& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We’re all Rushdie’s children

Recently, during a classroom discussion at Sheridan College on VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, I made a few observations about Naipaul that I wish to share here.

In Imagining Homelands by Bharati Mukherjee makes an observation about Naipaul that reflect my sentiments about the great writer.

Mukherjee writes, and I quote, “‘Damn him,’ I want to shout, damn his superior airs, damn his cold detachment, damn his vast talent, damn his crystalline sentences. I want him to manifest love, for just a paragraph or two, to cut loose.”

But she doesn’t end there. She adds, “This does not affect my respect for his work.”

A Bend in the River was first published in 1979.

A couple of years later – in 1981 – Salman Rushdie published his third novel – Midnight’s Children.

Rushdie unleashed a revolution.

His writing was different from the conventional style and structure of both the language and the genre.

Rushdie wrote for an international audience without bothering about language, grammar or even sensibilities.

Hundreds of others followed, and continue to follow. In a certain sense, I believe that we’re all Rushdie’s children.

The reason why I introduced this element of contrast was to highlight the different styles of writers who published their works just a year apart.

To me, Rushdie is far more accessible as a writer.

To read Rushdie is to see a popular Hindi film – he takes over all your senses and releases you at the end totally subsumed in his creation.

You can’t escape it even if you don’t like it.

Naipaul despite all his skills poses an intangible challenge.

To read Naipaul is to see a Fellini film. Even if you don’t relate to it you are spellbound by the craft.

Mysticism in Maharashtra

Back in the late Cretaceous era when I was a reporter, Arvind Inamdar, a crime-busting cop who went to attain greater glories in the police force in Maharashtra in later years, was one of my key contacts.

One of the lessons that I learnt from him was to understand the native cultural roots; a lesson that helped me do journalism in Mumbai, as I hope it will help me do journalism in Toronto.

“To understand Maharashtrians, you must understand the importance of Shivaji and Dnyaneshwar to their culture,” he had said.

It was a lesson that made a lasting impact on me, as I began to study Maharashtra’s history keeping in mind this unique perspective.

Shivaji is a much misunderstood, much misrepresented and occasionally maligned warrior king who established the first Hindu kingdom in the Deccan.

Dnyaneshwar is the spiritual head of mysticism in the region; he is revered for laying the foundations of a movement that democratised religion.

Together, Shivaji and Dnyaneshwar represent the yin and yang of the Marathi psyche, which is a robust combination of pride and compassion.

One of the seminal books on the subject that explained both Dnyaneshwar and Shivji was RD Ranade’s Mysticism in Maharashtra, published by Motilal Banarsidass (the iconic publishing house on Indology).

The book goes beyond the basic understanding of Bhakti movement as being merely an attempt to break the shackles of Brahminical dominance on the Hindu society and Hindu religion.

Narrating the historical, political, social, religious and philosophical underpinnings of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra, the book also sketches the significance of Maharashtra’s five big sants – Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Eknath, Tukaram and Ramdas. It establishes a link from Dnyaneshwar to Shivaji through Ramdas.

The book quotes Justice MG Ranade who argued that that pacifist sants such as Namdev and Tukaram laid the moral foundations on which Ramdas (through Shivaji) built the politico-religious foundations of Maharashtra.

I began by saying that a police officer taught me to understand local culture by learning to respect it. It’s a lesson that has come in handy in Canada, too.

I’m learning, from first-hand experience, that the Canadian psyche is a combination of pride and politeness.

Canadians are always polite, but that doesn’t come in the way of protecting their pride.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson made us see music

I belong to the generation between the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

Most connoisseurs of popular music are derisive of that era because it was dominated by disco music. This is unjustified because the era also produced what I consider unquestionably the most memorable music of all time.

I remain enthralled by the music of the 1970s, introduced to me by my cousin Amar Joshi. He changed my world.

From the 1980s, Michael Jackson and Madonna are the only two that I can relate to (and I guess is true for most of the people of my generation) because most of the 1980s music is cringe-inducing (Bangles – Walk like an Egyptian, anyone?).

The New York Times has a poll on Michael Jackson and has invited readers to vote for their favourite Jackson number. Expectedly, Billie Jean has the most number of votes of the eight hits listed.

Jackson’s song that I love the most is one that few would count as his best.

Give in to me

It has the most embarrassingly inane lyrics, even by Michael Jackson’s standards. It’s from his Dangerous album – and the number is probably popular because of Slash’s (Guns N’ Roses) deft guitar work.

