& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 31, 2011


There is a timeless quality to a quietly flowing stream. 

It encapsulates time in one free-flowing moment – the continuously flowing water has the past, the present, and the future all subsumed into one perpetual motion.

Loren Edizel
This also true for our lives where the overlap of the past, the present and the future is an everyday occurrence.

One seldom sees this seamless continuity in any narrative piece.

Loren Edizel’s Adrift (Tsar) is like that stream – it doesn’t categorises life in to distinct compartments of the earlier, the now and the then.

It weaves the stories of the characters in the novel in an uneven, overlapping, non-linear and multidimensional narrative that is at once breathtaking and profound.

The novel is about John, who is a new immigrant in Montreal, working the graveyard shift in a hospital. 

He seems mysterious because he aloof and alone. In reality he is like anyone else who is new to Canada and has done a night shift survival job.

In the bitterly cold nights, when one battles to stay awake, imagination can be a dangerous thing – it’s better to make it work for you can work (as John does) rather than letting it harm you.

Also, one prefers to keep the baggage of the past to oneself, and avoids small chatter about the past one has left behind. You come to a new land to restart your life, not to re-live your past.

In so many different ways, the novel redefines loneliness – no man (woman) is ever lonely in the mind – every moment in one’s life is a confluence of all that has happened, is happening, and will happen.  

The novel is also about the unceasing little tragedies that make up our lives – melancholy is the generally prevailing norm in everyone’s life.

A gentle reminder that while we may all be happy (briefly) in our different ways, when it comes to gloom there isn't much to distinguish between yours and mine.

Adrift is one of the best novels I’ve read in 2011.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Oh! Calcutta

I’ve never quite figured out what is it that creates a bond between a city and its inhabitants. The bond has a distinctly paradoxical dimension because it’s at once intangible and palpable.

The bond develops into a lifelong sense of belonging and gives an identity to the inhabitant – I’m a Torontonian. I was a Bombayite (or, the better sounding Mumbaikar).

Howrah Bridge
Even the most liberal-minded amongst us tend to become a bit jingoistic about our cities and compare them to other cities that we visit – and always feel infinitely superior about it.

When I lived in Bombay, and visited other cities in India, or even outside India, I always felt that my Bombay was incomparable.

It's an emotional thing. So, while I definitely love Toronto more than I love Bombay, I still feel that Toronto doesn’t measure up to that magnificent island city on the eastern end of the Arabian Sea.

Bombay is in so many ways similar to that other amazing city on the western coast of the Atlantic – New York City – the undisputed capital of the world.

Every time I’ve been to the US, I made it a point visit New York – to live and breathe for some time the sheer vibrancy, sassiness, audacity, impudence of a city that defines freedom, expression, energy.

I think Delhi is like Washington DC, Bombay is like New York, Chicago is like well, not quite any other city I’ve visited, although some parts of downtown Chicago do remind me of downtown Toronto, perhaps because both cities are beside a giant water body erroneously called a lake.

And then there’s Calcutta – quite unlike any other city in the world.

For reasons that are known to many who know me (and therefore entirely unnecessary to reiterate),  I’ve had a long and enduring relationship with Calcutta – a city I first visited in 1977 and then several times from the late 1980s to mid-1990s.

It’s a city that makes you fall in love – with itself and with its people and with the Hoogly and the hand pulled raft boats, with the majestic cantilever Howrah Bridge (Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem, Mani Ratnam’s Yuva), with the imposing Victoria Memorial and the sprawling Maidans, the Eden Gardens, the rusty trams and the gleaming metro, the decaying buildings and the smoke-belching Ambassador taxis, New Market, K.C. Das, Flury’s, Chowringhee, the Puja.

But my relationship with Calcutta is not merely because of my personal connection, it’s a city that is important to anyone who is interested in postcolonial phenomenon because Calcutta defined colonial Bengal, which in turn defined modern Indian sensibilities (G.K. Gokhale’s famous quip: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”).

Writers' Building

Bengal’s influence has been and remains ubiquitous in all spheres of human endeavour – from politics (a wide variety – my choice: Jyoti Basu), economics (Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Amartya Sen), literature (Rabindranath Tagore), the arts (my personal favourites: Jamini Roy in the past and Bikash Bhattacharya more recent), movies (Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak in the past…Rituparno Ghosh now), religion (my favourite: Ramkrishna Paramhansa), activism (Raja Ram Mohan Roy) to journalism (M.J. Akbar).  And this, as everyone will agree, is only an illustrative list.

