& 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