& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nelson Mandela: Conversations with myself

Everybody remembers that day when Nelson Mandela walked to freedom more than two decades ago.

This evening, the Toronto Reference Library brought together eminent Torontonians whose lives were touched by Nelson Mandela at a reading from Mandela’s latest book Conversations with Myself.

Suhana Meharchand, Andrew Moodie, Brian Stewart, Molly Johnson and MG Vassanji read select passages from the book and also narrated personal anecdotes.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to be born when Mahatma Gandhi was practicing non-violent non-cooperation.

And for a brief moment today, I realised that I’m indeed quite fortunate to be living when Nelson Mandela continues to shape our collectively consciousness about what is acceptable and what isn’t. 

Bleeding Light

Sheniz Janmohamed
Earlier this month I attended the annual book launch of TSAR. This year, I knew a few more people than last year. This was my second year and as last year, I was again in the midst of innumerable writers.

My friend Dawn Promislow read from her collection Jewels and Other Stories, Ava Homa read a passage from Glass Slippers, probably the best story in her collection Echoes from the Other Land, Sheniz Janmohamed read from her book of ghazals and H Nigel Thomas read an extract from his novel Lives: Whole and Otherwise.

This blog is about Sheniz Janmohamed’s book of ghazals Bleeding Light.

The ghazal is a unique concept in poetry where the singer is as important as (or perhaps more important than) the poet. This amazing confluence of words and music makes ghazals not merely a pleasant experience, but a transcendental, even spiritual one.

Two of the best contemporary ghazal singers are Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali and the best ghazals they have sung are:

Jagjit Singh: Tum ko dekh to (poet: Javed Akhtar)

Ghulam Ali: Hangama hai (poet: Akbar Allahabadi).

I had never read ghazals in English before and quite frankly, it took some getting used to and re-readings before I began to enjoy Sheniz’s ghazals
All the ghazals are refreshing and make you see the world differently. Once the light touches your soul, you can’t remain unmoved.

Here’s one that I liked the most because it evokes so many images.

In Crimson

A man sells packets of socks in a gully where most men walk barefoot.
What can he do but rest his head on that ledge, hastily painted crimson?

In Old Town, Allah hu Akbar pounds the walls of crumbling Fort Jesus.

A taxi cuts us off, Allah is Great plastered on his window – in crimson.

At the Coast, we bargain shillings for bags and kisii stone elephants.

Indians are not good customers. The seller brands our skin crimson.

Bombs detonate at the steps of every mosque, in the throat of every believer.

If Allah is a war cry, how can we lift Bismillah from asphalt stained crimson.

If only we planted a thousand trees for each page we discard and crumple.
When her last pen snaps, Israh will draw blood and scrawl words in crimson.

Israh is Sheniz’s takhallus


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jawaharlal Nehru

Rajiv, Jawaharlal & Indira

Jawaharlal Nehru divides Indians. 

Many Indians believe that India is on a path of enlightened progress because it has stayed steadfast in adhering to Nehru’s political ideals.

On the other hand, an equal number believe that he is responsible for all that is wrong with India – right from the gangrenous Kashmir problem to the long years of fettered economic  growth.

Those who would prefer India to be a Hindu theocracy hold him responsible for being the founder of pseudo secularism – Muslim appeasement in the name of secularism.

Most political ideas and ideologies don’t last beyond half-a-century, and Nehru’s haven’t either. His economic vision was largely statist and a product of his times. It couldn’t have envisaged the steady trot of the Indian economy since 1991 enabled by economic liberalisation.

Yet, Nehru understood India’s place in the comity of nations better than his contemporaries did. His emphasis on economic self-reliance, science and technology, higher education, and a unique interpretation of secularism where the state treated all religions equally, has given India the social capital that will enable it to grow into a major power in the near future.

prolific writer himself, Nehru remains a subject of innumerable biographies. One of the best is MJ Akbar’s Nehru The Making of India. When the world is beginning to recognise India’s inherent strengths and its inevitable rise, an honest, non-partisan assessment of India’s first prime minister is necessary. 