For me Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar and Shankar’s Chowringhee are the two artistic interpretations that capture the true character of Calcutta’s identity.

And somehow, for me it’ll never be Kolkata.

Recently, after a gap of many years I had an opportunity to return to the Bengali milieu with Tagore aficionados in Toronto at a Tagore film festival organised by Kathleen and Joseph O'Connell of the U of T and saw Rituparno Ghosh's interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore's Noukadubi, Satyajit Rai's documentary on Tagore, Shey by Buddhadeb Dasgupta.

It was an absolutely splendid experience.

Then, during the last week, I read Kwai-Yun Li’s The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories (Tsar). Kwai is from Calcutta’s Chinatown and her stories are set in the city.

It revived my memories of Calcutta, and with that revival of memories also a disturbing realisation – that the local Chinese population never quite figured in all my encounters and memories of Calcutta, which seems to strange because they’re quite unmistakably a part of the city.

What’s more, I’ve had one of the biggest dinners of my life at a Chinese eatery on Calcutta’s Park Street. 

Kawi’s essay A Brief History of Chinese in Calcutta talks of the steady decline of the Chinese population.  This is a collection of heart-warming stories of human beings no different than anyone else in Calcutta, and yet treated differently, neglected and forgotten.

It made me realise that we see only what we want to see, and in the way we want to see. Also, I doubt if I’d ever have become as aware of the different minorities that make our world and societies had I not become a part of a minority myself as a Torontonian.

Images: Sketches of Calcutta: by Sameer Biswas

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Lantana Strangling Ixora

The Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) is an influential organisation that helps shape  the Indian Government’s policies on the Indian Diaspora. It has presence all over the world and has a special significance for the Indian Diaspora, more so in North America.

Its e-newsletter is a much-awaited monthly bulletin that gives a roundup of activities of the Indian Diaspora across the world; preoccupied with policy matters, it doesn't usually have any significant mention about culture, and almost never about poetry.

However, the December e-newsletter that I got earlier this week surprised me.

It had a whole paragraph on my friend Sasenarine Persaud (Sase).

“Guyanese born PIO Dr. Sasenarine Persaud has released his most recent collection of poems titled Lantana Strangling Ixora. The poems provide a ready metaphor for the consciousness of the Americas overcoming that of India in the Americas – the main streaming and divesting of yoga from its Hindu origins being the most visible manifestation. This collection ranges widely in its geographical and historical concerns, from Canada to Guyana to India and places in between, exploring the contradictions in our lives: familial influences, terrorism, literature, politics, race, and the power of language and representation.”

I met Sase in the strangest of circumstances. He was attending the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (FSALA-11) and I was to pick him up from the airport.

But a misreading of flight schedules resulted in two participants reaching Toronto almost simultaneously from different places and at different terminals.

I couldn’t go to pick him, but met him a day later at the festival and we turned friends instantly.

Sase has an easy charm and wears his creativity quite lightly.

His collection of poems Lantana Strangling Ixora (published by TSAR) was released during the festival, and he read a few poems from his new collection.

I particularly liked this one:

Marco Polo at Rama-Sethu.

Silken threads known
before his journey
to the Emperor’s court

recording on that passage
Rama’s bridge across the ocean
from Tamil Nadu to Lanka

Raghu’s vanaar army – how inebriated
can you be if monkeys talk
in an underwater crocodile wife’s

yearning for monkey-liver soup
to cure an ailment: man shooting
too much breeze with another

must be curbed – building a stone
causeway to confront Ravana –
You do not negotiate with terrorists.

Lantana Strangling Ixora – the poem that gives the collection its name has stunning imagery.
Lantana is a South American flower and Ixora is an Asian flower; Sase is a Guyanese of Indian descent.

