& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Idea of Canada

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

2012 ends on a sombre note in India and in Canada.

India stood still in the last two weeks as the 23-year-old girl battled for life, eventually losing it in a Singapore hospital. A nation of billion plus is shamed like never before. Although I’ve been away from India for four-and-a-half years, and I can’t claim to know and understand what’s going on, I’m optimistic (perhaps unreasonably) that the tragedy will force a change led by the urban youth – a small and basic but much-needed change in the attitude toward women.

Canada is on the edge as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike enters third week.

It is this development that has touched me in a significant manner. 

As a newcomer to Canada, I voted with my feet. I chose to come and live in a country that I think is better than my former homeland. Not merely because of the economic opportunities it offers, but because it is a more just society – a society that celebrates differences and treats everyone with the same respect.

Spence’s hunger strike shatters that belief. It tells me that I’ve been naïve in making such assumptions; that, in fact, the Canadian system is deeply unjust, even if the society is not.

As a newcomer to Canada, I’m hesitant to take sides. But Spence’s fast for the rights of First Nations people strikes a chord and takes me back two decades when as a journalist I covered environmentalist Medha Patkar’s hunger strike fighting for the rights of India's aboriginals.
Chief Spence says “she won’t back down until the Canadian government agrees to address First Nations’ struggles.” Mahatma Gandhi's legacy lives on in the 21st century, too.

When I had first read A Fair Country Telling Truths about Canada John Ralston Saul a couple of years ago I felt it was a wishful, romantic view of both the First Nations and Canada.

Saul contends that Canada is a Metis nation shaped by the First Nations’ concepts of egalitarianism and negotiations. However, in the context of Spence’s fast, the central thesis of Saul’s argument acquires a new resonance for me.

In the book’s chapter Learning to Imagine Ourselves, he says:

Canadians carry both the Aboriginal and the European tradition. We have become rich in part because of that Western Manichean drive. And ideas of exclusivity and race were certainly introduced here with a vengeance. Yet those tendencies have been limited by our other tradition. And today the delight we take in our non-monolithic society suggests that our Aboriginal foundations are rising to the surface. At the same time, the sense of discomfort in the country over environmental and economic policy shows that much of the tension between our two basic forces remains unconscious.

And so we work hard to fit our non-monolithic culture into a revised version of our European liberal monolithic inheritance. But that requires twisting ourselves into a knot in search of Western justifications for non-western actions. Of course, there are European liberal elements in our way of life, but our deep roots are here not there; they are far more indigenous than liberal. The source of our non-monolithic – and for that matter our egalitarian – sense of ourselves lies in the structures of the Aboriginal maze the Europeans found here and into which they eased themselves over hundreds of years. You have to work hard to avoid this argument. And you have to turn your curiosity away from our local reality. Both parties were changed. Both gained. Both lost. But our deep roots are indigenous, and there lie the most interesting explanations for what we are and what we can be.”

Click here to read more about the campaign: Idle No More

Listen to CBC’s Jian Gomeshi’s essay: This is Q

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The ACE Principle - Murali Murthy

A good teacher is not necessarily one who knows her subject well; she’s one who is able to engage her students into the learning process by making the dense and the dull exciting and accessibly. Often, the distinction between a brilliant and a good teacher is the ability to communicate.

Murali Murthy is a communicator par excellence. His felicity at transforming complex ideas into simple factoids makes his ACE Principle an immensely readable book. What Murali says in the book may not be new but the way he says it is completely unique. He brings diverse ideas together and organizes them into a cohesive action plan to change one’s thinking and approach to life and living. And he illustrates every idea of his with plenitude of examples.

The ACE Principle is a life guide to 15 Success Principles to Absorb Comprehend Excel in Every Area of Life.  For each of the 15 principles, Murali gives a three point action plan. Together, the principles and the action plan form a comprehensive strategy to evaluate one’s life and try to reorient one’s thinking to achieve success. Each principle is illustrated by a biographical example that illustrates success in achieving that particular principle.

The simplicity and the effective way in which the message is conveyed belie the complexity of the structure of the book. It also reveals the multiple levels at which the author has marshaled his arguments, weaving a myriad web of ideas.

