifth edition of TOK: Writing the New Toronto will have The New Canadians.

All this would have seemed like a dream last year when I started Generally About Books. As I assess my last year, I’d say the single biggest achievement has been getting a job that acknowledges my talent and utilises my experience.

However, my achievements in the writing sphere are no less noteworthy, and my apologies for being so openly immodest.

I wouldn’t have believed anyone telling me that I’d win two scholarships within a year; get a blog and a column in Canadian Immigrant. Moreover, get to know a whole host of people who have something to do with writing.

I attribute my transformation to the seriousness with which I approached writing my blog. It proved to be cathartic. Fortunately, I met so many people during the last 12 months who didn’t discourage me.

As I approach the first anniversary of my blog this week, I realise how serious the exercise has become for me. I have turned into a serious and compulsive reader and a writer. Until a couple of months ago, I managed to complete at least a book a week. Now the pace has slackened because I’ve started writing my own book.

I’m reading Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, a book that is ominous and disturbing. I plan to write about it next week. It sort of echoes the observation I made when I started this blog.

Before I conclude, I must congratulate myself for another reason, too. This is the first year – after many, many years – that I made more friends than enemies.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Small Press of Toronto

Snow in Toronto is like rain in Mumbai. Towards end of May when the earth is parched, all Mumbai waits for the rains. Towards end of October, when it begins to get really cold, all Toronto waits for snow.

In Mumbai it didn’t rain almost all June. It didn’t snow in Toronto all November.

There’s a good reason for Copenhagen summit to set stringent targets.

Last week it began to snow and the temperatures fell below freezing. I could almost feel the sense of relief amongst the people of the city, even as they welcomed the first snowstorm with vocal curses. In this respect, Torontonians are not too different from Mumbaikars.

Going out in freezing temperatures requires a lot of willpower. Today, it was no different. I wanted to participate in the Small Press of Toronto Book Fair. And meet my friends. The fair was a combination to mainstream publishers as well as the underground press.

There were many writers, editors, publishers. I knew just two of them – friend and author Jasmine D’Costa and poet Glen Downie. There were independent publishers, self-published writers, publishers who publish only poetry, crafts folks who create homemade stationery, cards, posters and all sorts of knickknacks.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend any of the book reading sessions or the author interviews because my friends were meeting me at the Gladstone Hotel to discuss a book project (more about that sometime later).

Talking of books, talking of writing, sharing stories of our lives over Earl Grey tea in a pot and having egg omelette, bacon and fried potatoes. Saturday afternoons can’t get better than that.

It gets dark before 5:00 PM. We returned home.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Global Soul

Twelve months is a long time. A long time to be away from a place you’ve belonged to for 46 years.

As 2009 comes to an end I’m gripped with a strange sense of deprivation. I’ve been away from my city for an entire year. Of course, I've been in Toronto since July 2008. But 2009 is the first year of that I've been away from Mumbai throughout the year.

Quite naturally, I miss everything about Mumbai; including all my old enemies. And yet, I’ve come to like Toronto as well, especially my new friends.

Coming to Canada was a dream nurtured for many years collectively by my family. Living in Canada for the last 17 months now makes me acutely aware that those glib talkers who say that in this world of globalisation geography is history don’t know what they are talking about.

Or perhaps I’m differently made.

In my new job, I’ve met more people in the last two months in Toronto (and Montreal) than I did in the last 15 months. Every time someone asks me how long I’ve been here, I act like Morarji Desai – which is to say that I answer the question with another question – and ask the person to take a guess. The answers vary, always by a long shot. The closest anyone’s come to the correct answer is three years.

When I tell them, “I came here last July,” they usually comment rather favourably at how well I’ve adjusted to my new environs.

  • Perhaps my stint with the US Consulate has helped me.
  • Perhaps it’s my habit of reading the newspaper every morning.
  • Perhaps I’m actually too much of an outsider and everyone’s just trying to be polite.

Take your pick.

Earlier this year I read Pico Iyer’s Global Soul. Iyer says the new globalism is the nationalism.

