& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Teenaz Javat
Guest Post:
Teenaz Javat

Mohammed Hanif
Set in a desperately poor colony in Karachi, the events that unfold in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti could just as easily have taken place across Pakistan- a country unable to loosen itself from the grip of violence and the vice of corruption.

Mohammed Hanif (who authored A Case of Exploding Mangoes) has painted a dark comedy that explores the underbelly of a city divided over caste, religion and trade.

An airforce pilot turned journalist, Hanif, who is currently the Karachi-based special correspondent of the BBC Urdu Service, spins a powerful narrative around the lives of the choorahs (janitors- bhangis) of French Colony, a Christian slum in the heart of Karachi.

Alice Bhatti, the educated daughter of a choorah cum part-time healer, tries to rise above the caste distinctions that have ensured that she stays at the bottom of the totem pole in a deeply divisive society.

Although founded on the basis of an egalitarian religion, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is anything but. It is steeped in the rigours of a caste system inherited over the centuries as part of undivided India.

A Christian trying to eke out a living in an Islamic society, Bhatti is unable, despite her education, to rise above her choorah-bhangi status. Being a trained nurse in a Catholic hospital means little in a society that refuses to release her of the shackles attached her father’s profession.

Daily existance for Alice and her father Joseph Bhatti is brutal and stark as is described by the fleeting moment of pride Bhatti feels when he brings home a filthy feces-caked peacock rescued from one of the cities sewers.

Alice does all the right things-gets an education, a decent job, she even marries a Muslim to escape the prejudice of the caste system that has relegated her to the bottom of the heap. Not anything short of a miracle will help her escape the viscous circle of poverty.

An absolute must-read if you want to know the real Karachi, where the millions live and love, beyond the manicured gardens and Spanish villas of the privileged neighbourhoods of Defence and Clifton.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
Author: Mohammed Hanif
Publisher: Bond Street Books- A division of Random House of Canada Limited
Pages: 239
Price: $22.95
ISBN: 978-0-385-67727-1

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Little Distillery in Nowgong

Sunny is a boy that takes nearly a century not to be born, but periodically visits his grandparents, mother and sister not exactly as an apparition but something closely approximating it, and engages three generations of the Khargat family – from Surat to Bombay to Nowgong to London to Halifax to Toronto and then back to Delhi and Bombay.

I took a while to read Ashok Mathur’s A Little Distillery in Nowgong, (Arsenal) reading only a few pages every day because to read it quickly would have meant to lose the innate beauty of the author’s languorous style of storytelling.

The novel is about Jamshed, his daughter Piroja and granddaughter Sunila and their encounters with Sunny, Jamshed’s grandchild.

It’s a story of a man who succeeds in convincing (browbeating) a woman to marry him by threatening to commit suicide. It’s a story of two infants dying – one in a long-distance train, with the parents sitting inside the compartment for hours with the child’s body. Their girl child survives, and grows up headstrong, confident, and wise.

It’s a story of a mixed marriage in Delhi that remains a secret for an inordinately long time, and when the girl tells her parents about her marriage, it’s already quite late, and her dead mother visits her two years after she’s dead and encourages her to murder her husband; she almost does.

And, finally, it’s a story of a child who grows up androgynously and flowers into an astounding singer.

The chronological narrative follows their lives, enumerates their joys and minutiae their despair, the awkwardness of adolescence and the pangs of youth, the sudden discovery of one’s identity and the realisation that one merely needs to exercise freewill to shape one’s destiny.

Each word is carefully chosen, and each passage unfolds into another with a quiet resonance; 
even the minor characters in the story such as Jamshed’s friend Nouroz; the manservant in Nowgong, Abdul; the London policeman Wei Devlin are built with caring detail.

This is a remarkable novel.