The book (re)introduces us to simple principles that we have known all along, but didn’t really think of putting them to form a strategy. I haven’t read a book that is as useful as the ACE Principle in a long time, and I don’t say this because Murali is a friend. It’s a genuinely good work guide to success. I also strongly recommend it to newcomers to Canada, who have to restart their lives and careers from scratch.

The book is published by Friesen Press. You may buy the book here:  ACE Principle

The 15 principles with their action plans are:

Be hungry – desire success
Staying focussed on the end reward
Creating more opportunities
Practicing self-discipline

Be focused – set goals
Committing to a specific goal
Taking action
Believing failure is not an option

Be proactive – Take initiative
Staying in control
Building momentum
Vanquishing fear

Be disciplined – Master habits
Loving what they do
Making it happen
Being patient

Be tenacious – build resilience
Impossible is nothing
Building the will power muscle

Be responsible – take charge
Taking 100% responsibility
Knowing what they want
Productive actions

Be imaginative – dream big
Dreaming big long enough
Exercising the power of the spoken word
Excuses versus results

Be moneywise – control finances
Living within their means
Focusing on net worth
Planning ahead

Be choosy – associate right
Being around the right people
Getting a mentor
Excelling at networking

Be sharp – stay teachable
Ability to be a sponge
Aligning with a pro
The ABC of success

Be assertive – display posture
Moving fast on opportunities
Keeping a positive attitude
Building a credible personal brand

Be high quality – deliver excellence
Constant self development
Managing time efficiently
An attitude of gratitude

Be leading – exercise influence
Thinking like one
Acting with prudence
Servant leadership

Be bold – demonstrate courage
Acting to impact
Stepping up and claiming it

Be happy – celebrate life
Believing that it’s not what happens, it’s how we react
Building a healthy mind and healthy body go hand in hand
Identifying a life purpose and celebrating life

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Prosperity & Peace for the 21st Century: APJ Abdul Kalam

APJ Abdul Kalam

I’m reading a compilation of APJ Abdul Kalam’s speeches in Canada graciously gifted to me by S. Kalyansundaram of Canada India Foundation.  

The book – Prosperity and Peace for the Twenty-First Century – covers three broad areas – Vision, Culture and Spirituality and Education. The editors – V. Ponraj, R. Swaminathan, and V. I. Lakshmanan – have wisely broken down the speeches and clubbed them into these three themes.

When one thinks of APJ Abdul Kalam the image that comes to mind is of an activist. He redefined the ceremonial office by being a knowledge activist.

There is a rising disquiet to the process of economic and cultural homogenization that globalization seems to be imposing especially on the non-western world.

Two distinct approaches have evolved to deal with this – the assimilative and the contrarian.

There are activists both in the categories – assimilative and contrarian, although the mainstream often fights shy of acknowledging the assimilators as activists.

In the mainstream, the term activist is often used pejoratively, and this has to do with the perception that an activist is someone with head-in-the-cloud opinions but without a viable alternative.

The contrarian questions the concept of development and upholds the traditional rights of people – rights that they have enjoyed for generations and are inalienably linked to their land and their way of living.

The assimilator believes in an encompassing approach that aims at bringing everyone together to achieve greater good. There is no doubt that the assimilator is also an activist.

Kalam is an assimilative activist.

In a world where knowledge economies are reshaping the new world order, India has a fighting chance to emerge as one of the leading nations if it is able to retain and build upon its lead in the knowledge sector.

India’s post-liberalization surge in the knowledge sphere in the late 1990s coincided with Kalam’s term as the President.

Kalam epitomizes the best of what India stands for and what it offered – a scholastic mixture of the science and culture, heritage and progress, inclusive ethos and forward thinking.

Kalam – the soft-spoken and the unassuming scientist – has given India and Indians a vision for the future – something that the country and its people could aspire to achieve if Indians put their mind to it.

In a large measure, India has seized Kalam’s vision for its future. Indians are working in a myriad different ways to bring to fruition a grand dream.

The slim volume is rich in Kalam’s knowledge of the Indian society, and his vision for the world. I found the section on Culture particularly appealing, and in particular his lecture at the Sringeri Community Centre on 26-09-10 on Tolerance has universal relevance.

