& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On unpacking a carton of books - I

Guest post 
by Ashoak Upadhyay

About three years ago, my wife and I moved to Pune from Mumbai, a shift that involved throwing out a lot of knick-knacks collected over the years and for me bringing home the collection of books that we had kept stored in cartons in a small flat in the northern most suburb of the city.

I decided to set up my library in the Pune apartment and so had the sealed cartons sent over by a bronchial tempo on that may well have been its last journey spewing smoke all along the expressway till it sputtered to a halt below our house.

Many boxes hadn’t been opened in all these years; their contents hadn’t seen the light of day for more than a decade. I had forgotten their existence, the bland, marker-pen inscription scrawled across a side, “AU-Books” offering few clues about their individual identities.

To the assonant sounds of my new neighborhood’s frenetic modernization--vehicular horns blasting, bleating mindlessly, drills screeching through iron rebars at construction sites that spring up like warts overnight on a green landscape and the fetid stink from open garbage dumps overtopped like ice-cream cones that lingers like bad memories, I began wrenching open those boxes. Huffing and puffing.

I tore apart the top-end folds, lifted the files sheltering the piles below from God knows what, began excavating. My breathing slowed, a tinnitus hiss drove off all sounds as I gazed down upon the pile I had pulled out, setting aside one book at a time onto the floor beside my stool. I felt like Alice falling into Wonderland Titles and cover illustrations flitted before my eyes like ethereal images from a forgotten life.

To say that these images awakened an elegiac mood of an age when I had read so many of these works of great literature would be half the story. They altered time from a chronological sequencing, day to night, minutes to hours into time moving elliptically, from one temporal plane to another, fusing, separating but always vivid.

They seemed to have a smell of their own too. A handful of paperbacks, Penguins, let off a musty smell of mothballs and newsprint, pages crinkling as I flipped them. Miss Havisham and her wedding cake! I was young Pip! Then Joseph Conrad floated before my eyes. Conrad! I hadn’t read him in a decade! I pulled one novel out after another: The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, his magisterial Nostromo, paperbacks. And then, as if holding them all up, An Outcast of the Islands---a tattered hardback 1929 edition, his scrawl on the last page, “…Cordially Yours…”

All senses, sight, smell tactile immured me into this elliptical time zone. I shut my eyes and saw this callow young man, a promiscuous reader scouring the pavement stalls near Cross Maidan for bargain paperbacks to help him define his place in this world.

Why did he buy Antonio Lobo Antunes’ South of Nowhere? I flipped through it amidst the gathering pile around me. Was it the blurb that described it as a first person narrative of Portuguese colonialism in Angola, its depravity?

I picked up Under Western Eyes, paperback. The bronze horseman on the cover, his forelegs reared up as if to crush a puny figure fleeing before that terrifying prospect took me to pre-revolution Russia just as The Secret Agent brought me to an England that Conrad savaged in that great work. 

Continued in the post below:

On unpacking a carton of books - II

Continued from the post above


Right at the bottom was VS Naipaul.

I pulled up A House for Mr. Biswas, the hardback Russell Edition 1969 by Andre Deutsch. I flipped through the Prologue trying to evoke memories of my first reading. Then I came to the end of it and stared and re-read a dozen times, a roar in my ears: “…to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

That sentence had the force of a revelation. It had always been there; I had read the book first twenty years back. But it was only now that those words struck me with a terrifying authorial presence they summoned. In that epitaph, leaving no doubt or room for ambiguity, I thought Naipaul had gambled a great deal: that the reader would still want to read on. Not about failure in life and death but about an irrelevance from birth to death.

A few days later I had begun reading it, I was stunned; Mr. Biswas, always Mr. Biswas, a parodic courtesy surely, moved me to tears at the folly, no, the futility of striving and he made me laugh at the tragic heroism of his life: Mr. Biswas settling into bed with Marcus Aurelius after swallowing digestive powders.

