& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Festival of South Asian Literature & Arts

The Toronto South Asian Review (TSAR) organised a conference of writers of South Asian origin from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean and South and East Africa in 1983.

It was a breakthrough event that formalised a genre in Canada. The conference resulted in a slim yet seminal volume A Meeting of Streams: South Asian Canadian Literature, edited by MG Vassanji.

Last week (September 25 and 26) TSAR commemorated the ’83 conference by celebrating FSALA – the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts.

My sole purpose of going to the event was to meet MG Vassanji. I met him briefly and introduced myself. He was too busy with the festival.

Priscila Uppal, Ameen Merchant, Padma Viswanathan and Shyam Selvadurai were the speakers that evening.

The poems Uppal read were fascinating, especially the one about her mother’s family. It had a memorable line of women in her mother’s family being unhappy in different languages.

Selvadurai’s story of the troubled relationship between his mother and grandmother was searing.

It had an unforgettable scene of his mother collecting coins that his grandmother had deliberately strewn across from the floor.

Then the narrator starkly concludes, “At 29 my mother’s life had ended.”

Backbreaking housework kept me away from the next morning’s sessions.

I did attend the evening session because I wanted to hear Bapsi Sidhwa. She read a passage from Ice Candy Man (now called Cracking India).

Deepa Mehta’s fantastic film Earth is based on this novel.

Anosh Irani and Tahira Naqvi were the other writers who read from their works.

The evening concluded with inDance’s exquisite dance performance The King’s Salon. I don't understand Bharatnatyam. I didn't need to. It was exquisite.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Codes of Misconduct

I love Toronto because nobody knows me.

In Mumbai the fear of meeting someone I knew (and then having to engage myself in meaningless small talk) made me balk at the idea of participating in events.

When I was forced to attend such events, my behaviour swayed between reticence and braggadocio.

Here in Toronto, I’m unknown. I move around freely and attend all sorts of functions.

I know that nobody I know is likely to be at events I attend.

The advantages of anonymity are enormous. I can sit in the midst of a hundred people, quietly reading Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness (enjoyable) and wait for an event to start.

When I walked in to Toronto Women’s Bookstore Thursday evening, there was nobody there except the woman behind the cash counter.

Women (and three men) slowly started to gather for the launch of Ashwini Tambe’s Codes of Misconduct, Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay.

When I got an email from Janice Goveas about the book launch event, I was keen to attend because two reasons. First, the book is about Mumbai and second it is about Kamathipura, Mumbai’s ‘red-light district’.

Mumbai occupies a large, almost physical, space inside me. And it grows larger by the day.

There are times when I sit in the (comparative) comfort of a subway train and get a lump in my throat because I don’t have to rush inside the train to get a seat, as I had to in Mumbai.

With Che I watch DVDs of old Hindi movies – from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi to Baaton Baaton Mein – only so that I can see the images of old Bombay (albeit fleeting).

When I was there – all 46 years of my life – I didn’t love Mumbai as much as I do now.

Mumbai’s history has always fascinated me – in a non-academic way. In the late 1980s, I regularly attended the local history seminars conducted by St. Xavier’s Heras Institute, and over the years have come to know a number of people whose knowledge of Mumbai’s past has left me awestruck.

During my journalism days in Mumbai (in the late cretaceous era), I made several trips to the archives located at Kala Ghoda. Incidentally, I missed the Kala Ghoda festival the other day when we attended the Vegetarian Food Festival at the Harbourfront Centre.

Ashwini Tambe’s book also deals with sex trade – again a subject of deep and abiding interest for me. In the late cretaceous era, I did a series of in depth feature reports on several aspects of the ‘red-light district’ of Mumbai. Later, prior to immigration, I had almost joined a not-for-profit organisation operated by two former colleagues.

Ashwini Tambe is assistant professor of women's studies and history at the University of Toronto. The book is academic, but from the passages that she read, I felt it should also be of interest to the general reader.

I haven’t read the book so I won't comment on the book. If I do so, Patricia Bradbury will disapprove.

When the author finished reading, I left the bookshop and took the subway home. Everyone there knew everyone else.