 “Tolerance is the foundation of sustainable development and peaceful society. It will be appropriate to have introspection by all of us about the social awakening needed for the national and international development. Every civilized society exists not for day-to-day, but with a clear perception for the future and the generations to come. Such a situation would pre-suppose that each individual in such a society would cherish and translate into practice noble ideals of constructive tolerance, positive fellow-feeling and a total commitment to live and let live. Albert Einstein could not have expressed this better, when he said: “Laws alone can’t secure freedom of expression; in order that every man presents his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.

“We have to evolve a society that will respect differences and celebrate differences. What are the various issues on tolerance?
  1. Tolerance for people’s opinion
  2. Tolerance for people’s culture
  3. Tolerance for people’s belief system
  4. Tolerance for people’s styles

In fact, such an attitude, be it that of an individual or a collection of them i.e. society, is the hallmark of civilization and that is what characterizes and differentiates life from sheer existence. Honesty and integrity – both in thought and action, independence and inter-dependence – in their wholesome and positive manifestations, would distinguish a civilized society in its true sense. It is for each individual to strive to inculcate these external values in him or her, and that alone would be the surest path and unfailing guarantee for a civilized society and its future.”

Many such vignettes pepper this treasure of a book. 

A word on V. I. Lakshmanan, one of the editors of the book, and someone I’m privileged to know personally. Lakshmanan is an academician-turned-entrepreneur. For someone who has lived in the West for four decades, Lakshmanan is quite the antithesis of what is supposed to be the accepted norm of social behaviour here – he never projects himself and remains extremely humble despite his considerable achievements. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dickens' Women - Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes

Considering that CharlesDickens enjoys a reputation that is second only to William Shakespeare, it isn’t surprising that his bicentenary has passed by with the usual hagiographical homage staged mainly by the British establishment – the British Council and the BBC.  

These feel-good programs are what they supposed to be – giving us a glimpse of the man’s greatness, and his undoubted excellence.

Then, yesterday I saw MiriamMargolyes perform a series of women characters from Dickens’ novels.

It was a stunning revelation about a writer who the world admires for nuanced portrayals of characters and situations that retain their originality and immediacy since he first began to write in 1836-37.

Margolyes says – and with well-researched evidence – that there is “an important gap in (Dickens’) repertoire of females – I would argue that he never portrayed a woman whom we would recognise as a mature sexual and emotional partner for his heroes. And I venture to suggest this is because his own relations with women were all damaged, incomplete or destructive. As his daughter, Kate Perugini, remarked: ‘my father never understood women’.

Margolyes then analyses Dickens’ women characters into stereotypical archetypes – “the pre-pubescent child, usually described as ‘little’ (Emily, Nell, Dorrit, Dora, Ruth Pinch); the unattainable sexual object (Estalla, lady Dedlock, Edith Dombey); the grotesque, sometimes evil (Madame Defarge, Mrs. Squeers), sometimes comic (Mrs. Clennam, Mrs. Nickleby); the spinster longing for a man (Rosa Dartle, Miss Tox), but never was he able to draw a complete believable, fully realised female – because the women in his life never offered him the opportunity.”

All this is in the book, and reading about it isn’t half as enjoyable as watching Margolyes perform on stage.

Margolyes brings to life Dickens’ women with a range of emotions that are at once enthralling and yet strangely disturbing.

You laugh with her as she entertains you, but you’re also simultaneously changing your deep-rooted perceptions of one of English language’s pre-eminent men (persons / people) of letters.

It’s an unending series of virtuoso enactments. Her voice is unsure, child-like when she is Nell, impervious and almost arrogant as Estella, bitter and ironic as Miss Havisham, hesitant, submissive and yet coy and coquettish as Mrs. Corey. The list is endless, and two hours slip away quickly and before you know it, it’s curtains.

I saw the performance at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, which is in Toronto’s Distillery District.

Yesterday was my first visit to what is unarguably a unique – albeit touristy – Toronto location. Coincidentally, the district is celebrating Christmas by holding a traditional European Christmas market. 