I love it. Period.

Thought I must share this with my world, when I saw the NYT poll (though this number doesn't make it to his best eight listed by NYT).

Michael Jackson’s contribution to music: Before him, we heard music. He made us see music.

Image: Michael Jackson & Madonna. Photoshop work on photo from http://assets.nydailynews.com/img/2009/06/26/alg_michael-madonna.jpg

Sunday, June 21, 2009

History is opinion?

Discussing history is always interesting because it bring forth varied views from different people.

Some views are well formed and well articulated because they are based on a thorough understanding of the past. Some that are not so well formed.

I realize that it isn’t necessary to be either well-read or well versed in history to have a point of view about the past. In fact, the less one knows of history and the less one has read history, the more interesting one’s views tend to be.

Such ignoramuses can be irritating, but as they say in Hindustani, Aur bhi gham hai zamane mein (There are other sorrows in this world).

In a free society, everyone has their opinions, and they have every right to hold them dear to their hearts and express them freely.

Living in a multicultural society now and being exposed to different people and their cultures, I also realize that they have an equally valid point of view, as valid as mine, perhaps more valid than mine.

When faced with such situations, I adhere to Voltaire’s aphorism on freedom of expression both in spirit and in letter.

He had said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

(Some disagree that Voltaire actually said this.)

Recently, I had the occasion to re-read some the essays I had written many years ago for an educational website that never used the content.

One of the most important sources that I had come to depend upon when I wrote those pieces was Bipin Chandra’s India’s Struggle for Independence. Subsequently, he also co-authored India After Independence.

In my opinion, India’s Struggle for Independence is one of the better books on the history of a tumultuous era that shaped not just the subcontinent, but postcolonial world.

Bipin Chandra’s approach is not didactic, not prejudicial, and the only message that he wishes to convey through his book is that India’s future will be secular.

I recently read extracts from an essay Empire for Sale by the British academic Niall Ferguson. Ferguson writes to provoke. And he succeeds.

Ferguson has a challenging point of view about the collapse of the British Empire. He contends that this happened because Britain fought with other European countries in the two world wars and not because of the nationalist freedom struggles.

At the height of World War II, Ferguson contends, “Events in India revealed the weakness of the nationalist movement and the resilience of the Raj. The Viceroy announced India’s entry into the war without a word of consultation with the leaders of Congress. 

The ‘Quit India’ Campaign launched in 1942 was snuffed out within six weeks by the simple expedients of arresting Gandhi and the campaign’s other leaders, censoring the press and reinforcing the police with troops. Congress split, with only a small minority egged on by Bose – a would be Indian Mussolini – electing to side with the Japanese.”

This is a statement unsubstantiated with any historical evidence. Even a cursory reading of the India’s freedom struggle would reveal that the ‘Quit India’ campaign was one of the most serious threats posed to the British Empire.

Along with the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 and Gandhi’s Salt Satyagrah (Dandi March) of 1930, the Quit India movement ranks as one of the most decisive moments of Indian history.

The reverberations of the Quit India movement were felt everywhere thanks to the involvement of the grassroots workers of the national movement.

“The great significance of this movement,” writes historian Bipin Chandra in India's Struggle for Independence, “was that it placed the demand for independence on the immediate agenda of the national movement. After Quit India, there could be no retreat. Any future negotiations with the British government could only be on the manner of the transfer of power. Independence was no longer a matter of bargain.”

The great Winston Churchill, who was on his way to becoming the toast of the ‘free’ world, was once again checkmated by the wily Mahatma, who launched one of his indefinite hunger fasts. Gandhi’s fast shook the British establishment in India.

Viceroy Linlithgow suggested to Prime Minister Churchill that Gandhi should be released from the prison. Churchill was angry. He wrote to the Viceroy, “...this our hour of triumph everywhere in the world was not the time to crawl before a miserable little old man who had always been our enemy.”


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Das, Bedi, De

A couple of weeks after her death, tributes to Kamala Das (Suraiyya) have started appearing across the world. Strangely, the Toronto Star’s print edition published what seems to be Das’s obituary in the Travel section. Both London Times (Timesonline) and the NYT published comprehensive obits that do justice to the Das’s importance to Indian literature.

Das belonged to the 1970s.

By that, I mean she earned her fame and notoriety after publishing her My Story in the mid-1970s. The popular press termed the book pornographic and puerile. And, she had to stave off criticisms about that for the next two decades or so.