I didn’t know anyone. I enjoyed myself.

Image: http://www.utoronto.ca/wgsi/ifst/bios.html

Friday, September 25, 2009

So Far from Home

Earlier this week, I attended the premier of So Far From Home, a documentary made by Vladimir Kabelik (writer, director and producer).

It narrates the story of five journalists who had to flee their homelands because they were just doing their work. The powers that be in their countries didn’t like them doing their work so diligently.

The men behind the bulletproof shields did what comes naturally to them – abuse the power vested in them or wrested by them, and turned the lives of these journalists into a living hell.

Left with no choice, they ran to save their lives and came to Canada.

Here their struggle changed complexion but didn’t cease. All of them continue to fight a different battle of having to come to terms with the new reality of their lives.

Two of them have been living alone in Canada fearing for the safety of their loved ones left behind. Two others had to see their colleagues and friends dying in prison or executed by gunmen.

Kabelik’s film depicts the stories of Mohsin Abbas (Pakistan), Aaron Berhane (Eritrea), Nik Kowsar (Iran), Mir Mahdavi (Afghanistan) and Mike Odongkara (Uganda). Nik’s a political cartoonist and Mike’s a photo-journalist.

All so different from each other, from different backgrounds and yet all with almost the same story – of struggle, bitterness, exile, duty, honour and an all-enveloping sadness.

Kabelik weaves a tale that narrates the lives of these five journalists and brings us up close to the tribulations and torture they encountered merely because they tried to tell inconvenient truths.

Three journalists in the film are students of Sheridan College’s Canadian Journalism program. The film acknowledges the contribution of Canadian Journalist for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Sheridan College in the making of the documentary.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In the Skin of a Lion-I

After a long wait, when an immigrant family finally lands at Toronto’s Lester B Pearson Airport and gets the landing papers stamped, a friendly immigration officer hands over a bag to the family. The bag has papers and books that will help the family to settle quickly in their new home country. “Welcome to Canada,” the officer says, flashing a smile.

The package doesn’t include Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. It should.

In the last year or so, I’ve been educating myself in Canadian literature and have read a few Canadian writers. All of them – without exception – are extraordinarily felicitous in both style and storytelling.

I didn’t, however, read anything that I found unsettling until I read In the Skin of a Lion.

Ondaatje wrote this masterpiece of a novel more than two decades ago and it describes the situation of immigrants in the early 20th century.

I daresay in 2009, the conditions aren’t too different.

The book is unsettling especially for a newcomer because she will instantly identify with many of the novel’s faceless and unacknowledged immigrants that helped build Toronto.

She’s doing so today, in a different context, but in no less an important way.

Undoubtedly, Toronto and Canada have changed beyond recognition since the days the Bloor Viaduct was built.

I wouldn’t be committing a multicultural blasphemy when I say that despite all the progress, the newcomer continues to remain faceless, unseen, invisible and unacknowledged.

The fine irony is that our society still needs newcomers as desperately today as it did eight decades ago.

Appallingly, it continues to have the same disdain for the immigrant now as it had then.

Let me hasten to add that in today’s Canada, most immigrants meet more people who are like Ondaatje’s protagonist – Patrick Lewis.

However, that doesn’t take away the sense of immense hurt that newcomers experience when they’re unfairly set aside merely because they look different, speak the same language differently and eat different food, or don’t eat the same food.

Ironically, this is done in the name of trying to build a society that is based upon Canadian values.

Those who do this forget that the newcomer believe more in those “Canadian values” than home grown Canadians.

An immigrant votes with her feet to come to this land. The home grown Canadian doesn’t even go to vote in an election.

The Skin of a Lion is a story of the building of the Bloor Viaduct. It’s the story of one man’s vision (arrogance) to build urban monuments.

Rowland Harris’s vision, he pleads with Patrick Lewis, is to build something, that would make people gape in wonder. “You watch, in fifty years they’re going to come here and gape at the herringbone and the copper roofs. We need excess, something to live up to.”

More importantly, it’s the story of Nicholas Temelcoff, the daredevil builder, who undertakes death-defying tasks with ease and equanimity only because he want to (and does) start his own bakery.

