& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, March 30, 2009

 Time is the enemy of man. Illumination is not enlightenment through time, it isn't a gradual process, success after success...Jidu Krishnamurthy (Bombay public talk 1984)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Running in the Family

The most poignant moment in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is when he finally gets hold of the photograph of his parents taken when they were on their honeymoon. Instead of having regular, posed photographs taken the couple indulges in horseplay and prefers the unconventional.

Ondaatje writes, “They both begin to make hideous faces. My father’s pupils droop to the south-west corner of his sockets. His jaw falls and resettles into a groan that is half idiot, half shock…My mother…has twisted her lovely features and stuck out her jaw and upper lip so that her profile is in the posture of a monkey…On the back my father has written “What we think of married life.”

By itself this would be mildly interesting and unusual, considering that such a photograph was taken in 1932, when the tendency was to take posed pictures. What makes it a shatteringly vivid memory for the writer is that, “It is the only photograph I have found of the two of them together.” (See photograph).

Despite the fact that his parents fought bitterly and divorced after 14 years of marriage, Ondaatje, who was very young when that incident happened, is forced to remember them forever at a time when they were enjoying their lives together like never before and never after.

Running in the Family is an unusual book and difficult to slot into any genre.

  • It’s a compelling and unstructured ensemble of fact, fiction, poetry, oral history, photographs and fading memories.
  • It’s a reconstructed biography of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, half-sisters; and, of course, about himself.
  • It’s a potent brew of stories, incidents, accidents, despicable drunkenness, honourable sacrifices, loneliness and togetherness, falling in love and falling out of love, cruelty, destiny, fate and faith.
  • It’s the story of every family that is never told and that is because most families don’t have an Ondaatje to record it.
  • It’s replete with sensuous poetry. Sample this:

Seeing you
I want no other life
and turn around
to the sky
and everywhere below
jungle, waves of heat
secular love

Holding the new flowers
a circle of
first finger and thumb
which is a window

to your breast

pleasure of the skin
of the belly

In her afterword to the book Nicole Brossard aptly remarks: “Most often writers lose patience with their families, but Ondaatje dances with his…”

Ondaatje left Sri Lanka when he was 11 and returned twice for brief visits in 1978 and 1980 to the , the mystifying land that Ceylon was before 1983 when its peace was shattered forever as the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils began a civil war that has spilled over to even reach downtown Toronto.

He returned to his homeland to reconstruct his own history and the only way in which he could do that was to reconfigure the stories of his family especially his mother and father. Actually, not so much the mother as the father; Ondaatje writes, “Words such as love, passion, duty, are so continually used they grow to have no meaning – except as coins or weapons. Hard language softens. I never knew what my father felt of these “things.” My loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult. Was he locked in the ceremony of being “a father”? He died before I even thought of such things.”

The book is lyrical, captivating and yet in a very specific way, enervating. It leaves one mysteriously sad for the writer.

This is the first Ondaatje book that I’ve read. People who’ve read more than one Ondaatje tell me that his best is English Patient

Images: Michael Ondaatje's photographhttp://www.smh.com.au/news/books/michael-ondaatjes-neverending-story/2007/05/03/1177788276873.html
Mervyn & Doris Ondaatje's photograph scanned from Running in the Family

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Visit to Niagara

When you are face the enormity of nature, in its exquisite beauty, there’s nothing that you can do but stand dumbstruck and gape in wonder.

You do that when you are at the Niagara Falls.

There couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate my 47th birthday – first in Canada – than at the Niagara Falls.

The journey was impromptu – as most things are in my family. We decided to take the Via Train because Che was keen to go by train. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an Amtrack train and Che was distinctly displeased because it, as he said, looked like Mumbai’s local trains from outside.

The journey wasn’t too long – just a little over an hour-and-a-half. Then a quick taxi ride and we were at the falls. 

I had expected many people. Any tourist place in India would have at least a few hundred thousand tourists from both across India and across the world. At Niagara, there weren’t. Half the shops at the shopping mall near the falls were closed. The reason: It was bitterly cold even though March 20 was the first official day of spring.

The first impression I got of Niagara at the railroad station was that I was in a small town in Uttar Pradesh. Mahrukh felt the station resembled Lucknow railway station; except that there weren’t any people present. Lucknow's railway station is grand. 

Niagara's railroad station, I felt, resembled Bahedi, a small town on the foothills of Nainital that I visited twice in the early 1980s when I was trying to fulfill my father’s unfulfilled ambition of becoming a chartered accountant.