He explains, “...in the modern world, which I take to be an International Empire, the sense of home is not just divided, but scattered across the planet...I begin to wonder whether a new kind of being might not be coming to light – a citizen of this International Empire – made up of fusions (and confusions) we had not seen before: a “Global Soul” in a less exalted (and more intimate, more vexed) sense than the Emersonian one. This creature could be a person who had grown up in many cultures all at once – and so lived in the cracks between them – or might be one who, though rooted in background, lived and worked on a globe that propelled him from tropic to snowstorm in three hours.”

I clearly don’t belong to this category. This is the category that is probably most at home in Davos – the place which, as Iyer says, is the new face of this 21st century globalism.

I was rooted in Mumbai for the first part of my life. I wish to stay rooted in Toronto for the rest of my life.

I was an outsider there in Mumbai (despite being born there) and I'll be an outsider here (despite probably dying here).

Image: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/books/00/05/25/image/Pico_Iyer.gif

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

25 years after Bhopal

Rahgu Rai's photograph that has come to symbolise the Bhopal Gas tragedy (originally published in India Today)

Nobody knows the identity of this child.

Read today's report in The Times of India

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meeting writers

MG Vassanji, Dionne Brand, Olive Senior, Nurjehan Aziz, Priscila Uppal, Jasmine D’Costa, Tasleem Thawar, Dawn Promislow.

There were more writers per square foot at The Gladstone Hotel last Tuesday at Tsar’s annual book launch than I had seen in a long time.

And so many others that I didn’t know. Not that I know all of those I've listed here.

It was my first visit to Gladstone. I can't think of an equivalent institution in Mumbai.

I wanted to hear Sheema Khan read from her Hockey and Hijab – a book that has become a talking point everywhere in Toronto. She wasn’t there, but there were many other – equally interesting – writers.

I particularly liked the short passage Tasleem Thawar read from her work published in Her Mother's Ashes 3 (edited by Nurjehan Aziz), the translation by Chelva Kanaganayakam of a Tamil poem and Olive Senior’s passage from her book Arrival of the Snake-Woman.

For me the highpoint of the event was to be able to exchange a few guarded words with MG Vassanji. And to meet Dionne Brand. I went up to both of them and introduced myself.

Believe me, that is unusual; even though I sometimes do come across as a shameless self-promoter.

Thankfully, Vassanji remembered me. It'd have been rather embarrassing if he didn't. He's generally reticent, I guess. So exchanging a few pleasantries with him, especially after he had just won the Governor General’s prize for non-fiction, should count as a major achievement.

I told Brand that I had written about her book A Map to the Door of No Return (Notes to Belonging) on this blog and that I hadn’t read a more succinct explanation of VS Naipaul’s lifelong anxiety as a writer than her's. Brand said she had read my blog recently. That should count as another major achievement. Brand is Toronto's poet laureate.

Dawn Promislow introduced me to Olive Senior. I told her about my discovery of the Indo-Caribbean culture in Canada. Jasmine D’Costa introduced me to Fraser Sutherland, an editor of literary works and to Mariellen Ward, whose Hindi is as beautiful as she is.

A young woman walked up to me and asked whether I was a poet. I answered, “Yes. All my submissions have been rejected so far.” She laughed. I laughed, too. What can’t be cured has to be endured.

Everyone had a great time.

Image: Book Covers + Adobe Photoshop

New blog on Canadian Immigrant

Canadian Immigrant, the magazine whose staff has consistently backed me establish my credentials as a freelance writer in Canada, launched my new blog on its website three weeks ago.

Please visit the magazine's website for a weekly update of my brand new blog -- My Immigrant Adventures.

Thank you Nick, Margaret, Gloria, Karolina. I hope I live up to your expectations. And thank you Karolina for your praise.

I'll be restricting myself to one entry a week for both the blogs. This is because I have to complete my novel for my Humber program that commences January 2010.

I guess eight blog entries in a month would be a bit too much for anyone to read. I can, of course, keep writing more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Patients Beyond Borders

Rick Westhead of Toronto Star has coined a new definition of India: A land of masala and opportunity.