It’s a story of Clara and Alice, two friends who are so similar because of their circumstances, but so different because of their convictions.

It’s a story of Caravaggio, who paints himself in ‘aquamarine’ to escape prison – as lovable and notorious as the Italian renaissance painter of the same name.

It’s a story of Ambrose Small, the buccaneer capitalist and above all, it’s the story of Patrick Hey Canada! Lewis, the only insider condemned to remain an outsider.

It’s also, equally, a story of the haves and the have-nots, and the strong arm of the state – issues that are as pertinent to our society today as it was in the early 20th century.

Urban development is masculine. Building bridges, water purification reservoirs, dynamiting lumber, rescuing cows from freezing waters is the work of men. Ondaatje plays up this masculinity deliberately, only to show later on almost every occasion that the masculinity is so hollow.

And it’s written as a mystery – a complex jigsaw puzzle that will fall into place only when the reader and the writer work in unison to put all the pieces together.

It’s been a great experience reading the book. My friend Myrna Freedman has lent me The English Patient, which is a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion.

Images: Bloor Viaduct: http://heatherwilliams.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/bloor-viaduct-1916.jpg

MO: http://www.bookforum.com/uploads/upload.000/id00263/article00.jpg

In the Skin of a Lion-II

I’ve just finished reading Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece. I’ll write about the book later, after I have ruminated on it for some time. Today, I'll share some nuggets from the book.

  • The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”

  • All his life Patrick Lewis has lived beside novels and their clear stories. Authors accompanying their heroes clarified motives. World events raised characters from destitution. The books would conclude with all wills rectified and all romances solvent. Even the spurned lover accepted the fact that the conflict had ended.

  • Patrick never believed that characters lived only on the page. They altered when the author’s eye was somewhere else. Outside the plot there was a great darkness, but there would of course be daylight elsewhere on earth. Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp, otherwise they were just men from nowhere.

  • He has always been alien, the third person in the picture. He is born in this country who knows nothing of the place...He was a watcher, a corrector...He searched out things. He collected things. He was an abashed man...What did the word mean? Something that suggested there was a terrible horizon in him beyond which he couldn’t leap. Something hollow, so when alone, when not aligned with another...he could hear the rattle within that suggested a space between him and community. A gap of love.

  • Seduction was the natural progression of curiosity.

  • And suddenly Patrick, surrounded by friendship, concern, was smiling, feeling the tears on his face falling towards his stern Macedonian-style moustache...He looked up and saw the men and women who could not know why he wept now among these strangers who in the past had seemed to him like dark blinds on his street, their street, for he was their alien.

  • I don’t think so. I don’t believe the language of politics, but I’ll protect the friends I have. It’s all I can handle.

  • ...of course some make it. They do it by becoming just like the ones they want to overtake...

  • The vista was Upper America, a New World. Landscape changed nothing but it brought rest, altered character as gradually as water on stone.

  • The trouble with ideology, Alice, is that it hates the private. You must make it human.

  • She was never self-centered in her mythologies.

  • The detritus and chaos of the age was realigned.

  • “The only thing that holds the rich to the earth is property.”

  • “In a rich man’s house there is nowhere to spit except in his face.” Diogenes.

  • “He lay down to sleep, until he was woken from out of a dream. He saw the lions around him glorying in life; then he took his axe in his hand, he drew his sword from his belt, and he fell upon them like an arrow from the strong.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s out with a new book The Lost Symbol and the publishing world can’t stop talking about it.

I intend to read it because it’s set in Washington DC. Many years ago, I had a wonderful time there being a tourist in the city of monuments.

I read the Da Vinci Code almost a year after it was published.

And became a phenomenon.
And I was the only one in this whole vast world who hadn’t read the book.
And what a book that turned out to be.

You just can’t stop reading it as Brown takes you on a spellbinding journey

Whatever else critics may say about the book and Brown’s (lack of) style, it’s a page-turner with few parallels.

Expectedly, a Hollywood blockbuster followed; but was a disappointment. Not merely because Tom Hanks didn’t make for a good Robert Langdon (Sean Penn would’ve been better).