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City

Mayank waiting to cross the road in Quebec City
A tour guide is a combination of a schoolteacher and an actor – she has to inform, educate and entertain.

Derek Lei Xu was all this and some more. 

The three-day round trip to Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City (and a drive through a 1000 Islands and Kingston) would have been exciting even without him. 
However, his constant presence, guidance and direction helped us understand and enjoy our first weekend break since we immigrated to Canada in July 2008. 

Derek spoke in English, Mandarin and Cantonese because
Tai Pan’s (the tour operator) bus comprised 80 percent Chinese and the rest a mix of new immigrants from Brazil, Palestine, Iran, India, Japan, Barbados. Their relatively new status in Canada and their economic tenuousness uniting them as they hopped skipped and jumped from Toronto to the three cities. 

My impressions: Ottawa – an overgrown town; Montreal – a city of the past; Quebec City – a picture book village. 

’s main attraction is the Canadian Museum of Civilisation. I recommend a visit to this museum to all newcomers to Canada. This is the first authentic depiction of Canadian history that I saw, and it serves as a glorious introduction to Canada’s rich past – from the natives to the first European settlers. 

After a walk through, I felt that perhaps the museum could do with a section on the history of new Canadians of non-European origins. 

If you have seen (Capitol Hill) Washington DC and (Parliament building) New Delhi, you will not find Ottawa’s
Parliament Hill particularly impressive. But it is probably in keeping with the Canadian ethos – low key, understated, unostentatious, but no less vibrant and effective. 

And, by the way, I discovered that the Ottawa is a bit like Chandigarh – a city shared by two provinces (Punjab and Haryana, Ontario and Quebec). The Quebec side is
Gatineau and all the road signs turn to French.  We walked up to the memorial for the Unknown Soldier and took some photographs and then picked up a booklet on Parliamentary democracy in Canada from the information office opposite the Parliament Hill. 

By late evening we were outside
Montreal (Mount Royal), an island city which hosted Canada’s only Summer Olympics in 1976 – gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s Olympics. 

It was the first Olympics on Indian TV, with daily highlights brought every night into the living rooms of the more privileged Indians. I saw it at my friend Mukesh Mistry’s house at
Sakina Mansion; and all of us were awestruck by Nadia – a girl just about as old as most of us, capturing the hearts and minds of the world with her perfect 10s. 

A brief visit to Montreal gives an impression that it sort of stopped growing in the 1970s. The imposing and obtrusive physical infrastructure, including the behemoth of a viaduct that runs through the city, belongs to the past.  

The Olympics site is stark though impressive.  Montreal is the second largest Francophile metropolitan area in the world after Paris, and has a pulsating cultural life; we’ll need another, more leisurely visit to the city to get better acquainted with that side of the city. 

The night is at Holiday Inn in downtown. 
Nice place for the money we paid. 

Next morning, we’re off to
Quebec City. Nothing prepares you for the quaint charm of this first urban settlement in Canada. The petite old town is straight out of children’s story book – the small houses, the narrow lanes with horse-drawn buggies, the wooden stairs, artists hawking their pen and ink drawings on street corners –all belong to the less hurried times of the past. 

Yes, time stands still in the old Quebec City and they should pass a law (if they haven’t already) not to change that. 
You realise you’re in a tourist place when the cafĂ© charges $2.75 for an espresso, and young lad behind the counter gives it to you concoction made in Jura coffee machine in a paper cup whose size is smaller than the glass that holds a tequila shot.  

To compensate for this outrageous rip off, we met with the pleasant
Jean Philippe Vogel, an artist who draws pen and ink sketches of street monuments of the old city and sells them to tourist at a reasonable price (6 for $10). And while you buy his prints, he explains a bit of the city’s geographical history. 

The night is at Delta. No free internet in the room. 

With the sun out of the clouds, the return journey next morning turns out to be pretty enjoyable; we returned to Toronto late in the evening, after an all-too-brief stopover in Kingston.

See more photographs of the visit on my flickr page, click here: