& occasionally about other things, too...

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 √©lan, 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.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Writing is rewriting, review, patience, prayers...

This is equally applicable to readers and to writers

What do writers feel about the process of writing – generally most writers describe it as a very lonely thing that they do.

Andrew J. Borkowski, whose Copernicus Avenue won the 2012 Toronto Book Award had a contrary view. In his acceptance speech, he said for him writing wasn’t a lonely process for him at all.

On his website Borkowski says “writing is rewriting”.

I remember Isabel Huggan telling a group of wannabe writers the same thing at the summer program at Humber School of Writers.

My friend Farzana Doctor gave me the same mantra when I met her recently to discuss my manuscript.

Farzana’s second novel – Six Meters of Pavement – was shortlisted for the award that Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue finally won.

She also told me to be patient when reworking on the manuscript.

I recently met Jaspreet Singh, author of Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, a collection of short stories and Chef, a novel (and a forthcoming novel Helium) wryly remarked that has a lot of experience in being patient.

I had gone to his reading a couple of years ago at the North York Central Library when I was new in Toronto, and nobody knew me, or took me seriously.

I don’t know too many people even now, and absolutely nobody takes me seriously as a writer.

But that’s not the subject of this blog post.

It’s about the writing process.

Some writers prefer to keep their writing under wraps and prefer not showing it to peers.

I’m sure they’re in a small minority. Most writers prefer to seek peer review and are open to making changes based on feedback.

I’ve got some exceptional feedback to my manuscript from my friends.

I think peer review is vital.

Also vital is feedback from one’s mentor.

At a lively discussion last week Anand Mahadevan and Kristyn Dunnion emphasized the importance of seeking peer and mentor review.

Mahadevan narrated his experience (re)writing his first novel The Strike, based on his mentor MG Vassanji’s feedback , and how finally when he had worked on the manuscript and incorporated nearly all the suggestions that his mentor had made, the manuscript had acquired a reached a completely different realm.

They were at the Impossible Words.

Irfan Ali and Emily Pohl-Weary curate Impossible Words. The Academy of Impossible website describes Impossible Words thus: “Impossible Words is a unique literary salon that presents culturally and stylistically diverse Canadian writers in conversation with young writers from the Toronto Street Writers. It takes place on the second and fourth Saturdays.”

I’ve attended two sessions so far, and I’ve liked the raw energy and the in-your-face quality that the young writers from the Toronto Street Writers bring to these sessions.

So, basically, writing is rewriting, review, patience, and then I guess prayers. I’m teaching myself the first three, but as an agnostic, it’s going rather difficult having to pray.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Cancer, Lal Choona, Saree Stories: South Asian Theatre in Canada

Jawaid Danish

Theatre activist Jawaid Danish works tirelessly to keep South Asian theater alive in Canada. 
He has been organizing the Hindustani Drama Festival annually for over a decade, with a measured success. 

Although a low key affair this year, the festival made up in depth what it couldn't in diversity and variety.

Jawaid read his play Cancer where the protagonist murders his ailing wife who is suffering from cancer and is on her deathbed.

The protagonist is a poor newspaper employee who is not able to afford medicines for his wife, who implores him every day that he either he gives her medicine or murder her. In a fit of desperation, he chooses to murder her.

The play is an imaginary – or rather an anticipatory – situation where the husband’s lawyer walks him through the hearing to coach him to give proper responses on the day of the hearing, which is scheduled the next day.

Cancer is a much lauded play and has had much acclaim across the world; deservedly so, because it is remarkable in being able to bring the reader/member of the audience right to the middle of the debate over euthanasia – which, much like the debate over abortion, divides people into pro and anti groups.

Was the husband justified in murdering his wife? The playwright definitely believes so as much as he believes that the husband didn’t really have a choice because the society didn’t leave him with any.

Pithily, the husband tells the lawyer that the society (the government) that is willing to pay for a lawyer to represent a self-confessed murderer to ensure justice is ill-equipped and unwilling to pay for a sick woman’s treatment.

A lively discussion followed Jawaid’s reading of his play. Munir Saami moderated the discussion and Dr. Khalid Sohail read a critique of the play.

Before the play reading by Jawaid, Dr. Baland Iqbal read his short story – Lal Choona – a heartbreaking story of a poor wall painter’s tragic denouement. Unbeknownst to Dr. Iqbal, the story was made into a short film in Pakistan by a student. The film was also shown at the festival.

And the play reading was followed by a short but charming skit from Saree Stories - Storytelling with sarees where Jasmine Sawant of the Sawitri Theatre Group depicts the significance of the memory of an event that is imprinted on the memory of a woman who remembers meeting her future husband by the sari she wore that day.

The event was held at Open Space – a nice little space created by Nitin Sawant for play readings and other socio-cultural events.

International Festival of Authors, Markham 2012 (IFOA) - Trailer

Generally About Books is a community partner for IFOA-Markham 2012