Clearly, it was a difficult to film a book that relies so much on history, heresy, hagiography and at times hieroglyphics of the non-Egyptian kind.

A brief digression: I keenly await Deepa Mehta's attempt at turning Midnight's Children into a movie. Looking at Mehta's oeuvre, and especially Heaven on Earth (which is symbols, images and magic realism), her effort will be worth waiting for.

Salman Rushdie will be aghast that I'm taking about his masterpiece in the same breath as Brown's blockbuster.

So, back to Brown.

On the strength of the Da Vinci Code, Brown can deservedly be included in the company of the suspense masters Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett and Jack Higgins.

In my opinion, these three are the true torchbearers of a genre that creates superstar writers every month and then destroys them the next.

Longevity in this genre is impossible. Ludlum, Follett and Higgins belong to an exclusive club of writers who have churned out page-turners with envious consistency, and in Ludlum case, incredibly even after his death.

Ludlum’s Bourne Identity, Follett’s Eye of the Needle and Higgins’s Eagle has Landed remain my favourites.

Although, I must admit my reading in this genre is limited. I read these three books when I read most of my books from this genre - in the late 1970s.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Let's see you lay a finger on me"

I thought of writing about Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yentl) and Saul Bellow (Him with his foot in his mouth) today.

The news peg – can’t get journalism out of my system – is the controversy over Tiff’s selection of Tel Aviv for its City to City program.

Then I realised that doing so would be stretching the context too far (‘text without context’ – Rushdie).

It’d be unfair to the masters Bellow and Singer to unnecessary link them with this issue. Then, I thought of writing about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. However, I couldn't start.

For sure, I’m desperately in search of a good subject to write about.

I haven’t finished the two books that I’ve started reading. Consequently, I’ve nothing to write.

During August and even this month I’ve fallen back on my monthly blog entries.

I deleted some of the entries from the earlier months because I felt these entries were merely indulgences and nothing much to do with the theme of the blog.

I also removed most of the widgets that I had so eagerly installed in the enthusiasm of starting this blog in January.

The blog is trim. I’m not. I’ve ballooned with an ever-expanding girth at the midriff.

And, I don’t have anything to write.

I’m reminded of a piece Isabel Huggan gave us during the Humber School for Writers’ summer workshop that eloquently describes this phenomenon.

No, not fatness, but emptiness.

It’s called But What Actually Existed Here Before the Big Bang?

Oz writes, “He (his father, an academic writer) never had to sit, as I do, staring at a single mocking blank page in the middle of an arid desk, like a crater on the face of the moon. Just me and emptiness and despair. Go make something out of nothing at all.

“Actually who hasn’t been through the ghastly experience of sitting in front of a blank page, with its toothless mouth grinning at you: Go ahead, let’s see you lay a finger on me?.

“A blank page is actually a whitewashed wall with no door and no window. Beginning to tell a story is like making a pass at a total stranger in a restaurant. Remember Chekhov’s Gurov in The Lady with the Dog? Gurov beckons to the little dog, wagging his finger at it over and over again, until the lady is blushing, ‘He doesn’t bite,’ whereupon Gurov asks her permission to give the dog a bone. Both Gurov and Chekhov have now been given a threat to go by; the flirtation begins and the story takes off.

“The beginning of almost every story is actually a bone, something with which to court the dog, which may bring you closer to the lady.”

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Videographer

Jason Rapczynski's The Videographer is an exciting story of a down and out film student turned porn movie cameraman.

No, let me rephrase that.

Actually, it’s a regular, routine story about young people in the digital age doing what young people have done through the ages.

Get drunk, fornicate furiously and have delusions of creativity.

What’s unique about the story is way in which it’s told. Rapczynski’s style is fast-paced and pulsating.

Reading Rapczynski's book is like watching a trailer of a Bruce Willis movie where the entire movie is encapsulated in a montage of quick changing images and snatches of one-liners.

It sort of gives you the complete picture but leaves you hungry for more.

Obviously, it’s a style that’s worked for Rapczynski because The Videographer is the winner of the 31st 3-Day Novel contest.