Lantana Strangling Ixora

There were times in the morning
we questioned the bloom
of the previous evening, watering
cana lilies, clearing the live oak
acorns from our white wrought-iron bench

How do ripe plantains smell?
Like ripe bananas. You could laugh
until after dinner. I will hold
Radhakrishnan’s interpretations of the Upanishads
until you snap on the ceiling fan

And we swirl on the sheets of a different seeking
scented like lilacs in a north-of-Toronto park
or in the Arnold Arboretum. If you conjure
a dead British poet with the same last name
would you be wrong? American literature

Or flowers in a Florida garden
are all we need to know except
if “papa” is hunting in the “Green Hills of Africa”
or Buck is observing Chinese. You drift
off into a naked sleep where snores sing

And a mouth that has taught us Kali’s secrets
falls open to accommodate blocked passages
or water the definition of a flower cluster
or the naming of a southern plant: datura
as prickly as that morning when the alarm
failed to startle sexed sleep and you are hurried

For a meeting and we barely have time
to glance at the golden marigolds—left foot
right foot brake and accelerate through amber
lights impatient with ancient drivers gaping

At dew on the St. Augustine grass and the aroused
ficus leaves, a replica of Rama’s arrow tips, and
we barely have time to see lantana strangling ixora

Image: TSAR Books

Friday, December 02, 2011

Lingering Tide and Other Stories

Latha Vishwanathan’s Lingering Tide and Other Stories is an endearing collection of short stories.

Lata takes us to places that are mostly homely, but get lonely and forlorn as we get know them better. It’s a world that we wouldn't want to leave once we’re in because it’s where we meet people who’re like us and yet quite different and distinct, and they stay with us a long time; long after you’ve read the book.

It’s a world of cloistered neighbourhoods; of a lovable though tragic character of Ammini (Brittle), who savours peanut brittle. This seemingly inexplicable addiction, when explained later in the story, leaves us with a lump larger than a brittle in the throat, and one that refuses to melt.

In Eclipse, we meet Divya, the flexible wife and mother who is eager to and therefore successful in adjusting to a new life in Canada. Her husband, Sharma, a maestro of sorts, is unable to make the transition; and is reduced to watch his world transform radically from the sidelines. Suddenly, the difference in age between the not-so-young wife and the old husband becomes an unbridgeable and an ever-widening chasm, and he wonders, “Why had he not seen this, her agility spanning continents, skipping oceans?”

Lata Vishwanathan
These stories are of people in India, North America, East Asia, and one that is of a young alchemist in medieval India, who is an expert at making rose attar. Each milieu as carefully crafted as the characters.

In Lingering Tide, the time difference between India and the US is described thus: “The hours Surya struggles to fill in India have yet to be born in America.” Or Sharma’s brother in Eclipse, experiencing the vastness of Canada for the first time, observes, “Isn’t it odd; I haven’t seen so much of the sky at one time.”

The coming of age of girls is described with subtlety and tenderness. In Bat Soup, Robona’s sister describes her thus: “Sitah noticed how Robona walked since she turned sixteen. She wound her sarong tightly, pulling at the edges before tucking in. Then when she walked, she swayed just a little, thighs brushing, small tight buttocks seesawing; so glad to be alive.”

At the Fall launch of TSAR books, Latha read an excerpt from Cool Wedding; a poignant and hilarious story of an immigrant housewife, writing a letter to her sister. 

Here’s a sample from that story:

“You will not believe the competition in America. What with all the smart Chinese children. Thank God for the Americans. Without them, how will our children shine in America? I, personally, am very glad about the one child only per couple in China. Wish the Chinese in America would also take it up.”

You can buy the book here: TSAR

Images: TSAR Publications

Friday, November 25, 2011

Yusuf and the Lotus Flower

Guest Post by Leo Paradela

The launch of Doyali Farah Islam's first book of poetry was a delightful one. Her verses echoed the melodic voice of the poet as she stood in an ever-so lovely bright red dress before her happy guests as she read several selections from her book Yusuf and the Lotus Flower.

Doyali Farah Islam
Her delicate words lead us through mystical passages filled with invisible threads of her soul drawing the anxious listener to the core of her world of graceful and spiritual richness. Her intricate yet bold poems came as a reminder to all who heard her that GOD is one among all – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, or any other are all alike in the worship of the Supreme Deity.

Through images from the Qur'an, Doyali managed to unite us all and serve as a gentle reminder of humanity's oneness as we all embark, during our earthly journey, on our search for the soul, the divine, the deeply wise, and the deeply spiritual reason for our being. 

We are all one in our greatness as we are all one in our nothingness.

Yet our one common denominator remains the lightness of our existence during the brief time we are given to discover sacred that lies deeply within our hearts.  

To put it in Doyali's own words,

"I will crawl up the trellis now,
a salient rose,
and leave the air fragrant
just for your presence".

Indeed, Doyali, with your lovely and sublime verses, you have done exactly that! 