I have not stopped reading fiction since then. Mr. Biswas for me is one of twentieth century’s great novels. Over the next five months, I re-visited some of Naipaul’s early fiction: The Mystic Masseur, Mimic Men, The Enigma of Arrival, the first two from that crate. But none of these compared with Mr. Biswas. The high tragedy, rich comedy that never let the narrative smack of despair or sentimentality made the new reading an awesome experience. I finished the book just as the playwright Girish Karnad raised an unnecessary storm about Naipaul at a Mumbai literary festival. It and the rejoinders, notably Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s dissection of Naipaul’s work convinced me more than ever of his place among the greatest of twentieth century fiction writers.

I had arranged my bookshelves: thrown away the cartons and re-entered chronological time. But that experience of unpacking had shown me how I could always leave it for another; not as a form of escapism. Not just to re-live the joy of reading but to experience the enchantment of literature’s ability to displace sequential time with the metaphysical, its power to help us enter someone’s else’s memories, pain, share in the foibles of the human comedy and come back knowing our present world better.   
Ashoak Upadhyay is a journalist whose debut novel, The Hungry Edge has recently been published. See www.hungryedge.com

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Ace Awakening

Exactly a year ago, I blogged about Murali Murthy's book The Ace Principle that listed 15 success principles to Absorb Comprehend and Excel (therefore ACE) in every area of life.

It is a brilliant book that helps understand the meaning of life and living, and helps setting
up a plan to achieve one’s objectives in life. Many authors would settle down into easy obscurity after having their first book published, or at least rest of the laurels for a while. 

Not Murali. Within a year, he’s back with another ace – The Ace Awakening – 8 Milestones to scale the peaks of life.
The book begins by a simple observation by the author: 

“Each year, I trek over 60 kilometres across one of the most inhospitable terrains in southern India and join thousands of people from around the world who overcome extreme challenges to climb five peaks in the attempt to reach the summit of Sabarimala.

As I write this book, I have successfully climbed Sabarimala 26 years in a row.

Why did I want to climb a mountain?

On my very first trip to Sabarimala, that question was answered. Because mountains are majestic and inspire awe. They tower and loom above us. They outscale us. When we climb a mountain, we participate in its majesty and awe. Some part of its aura enters our life story and imbues it with meaning. It is not that we become as great as the mountain when we scale it but, rather, its greatness becomes part of us. That power which loomed over us at the foot goes inside us at the peak.”

Murali shares his experiences of trekking and overcoming extreme challenges to successfully climb five perilous peaks, and describes his personal journey using his experience of reaching the top of the mountain as a metaphor to the challenges in life we all face. 

The result is an illuminating enumeration of eight milestones that will serve as a guide to everyone on the journey to reach the pinnacle of excellence in life.

Murali Murthy reading from his book
The eight milestones are:

  • Identifying a life purpose
  • The insight and the understanding
  • The research
  • The mentorship
  • The journey begins
  • The uncompromised long route
  • At the peak
  • The next peak
Each of these milestones is a stage in the journey to the shrine of Sabarimala, one of the most important temples in India, and also in the world, reportedly attracting over a 100 million devotees annually. And each of the milestones is accompanied by an insight that translates the mountain trekking experience into a scalable life goal.

With the permission of the author, Generally About Books is reproducing one the insights from the book – insight that accompanies Milestone 7: At the Peak.

See the blog entry below:

At the peak

Continued from the blog above:

Reflections on the way to the top: As I climb, I am always reminded that climbing a mountain is a metaphor for the journey of life. Even though I am focussed on taking just one more step upward, Neelimalai still affords me time to reflect on what has been happening to me as I climb.

Go slow to go fast: On the first few days of the trek, I wanted to blaze the trail ahead of the others. But the hills have taught me that to go slow is to go fast.

Twenty minutes into my Neelimalai trek, I know this is true. When I began, I had boundless energy. Now I am in agony, swaying and staggering with every laboured breath under the effects of altitude  sickness.