That’s right, Rapcznski wrote the novel in three days during the Labour Day long weekend in 2008, along with thousands of other participants from across the world.

More than 400 of them actually succeeded in completing their novels in three days.

The two youngest entrants who competed with complete novels were 14-year-old Carson Taylor of Claremore, OK, and 10-year-old Natasha Carr-Harris of Vancouver, BC.

This is Rapcznski’s first novel. He’ll definitely write and publish more novels, but it’s unlikely that he’ll enjoy writing any of them as much as he enjoyed writing The Videographer.

I know what it feels like to be writing continuously for three days. I participated in this year’s (32nd) 3-Day Novel contest.

I successfully started and completed Plague; a love story set in the tumultuous years of the mid-1990s, at a time when India was rocked with communal riots, serial bomb blasts and an outbreak of plague.

It's impossible to describe the experience or replicate it.

Nothing can match the tense excitement of developing a story from scratch, navigating it through various stages of plot and ultimately guiding it to a denouement that gives the reader a sense of genuine, logical closure.

I wrote about the 3-Day Novel contest couple of weeks ago (Becoming a writer) when I had attended the contest's launch event in Toronto.

Image: http://www.3daynovel.com/

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dionne Brand, VS Naipaul, the Indian and African Diaspora in the Caribbean

In her autobiography / memoir, A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand analyses VS Naipaul’s writing on India from the prism of Indian and African Diaspora.

Brand refers to Naipaul’s The Overcrowded Barracoon and other Articles and one of its essays “In the Middle of the Journey” published in 1962 in the Illustrated Weekly of India.

I have not read a better or more original interpretation of Naipaul’s writing; a better or more lucid explanation of his prejudices; a better or more empathetic attempt at understanding his anger and a complete identification with his angst.

Over to Brand:

"He (Naipaul) is determined, it seems at the outset, to conclude that India is wanting in some sociopathic way – the landscape is ‘monotonous,’ its ‘simplicity’ is ‘frightening,’ its people are Philistine and myopic...

"The essay is less interesting for what it may offer by way of any description of India than for Naipaul’s choice of words and emotions that indicate his state of mind. Of course India is overwhelming, of course it is vast, but that does not give one the sense of dread that Naipaul attaches to these words. This dread one suspects arrived with him. The stories he must have heard as a child of the Kala Pani, the black water of the journey of indentured labourers from India to the Caribbean, the experience of those workers for whom India might have been both a curse from which they left or a haven from which they were plucked. When Naipaul travels to India to send this report he is making the return trip across the Kala Pani...’Vast tracts which will never become familiar, which will sadden.’ They will never become familiar because two generations have missed their shape, more than one hundred years have passed since his family has been there. It exists only in memory, which is sometimes untrustworthy; it exists in the stories of his family passed down, each image dependent on the story-teller’s gift and skills.

"Many read Naipaul as spiteful...But in some ways I read Naipaul as spitefully sorrowful...Those vast tracts which will never become familiar are not merely description of a physical landscape but discourse on ancestral estrangement and filial longing. The dread he feels in the essay and the urge to escape are even more interesting. It is the dread of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the possibility of rejection...the possibility that in fact one is unwanted back home, perhaps hated, perhaps even forgotten. The wound of forced exile generations ago is made more acute by indifference, by forgetfulness. No one in India remembers him or the experience he represents. Yet he carries within him this particular accursed ancestral memory and this crushing dislocation of the self which the landscape did not solve. Instead he finds himself afraid and wishing to escape – to escape the “endless repetition of exhaustion and decay.” To anyone else this sound like merely “life” – the existential dilemma. To the descendants of the nineteenth-century Indian and African Diaspora, a nervous temporariness is our existential dilemma, our descent quicker, our decay faster, our existence far more tenuous; the routine of life is continuously upheaved by colonial troublings. We have no ancestry except the black water and the Door of No Return. They signify space and not land. A ‘vastness’ indeed ‘beyond imagination.’ It is not India which is beyond imagination; it is the black water. Fear is repeated so many times in his essay. Naipaul in fact admits that ‘the despair lies more with the observer than the people.'"

Image: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/brand/index.html