A passage:

There are stories we tell to comfort each other, stories to instruct, stories to remember, and then there are stories we tell to create the next steps in front of us, to develop the bas-relief of our histories, to create. In this particular instance, this mother not-yet-mine is left with the choice to tell father-sometime-to-be the most outrageous or outlandish of stories, visitations by the now-dead and the not-yet-born, or to create different figments that might be less truthful and yet that much more real, considering what Pradeep and other are bound to believe.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Undesirables - 1

Early 20th century Canadian Punjabi
language newspaper
reporting on the incarceration
of Indian Immigrants 

Late last year, I filled out the forms for becoming a Canadian citizen. I did that with some degree of trepidation because I'd have to swear allegiance to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada.”

This is oath:

I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen

I'm more than happy observing Canadian laws and carrying out my duties as a Canadian citizen.

I’m not a nationalist, or a patriot. In a global world these are virtues of the intellectually myopic, and yet I find the oath disturbing because in swearing allegiance to the Queen, I’d be negating my history.

I’m not comfortable jettisoning the ideas that the Indian freedom movement gave to the world. Wouldn't acquiescing to be the Queen’s citizen tantamount to treason against the ideals of the Mahatma?

Frankly, I’ve not been able to find any satisfactory excuse that would absolve the intense feelings of guilt that I’m sure will consume me when I actually take the oath of citizenship.

Am I being hypocritical? I wouldn't want to admit that, but it'd be a fair conclusion to reach.

I’m certain that I’ll become a citizen of Canada. It’s been a decade since I wanted to be so. We applied to immigrate in 2002. And it’s four years since I’ve been a landed immigrant.

Immigration is a life-changing process, for sure and I’ve been fortunate that I found a job that has given me an avenue to utilise my experience and talent; many others who’re more qualified and with more experience have languished here.

I've also been fortunate that my community has rescued me from perennial penury that is the fate of many immigrants forced into minimum wage survival jobs.

The dichotomy in Canada between the people and the state is stark – on the one hand, Canadians are warm, friendly, and caring to all newcomers. On the other hand, the impersonal establishment (all political hues included) unknowingly but actively creates barriers.

Canada’s recent decision to throw away over 300,000 applications for immigration (mostly from India, China and non-white parts of the world), and altering the immigration policies to encourage immigrants more adept in English language, are some stark examples of the unchanging ways of the state.

As I read Ali Kazimi’s beautifully illustrated book on the Komagata Maru “incident” I couldn’t help but wonder that the policies being discussed in present day are in many ways similar to the policies that were in place a hundred years ago, when Canada tried to handle the “Hindu invasion”.

Continued in the next blog post

Undesirables - 2

Undesirables – White Canada and the Komagata Maru An Illustrated History is a different book in many ways. It discusses a grim chapter in Canada’s history, but the format it uses is of a richly illustrated coffee table book. This is perhaps because the author is a filmmaker; and the visuals and images in the book compliment the narrative.

The book is a revelation in many ways – the ingenious ways that Canada conjured to keep non-whites away and the equally imaginative ways they and especially Indians managed to find their way here.

All this is narrated with an archivist’s zeal, an historian’s eye for detail, and a polemicist penchant for nuanced interpretation.

Indians aboard the Komagata Maru
The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship chartered by a Sikh entrepreneur, Gurdit Singh, in 1914, to carry South Asian immigrants to Canada. It had nearly 400 passengers – a majority Sikhs, but also Hindus and Muslims. These British India immigrants wanted to settle in British Canada, and wanted to prove that they would be treated equally.

However, the ship wasn't allowed to berth in Vancouver, and was stopped half-a-mile outside Vancouver shore. All the passengers were detained. In a confrontation that followed, Canada tried everything possible to force Gurdit Singh and his fellow passengers to return where they had come from. 

Although a mere footnote in Canada, the Komagata Maru incident is a remarkable story that had deep ramifications on the Indian freedom movement. Recently, Prime Minister Harper offered an apology for Canada’s actions during the incident, but Canadian Sikhs aren't entirely satisfied because it wasn't offered in the Parliament.

The book delineates how Canada actively discouraged non-white immigrants from reaching its shores legally. It had the continuous journey law which given the nature of sea voyages in the early 20th century made it impossible for non-whites from Asia to reach Canada’s shores without a stopover.