Yet, slowly, at what seemed like a snail’s pace, I do make it to the top of the Neelimalai along with all the others.

Reflection: There are always areas in life where we need to slow down.

Be aware that the temptation to hurry and take short cuts will cost you in the long run.

Both the journey and the destination are important: There is a profound sense of accomplishment and exhilaration that we all feel when we make it to the top. But there is truth in the saying, “It’s all about the journey, not the destination.”

We need to take time, as we struggle towards our goals, to enjoy the landscape, nature and each other’s company.

Reflection: As you strive to your ultimate goal, make sure you enjoy the moments of your life along the way.

Working hard to reach the top: As I climb, I am aware of all the long months of preparation, fasting, planning and dreaming of the ultimate goal of climbing to the summit. Now I am underway. Now I can taste the victory at the end and the fruit of all my labour.

Reflection: Set a goal, plan and prepare, and then work hard to achieve your dream. The hard work will be worth the effort. The pride you will feel when you reach your goal will be priceless.

It takes a team to live the dream: There are so many of us on this journey together and, as we all reach the Pamba base, we can rejoice together in each other’s success. It is indeed a great thing.
In the last two days of my journey, I have had the chance to befriend many strangers from many different places like Malaysia and Australia who are now good friends. We have become a team and share the challenging Sabarimala journey together.

Reflection: Allow friends or family members who share your passions to pursue your dreams with you.

Overcoming obstacles is part of pursuing any dream: Why am I investing all this time to inflict pain on myself by climbing a mountain?

Can I make it? Each time the trek becomes so tough that I think I cannot continue, these questions that I have suppressed resurface and tempt me to give up and turn back.

Reflection: We all face doubt whenever we are faced with opportunity or challenge that will require risk yet great reward on the other side.

The key is to be strong enough to supress the doubt and persist with your dream – one small confident step at a time.

Celebrate your victories: It is hard to put into words the euphoria I feel when I get to the top of the mountain.

Perhaps it is simply the lack of oxygen that makes me feel a little light-hearted, but I think it is also that sense of fulfillment, joy and feeling of being truly alive.

Even though I am bone weary, cold and plagued by the aches and pains of my efforts, the joy and exhilaration are overwhelming.

Even before I reach the summit technically, I am still truly elated and proud of myself and my accomplishments.

Reflection: Celebrate all the large and small accomplishments in your life and in the lives of those you care about. Celebration builds confidence in people and helps them to risk and face failure.

Cheer the next generation: As we get closer to finishing our trek, I see that there are still thousands of people attempting the climb. That’s when I realize my bigger role. I need to be the cheerleader for the next generation, encouraging them to dram big and go for it.

Reflection: The next generation needs us as coaches and mentors. We must cheer them on and, when they ask, pass on our life wisdom.

More importantly, perhaps, we must create space for them to explore, risk, and, yes, sometimes fail, They need us to be the champions of their dreams.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hungry Edge - Ashoak Upadhyay

“What would you do if you have to take sides, apportion blame? You want to cry for the innocent but you do not know who is guilty.”

Thus Mahesh begins to recount to three strangers he meets, his obsession with an ill-fated couple. Skeptical, then intrigued, Arvind – bookseller, recently married, stifled by yet comfortable in a joint family; Ranjan – surface polish, seething passions, a banker with an eye on the main chance; and Dev Reddy – disenchanted left wing editor desperate for a stab at immortality will interpret Mahesh’s ‘confessions’ in the light of their insecurities and fantasies.

Slowly but inexorably each will be driven to actions that will alter their lives and their dear ones irrevocably. By the end of his story, Mahesh too will not be the same again.

This layered tale consisting of stories within stories is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.

The Hungry Edge is set in present day Mumbai and the connecting narrative of the ‘confession’ is set in what used to be The Wayside Inn, where Mahesh a recluse with a “story in his heart” joins quite by chance three diners, the self-styled Gang of Three one Saturday afternoon. He returns every Saturday for his cathartic journey into the past.

