& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A progressive writer

Until about a month ago, I hadn’t heard of Sajjad Zaheer (1905-1973), or his daughter Noor Zaheer.

Munir Pervaiz of the Writers’ Forum (Toronto) gave me a copy of a book – Mere Hisse Ki Roshanai – a memoir written by Noor Zaheer about her parents Sajjad and Razia Zaheer, both eminent Urdu writers.

I’ve started reading the book (in Hindi translation).

It’s a fascinating account of life with writer-activist parents.

Today I also attended an interactive session with Noor Zaheer that the Writers’ Forum organised. She had a phone chat from India (where it must have been an unearthly 2:00am) with aficionados in Toronto.

It was one of the most scintillating literary sessions I’ve attended in a long time.

I follow spoken Urdu with great difficulty, I don’t follow literary Urdu at all, and I can’t read a word of it.

And yet, listening to Noor Zaheer speak about her father touched my heart – his simple message to his daughter was that there is no hardship or sacrifices in doing something you believe in. Sacrifice is only when you do something you have to, but don’t believe in.

Sajjad Zaheer was an active member of the Communist movement in India, and one of the founders of Progressive Writers' Movement in India (Munshi Premchand presided over the first convention of the progressive writers in 1936).

After Partition, he went to Pakistan and formed the Communist Party in Pakistan along with Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

He was among those arrested in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case (1951) and was extradited to India on Jawaharlal Nehru’s request. While he was in prison, he wrote Roshanai – the first account of the progressive writers’ movement in the subcontinent.

Noor Zaheer also discussed the infamous Shah Bano case which she had reported on as a journalist, and had worked closely with legal luminaries and social activists such as Danial Latifi (1917-2000).

She is a researcher and social worker. Apart from Mere Hisse ki Roshnai, she has also written Surkh Karwan ke Humsafar, a travelogue of Pakistan, Bad Uraiyya, a novel, and My God is a Woman.

Noor Zaheer and Amitava Dasgupta (1947-2010) – a communist and a theatre personality (founder-director of Brechtian Mirror) – were partners in a cause and partners at home.

For her analysis of the performing arts of the tribes of north-western border of India called Surviving on the Edge, she was honoured with a senior fellowship and has been awarded the the Times Fellowship for The Changing Face of Theatre in Northern India.

She is working on the Buddhist Monasteries of Himachal Pradesh, documenting the oral traditions and the performing arts of the Lama tradition.

Read about Sajjad Zaheer here:  Bannay Mian

Read an article by Noor Zaheer here: Pratilipi  

Fan Expo 2012

Batman by Jason Copland

I stood for nearly 25 minutes in the queue that snaked through the cavernous driveway of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) to reach the ticket counter of Fan Expo 2012 – one of North America’s biggest comics, anime, gaming, sci fi and horror expositions.

There was a time when comic books were supposed to be for kids and teenagers or young adults, and there was that fringe that remained passionate about comics even after they were all grown up – like Sheldon Cooper and his geek friends in the Big Bang Theory.

Obviously, that time was in a far-too-distant past.

There were thousands of people, of all ages, in downtown Toronto all eagerly walking to the venue; some in costumes, some dressed as zombies, many in elaborate and detailed replicas of iconic characters from the perennial favourite – the Star Wars series, a few dressed as the baleful Bane from the Dark Knight Rises.

Nearly two-decades-old, the three day expo attracts almost a hundred thousand people.  

That is as mainstream as it can get.

It was my first visit to the expo, I had wanted to go to one of these shows (there are two in Toronto) since I heard of it soon after I came to Toronto.

But for no particular reason, I couldn’t make it during these years.

Finally, this year, I made myself do it, even though it was Sunday, and I had already agreed to attend the Writers’ Forum event on progressive Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer  (see post above).

There were the big brands and studios occupying the biggest space. There were also comic book sellers, selling rare books, where the serious collectors thronged.

What I found heartening was that the expo also had several artists selling their wares – sketches, drawings, handmade masks, other knick-knacks.

There were many artists whose work I found interesting, and would’ve loved to spend some time chatting with them had it not been for such a rush. Among the more interesting tables was Kill Shakespeare.

I also found Jason Copland’s drawings of Batman incredibly detailed (see accompanying visual). Copland is from Vancouver and was in Toronto only for the expo. I bought it for Che for his 15th birthday that’s coming up next month.

Che’s not into reading comic books – he’s not into reading anything much. But if I had the variety of options he has today, perhaps even I would’ve preferred to play on my gaming console rather than read the frayed-at-the-edges comics.

When I was his age, comics were the only thing I read. I’ve written earlier about my love comics. If you’re interested in reading about it, click here: Comics.

Image: Drawing by Jason Copland (www.jasoncopland.com) T: 604-264-9209 E: j.copland@telus.net

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A day for soul searching

Mid-August is a time India and Indians take stock of their country and often also of themselves – what we achieved, and what we should have, but didn’t. The generally fractious Indians come together for a day, and feel good about their nation-in-the-making

Till about 15 years ago, I made it a point to see the live telecast (on Doordarshan) of the Indian Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, always comparing the successions of prime ministers that followed Indira Gandhi on how they matched her in getting the audience to respond to “Jai Hind!” at the end of their speech.

Nobody could. I’m sure nobody will, for a long time.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I stopped listening to these speeches because of the repetitive nature of the inanities.