I was alone in a place overflowing with people, and the place exudes old-world warmth. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The day Shiv Sena murdered Comrade Krishna Desai

Excerpt from Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai fables

"According to his family members, the (Shiv) Sena had physically attacked (Krishna) Desai during the 1967 election campaign. He escaped with his life by using his briefcase as a shield. Apparently, Desai knew he was a target. A feared trade unionist and a political leader with deep roots in the neighbourhood, Desai stood between the Sena and the Girgangaon. Anticipating an attack, he decided to send his family away to safety to his village in Ratnagiri. As for himself, he planned to go underground and take the fight to the Sena.

On June 5, 1970, Desai, as usual surrounded by Anil Karnik and others, was winding down for the day in his one-room hutment. His wife had laid out the dinner. Desai took off his shirt and was about to sit down to eat when he was summoned. His party associates wanted to discuss the next day’s planned Lok Seva Dal camping trip. Telling his wife and Karnik that he would be back shortly, Desai walked a few hundred yards down the winding lane to the office of a rice mill.

A mentally challenged man from his neighbourhood interrupted Desai’s conversation with his comrades in the office, informing him that some workers wanted to meet him. The assembled group looked out towards the open field that face the rice mill office. The power was off, and it was raining lightly. At the head of the narrow lane that led out from the field, the silhouettes of a few men were visible. Desai called out to ask who they were. A voice shouted “Jai Bharat” (Hail to India) in response. Desai’s young comrade Prakash Patkar walked towards them. As he neared the group, Patkar saw a few men standing by a car. One of the assembled men had a gupti, a long-bladed weapon tucked under his shirt. Patkar shouted out a warning to Desai, who rushed instantly to his side. Patkar was stabbed. Within seconds, Desai was surrounded and stabbed in the back, with his liver slashed. Having achieved their purpose, the attackers vanished into the darkness. Miraculously, Desai walked to the nearby house of a friend, who rushed him to the hospital, but he succumbed to the fatal wound.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Harem

Safia Fazlul
 TSAR’s 2012 fall launch was grand and exciting – an occasion to meet and make friends.

Of the bunch of fiction and poetry collections released at the launch, I picked up Safia Fazlul’s TheHarem.

It is a boldly told story of a young woman’s daring attempt to escape poverty and family restrictions.

Farina is a Canadian of Bangladeshi origin. She has grown up with nothing but contempt for her constrictive upbringing, her parents, their regressive ways, and her ghetto where women are abused by their men.

She runs away from this unending nightmare as soon as she turns 18. But it isn’t easy making money on survival wage jobs.

Sabrina, her childhood friend, with whom she was forced to attend the Islamic school, has turned into a stripper, not out of choice, but willing to make the most of her adversity to push her way out of poverty.

An exchange between the friends brings alive the dilemma they face - the stranglehold of tradition that keeps them poor but also helps retain their sense of dignity.

 “The bare-knuckled punches to my pride, Farina – that’s my big problem.” (Sabrina tells Farina)

I hear her loud and clear. Although I’m desperate for money, I’d never risk hurting my pride over it. For two insignificant brown girls like us, pride is much more important than money. We’re born to please our parents, raised to please our neighbours, and married off to please our husbands. Pride is all there is to remind us that we belong to ourselves.

For Farina, Sabrina’s decision to be a stripper is the ultimate surrender, and she can’t help but observe, 

“Our nudity – the shell of our sex – was the only thing we always had complete control over. While our parents and neighbours could watch what we wore, they couldn’t watch whom we got naked for. If Sabrina’s going to give up this control, then she might as well as settle for an arranged marriage and learn how to make samosas.”

She and her friends Sabrina and Imrana have nothing but disdain for their Islamic rearing and go out of their way to defy the traditions their parents hold dear and revere. In an act of ultimate defiance, they start Harem – an escort agency.

Money flows in, and with prosperity comes a sense of freedom. However, notwithstanding the derision she reserve for the values her parents tried to inculcate in her, ultimately there is no escaping these values.

So, even as she makes more money than she can keep track of, Farina is besieged with guilt. She also can’t avoid the ghetto completely, and falls in love with a boy who is nearly a mirror image of her father.