Thankfully, after a few years I gave up trying to do something I didn’t want to, and to his credit, Meghnad supported me wholeheartedly as I became a journalist.

I’m sure Bahedi must be a much bigger and bustling town today. But in the early 1980s it was a sleepy one-train town that probably grew near a sugar factory.

Sorry for that digression. I'm getting old and I reminiscence more than I should. 

The falls are the force and fury of nature in all its untamed violence. We had seen nothing like this before. 

The closest that I can think of are the the Dhaundhar falls on the Narmada. Mahrukh quickly pointed out that I was merely being India-obsessed and not real. She’s right. Niagara is incomparably amazing.

You’ve seen the video along with this blog entry.  Even in an amateur video the magnificence of the fall is all too evident.

Then we sat in a 50-meter high Ferris wheel, which got Mahrukh all excited and then we went a few miles out of Niagara Falls into the US territory – not crossing the border – but the cell phone service switched over to the US and reached the butterfly conservatory

I’ve already put some of the photographs on the blog (the right panel). This was an unexpectedly wonderous experience. Tropical butterflies from across the world in a climate-controlled transparent dome - a sort of a hothouse.

Our barometer of whether a place is good or not is how Che reacts to the place; and after initial diffidence, he got involved and loved every moment we were there.

A cab driver – from Newfoundland – took us to the conservatory and brought us back to the railroad station. He found my fascination for our apartment at the intersection of two of Toronto’s busiest streets – Keele and Lawrence Avenue West – quite odd. That's not surprising. Most Canadians prefer quieter areas to live. 

We spoke about the Sikorsky helicopter tragedy last week that killed 18 Newfoundlanders.

The return journey was also by Amtrack. We’re already planning a trip to Montreal. Che says Amtrack can’t be going there! He’s keen we do the Toronto-Vancouver trip. Maybe in a couple of years.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tezuka & Modan

Every time I visit the Toronto Public Library I manage to get something new in the graphic novel genre.

Last week I picked up Osamu Tezuka’s MW and Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds.
Tezuka’s MW:

I had no prior knowledge of the enormous reputation that Tezuka enjoys. He’s known as the 
father of Manga.

Tezuka’s MW is a gothic novel, extremely disturbing because it portrays extreme evil. It’s been a long time since I encountered a character that is so completely evil in a work of fiction.

Somehow the notion of evil in fiction seems rather 
antedulivian if not completely anachronistic. And while the graphics were fantastic, somehow I didn’t quite enjoy the book. I mean, homosexual Catholic priests may have been shocking in the 1970s (actually not even then), but seem so passé now. 

But it would be inappropriate for me to judge Tezuka based on reading just one book.

Modan’s Exit Wounds:

My interest in Exit Wounds was heightened because it’s based in Tel Aviv. Modan’s an Israeli graphic novelist.

Modan’s Exit Wounds is an evocative book. The drawing is simple – reminds one of a 
Tintin comic book. The storyline is simple, and the characters are contemporary and believable, except perhaps the cab driver’s father. My only problem with that character is not that he’s hidden from the reader even after the story ends, but with his inexplicable and at time completely unnecessary dalliances, and then his equally sudden and inexplicable marriage to a deeply religious woman.

Graphic novel:

I feel kind of sorry that I’ve been introduced to the 
graphic novel so late. Actually, I knew of its existence through (and I’ve said this before) the Lounge – the weekend edition of Mint. However, I never really got down to reading a graphic novel because I always thought that they weren’t anything more than a glorified version of a comic book; which they are and aren’t.

The other reason was that in Mumbai I wasn’t an active member of any library for the last decade or so – although I doubt if any of the libraries would have graphic novels.

Yes, I bought books in Mumbai regularly, but these were non-fiction. The transformation after immigrating to Toronto is that I’ve gone back to borrowing books and reading fiction actively. 

I can’t afford to buy books right now and besides the Toronto public library, there are so many people more than willing to lend books. 

I’ve got to finish Ondaatje and start Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.

Poe, Boccaccio and Langston Hughes

Last week I went to the Yorkdale Adult Learning Centre. It turned out to be a high school; predominated by African-Canadian children. On my way out, after my appointment, I glanced upon a sheet of poem that was probably meant for the school children, and though it must have been written in an altogether different social milieu, to me it was sort of a reflection of the matriarchy that the African-Canadian (or for that matter African-American or African-Caribbean society) has become.

