& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rivers run through it - I

Toronto skyline as seen from CN Tower

Cities are alive. They constantly change, evolve, grow. Growth transforms them. Growth is economic, but not always organic. Economic growth lends vibrancy and brings culture. Growth metamorphoses their geographies. As a city’s horizontal expanse turns rural hinterland into urban space, the city also expands vertically. In this process, old landmarks and boundaries vanish, making way for the new.

Waterways, hills, forests fade physically and are replaced by houses and factories and highways, but they often stay vivid in memories of a generation that witnessed the transformation. Then, it is all confined to maps that are preserved in archives, accessed by the archivists, heritage enthusiasts, and those who occasionally dabble in urban history.

Institutions that study this transformation attract a particular kind of people – urban activists, journalists, architects, city planners. They meet and talk about the transformation, publish monographs and papers, and despair over lost legacies.

The Heras Institute studies Bombay’s past with an avuncular and indulgent dedication. I discovered the institute at Bombay’s St. Xavier College many decades ago when I began to get interested in my hometown's history.  

I still have a bunch of papers published by this institute somewhere in my home in Bombay. One of the papers is by journalist and urban historian Olga Valladares, with whom I worked briefly.

I’m sure there must be many institutions that look at Toronto’s past with similar affection. I have found an uncanny similarity between some sections of Toronto such the Queen Street and Bombay’s Fort area. Colonialism links Bombay and Toronto architecturally. (Read related post here).

When we came to Toronto five years ago, we did what most newcomers do – took a sightseeing tour in an open-top bus. It was interesting but we didn’t make any real connection with any of the landmarks that we were shown. In the last five years, I have created opportunities to explore the city and even if I haven’t quite succeeded in discovering it to the extent that I would like to, I have done a bit of wandering on my own.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had another opportunity to take another sightseeing tour. And this time around it was a fascinating experience.

The Distillery District is not just an abandoned space that has been turned into yet another shopping trap. Last year I had been to its Christmas market and saw a performance at the district’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Read related post here).

Now, the district had a different, more personal connection. Both the ROM and AGO are not just imposing and daunting architectural excesses, they also have little nooks that allow, encourage personal interpretations of art. Bata Shoe Museum isn’t just about shoes. Many of my friends have participated in a poignant exhibition conceived by Katherine Govier that shared their struggle to make Canada home.  And I could identify skyscrapers from the CN Tower by professional acquaintances who work in them.

Continued in the post below

Rivers run through it – II

Continued from the post above

Knowing a city makes a difference in comprehending it.

One of the most fascinating discoveries in my (half-hearted) attempts at knowing Toronto better happened accidentally.

A couple of weeks ago when the Luminato festival’s Literary Picnic at Trinity Bellwood was washed out, I went to the Harbourfront Centre to see Nine Rivers – Toronto’s Extraordinary Waterways.

I didn’t know the city that is by the lake has in the past found its sustenance through rivers. Moreover, I had heard of just the Don and the Humber. Which were the other six rivers? At the exhibition I discovered that the city has three rivers and six creeks. The rivers are Don, Humber and Rouge. The creeks are Etobicoke, Mimico, Duffins, Petticoat and Carruthers. The photographs are aesthetically appealing. The exhibition is on for a year. Read about it here, and then go see it.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim The Black Creek
1pm December 19, 2012
Highway 407 and Jane Street
Then, earlier this week, I read Anya Moryoussef’s piece Judith Vogelnest / Alice Coe, The Cartographer in Descant (Issue 160 – The HiddenCity). Moryoussef’s memoir about her grandmother traces her chequered personal history and her deep and abiding interest in tracing Toronto’s lost rivers. The author, an architect by training, share her grandmother's interest in Toronto’s rivers.  

Here’s a passage that describes their meeting.

“From her stack of papers, Alice extracted page after page of lightweight vellum covered in lines like veins. Every line was accompanied by a monologue delivered with urgency and agitation, each monologue accompanied by a series of dramatic hand gestures. Her finger nails looked like they had been stretched too long and too fine for her small palms and plump forearms. The skin on them was thin and polished, like satin pulled taut over branches of bones and tendons. They were translucent and they shook, and as they moved through the air, illustrating how rivers had been rerouted and covered over, encased in brick tunnels and buried by layers of dirt and sod and other waste, they trailed ghosts behind them. Her fingernails were dirty.

On pages with earlier dates, the lines were prominent, creeping across the paper in all directions. On later ones, the lines were fewer and shorter, drawn with less conviction. Solid strokes were replaced by dotted lines, smudges and hatchings some of which began and ended with question marks. Graphite was smeared across the pages from years of handling, covering them in a dull sheen of grey.