Several events in the recent weeks focused India’s rising status in Canada, and emphasised this status.

Stephen Harper’s visit to India - although inadequately covered by the Indian media - is a turning point. It’ll achieve two things for sure:

  1. Trade ties between India and Canada that have remained moribund for the past several years will now jump-start into a different league.
  2. The other – more certain – outcome will be Harper’s victory with a majority in the next elections if they’re forced within the next year or so.

The Gujaratis and the Sikhs of Canada will wholeheartedly support the Conservatives after Harper’s symbolic visits to the Swami Narayan and the Golden Temple.

Another event that focussed on India and its rising status in the medical field was the Indian Medical Tourism Destination (IMTD) 2009 conference and exhibition at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre last week.

I plan to write about the event separately.

Here, I want to write about an unusual book that I received at the IMTD: Patients Beyond Borders is “everybody’s guide to affordable world-class medical travel,” written by Josef Woodman.

Quite simply, I found the book amazing.

It claims to be “the most trusted guide to healthcare abroad,” and lists “the world’s best international hospitals and clinics,” explains “how to plan and budget your medical trip,” lists a “convenient hospital and treatment finder,” and suggests “10 must-ask questions for your in-country MD.”

The book claims, “last year, more than 180,000 Americans packed their bags and headed overseas for nearly every imaginable type of medical treatment: tummy tucks in Brazil, heart valve replacements in Thailand, hip resurfacing surgeries in India, addiction recovery in Antigua, fertility diagnosis and treatments in South Africa, thalassotherapy in Hungary, or restorative dentistry in Mexico. Currently, at least 28 countries on four continents cater to the international health traveler with more than a million patients visiting hospitals and clinics each year in countries other than their own.”

Browsing the book’s list of cities for types of typical treatments and costs, I checked information about Mumbai. And here’s what it lists:


Coronary Artery Bypass Graft: $8,800
Pacemaker (single-chambered): $6,500
Pacemaker (double-chambered): $9,000


Birmingham Hip Resurfacing: $9,900
Joint Replacement:
Knee: $8,400
Hip: $9,500
Ankle: $7,100
Shoulder: $8,400


Breast Augmentation: $3,300-$5,300
Breast Lift/Reduction: $3,300-$5,050
Facelift: $5,700
Liposuction (stomach, hips and waist): $1,000-$2.650


Porcelain Veneer: $420
Crown (all porcelain): $360
Inlays and Onlays: $600-$1,100
Implant (titanium with crown): $1,100


Glaucoma: $1,050
LASIK (per eye): $810

Weight Loss:

LAP-BAND System: $6,600
Gastric Bypass: $7,200

Lots of interesting information about a sector whose time has come.

Image: http://blog.publishedandprofitable.com/wp-content/joe-woodman_one-five-color.jpg

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

M. G. Vassanji wins 2009 Governor General's Literary Award

M. G. Vassanji wins

Canadian immigrant author M. G. Vassanji, who has won prestigious literary awards in the past, has just received a new honour: the 2009 Governor General's Literary Award in the non-fiction category

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Berlin Wall & John le Carre

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was a comparatively muted event, as was the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square.

It almost seemed that the western establishment, and especially the western media, couldn’t quite decide whether it would be appropriate to sing hosannas to western capitalism at this precarious stage.

In 2009 the unbridled march of the free market system had led to a complete and comprehensive collapse of the world economy.

The economic downturn would have happened even if communism and controlled economies existed.

It seemed that the establishment was chastised enough not to go overboard celebrating capitalism’s victory over communism.

It shouldn't have been so constricted.

As an economic paradigm, the on-going economic crises may create doubts about the efficacy of the free market model purely from a stability (and not growth) perspective.

However, no similar doubt need be harboured about liberal democracy. It is the best form of governance for human beings. Period.

It represents the ultimate triumph of the western ideals, and is infinitely better than any other form of governance that curtails freedom.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa posed for a photograph with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

US President Barrack Obama should have made the trip and shared the moment with Gorbachev-Merkel-Walesa.