The Hungry Edge is veteran journalist and economist Ashoak Upadhyay's first novel. It uses the “adda”, the Indian style salon to bring the main protagonists together. Every Saturday after long conversations, they return to their respective lives with their attitudes to love, sex, money, each other and their sense of self-worth subtly altered. These attitudes are remembered, recalled, reflected upon throughout according to their ‘readings’ of Mahesh’s failed and eventually futile passions as they unfold
Ashoak Upadhyay

The novel is also a tribute to The Wayside Inn, a great haunt, adda actually, for poets, writers and shoppers. Its lazily whirring ceiling fans, red and white checked cloth over wooden tables, beer and indifferent continental fare added to an ambience for conversations that could stretch into the early dusk when the lights would be switched off and the Inn would fold up for the night.

The novel draws upon the author's knowledge of Mumbai’s social and moral ‘history’ and business practices acquired in the course of his professional career. Journalism’s inherent limitations made him turn to fiction to explore the shifting currents of life in the city, their effects on self-worth more vividly and poignantly perhaps more ‘truthfully’. Its anecdotal history added to its charm in a city about to vanish into the age of mobiles and fast food and faster talk.

On one of the tables a lawyer with cruel memories and burning ambition took the first step towards his own immortality by penning the first draft of the Indian Constitution. At later times but no less slow, artists and poets defined and refined the city’s cosmopolitan sensibility.

It was into this Wayside that Mahesh walked in and changed destinies.

Quotes from book

“‘Self-discovery has a fool for a teacher, darling. For instance, some kids think they have the talent for sculpture or poetry but they’re good at mending things, like computer chaps or politicians, you know?’“ Gauri Aunty to a very confused Deepika

‘She has this quality, you know, an epiphany, Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, the face of love, a beauty shot in soft focus. I wanted to sweep her away, no, no, the fucking moron with her would have smashed me to bits.’ Sripad to his friend Vispy on his new-found love

“‘I was not always like this. But you know, your husband does not stroke you and the flower withers. Wells run dry…I have also searched, my dear...for the attention, the affection of my man, then strangers, not that there were many in my life, just uncles, old relatives, friends of this large business family who paw you at weddings.” Parvati looking for more than sympathy from her youngest sister-in-law

“In Ranjan he found a bridge to life as he had not lived it, a dangerous balancing act that excited his frayed imagination” Reddy the socialist is charmed by his friend the banker 

“Reddy’s week was spent in reluctant self-reckoning that left him exhausted rather than enlightened.”

“That night, in his striped pyjamas and vest, on their narrow double bed, Arvind came alive as never before, to every sound from the bathroom.”

“Love had imbued him with an exalted sense of life’s purpose and an urge to live up to its awesomeness. He wanted to seduce his ladylove with a lofty self-image; versifier or film reviewer doubling as estate manager wouldn’t do.”

“‘Listen we should be grateful; such a big family here, brothers and sisters-in-law, Bapu my father. They care, you know? What, what if we were…just us…me in the shop and you all dressed up, restless and someone rings the bell, some dark handsome guy with a twitch, lonely, hungry for other people’s wives…?’ He stared at the mosaic floor, shielding his eyes from that piercing light (in his wife’s eyes).” Mahesh’s obsessions turn Arvind paranoid

“No one spoke, none moved a muscle; they could hear Ranjan wheezing. Mahesh thought he heard someone gasp, a roar sounded in his ears and time collapsed, an image flashed before him; a man reading a news item and knowing he was condemned to the shadows, to ponder which was an accident, life or death or both and if so, then were they meaningless?” Denouement at The Wayside Inn  

“‘Women! You never know with them. One minute this, another minute that. But what the fucks I say, they were one finally, right? He thought life could be rushed she knew death would not wait. No difference!” Arvind’s judgement on the ill-fated couple