Harem is graphic and leaves little to imagination. It is also a sensitive and touching portrayal of Farina’s frailties that are normal for any 18-year-old. The relationship between the mother and daughter is raw, emotional and heart wrenching, for instance, when narrating her family history, Farina’s mother tells her, “We didn’t realize then that there is more than one way to lose a child.”

Many of the passages in the book are biting, pithy and depict with unrelenting accuracy the unbending social realities of the ethnic ghettos in Canada’s cities. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tinderbox: The Past and the Future of Pakistan - MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar is an Indian institution. In my humble opinion, he has no parallels in Indian journalism.

He invented modern Indian journalism in the 1970s with Sunday magazine, and introduced the real India (that is Bharat) to Indians hitherto used to reading newspapers and journals edited by pipe smoking journalists who pontificated about things that had little or no relevance to most of their readers, and wrote in English that was a hangover from the colonial times.

Akbar and his magazine Sunday changed all that.

Carl Sandberg has famously described slang as “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.” 

Akbar did that to English journalism in India. He made it work.

He made the post-Emergency renaissance in Indian journalism relevant and meaningful. 

It was a sort of rediscovery of India for a new generation of readers that was coming of age then. 

Leaving the pontificating to the fast-fading pipe smokers, he went to the heart of India and helped Indians understand India.

Akbar brought us face-to-face with the horrible atrocities the Dalits faced in India.

“The untouchable Jatav is touchable only when a pretty Jatav woman can be raped, or when a whimpering man has to be dragged into the field to do forced, whimsical paid labour.”

(Have Gun, Will Kill, January 1982 – report on the massacre of Dalits in Dehuli and Sarhupur in Uttar Pradesh from Riot After Riot, 1988).

He brought alive the horrors of unending communal violence that erupted in different parts of India.

“Many Muslims who were killed cannot be traced…to give just one example: Salim Mohammad was twenty-five years old, and he had been married to young Naeema just five months earlier. He was a worker who polished brass in one of the factories which have made Moradabad famous all over the world. He went to the Idgah, which is hardly five minutes away from his house, to pray; he never returned. A friend of his who was sitting nearby saw a bullet hit the side of Salim’s face. Salim fell dead. This friend went to the fallen salim, removed the only thing of value he had, a wristwatch, and brought it back to the family. (We saw the watch when we met the family; it was a poor man’s watch, a brand called Siwa; it had been given to Salim as a wedding present by his wife’s family.) Today Salim’s body cannot be traced. His family have asked for it, but the police say they cannot find a Salim among the dead.”

(Massacre in Moradabad, August 1980 from Riot After Riot, 1988)

Akbar has also written often controversial but always readable histories that have helped us understand ourselves better. By analyzing the past, his books have accurately anticipated the future.

India – The Siege Within (1985), Nehru – the Making of India (published in 1989 – Nehru’s centenary), The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity (2002), are among the books he has authored that have received winder acclaim (although his description of the Khilafat Movement as Gandhi’s peaceful jihad is a leap of imagination).

In Nehru’s biography, he quoted Russi Modi to corroborate the Nehru-Edwina relationship. “Russi Mody marched up, opened the door and saw Jawaharlal and Edwina in a clinch. Jawaharlal Nehru looked at Russi Mody and grimaced. Russi quickly shut the door and walked out.”

His latest book Tinderbox: The Past and the Future of Pakistan is again an invaluable addition to understanding the tortured history of India’s neighbour. Again, as in his previous books, he rakes up controversies. 

Explaining the ever-widening divergence between the paths that India and Pakistan have taken since 1947, Akbar says, “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.”

Akbar was in Toronto earlier this week to talk about `Terrorism and Geopolitics: The Coming Decade’ as part of promotion of his book at the University of Toronto’s India Innovation Institute. 

In an hour, Akbar gave a glimpse of his erudition, scholarship, vision, philosophy and also a bit of prejudice. A virtuoso performance enjoyed by the who’s who of the Indo-Canadian community.

I wonder how my Toronto friends of Pakistani origin would have reacted to the lecture, and to the book.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saree Kahaniyan: The Saree Stories

Nitin & Jasmine Sawant

I had seen a vignette of Saree Kahaniyan: The Saree Stories at the Rang Manch Canada’s festival a couple of months ago, and it immediately touched a chord.