From a distance that Toronto enforces, India on August 15 looks and feels inspiring, hopeful; even if one acknowledges its quintessentially chimerical nature.

This year, for the first time, I attended the Independence Day get together organised by the Indian consulate. It was – expectedly – an impressive event. And the one memory that will stay with me for long is my friend and his wife singing both the Indian and the Canadian national anthems flawlessly. Not many in the gathering that evening could do that.

There is an undeniable surge of patriotism and nationalistic pride that comes with singing the national anthem, and waving the tricolour whether it is in your apartment block’s cooperative society (as I did in India) or on the Dundas Square (as I do now in Toronto).

In Toronto, I have many friends of Pakistani origin, and I realise that the surge of patriotism, nationalistic pride on Independence Day is a shared sentiment.

But there’s also a growing weariness and disillusionment – both amongst Indians and Pakistanis – that people’s zeal and enthusiasm have been exploited for myopic gains, and that they have been cheated of the real value of freedom by successive leaders over the last 65 years.  

Here are links to two articles from The Times of India and Dawn that do a bit of annual soul-searching.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

It doesn't matter...& it shouldn't

I find it mildly astonishing the fervency with which people wear their beliefs on their social media platforms.

Having come from a fairly cosmopolitan, egalitarian and agnostic background I have an inherent diffidence to deal with people who openly ascertain their identity in religious terms.

It is not that these people are uncritical or unthinking in their beliefs. On the contrary, many of them are critical about the many religious practices.

They openly and repeatedly draw attention to shortfalls of the practitioners of their religion, going even to the extent of incisively arguing against the dogmas of their religion.

And yet, I feel extremely uneasy when someone uses religion as the basis of one’s identity. It’s indecent, jarring, and impolite.

I see AR Rahman as a great composer, and Muhammad Ali as an iconic sportsman, who defined an era. 

It doesn't normally occur to me to associate them with a particular religion (even while not denying them their religious identity). 

I'm quite at odds to deal with people who see Rehman and Ali as Muslims first and then as a composer and a sportsman. 

I believe that understanding religion – one’s own and those of others – is an evolutionary process that acquires a degree of depth which I think comes only from appreciating the values of secularism.

Although, Akeel Bilgrami in his essay Secularism: Its Content and Context (written in response to Charles Taylor’s Age of Secularism) claims that, “Secularism as a political doctrine arose to repair what were perceived as damages that flowed from historical harms that were, in turn, perceived as owing, in some broad sense, to religion.”

I have noticed that this pernicious tendency to wear one’s religion on one’s sleeve – although always carefully couching it in unobtrusive language of reason – is more prevalent among the immigrants.

Perhaps it is because of the feeling of being uprooted, being adrift that makes the immigrants more defensive and vulnerable, and perhaps taking shelter behind the religious identity gives them a modicum of psychological security.

I wouldn’t care about their ‘either-you’re-with-me-or-against-me’ variety of posturing too much but social media makes these proclamations so in-your-face. 

Camouflaged beneath layers of self-righteous indignation is a very palpable sense of injustice. 

It is obvious that my social media friends feel that such incidents adversely portray their religion (whether Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or any other) in an alien land, and it becomes their bounden duty to rectify the erroneous perceptions that ‘others’ may harbour about their religion.

In Argumentative Indian, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen vividly describes this tendency; and although it is explained with reference to Indians and Hindutva, it’s equally applicable to other South Asian nationalities and religions.

“...What should the Indian diaspora be proud of? This is not a hard question to answer, given the breadth and richness of Indian civilization. Nevertheless, the subject has become something of a battleground in recent years. Indeed, the rather combative line of exclusionary thinking that the Hindutva movement has sponsored and championed has made strong inroads into the perceptions of the Indian diaspora. There has been a systematic effort to encourage non-resident Indians of Hindu background to identify themselves, not primarily as ‘Indians’, but particularly as ‘Hindus’ (or, at least, to see themselves as Indians within a Hinduized conception)....

“As it happens, sectarian and fundamentalist ideas of different religions often do get enthusiastic support from emigrants, who aggressively play up the value of what they identify as their ‘own traditions’ as they find themselves engulfed in a dominant foreign culture abroad...

“There is a desire for national or cultural pride, but some uncertainty about what to take pride in. In this context, it is particularly important to look at the traditions of India in all their spaciousness – not artificially narrowed in sectarian lines. Indeed, within the Hindu tradition itself, there is surely much reason for pride in the reach and open-mindedness of the broad and capacious reading of the Hindu perspective, without a confrontational approach to other faiths. That perspective is radically different from the downsized Hinduism that tends to receive the patronage of the Hindutva movement.

“...Indians of any background should have reason enough to celebrate their historical or cultural association with (to consider a variety of examples) Nagarjuna’s penetrating philosophical arguments, Harsa’s philanthropic leadership, Maitreyi’s or Gargi’s searching questions, Carvaka’s reasoned skepticism  Aryabhata’s astronomical and mathematical departures, Kalidasa’s dazzling poetry, Sudraka’s subversive drama, Abul Fazl’s astounding scholarship, Shah Jahan’s aesthetic vision, Ramanujan’s mathematics, or Ravi Shankar’s and Ali Akbar Khan’s music, without first having to check the religious background of each.”

Rahman: http://twitter.com/arrahman
Ali: http://ipaintmymind.org/art/aaron-almendral-of-artbydna-ipmm-exclusive-interview/