“‘Mahesh, ahh….you are a man of principles; a man of honour really, is what you are. That greedy swine Ranjan, what does he know about humanity! Compassion is a dirty word for him…lust…an animal is what he is. We - you and I - we are made for the exalted life. Join me, I need a man of your silences, strength…’” Reddy searches for a partner in his search for immortality

“Then the storm ceased and she opened her inflamed eyes to swirls of her regurgitation refusing to sink out of sight, her nostrils filling with the stench of her soured life and she put her hand into it, stirring the slime over the sinkhole, her sobs now like knife stabs in her parched throat, her mouth drained of all moisture, pain like a craw in her gullet piercing whenever she gulped.” Deepika’s payment time!

Images: Book Cover: Amazon.ca; Author: Hindu Business Line

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Pink Sari Revolution – A Tale of Women and Power in India

Bundelkhand is a region in central India divided between the provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It is not a good place. Economically, it is often compared (unfavourably) to sub-Saharan Africa. Socially, it is stuck in pre-medieval times, where caste determines one’s station in life. Politically, it is a boiling cauldron of caste politics, where “one doesn’t cast one’s vote, one votes one’s caste.”

Women’s emancipation, empowerment and equality are fanciful notions here, and sexual assault by higher caste men on lower caste women, while not commonplace, doesn’t really surprise anyone. In such an environment, it is impossible to imagine a woman like Sampat Pal – a woman who is all by herself pulling women from benighted darkness into light.

Sampat is the leader of the Pink Gang – so called because the members of the gang (comprising only women) drape themselves in pink saris. She periodically leads her gang members to beat up cowardly husbands who harass their wives, corrupt cops who bully the weak, rapacious politicians who rob everyone. In a short span, she has become a nightmare for men in the region, hitherto unaccustomed to being questioned now face a very real possibility of public humiliation.

Amana Fontanella-Khan’s Pink Sari Revolution – A Tale of Women and Power in India is Sampat’s story, an unlettered woman, with rudimentary grip over her circumstances who learns early on in life that the only way to survive is to fight back. She starts with fighting her husband’s family, and then her husband, for her own space, and then takes on the entire world in the unwavering pursuit of her dream to usher in a revolution to upturn the prevailing status quo that keeps women in servitude and suppression.

She is successful to an astonishing degree. As Fontanella-Khan notes in admiration, Sampat transforms herself from a docile child bride into a feisty and firebrand woman, turning her Pink Gang from a small band of enthusiasts into a mass organization of “about twenty thousand members, making them the gang double the size of the Irish army and eight times larger than the estimated number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.”

The book is also the story of Sheelu, a lower caste young woman who is sexually assaulted by Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, a higher caste politician. After the assault, Dwivedi accuses Sheelu of petty thievery and uses the state apparatus at his disposal to incarcerate her. Again, this wouldn’t have been different from the hundreds of similar cases that occur and generally aren’t unreported. It is different because of Sampat decided to obstinately pursue Sheelu’s case, and ultimately succeeds in securing the young woman’s release from prison, and get Dwivedi arrested.

Pink Sari Revolution begins as a gloomy tale of exploitation, but rapidly turns into an inspiring saga of women’s struggle to overthrow a culture of male dominance that is seemingly embedded into people’s thinking right from the times of Manu, the post-Vedic Hindu lawgiver, who postulated that women shouldn’t ever be independent. Fontanella-Khan’s book illustrates the improbably and yet unrelenting, irreversible and fast-paced changes that are sweeping India’s Hindi heartland.

Pink Sari Revolution has an outsider’s perspective. The writer doesn’t claim to understand the Indian way of life and living, but is keen to immerse herself in it, and she goes about doing that as a method actor would – by living the part. She lives with the women who are her subject, doing things they do, the way they do it. She empathizes, doesn’t judge, and portrays their life and times, often supressing her own revulsion to their barbaric social practices such as child marriages.

She writes: “One year into my travels to Bundelkhand, I lived with Sampat at her family home in Badausa (in August 2011 and December 2011). I have many happy memories from that time. In those days, we all bathed at the same water hand-pump and I learned by observing others how one washes more or less fully dressed.”

The book also answers an intriguing question: Why did the gang choose the colour pink? The answer is rather mundane: After one woman from the group goes missing during a protest march, Sampat decided that every member of her group would wear a uniform. They settle upon Gulabi (pink) because it hadn’t been chosen by any other social or political group before. The local media promptly dubs these women – draped in pink saris and carrying a lathi (stick) – the Gulabi Gang.

Fontanella-Khan’s unfamiliarity with her subject, language and milieu leads to some avoidable errors. For instance, Sampat Pal’s husband Munni Lal is derisively termed ‘Buddha’ (old man) by their children. The writer erroneously interprets to mean the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Commenting on the Muni Lal’s marginalization in his house, she writes, “Their children rarely sought his permission or advise in important matters. Behind his back they call Munni the ‘Buddha,’ because all he does is sit in a meditative silence.”

However, this is a minor quibble.

Pink Sari Revolution is an important book. It foretells the future of women in India. 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

'My identity depends on who is identifying me (including myself)'

'My identity depends on who is identifying me (including myself)
Therefore, what is really real about me? 
What is inherently me? 
I don’t know.
Maybe nothing.
Maybe everything.'

Interview with Sheniz Janmohamed

In the Sufi Poets Series of events you have created a unique blend of music, poetry and art. What inspired you to start the series?

Three things inspired me to start the series:

The work of Rohail Hyatt, the producer of Coke Studio Pakistan. He is an incredible facilitator of creativity and collaboration and the pieces he produces are transformative and revolutionary – not just for the audience, but for the participants as well.

I have a lot of wonderful friends who are talented artists, writers, poets, musicians, spoken word artists and performers and I always thought, “What if I introduced this person to that person? I wonder what they would come up with!” But in order to do that, I had to create a purpose, and a central theme.

My love for Sufi poetry became that central purpose. I wanted to see how people who have never heard of Bulleh Shah would interpret/connect to his work – and witness that process of discovery. It’s about creating community and provoking creativity. There’s no room for ego. Everyone is working to revive the poetry of a poet who is remains alive through their words, their music. It’s about exposing people to Sufi poetry for its heresy, passion and humanism. And people in the audience feel that energy and bask in it (I hope!)

What is special about the forthcoming Sufi Poets Series?

Sufi Poets Series III: American Sufi is a different format than usual because we’re featuring Anand Mahadevan’s novel of the same title, not a Sufi poet.

In Mahadevan’s words, “American Sufi weaves in elements of Sufi storytelling, sub-continental history, and Urdu poetry to reveal the tragedy of a land and its people rent between their devotion to the pacifist strain of Sufi Islam and the growing clout of Saudi-funded militancy.”

It is the central focus and arching narrative of the evening. Mahadevan will narrate sections of this story and the musicians will support it and respond to it with their voices and instruments. The lyrics and poetry to be sung/performed hail from Pakistan. We’re trying to recreate the feeling of being at a dargah (sufi shrine) but also to follow the journey of a young man who is torn between his life in the West and his sufi calling. It contexualizes the relevance of the sufi message for the post 9/11 world.

Why did you start Ignite Poets?

I started Ignite Poets because I wanted to collaborate with spoken word artists, poets and musicians, not compete with them. When I began the series, most of the poetry events in the city were either slams or open mics. I wanted to create a platform for spoken word artists/poets to speak to each other and with each other through collaboration with performance sets that flowed seamlessly from one piece to the next. Most of Ignite Poets’ previous shows have been scripted/organized poem by poem- I spend a lot of time trying to connect each individual piece with the other so that there is a sense of cohesion – without taking away from each poet’s voice.