Thank you and much success in your future!

Very Sincerely,

Leo Paradela

Leo Paradela is a poet. His collection of poems Hearts & Souls was published in 2011

Follow Doyali's blog: www.doyalifarahislam.com

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Puzzle of Murders

Brandon Pitt’s first novel, Puzzle of Murders, is a haunting, gripping tale.

Sam Giltine is a young man who embarks – rather inadvertently – on a killing spree when he fails to kill the man who raped his sister.  

The novel has a multi-layered structure that unfolds rapidly.

There is a strong physical dimension to the book.

The robust, solid descriptions of Sam’s world – Faridemidland, the deadbeat, forgettable and wasted hometown he runs away from, to the polluted and permeable back alleys of Los Angeles.

There is also an intangible, amorphous dimension of the varied ways in which Sam’s mind works.

It is at this level that the book transcends from a story of a serial killer and transmogrifies; it becomes an exploration of transformations of a mind that is prone to involuntary callisthenics.

In this world, religion and spiritualism take on hues that make them unrecognisable from each other.

Brandon adroitly acquaints us with Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the concepts of Avatar in Hinduism, Rasool in Islam, the philosophies of Bodhisattva and Zarathustra.
Brandon Pitts

This is clearly Brandon’s forte. 

He makes these discursive excursions into spirituality and understanding the meaning of realisation evocative without ever becoming preachy or pompous or hallucinatory.

The other aspect of the novel that stays with you  is the soft, pastel shades Brandon gives to all his women characters, especially Eisheth Percy.

He is masterly when he describes Sam’s love-hate and lust for Lilth Jahl.  

I personally would’ve liked if there was a bit more of Kali Naamah, Tamara and the stripper, the Avatar of God.

But, ultimately, the book is about murders – the coldblooded and the random manner in which Sam kills people.

This is what makes Puzzle of Murders a page turner.

There is pure horror in the psychotic pleasure that Sam derives in plunging a knife through his victims and sees the “life force” leave their bodies.

BookLand Press continues to experiment with different genres and manages to unearth undiscovered talent. 

Ninth Hindustani Drama Festival 2011

Consul General Preeti Saran with Jawaid Danish
and the cast of Jeevan Saath Clinic

The ninth edition of RangManch-Canada’s Annual Hindustani Drama Festival held Saturday commenced with a lively debate on the Challenges of Staging Indian Drama in Canada and Experiences of Desi Talents in Mainstream Showbiz.

Participants in the debate included Jawaid Danish, the artistic director of the festival Juhair Kashmiri, Jasmine Sawant, Nisha Ahuja, Mukesh Aspoa, Beeyah Mirza, Nass Rana, Samrina Qureshy, Vishnu Sharma, Nitin Sawant and Naval Bajaj.

The challenges that those involved with South Asian theatre in Canada are manifold – lack of acceptance from the mainstream Canadian and the South Asian community; lack of support from private donors and from the art councils of the local governments; apathy of interest from the theatre-loving audiences. The discussion also revolved around some basic issues of identity and language; the mainstream theatre versus the art theatre movement.

Everyone in the panel agreed with Bajaj’s contention that for South Asian theatre in Canada to remain relevant and find a larger following amongst the second and third generation South Asian Canadians there is need for more English adaptions of classic plays from different South Asian languages, and also more original English plays that depict the life of South Asians in Canada.

Then, the festival began and in one evening there were five plays in five languages:

Jeevan Sathi Clinic: Urdu, Anarkali: English, Adhi Mitti, Adha Sona: Punjabi, Magazine vendor: Bhojpuri, I No Inglis: Gujarati

The first play – Jeevan Saathi Clinic – ran to a packed house (Maja Prentice Theatre at the Burnhamthrope Library, Mississauga). It’s a simple story of a lover’s tiff between a newly married couple – Fareeha and Shaharyaar – and their eventual meeting at a matchmaking boutique.  Vishnu Sharma as Gulfaam – the lead in the lighthearted comedy with a social message – was plain brilliant, as were the others (and all of them have a day job and were doing this for the love of theatre).

Preeti Saran, the Consul General of India in Toronto, inaugurated the festival and was the chief guest.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Isabelle of Bombay - A Cosmic Conflict

Every immigrant hopes to someday return home.

She lives in the hope that when everything is over and done with, she’ll return to her roots, even if there’s nothing left to return to.