The poem Mother to Son is by Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t’ you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. 
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s been a rather busy period lately and I haven’t really found time to do any originally writing for the blog. The piece on Margaret Atwood that’s been on for a week is actually a class assignment for Joyce Wayne

For sure, none of us who are in the Canadian journalism program would have found the time or taken the effort to read Canadian literature on our own. In a couple of months Joyce's made us not only aware of a whole new genre in English literature, she's made it mandatory we read and write about it rather extensively. It’s quite interesting.

I'm reading
Michael Ondaatji's Running in the family right now. It's lyrical. More about the book later.

But I began talking about being busy. The thing with being busy is that you lose track of what you had planned to do, and move on to doing other things. I had planned a long time ago to write about Edgar Allan Poe. His 200th birth anniversary was celerbated earlier this year in January, but unlike with Lincoln and Darwin – their bicentennial created quite a stir, what with New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik publishing a book of short biographies on them - Poe's remained largely unnoticed. 

I’d think Poe’s contribution to the development of modernism is as important as that of Lincoln and Darwin. Would it be wrong to attribute a large part of Dark Knight’s mind-numbing success to the fact that we began to love the genre created to a lrage extent by Poe?

During the last three months I’ve been trying to find on the net one of Poe’s short story that I had read many years ago in a collection of American short stories of the 19th century.  

The story was about a man who terrorized his family all his life. But as he grows old, a strange sort of disease afflicts him, as he begins to lose his hearing and goes stone deaf. 

In a role reversal, now the son-in-law and the daughter begin to ill-treat the old man as they assume that he’s going to die anytime soon. And then, he waxes his ears it is assumed that the old man is on his deathbed. 

Then one day he cleans the wax in his ears and is as good as new. He’s back to his old, imperious ways.

I think the story was called Wax. I’ve looked for it everywhere on the net and haven’t been able to find it. I even wrote to one of the innumerable Poe societies, but they must have been all busy with the bicentennial, and nobody responded.

Another story that I haven’t been able to locate on the net is Boccacio’s short story of a debauched priest who seduces a young virgin (almost too young and the priest seems a pedophile) for many years. As the girl grows up into a fine young woman and the priest grows old, he’s unable to satisfy her, and brings ruin upon himself.

If anyone of you can get hold of these stories, please do read them.

Image from http://thejosevilson.com/blog/tag/relationships/

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"I am a word in a foreign language”

Margaret Atwood's portrait by Dominic Fetherston

Margaret Atwood’s writing career spans more than four decades, encompasses all known literary genres including the ones she invented – prose fragments and prose poems. She is all things to all people and a national icon. Anthologist Eli Mandel notes, Atwood is a “feminist, nationalist, literary witch, mythological poet, satirist, formulator of critical theories,” (1) and as David Staines pertinently says, “She is, above all else, Canadian.” (2)

This essay examines the broad strokes on the Atwoodian canvas and attempts an understanding of the trends that influenced her and those that she influenced. In this endeavour the essay relies solely on selections from Atwood’s works in Volume II of Canadian Literature in English (3).

The attempt to decipher Atwood’s work is to understand it from an immigrant’s perspective; this writer does not possess the requisite felicity to be judgemental a body of work that is so vast and diverse and about a personality that evokes such staggeringly divergent sentiments. 

Another caveat is also necessary. To compartmentalize a writer’s career into different phases is a wholly arbitrary exercise and often illogical. However, this essay does that in the belief that Atwood’s career does have distinct phases, a view that is supported by Atwood’s biographers such as Staines; although this essay does not follow Staines’ categorization (4).

This essay delineates Atwood’s career into four phases:
  • The first phase is from 1961-1968 where Canadian landscape, exploration of the self and the craft predominate.
  • The second phase is from early the 1970s to the 1980s when Atwood defines Canadian literature for Canada and the world.
  • The third phase is from the 1980s to mid-1990s when Atwood the activist is redefining the world to Canada,
  • In the last phase, we are witnessing the emergence of Atwood as a national icon.
Throughout the last four-and-a-half decades, Atwood’s work is anchored to Canada. The initial phase – which begins in 1961 Double Persephone and lasts till 1968 – is about craft. This is the phase where the accent is on “myth, language, the natural world…” (₃) as is evident in the poem This is a photograph of me. It’s also about politics, as the poem City Planners shows (ending surprisingly in a plural):

Tracing the panic of suburb
order in a bland madness of snows.

Both the poems were published in 1966. (5)

The despondency of the poet in a world going insane is depicted evocatively in It is dangerous to read newspapers (1968) – a poem that is politically charged:

It is dangerous to read newspapers.
Every time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter
speaking of peaceful trees
another village explodes

A decade later in Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture (1978) this despondency is mixed with – if not completely replaced by – trenchant indignation:

he is afraid, not
of the door but of the door
opening; sometimes, no matter
how hard he tries
his children are not there

This is the second phase. Evidently, in a decade – and this is the Canadian decade that coincided with Pierre Trudeau’s tenure as the prime minister that in retrospect turned out to be epochal – Atwood has emerged from her formative shell, experienced a creative catharsis and transformed herself from a mere observer to a participant in the socio-political processes.

In addition to giving Canada a canonical definition of literature and identity in Survival: A thematic guide to Canadian Literature (1972) and The Journal of Susanna Moodie (1970), “(Atwood was) involved with nationalist cultural concerns as an editor of Anansi Press (1971-73) and as an editor and political cartoonist.” (6) 

The third phase begins in the 1980s as Atwood’s work reflects the amalgamation of her experiences as an activist seized with the issues of human rights and a woman who is also exploring her role in a patriarchal society.  

“Her collected criticism Second Words (1982) contains some of the earliest feminist criticism written in Canada,” (7) and the critically acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale “(probed) the gender biases of historiography.” (8) As Coral Ann Howells explains that the novel “represents a synthesis of Atwood’s political, social and environmental concerns, transformed into speculative fiction, where Atwood continues to ask awkward questions. What difference does it make when a dystopian narrative is told from a marginalized feminine perspective, and perhaps more radically, what difference does it make when the tale is told by the Last Man alive?” (9)

In the last two decades, “Atwood’s original literary interests have not been abandoned, but they have taken on a darker shading.” (10) Atwood’s amazing productivity is both a challenge to literary analysts, who are constantly re-evaluating her work in light of new sociological theories that gain currency every decade or so, and for the general reader, who uncritically wants to enjoy a good book.

An appropriate conclusion to the essay would be an Atwood quote on her fondness for poetry that sums up her cavalier brilliance, “I had no idea, that I was about to step into a whole set of preconceptions and social roles which had to do with what poets were like, how they should behave… I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female… when I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me -- yet -- the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.” (11)

Works Cited:

(1) Eli Mandel’s Atwood’s Poetics Politics in Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System, edited by Sherrill Grace and Lorraine Weir, University of British Columbia Press, 1983

(2) David Staines: Margaret Atwood in her Canadian Context: The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Edited by Coral Ann Howells, University of Reading. 2006

(3) & (5) Section VI: Contemporary Period, 1960-1985. Margaret Atwood, Pages 433-463. Canadian Literature in English Texts and Contexts Volume II Laura Moss & Cynthia Sugars, Penguin Academics, Pearson Canada, Inc, 2009

(4) David Staines categorizes Atwood’s career in three phases: The first phase from 1961 to the early 1970s, when Atwood interpreted Canada to Canadians. The second phase from early 1970s to 1985, when Atwood interpreted Canada to the world. The third phase from mid-1980s to present, when Atwood is interpreting the world that is in Canada.

(6), (7), (8) & (10) Barbara Godard: Margaret Atwood, The Canadian Encyclopedia 2000, Editor: James H Marsh and Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Inc and The Canadian Publishers Toronto ON

(9) Coral Ann Howells – The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Edited by Coral Ann Howells, University of Reading. 2006

(11) Margaret Atwood: Waterstone’e Poetry Lecture. Delivered at Hay on Wye. Wales, June 1995

Additional Reading:

(1) Garan Holcombe: Margaret Atwood, Contemporary Writers, Bloomsbury Publishing plc, London, England, 2008 

Friday, March 06, 2009


Images created on photoshop by Mayank Bhatt using photographs from the following sources:
Lillan Allen: http://swaymag.ca/spring2008/people11.php
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha:http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/003326.html
Glen Downie: 
Robert Rotenberg: 

demisemiseptcentennial means 175th anniversary. I didn’t know the word existed till Toronto Star used it a couple of days ago to list 175 likeable things about Toronto 

Toronto – an experiment gone grand

Lillian Allen’s conclusion of her poem on Toronto –

We are Toronto,
an experiment
gone grand

– captured the true essence of the city that’s becoming my own.

Allen’s poem launched the literary component – A City of Writers for 175 Years – of Toronto’sdemisemiseptcentennial * celebrations.  

This was the first literary event I attended in Toronto. Mahrukh was with me; that was a first, too.

The event was almost what I expected it to be – subdued; and had it not been for the cracker of a poet – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha – it would have been a good literary event. Leah Lakshmi turned it into an exceptional one.

Allen’s poem was geographical, lyrical. To her the city is diverse, alive, inverse; a city in heat with a three-million sided heart. Leah Lakshmi’s poems were demographical, pithy, violent, in-your-face and shorn of all niceties. They made you laugh – uncomfortably because they seared your soul. 

Leah’s poems were more appealing to me because they described my own situation. She used a term – tired brown smile – that, I think, sums up the totality of existence of all the visibility minorities in this city that is supposed to be the multicultural melting pot, but is so only in belief.

Glen Downie read from his award-winning book of poems
Loyalty Management. The poem that he read was about cows.

Let there be cows
beneath the 
CN Tower

Downie explained that the image of cows roaming at will in Toronto would be completely antithetical to the orderly and disciplined regimen of downtown Toronto. Downie’s purpose is to disturb the entrenched mores of social tolerance. Cows roaming around would – if nothing else – unsettle urban life so comprehensively as to make it unrecognizable. 

Having arrived from Mumbai less than a year ago, I’m not quite sure I understand or agree with the imagery. Cows roam the streets of Mumbai at will. Yet, downtown Mumbai is as soulless as downtown Toronto, and people as mechanical and false as anywhere else.

Robert Rotenberg read the first, tightly-written chapter from his just-published book – Old City Hall for the final session of the event. Again, the scenario he depicted – of the 74-year-old immigrant from India, delivering newspapers at a condominium, being greeted by the night shift concierge and then having a daily conversation with one of the residents of the condo – is straight out of my life.

Also, I'd imagine, out of the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

Cynthia Good, director of the Creative Book Publishing program at Humber College in Toronto hosted the event. Diaspora Dialogues was associated with the event. 

Not surprisingly, the audience comprised almost exclusively Caucasian Canadians. There were just three others.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Newspapers are dying...

Newspapers in the developed world are dying. 

Daniel Lak, who has worked as a journalist in South Asia for many years (and is actually a Canadian), came to talk to the students at the Sheridan College's Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers, recently. He said several print journalist from the developed countries have moved or are contemplating moving to India where print journalism continues to grow. 

I immigrated to Canada, where print journalism is in apparent death throes (all the three national daily newspapers are in trouble. The CBC wants the government to give it funds, and the Harper government doesn't consider that to be a priority), and I've got myself enrolled as a student at the Sheridan College to learn Canadian journalism. 

Talk about being stupid! As my friend Ramesh Patel would say, "If a person is stupid, he'll be so for life, not just for 15 minutes." Yes, I may be stupid, but I'm not evil. And I know many who are very clever and utterly evil. Despite all the serious problems that my naivety creates, I continue to remain utterly guileless and therefore perennially hopeful. 

I'm not certain whether I'll ever return to active journalism. It'll be a miracle, all things considered. But there's no denying that I'm enjoying my stint at Sheridan thoroughly. 

The crises in print journalism has lead some newspaper executives to launch a blog - the newspaper project. It has this cartoon by Mike Luckovich. Take a look at the blog, it's interesting. 

Monday, March 02, 2009

Ides of March: Cesar & Cricket

The expression Ides of March is linked to Julius Cesar. He was warned by a soothsayer to “beware of the ides of March.” Cesar ignored the warning, and was assassinated on that day. 

Ides of March is March 15.

According to Borgna Brunner, Editorial Director, Information Please at Pearson Education, “The term Ides comes from the earliest Roman calendar, which is said to have been devised by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome…the Roman calendar organized its months around three days, each of which served as a reference point for counting the other days: Kalends (1st day of the month), Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months), Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months), The remaining, unnamed days of the month were identified by counting backwards from the Kalends, Nones, or the Ides.” (Source: Infoplease)

Wikipedia, the most ubiquitous – if not the most authoritative – source on everything, states, “The term Ides of March is best known as the date that Julius Caesar was assassinated, in 44 BC, the story of which was famously dramatised in William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar.

It adds, “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC, after declaring himself dictator of Rome, for life. According to a near-contemporary biographer, Caesar summoned the Senate to meet in the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March. A certain soothsayer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: "The Ides of March has come," and the seer said to him softly: "Aye, Caesar, but not gone."

“As the Senate convened, Caesar was attacked and stabbed to death by a group of senators who called themselves the Liberatores ("Liberators"); they justified their action on the grounds that they committed tyrannicide and were preserving the Republic from Caesar's alleged monarchical ambitions."(Painting)   

An amazing factoid that I discovered serendipitously on a BBC website is that it was on this day (March 15) in 1876 test cricket was born.  

If you have time and internet, scholarship's seemingly a piece of cake!