Now about your work – ghazals and spoken word: Ghazals and spoken word make for a different sort of combination – while both draw upon personal experiences, the ghazal is a subtle, elusive, indirect form, the spoken word poetry is direct, often brash, in-your-face. Creatively speaking, don’t you find the dichotomy daunting?

I don’t find the dichotomy daunting, and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a dichotomy.

The spoken word form allows me to be more flexible and creative in how I play with my words. It relies on the performative quality of the poetry and how my voice can amplify the message behind the words. In that sense, spoken word can be ‘direct, often brash, in-your-face’ because of the nature of the form itself – the rhythm, the inflections of voice, the tone and the body language.

However, the ghazal form can also be ‘direct, often brash, in-your-face’ because I’m using a pen name. Using a pen name is liberating because I’m not hiding behind the persona of “Sheniz” and the ego that comes along with it. My pen name, Israh, is the inner voice, which is often harsh and brutally honest. It sometimes forces me to see what I don’t want to see. So while the form of the ghazal is more structured because there are so many rules to abide by (internal rhyming, couplets, repeating/rhyming refrains and pen name), there’s also immense freedom in the content itself. I’m not presenting myself to an audience, I’m presenting myself to myself.

What is the most common comment you get about writing ghazals in English?

I can’t really say there is one- it depends on who I’m speaking to and their knowledge of the form. People who don’t have knowledge of the form normally ask me what it is and what it entails. People who are very familiar with the form are often shocked that the form exists in the English language- some of them assume that I translate existing ghazals, and I have to clarify that I write original ghazals in English. Then the second comment/question I get is “Why don’t you write in Urdu?” I don’t speak Urdu, I don’t write in Urdu. My mother tongue is English and I’m trying to maintain/re-invent the form in this language. To claim it, in a sense.

Sufism inspires you. Sufism is a way of life; it abjures orthodoxy, questions convictions, modulates attitudes and ultimately challenges belief. But it is at variance with the emerging belief systems in a multicultural world where identity is overtly important, especially when one belongs to a minority – ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender. Sufism is antithetical to the notion of identity because it inspires you to lose your identity and become one with divinity. If you agree, how do you reconcile the two elements as an artist?

Identity, for me, is not static. My identity is constantly shifting/evolving/developing. It’s not stagnant nor is it independent of the environment around me. I occupy many labels and identities. Some people refer to me as South Asian. To someone else, I’m a Canadian. My identity depends on who is identifying me (including myself). Therefore, what is really real about me? What is inherently me? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Maybe both.

The artist is constantly interacting with the world around him/her in some shape or form. To create the same thing over and over again is artistic death- we’re always looking for something new to inspire and challenge us. We’re constantly shapeshifting, questioning and re-inventing. Questioning our relationship to the world is part of the creative process. 

At the same time, in order to truly give myself to what I write or perform, I have to forget myself. If I start thinking about how I look on stage while I’m performing, I forget my lines. If I start judging myself while I’m writing a poem, I’m no longer writing. The art of creating is letting go of this exoteric notion of identity and embracing the moment the poem unravels, or the words spill out of my mouth.

Time: 7pm
Date: December 7th, 2013
Venue: Beit Zatoun House, 612 Markham Street, Toronto
Ticket price: $15.00

The third installation of the popular Sufi Poets Series, this event will feature musical interpretations, poetic recitations and narrations of Anand Mahadevan's latest novel, "American Sufi", inspired by the music and poetry of Pakistan.

The novel weaves in elements of Sufi storytelling, sub-continental history, and Urdu poetry to reveal the tragedy of a land and its people rent between their devotion to the pacifist strain of Sufi Islam and the growing clout of Saudi-funded militancy.

Performers and musical guests:
  • Anand Mahadevan, Author of American Sufi
  • Jawaid Danish, Urdu poetry
  • Sheniz Janmohamed, Poetry and Spoken word
  • Tariq Hameed, Harmonium and Qawwali vocals
  • Samer Shahid Khan, Guitar and Vocals
  • Ravi Naimpally, Tabla

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Descant - Masala

People of Indian origin create a little India wherever they are. Arjun Appadurai terms this phenomenon as “ethnoscapes.” In his study of Indian immigrants in North America (Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 1996), Appadurai contends that “when Indian immigrants settle in North America, they do not completely assimilate but construct what he calls “ethnoscapes” or landscapes of group identities¹.”