While I was reading Das’s obits, I was reminded of another mercurial woman – Protima Bedi – who also rocked the 1970s when she streaked across the Juhu beach and was quite blasé about being photographed in the nude.

There were so many of these non-conformists abound in that decisive decade in India. Some of them are still around, but they prefer confirming now. Shobhaa De comes to mind in this category.

Image: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article6488710.ece

Vidya Naipaul

It was with great reluctance that I began to read Sir Vidya Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. It stems from my perception of Naipaul as a political writer, even when he’s writing fiction.

I acknowledge that largely all writing is political. But Naipaul wears his politics on his sleeves.

A Bend in the River is also an example of Naipaul’s politics – a politics that is seemingly an apologia for colonialism. In recent years, especially in the 1990s, Naipaul suddenly rediscovered his Hindu roots – but not the religion’s innate tolerance.

His aversion to Islam became the focal point of his writing – evident in India: A Million Mutinies Now, and several other non-fiction commentaries periodically published in the Indian mainstream media. Naipaul eventually became an apologist for the Hindu fundamentalism.

It culminated in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 (a month or so after 9/11). Of course, the justification was couched in politically correct overtones and Naipaul was termed as Joseph Conrad’s true heir.

But there was no escaping Naipaul’s novel.

So, I started reading A Bend in the River. And I didn’t stop. I couldn’t.

Naipaul is a magician. Words are putty in his hands. He shapes them the way he wants. He shapes them to mean what he wants them to mean. Often, he shapes them to mean what they aren’t supposed to mean.

I assumed – erroneously, it turned out – that the novel (written in 1979) was about the experiences of Asians in Uganda under Idi Amin. However, a quick reference check on the Wikipedia informed me that the unnamed country likely resembles Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo).

I remembered that in the 1970s Mobutu and Zaire remained constantly in the news for several reasons – Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s famous Rumble in the Jungle match. Mobutu helped organize this major media event in 1974 to publicize African nationalism and his country. The fight, in which Ali defeated Foreman, was an all-time classic. Norman Mailer wrote a book about the fight.

Naipaul’s novel depicts Mobutu as the Big Man, and Raymond, a white man who helped shape the Big Man’s mind, offers his (Mobutu’s) best defence. Salim, the protagonist, remains perpetually unsure and wary of the turn of events that culminates in the Europeans abandoning the land and the emergence of the new Africa.

Indar, Salim’s childhood friend and the one leads a far more fetching life than Salim, becomes a confused apologist for the colonial rulers – confused because he at once finds himself and alien and therefore unaccepted in the London society and at the same time an alien and unaccepted by India and Indians.

I don’t think anyone can come near Naipual in capturing the angst of the immigrant without sentimentality or anger. All that we get to know of Salim from Naipual is that his ancestors are from northwestern India and that he’s trying to escape from the clutches of both tradition and responsibility by moving inland from the port city to a town located at a bend in the river.

As Salim says, “When we had come no one could tell me. We were not that kind of people. We simply lived; we did what was expected of us, what we had seen the previous generation do. We never asked why; we never recorded. We felt in our bones that we were a very old people; but we seemed to have no means of gauging the passing of time. Neither my father nor my grandfather could put dates to their stories. Not because they had forgotten or were confused; the past was simply the past.”

(Though Naipaul doesn’t tell us, I presume Salim is an Ismaili Khoja, the Gujarati-speaking Muslims who emigrated from northwestern India. I believe Canadian novelist Moyez Gulamhussein (MG) Vassanji, too, has the same roots as Salim).

The novel’s fluidity is engaging. It moves lyrically and the describes the place, the people, the changing situations that constantly remain in a flux but never change so radically as to alter any reality substantially. These aspects – and Salim’s unassuming manner almost wanting to hide in the disorder of his own shop – make the novel languid and sonorous.

One cannot escape Naipaul’s politics and pettiness in his creations, and A Bend in the River is no exception to that. But the novel transcends the commonplace even as it stays firmly situated in it, and describes everything from the point of view of a man who doesn’t even make a difference to his life, leave aside making a difference to anyone else’s or to the world.

When you read a classic – and A Bend in the River is a classic –, it exhausts you emotionally, because the act of reading becomes cathartic.

Image: http://www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2007/11/02/A_Writers_People_071102024807049_wideweb__300x476.jpg

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Katherine Govier

I recently read Katherine Govier’s collection of short stories, The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery.