Jasmine Sawant’s street-theatre style play depicting the significance of a saree in a woman’s (and everyone’s) life was something many in the audience could easily relate to having experienced a similar situation in their lives. Shruti Shah and Naimesh Nanavaty performed a skit that would touch many hearts – the saree she wore the first time she met him.  

Last week, at the Desi Grants Award program in Mississauga, I saw a fuller version of Saree Stories. It is a composition of different vignettes from a woman’s remembrance of things past through her sarees.

Shruti Shah, this time enacting the role of a lonely widow in a stark white sari, sitting in her condo somewhere in Canada, and recounting her days of youth in Mumbai. From the time her mother threw away her saree in the garbage to the time when she and her husband get caught in a terrorist attack and she uses her saree to bandage a stranger grievously wounded in this random act of violence.

All the vignettes had a common thread – they were true stories, and all of them were from Mumbai. At Rang Manch Canada event the audience comprised mostly men, and the response to Jasmine’s skit was muted. On the other hand, at the Desi magazine event, there were as many women as men, and the response Jasmine got when she asked the women in the audience to share their saree stories was spontaneous, evocatively rich and varied.

Jasmine – in her role as the sutradhar – interspersed her narrative with a combination of some personal anecdotes, some history of the saree (in the past, men wore sarees, too) and some engaging small talk.

Both Jasmine and Shruti have their roots in Mumbai’s theatre world; both are pioneers of the now decade-old Sawitri Theatre Group based in Mississauga. 

Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151009042318881&set=t.653261577&type=3&theater

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Two tales and a city - I

Guest post by Piroj Wadia

Cities form an interesting backdrop for books and films. Woody Allen has done a trilogy of three cities – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and  To Rome With Love. While two anthology films - Paris, Je t'aime   (Paris, I love you) and  New York, I Love You brought together international film talent to make a set of short films on each city. Closer to home,  the opening credits of Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver which starred  Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik scrolled to the legend ‘and above all the city of Bombay’. In recent times, a small budget film called Aamir, a thriller whizzed through the downside of the Mumbai – through the galli guchis (lanes and bylanes)  and showcased an altogether seamier vista of the city. On the flipside Bollywood and Indian television have shown the glitzy face of the city over and over again.

Literature too has exposed the city as a backdrop. The city, notably the heart of the city with its cheek by jowl buildings, lanes and bylanes intersecting found their references in the works of Sadat Hasan Manto. Salman Rushdie,  Suketu Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, and others  have also set their stories in Bombay/Mumbai. Two recent books join the list.   Yasmeen Premji’s Days of Gold & Sepia, a  saga   which spans Bombay of the 19th  century  to Mumbai of the  21st century;  and Piyush Jha’s Mumbaistan which is a set of three novellas set in  contemporary Mumbai. In both books, the city is a character which keeps pace with the narrative, especially in the case of Days of Gold and Sepia. Take away the city and there is no story. Coincidentally, both writers mark their debuts.

Though Lalljee Lakhia, is a fictional character, there is a deja-vu about him,  the city of Bombay stands shoulder to shoulder as a co-character.   Yasmeen Premji's narrative begins in a remote village of Ketch, where we meet Lalljee,  a  six-year-old orphan,  leaving behind his siblings, to work for   his uncle.  When  fruition of a requited   love (for his cousin Reshma) eludes him, as an orphaned poor relative he wasn’t suitable.  This has Laljee   resolve:  that he would become so rich and powerful that nothing he cherished would ever delude him.  From Kutch, he travels to Bombay on foot, empty pockets and  dreams, the year is  1877. The city was a salve to  Lalljee’s  old wounds:  Bombay didn’t care about  your caste or creed, it mattered not  whether you were a pauper or a king, for the city welcomed everyone and anyone with wide open arms.  The Laljee Lakhias amassed their fortunes  in this city   where   schemes, ambitions and dreams were realized,  fortune lurked round corners.  