The 162nd issue of Descant with its Masala theme is a literary depiction of Appadurai’s “ethnoscapes.” It is a collection of short stories, poems and visual art that brings to life the immigrant experience. It contains rains, ragas, and racism, colour and identity, music and memories – a bit of everything that makes for an Indian experience in an alien environment – “ethnoscapes”.

Why is it that immigrants take to writing so avidly? Perhaps it is the quiet desperation of adjusting to a strange place, or perhaps it is the constant fear of losing one’s past forever that compels an immigrant to write and record.

Some of the best literature in English language has been (and is being) created by immigrants. It is a noticeable trend, especially among people of Indian origin, or people whose ancestors left the Indian shores to reach far corners of the globe. They started new lives in places that while similar to their home, were so far away that they could return to their homeland only in their memories.

Miraculously, the idea of India didn’t (doesn't) fade away from the collective consciousness of the second and third generation immigrants born and raised outside India – in East Africa, the UK, or North America. In fact, it thrives. And when they take to writing and expressing themselves, they create a world that redefines their Indian roots that is breathtaking and heartbreaking.

In Descant Maasla, yaqoob ghaznavi describes this emotion vividly in the Home, a poem that narrates the life of a second generation Canadian woman with no connection live to India:

yet how do I understand
fascination with the homeland
far from the air I breathe

longing constantly changes shape
enters maps in me I had no knowledge of
tears me into sweet bitter solitudes

Descant Masala includes some superlative work incorporating diverse voices and touching upon varied leitmotifs within the overarching theme of immigration. Appropriately, the issue begins with Wasela Hiyate’s Gold (an excerpt from a novel), which narrates the story of a family’s decision to immigrate from the Hindi heartland to the Caribbean. Enticed by fanciful promises of limitless riches (gold), the family leave India only to find themselves in purgatory of bonded labour and destitution.

Often the portrayal of heartrending reality by second and third generation Indian immigrants is a result of their realization that the world will never let them forget their Indian roots. 

Evadne Macedo, born in England, now living in Canada, with only a remote sense of India, tries valiantly to answer the question common among the second and third generation immigrants: Who am I? It’s a question that unsettles her. About those who ask her, “Where are you from?” she says, “…the ones who ask where I am from see me first and foremost as Indian and want me to confirm that I am nothing more than what I appear to be.”

Many narratives talk about the universal experience of racism that non-whites faces in places where whites form a majority. However, what often remains unacknowledged is the inherent racism that Indians have for people of other races. Their unspoken awe for the whites, and their contempt for the blacks; their unconscious attempts to turn into coconuts: brown outside, white inside.

Descant Masala has Mona Zutshi Opubor’s remarkable memoir The True Story of a South Asian Micegenator. She reveals the deep rooted racism that is inherent to most Indians (wherever they may be). Describing her parents’ horror that she was marrying a black African from Nigeria, Mona asks: “Which was more shameful: if your child married a black or a Muslim? The unanimous agreement was that different religion was preferable to mixing aces. ‘Why would that be the case?’ I asked my mother…’How is race more divisive than religion?’ ‘Indians are colour-conscious,’ she said. ‘No one has to know if you have a Muslim in the family. They look like we do. But how could we hide a black son-in-law?’

There are many gems in Descant Masala. Pradeep Solanki, the guest editor for the issue, has prepared a Gujarati thali – a complete meal that has everything in just the right proportions. Conspicuously missing is cricket, which incidentally is the fastest growing sport in Canada.

¹: Quoted from Growing Up Canadian Ed: Peter Beyer & Rubina Ramji, McGill-Queen’s University Press 2013