An aside: India was in the throes of electioneering when the Berlin Wall was torn down. I was reporting for Sunday Observer and accompanying Sambhaji Kakade of the Janata Dal as he toured his constituency outside Pune.

A French anthropologist was with us in the car. He was conducting field research. He could barely contain joy and a peculiar sense of victory at the fall of a restrictive system.

The Berlin Wall evokes many memories. I’ve never been to Germany so the little I know is from books, movies and documentaries about the Cold War (with President Kennedy famously declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”).

The two novels where the Berlin Wall forms a backdrop are John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley’s People (1979).

I read Smiley’s People first (again, because that was the age when I discovered books). I found it fascinating, especially Karla, the Soviet spy.

It depicted the corrupt, corpulent, socially and politically depraved world of spies, and there was nothing to distinguish between the west or the communists.

There was no difference between George Smiley and Karla. They used the same vicious methods and ends were always important than the means.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is rated the best spy novel ever by Time magazine. Its climax is at the Berlin Wall; so is that of Smiley's People.

I won’t be a spoiler by revealing how the novels end.

I’ll just say that Karla in the latter novel succeeds where Alec Learnas in the earlier novel fails.

Le Carre made his spies human, shorn of false bravado and heroism normally associated with spies and their profession. There was no action in the novels. The only thrill was the intricate maze that the author wove around his characters and their circumstances.

Spying was not the cloak and dagger stuff; it was an operation of a giant, ungainly bureaucracy that usually made sure that the right hand wouldn’t know what the left hand did.

Nothing like Da Vinci Code. And yet, infinitely more interesting.

The world of spy novels definitely suffered a serious setback after the Soviet empire collapsed. Post-Soviet era spy novels just don’t have that edginess to them that the ones written during the Cold War did.

Image: http://asfolhasardem.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/03lecarre___large.jpg

Friday, November 13, 2009

Canadian Voices

Earlier this week I attended a book event at an odd sounding restaurant – Supermarket Art Bar.

The place was overflowing with people. All gathered to participate in the launch of Canadian Voices, an anthology of prose and poetry by emerging Canadian writers.

Published by BookLand Press, the book is the first of its kind in Canada. This is Volume One. Others will follow over the years.

Publisher Rogert Morgan introduced the concept of the collection saying the idea was to encapsulate some of the best contemporary writings in Canada by emerging Canadian writers in a single volume.

A quick look at the table of contents page showed a multicultural diversity the Morgan’s publishing company has put together into one book – it brings together nearly 50 prose writers and poets.

Short story writer, poet and novelist Jasmine D’Costa introduced some of the writers who read their work. The launch was simulcasted on the web, too.

Despite my tight schedule, I managed to read some stories and many poems from the book.

The best way to read such anthologies is to randomly select a story and start reading it.

The first story I read was Professor Z. W. Shen by Hailun Tang. It read like a memoir – a touching tale of a professor in China who despite persecution during the Cultural Revolution, fearlessly agrees to teach English to two students; one of them is the writer of the story, who ultimately immigrates to Canada.

Then I read Pratap Reddy’s In the Dark, a story based on the power outage that North American experienced some years ago. Reddy skilfully turns the tables on the reader who expect something to happen between Anne and Dev, the two main characters who meet in the subway.

The short length of the each of the stories makes for an easy read.

Among the poems, I liked The Red in Poetry by Cassie McDaniel

It doesn’t take much to be a poet
you need a red book
hide-away hide-out don’t-look
warning, dangerous words
It doesn’t take much.

It doesn’t take much to be a woman
red mouth
red-words red-eyes look-out
heavy, breath like gravy
red gravy.

It doesn’t take much to be a poet
you need a big hurt
deep pain, like Peguis canyon
in Mexico, off the main roads
swoop and dive, like a red-tail
arrogant and lost.

And Val David by Jasmine D’Costa

I stand on the street at Val David holding your hand
on the tired road beneath my feet.
In the distance, the hills blue-green stretching sleepily,
fade into distant colours.
Undoubtedly, the road ends there
And beneath endless pines, the forest path
is defined by the lone traveler
I look around for you
But all I see is the straight road to the hills
and nothing beyond

For the first time ever, I promoted this blog directly.