Laljee’s life and times are skillfully intertwined with events which occurred in that span of time.   As Lalljee goes from a helper at a kirana shop to a textile mill owner, trader in opium, and landlord at large, the book chronicles the history of a new India -- spanning Bal Gangadhar Tilak's call for swaraj to Muhammad Ali Jinnah's fictional request to Lalljee to come to Pakistan. It also tells the story of the mosquito infested seven islands merging to form Bombay, the urbs prima. Just like the city, Laljee’s story  is an  elegant, but simple narrative, where characters connect, separate,  and  reconnect seamlessly. Lalljee Lakhia could well be one of the countless migrant fortune seekers who made Bombay their home and gave so much of their blood, sweat and toil to the city’s growth.  Days of Gold & Sepia is the story of  a city which grew as per the needs of its growing populace to shelter the bedraggled fortune seeker and exchanges the rags to riches.

A difficult  narrative  with its huge canvas enriched  with multiple characters,    Yasmeen Premji does that with élan, despite being a debutante. The richness and lucidity of language is in sync  with the  vibrant characters,  which jump out of the pages of the book. All through the read, one envisions Bombay of the days gone by.  The story is told in flashback by Lalljee’s granddaughter Shahina, as his formidable mansion in Breach Candy making way for a multi-storied building. A regular occurrence  in the morphing cityscape  of Mumbai,--   as the city of gold is now known   old stately, charming mansions are demolished  for more chrome and glass buildings – to make it the city of chrome.
  • Continued in the post below

Two tales & a city - II

  • Continued from the post above

Guest post by Piroj Wadia

From enchanting sepia memories of Bombay, to the seamier side of Mumbai, replete with acerbic cops, sharp shooters and terrorism where the gutters flow over with sewage and guts marks Mumbaistan, a trilogy of crime thrillers. Another first time  author,   film director and script writer, Piyush Jha.  

Crime fiction is an unexplored genre in Indian writing in English,  Mumbaistan is  Piyush Jha's effort  towards filling the gap.  Each of the plots of the three novellas  is replete with  twists and turns.  Jha has used Mumbai as the stage for his cast of colorful characters -- prostitutes, gangsters, terrorists and policemen in quest of love and sex to revenge and redemption. There is a common  thread that runs through  each of these stories  that is the human element.

Bomb Day has a post 26/11 touch with Pakistani intruders in Mumbai. It has a strong love story in the middle of it all which binds the narrative. It starts well, as it gets into the informer and cop plot. With terrorists, prostitutes, goons, killings all around and a helpless protagonist. There are  quite a few surprises as the action unfolds at a frantic pace. You are never left wondering: what’s love (element) go to do with it?   Piyush Jha spins the tale such, that it is impossible to keep the love element out.   A page turner, what makes Bomb Day  is the surprising  climax.

Injectionwala Opens up the  kidney sale  racket in the heart of Mumbai. This one begins with a killing, has ample sex, turns into a medical thriller, which  spurs social awakening, but   has more murders and sexual interludes. Pulp fiction at best, with doctors finding themselves on both sides of ethics. One trying to save the world by killing those involved in malpractices and another who is very involved in the kidney selling racket. Injectionwala is saved from turning into a boring affair by Piyush Jha as he includes various thrilling elements to hold the reader. Where it scores   is the fact that the reader is  never bored and wants to know till the very end about the culmination of Injectionwala.

Coma Man is a bit of a Bollywood potboiler, all the same as thrilling as it gets. A man awakens from a coma after 20 years and finds himself on the roads of Mumbai even as politicians, gangsters and his own wife encounter him at various junctures.  The novella unfolds at a rapid pace; the reader wants to follow the coma man, who is trying to find what transpired that fateful night when he went into coma. The action  unfolds in the course of a single day, and  has a lot happening from being  pursued by a Municipal Councillor with a gun, a couple of smugglers on a highway, a gangster who is protected by an underworld boss, a bunch of cops and, his own past. In the middle of this all he comes across a helpful drug addict, an elderly lady who perhaps holds a key to his past, and some corpses. This one has tested Piyush Jha’s familiarity with the unmarked  suburban terrain. The culmination is along expected lines, but an engaging tale all the same.