Her past belongs to a miasma of imagination and is addled mixture of regrets and nostalgia.

Her future is a lost in hope – hope to somehow return to her world that actually never was.

And her present is lost between an implausible past and an impossible future.

As I read Isabelle of Bombay, I couldn’t help thinking about this quintessential immigrants’ dilemma.

Colleen Ansley’s first novel captures this dilemma eloquently. 

Isabelle leaves her Bombay and comes to Canada (Ottawa-Montreal and finally Toronto), but her struggles continue; her life changes and its gets worse -- much worse before it gets better.

Perhaps the true reason why Isabelle finally succeeds is the 'Keep Calm & Carry On' spirit that is essential to Bombay and Toronto.

Ansley is able to capture the true character of both the cities in the novel. 

The book is peppered with innumerable such examples. 

She illustrates Toronto’s culture of tolerance by a remarkable anecdote. 

Isabelle’s colleague Harry narrates an incident to illustrate to her to teach her to stand firm for her rights.

“As Vice Principle of a school, I attended the annual teacher’s conference. At one session, participants stood up to give their view on a particular issue. I stood up and gave my opinion too. My Scottish accent was much stronger at that time. I had barely finished speaking when someone in the crowd stood up and questioned me.

“Hey! You there with a Scottish accent. Aren’t you a Displaced Person?”

“Before I could think of an answer,” Harry continues, “Another person in the crowd stood up and inquired of that man.”

“And may I ask your name sir?”

“Oliver Greenhill,” the man responded.

“Well Oliver, you certainly are not from here either. You don’t have an aboriginal name.”

“People in the crowd stood up and cheered. That was the day I realised how many others were in the same situation as me. Since then, I decided I was going to stand my ground and not flee again. Don’t let anyone step on your toes Isabelle. Speak up. Everyone here has come as an immigrant. You have a right to this country just like everyone else.”

She reveals and Bombay’s vibrant multi-religious, multi-ethnic composition with an evocative example of multi-faith healing. 

When a friend of the family – Bernard – is taken ill and in addition to the doctor, holy men from different faiths come and administer their special panaceas – and Bernard is miraculously cured.

“Whose God cured Bernard? In each case, prayers were said to a God with a different name. When it came to saving a person’s life, religious barriers were easily discarded.”

The cosmic conflict between Kali and St. Brigid is in reality a friendly contest to protect Isabelle from both real and perceived threats.  

This is the second self-published book I’ve read in the last month. Just Matata by Braz Menezes. 

Both the books have better production quality that books published by mainstream publishers, and should ideally been included in their oeuvre.

Five Good Ideas

Working for a not-for-profit organisation has its charms as well as challenges. 

Among the positives, there are considerable more opportunities innovate, to choose a different path, and even do something audacious.

On the flip side, there’s never enough money, enough people, enough resources, enough anything.

Moreover, the pay sucks.

For the same results, the corporate and the government sectors pay more.

On the balance, I think, those who prefer the not-for-profit sector do so because of the freedom it offers.

Running a not-for-profit requires better skillsets than running a private or government sector organisation because you’re expected to do everything.

But there are few, if any, opportunities for training.

The Toronto-based Maytree Foundation’s 5 Good Ideas is a training program for those who work at not-for-profit organisations.

It’s simple, effective and free.

I’ve attended a few of these sessions and have always benefited from them – both from the main speaker as well as from the exchange of ideas that emanate from the group that I sit with.

But with all such workshops, there’s always a problem of retention. There’s a lot one learns, but not everything stays with you.

And there’s never enough time to compile notes from the workshop and keep them handy for reference.

With the publication of Five Good Ideas, Practical Strategies for Non-Profit Success that problem is solved.

Edited by Alan Broadbent, founder chairman of Maytree, and Ratna Omidvar, President of Maytree, the book is a manual for all professionals working for not-for-profit organisations.

The scope of the book is exhaustive. I doubt if any aspect of a not-for-profit is left uncovered. 

But instead of a tome full of treatises, the book is an easy-to-read compilation of five good ideas on seven issues that a professional working for a not-for-profit organisation encounters daily.

These include:
  • Leadership & Vision
  • Organisational Effectiveness
  • Human Resources
  • Resource Development
  • Communications
  • Advocacy and Policy
  • Governance

All the contributors are stalwarts in their chosen field of expertise. 

If you have anything to do with a not-for-profit, read this book.