When I bought the book at a side table from Robert Morgan, I scribbled this blog’s URL on a piece of paper and told him, “I’ll write about this book on my blog.”

He looked at me bemusedly, and then smiled.

Before I left for home, I went across to Jasmine D’Costa to get her to autograph the book. She did and so did writer Zohra Zoberi.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

I have a general disdain for coffee table books. They are what we from India call “time pass” books. These books are a combination of jaw-dropping factoids and fabulous visuals. Almost always, there’s little content of any significance in them.
Often they are like teasers, or movie trailer. After browsing through a coffee table book, one often feels like getting a real book that will contain more substance.

39 Clues

I prefer not to buy such books because they’re frightfully expensive.

I made an exception today. I went to Indigo (oh, these big book stores, how they manipulate you at a subconscious level) at Yorkdale mall with Che. He wanted to buy the sixth book in the 39 Clues series.

It was a gorgeously illustrated book.

I stopped at a page that had an engraving by an Italian artist Gaetano Zancon (1771-1816) depicting sati (or suttee, which is the colonial spelling).

Charles Napier

Accompanying the engraving was a quote by General Sir Charles Napier, addressing an Indian delegation protesting against British suppression of suttee:
“It’s your custom to burn widows. Very Well. We also have a custom: When men burn women alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre and beside it my carpenter will build a gallows. You may follow your national custom, and we shall follow ours.”

During the last year at Sheridan, I’ve participated in many spirited debates on post-colonialism, Orientalism and the importance of moving away from the discourse of the dominant in history.

In today’s West where multiculturalism is the governing ethos, everyone but the most rabid supporters (Niall Ferguson, perhaps?) would see the British Empire as anything but an embarrassment.

For proof, see the coverage of the 11-day Canada visit of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, in the media. The Toronto Star's coverage appears inspired by Diana’s ghost.

A Reuters report says many Canadians feel the Royal family is no longer relevant to them.

History has moved away from the direction that Winston Churchill wanted it to go.
For instance, in today’s world, not many would share Churchill’s abhorrence for the Mahatma. On the contrary, many would find Churchill's views detestable.
He was appalled to see the Mahatma draped in little more than a loincloth holding talks with the British Viceroy.

Exasperated, he exclaimed: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

Social reforms

However, at another – perhaps more fundamental – level, the British Raj did manage to force a revolution in India in the 19th century – in the sphere of social reforms in Hinduism.

The British abolished Sati in 1829. This direct intervention into Hindu customs by “outsiders” led to the hastening of the social reform movement among Hindus in the 19th century. Of course, the orthodox elements continued to hold dearly on to their outmoded customs. They continued to oppose interventions in the Hindu customs by the new colonial rulers.

Reading General Charles Napier’s quote in the book reminded me of another one by Sir Andrew Scoble. Sir Scoble introduced the Age of Consent Bill in 1891, which raised the marriageable age for girls from 10 to 12.

The orthodox Hindus, led by Lokmanya Tilak, vehemently opposed the Bill. Tilak apparently was not opposed to the content of the bill. He was intolerant of the British and was unwilling to let them abrogate the right to decide.

The controversy flared uncontrollably. However, the Bill was passed. Sir Scoble got all the support he needed from the likes of MG Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, among many others.

Sir Scoble justified it by declaring, “The balance of argument and authority is in favour of the Bill...even if it were not so, were I a Hindu, I would prefer to be wrong with Professor Bhandarkar, Mr. Justice Telang and Dewan Bahadur Raghunath Rao, than to be right with Pundit Sadadhur Turachuramani (Sasdhar Tarakachudamani) and Mr. Tilak.”

A politically wounded Tilak, isolated in Pune, decided that the best manner in which he could recapture his position was to do something dramatic.

He did. He launched the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav (the Ganapati festival).

Oh, yes. I bought the book. More about it this month.

Sati illustration from the book