To add to the complication, William Lyon MacKenzie King added two provisions to the Immigration Act of 1906.
  • All immigrants must come to Canada via a thorough ticket and by continuous journey from their country of birth or citizenship
  • All immigrants from Asia must have in their possession $200

This effectively ebbed a rising tide of the great unwashed landing on Canadian shores.

The book details some truly breathtaking prejudices:

HH Stevens, a Member of Parliament from Vancouver was categorical: “The Hindus (a term used to describe all South Asians) never did one solitary thing for humanity in the past two thousand years and will probably not in the next two thousand.”

Kazimi notes elsewhere:

“Oriental” immigration was a major issue for British Columbia’s politicians across party lines. R. G. MacPherson, the incumbent Liberal member of Parliament from Vancouver was under considerable pressure from his constituents to have Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier take a stand. On September 21, 1906, he wrote to Laurier about the influx of immigrants from South Asia:

You can never make good Canadian citizens out of them or their descendants and it is just as necessary to keep them out as it is to keep out the Chinese. Most of them are big strapping fellows, men who have fought in British regiments in the little Indian wars, but their ideas and their ways are not ours, nor can they ever be so. These people from India come here along just like the Chinese and nothing on earth could make them Canadians.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of faith

Religion in America is inadequately understood, and often deliberately misinterpreted.

Over the last decade, especially after 9/11 and the American response to it, the world has gradually begun to take cognisance of religion’s immutability in the American scheme of things.

In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre, a leading cleric in the Lutheran Church told the then President George Bush, “You are a servant of God called for such a time like this.” Bush’s response: “I accept the responsibility.” “I’m here for a reason, and this is going to be how we’re going to be judged,” Bush confided to his chief political adviser Karl Rove.

Recounting this episode, Andrew Preston in his Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith – Religion in American War and Diplomacy explains, “In deploying religion, Bush appealed to both the sword of the spirit and the shield of faith. He spoke of launching a “crusade” against Islamic terrorism, apparently unaware of the bitter historical memory of the medieval Christian Crusades that still lingered in the minds of Arabs...Bush blended the language of faith and nation to offer benediction to America’s mission in the world – a mission that intended peace even when it resorted to war.”

Preston’s book is an illuminating account of how religion has shaped the United States internally, and how it has been a key instrument in foreign policy. To outsiders, the ongoing debate about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, or the largely prevalent belief among a significant percentage of Americans that Obama is a Muslim would seem at odds with a country that has defined modernism and has done so in broadly secular terms. Preston’s book is invaluable aide in understanding this complexity. It’s anecdotal narrative makes for its breezy reading.

Reinhold Niebuhr and mainline Protestantism are subjects that require more than a cursory reading, but for the uninitiated, Preston’s book introduces both a complex man and a complex faith.

A passage:

“Long after the fighting had ended, Vietnam continued to serve a political purpose for those who had supported the war. In 1984, at the height of the conservative revival, Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist writer, commentator and coauthor of the spectacularly successful Left Behind novel series, repudiated the strategists and protestors who had all but ensured defeat. “Her failure to use military might in Vietnam was a national disgrace,” he said of a troubled nation then in throes of liberalism and secularism, “permitting the enslavement or murder of twenty million people.” Rus Walton, another fundamentalist writer and professional anticommunist, took a similar view: “What must the nations of the free world think of a country that spends the lives of 58,000 splendid young men and then gives up? Just quits and walks away and says, “Sorry fellas, it was all a mistake.’” During the war, the anti-Vietnam demonstrators, many of them led by ministers, priests, and rabbis, claimed the moral high ground. But the war’s defenders, the conservatives who would fuel the Religious Right, provided a vigorous counterargument that was also grounded in morality, albeit of a sterner kind. It was this moral vision that eventually triumphed and reoriented the normative bearings of US foreign policy. But before it could, its adherents first had to defeat the relativism and internationalism of their liberal adversaries. Then, in the years of Richard Nixon, they turned upon the government itself.”