Piyush Jha must be credited with   his intricate knowledge of Mumbai well and has set his stories not just around known landmarks, but also around little-known areas like the cemeteries or the mill areas in Central Mumbai. Mumbaistan is pure pulp fiction a must read for those looking for thrilling page-turners.

Piroj Wadia is a Bombay (Mumbai) based journalist  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

An evening of rain & readings

Not owing a car is a choice, and it isn’t a huge sacrifice as it sounds.

Although, every time I speak about my conviction of staying carless, Mahrukh and Che avoid eye contact, and try hard to talk of something else. 

Then they walk away to the balcony of our apartment and gaze uneasily into the distant horizon, when I don’t stop hectoring.

A lot of people think I’m not quite all there when I tell them that not only do I not have a car, I don’t even have a cellphone. They emit a short nervous laugh and slowly edge away from me.

Living in Toronto without a car has been easy.  

The transit is great, especially when one compares it to Mumbai. There is a bit of a problem in getting outside of Toronto to suburbs such as Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, and Oakville.

A trip to one of these places turns into an expedition.  Again, it’s not so much connectivity but time that is an issue.

I do get around, especially to Mississauga because of some truly great events organized by the South Asian community there.

IFOA Markham

Tuesday, braving the gloomy weather, and a complete absence of transit connectivity, I reached Flato Markham Theatre just in time for the readings to commence at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) Markham. 

Throughout an unending and circuitous journey, thanks to misreading Google Maps, I was circumspect whether my herculean effort would be worthwhile.

I needn’t have worried.

IFOA-Markham was an exquisite mix of different cultures, different genres and altogether riveting readings from writers who were obviously creative, and surprisingly confident. Marjorie Celona, Ayesha Chatterjee, Chan Koonchung and Vincent Lam made the evening memorable.

Celona read a passage from her debut novel about Shannon who is abandoned outside the YMCA as an infant. There is an obviously raw and an edgy quality to her novel, and Celona’s evocative reading brought alive the unpleasantness her protagonist’s life.

Ayesha Chatterjee made me feel at home in a place I had never been to before when she greeted Subho Nabami to everyone in the auditorium.

Ayesha read from her collection The Clarity of Distance – poems she wrote when she moved from Germany to Toronto, and a few of them from and about Calcutta.

Her poetry is steeped in Indian traditions, and she narrated the story from the Shiva Purana of the Hindu trinity and the Ketaki flower.

Story from the Shiva Purana

Here’s an abridged version of the story for the uninitiated but interested:

Once Shiva had to intervene in a quarrel between Brahma and Vishnu.

He turned himself into a flaming pillar without a beginning or an end, and told Brahma and 
Vishnu that whoever found the end or the beginning of the pillar would be declared superior.

Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed to seek the end of the pillar, and Brahma took the form of a swan and soared up to seek the pillar’s beginning.

Vishnu returned after a while, admitting defeat.

Brahma couldn’t find the beginning, but took the help of the ketaki flower (which Shiva used to put into his hair) and lied that he had reached the top of the pillar. Ketaki corroborated the lie.

An infuriated Shiva cursed Brahma that he wouldn’t ever be worshiped in physical form like other gods in the Hindu pantheon, and he banished ketaki flower, which is not used in Shiva’s worship.

Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years is story of a missing month, and a bunch of kids who kidnap an official to confess the truth.

Chan’s reading was peppered with commentary that brought the novel alive and gave it immediacy and a meaning.

In his novel, Chan said, he had forced a bureaucrat to confess to the truth. Such a thing can only happen in a novel; in real life the bureaucrat would take the secret to his grave.

Finally, it was Vincent Lam’s turn, and he read Percival Chen’s story. Lam gave a brief glimpse of why The Headmaster’s Wager has received glorious reviews everywhere.

As the evening moved on to the Q&A session, I left because I’d have to take a cab to the nearest subway station.

That’s a bit of a problem because I don’t have a cellphone, but an obliging volunteer used his cellphone and Ahmed Taha from Jordon of Rush taxi took me from Markham to Don Mills subway station. 

It was late and raining and I was tired and drenched by the time I reached home. Tired but happy.

Thank you Sheniz Janmohamed for a great evening and for thinking of involving Generally About Books as community partner of the event.