Earlier this month, she came to talk to internationally trained writers at the Sheridan College to discuss the craft of writing.

She describes her style as “no-style writing.” It’s simple – short sentences, short paragraphs – yet powerful.

She aims to communicate and not impress. The innate simplicity of form elevates her stories and they begin to appeal to the reader in different ways.

Govier answered many questions about writing.

Aspiring writers often ask her whether they can become good writers. She quoted Anne Dillard’s answer: “Do you like sentences?” and said, “If you do, you can become a writer.”

It was an engaging session that could have lasted longer than it did. Everyone participated with intelligent interventions that revealed a depth that is often missing in the class.

Patricia Bradbury, thank you.

Allyson Latta

This month I’ll be attending four sessions of memoir writing conducted by Allyson Latta at the North York Central Library’s auditorium. Latta is a professional editor, writer and memoir writing coach. Among her achievements that impressed me the most is that she has edited Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.

Her blog Days Road Writers’ Workshops has a lot of information on the craft of memoir writing.

I attended the first session last week, and was surprised to see so many people in the auditorium. As is the case with most such events in Toronto, it is free.

There were about 25 participants and all of them have a story to tell. I was feeling a bit unsure whether I would find the workshop useful and whether I would be of the right age.

There’s this general feeling one has that memoir writing is an indulgence for the white Canadians who have reached a certain age and have nothing better to do than look back at their lives.

How wrong I was. The participants comprised a healthy mix of all ages and races.

Latta has an engaging style. She conducted the first workshop without any apparent effort. I guess she has practiced this to perfection. She defines memoir as an “exploration of a memory.” Her instruction sheet explains, “Describe not only an experience but what the experience meant to you. Reflect on it. Why do you remember it? How did the experience influence who you are today?”

She gave her class an interesting assignment. We were asked to randomly pick a coloured piece of paper from a box without looking. Then we had to write about the colour for the next 10 minutes. It turned out to be a difficult exercise, because after a while I didn’t have anything to write.

Here’s what I wrote (reproduced as I wrote it, without revision or editing):

Colour Purple:

I have not seen the film Colour Purple. I have not even heard the song Purple Rain. Purple is not one of my favourite colours. The only thing that purple reminds me of is egg plant. We in India call it brinjals. That is purple coloured.

The slip of paper I have is not the same colour as the brinjals. It is a lighter shade of purple. It’s like the Toronto sky when it’s about to rain. A mixture of light blue and dark blue and a tinge of sadness thrown in to make the concoction light purple. That is the mood of the struggling immigrant waiting for his life to acquire the hues of vibrant bright colours that would then begin to change his mood.

But alas. The colour remains purple, for long. Not just for the ten minutes for which I am supposed to write for. The instructor just said we had completed 5 minutes and I sneezed in excitement. The colour will change. My life will change. It’s just a question of five more minutes and the instructor is walking up and down the corridor singing, “Don’t put the pens down. I don’t want to see anybody putting their pens down.”

How the hell can I continue writing about the colour purple when I find it so completely indistinct and indifferent. It has no character. It has no spine. It’s an amalgamation of different colours. It’s not a stand alone being. It’s derivative. It’s a failure. It’s almost me. But, hey wait a minute. Should it be time now or am I writing too fast. The woman next to me as not even completed one paragraph and I’m writing at such a furious pace. I don’t want to write such nonsense. Ah! The timer is off.

Then Latta asked us to make two lists: Things that give you joy and things that give you grief. We had to do that in five minutes. Here are my lists:

Things that give me joy

Things that give me grief

Reading a book

Trying to get a job

These days, writing my novel

Keeping up appearances

Listening to music from the 1970s

A few individuals

Watching movies

A world where injustice is rampant

Arguing with my son

When your own people betray you

Eating a pizza

Not being able to meet my own expectations

Anything sweet to taste

Life in general

Streetcars of Toronto

My bad breath

Tea with mint


My son’s ability to play all by himself without getting bored

My aging. I look older every morning in the mirror.

When I read out the lists, Latta laughed and said, “You have a sense of humour.”

I have always had a sense of humour. It doesn't seems like that nowadays. That is because too many people have made it their life’s work to ensure I lose it.

The workshops will be fun.

Tomas Tranströmer

The Death Lectures went on for several terms. I was present
together with classmates I didn't know
(who are you?)
- afterwards everyone went off on his own, profiles.

Tomas Tranströmer