The maps illustrated the rivers disappearing. The first started to go around 1800s, Alice explained. Taddle Creek, she said. See here? She pointed to one of the lines, indicating that between 1800 and 1833 the creek had been interred as far as the University of Toronto campus. From about 1850 until 1900, settlements and industries that grew along the creeks used the water as a dumping ground. Creeks became corridors of plague and pestilence, and the city was forced to turn to the lake for clean water. In time, she said, the creeks were systematically reduced to sewers. The last to go was Mimico Creek, in 1935.”

Occasionally cities die. Death is a slow, protracted process. Cities die when growth ceases, but also when there is rampant, unchecked growth. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Em and the Big Hoom - Jerry Pinto

Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto is a story of a family living in a small apartment in Bombay where the family is constantly coping with the mother mental instability.

It’s a story about the mother’s condition, and about the family – comprising a father, a daughter and a son, besides the mother – helping each other and the mother live as normal a life as possible under the circumstances.

To live with a mentally unstable person is a challenge that defies articulation. One dies a million little deaths as the unusual turns into the new normal. Silence is the usually the only response.

The family prefers silence fearing that articulation would shatter the precariously constructed equilibrium.

The world prefers silence as well, fearing that polite inquiries that should be answered with polite inanities, would instead lead to an honest but distressful unburdening of the soul.

Often, the person suffering is the only one who doesn't keep quiet. This is because silence would cause the abnormal to be accepted.

Life goes on, but the pretense extracts a mighty toll. 

Tortured by imagined phantoms lurking everywhere and trying to destroy everyone and everything that is dear to her, the person who is slowly losing all sense of balance suffers the most.

The family tries to adjust to the new reality but fails repeatedly as it can’t decide whether to try to save or ignore the person.

Em, the mother, is like every mother you’d know – often cantankerous and idiosyncratic but always caring and loving. The Big Hoom is the archetypal father – the aloof provider, who draws upon unsuspected internal reserves of strength, to take care of any eventuality.

The delight that the author takes in telling his story makes the novel a fascinating read, but it’s the utter ordinariness of the narration that lifts the novel to an unexpected height and makes it memorable.

Jerry Pinto is a celebrated Indian author and has won many accolades for his non-fiction work. Em and the Big Hoom is his first work of fiction and it has won the 2012 The Hindu Literary Prize.

Here’s an excerpt:

“You can’t reach her,” Dr. Marfatia, who was then her psychiatrist, had said once as Em was led away by hands that were firm and gentle. Or at least hands we hoped were gentle. “How do we know they don’t hurt her?” I had asked. The Big Hoom, and he had said, “Because she never protests when she has to go to Ward 33. That is all we’ll know. We’ll have to live with that much.” And she had gone willingly into the hospital ward one more time, realising us, returning us to ourselves. “Go live.” Did she say this to me when she was led away that time, or am I imagining it?

Except that none of the three she left behind knew how to go and live; we didn't know what to do with the brief freedom because it was a tainted freedom. And each time Em came home, we all hoped, for a little while that the pieces of the jigsaw would fall into place again. Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother. Four Mendeses, somewhat love-battered, still standing.”

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Pavitra in Paris

Guest post by Vinita Kinra

Buy the e-book: Pavitra in Paris
The story “Pavitra in Paris” was conceived in the winter of 2008 with my husband’s phone call to me, when he was on his way to work.

“How do you think Pavitra would react if he could enter the church?” he asked me perkily, and I felt I could hear his heart beating fast through the phone at this hypothesis.

“I think he would faint with joy and disbelief!” I responded, bringing to mind the frail untouchable who tended the fields and worked at my marital village of Belsandi in India.

Unlike the tedious nine-month wait for childbirth, Pavitra was born in two weeks after being conceived in front of St. Andrew Wesley church of Vancouver. I gifted our newborn to my husband—the father of this story—who had impregnated my mind with its idea.

“Fabulous!” he remarked, wiping the tears streaming down his eyes. “This will be the title story of your collection.”

And so it is—5 years later!

Next came “Kamini”—a radically different theme from Pavitra—tantalizing the reader with the seductive charm of a married thirty-eight­-year-old mother, and her brief love affair with a high school student.

Then came “The Pied Piper of Jaipur,depicting satirically the generation gap between Dolly and her grandma, until the entry of Nagesh the snake charmer takes the story to a whole new level of desperation and despair caused by extreme poverty.

Thereafter, I penned “Groom Bazaar, a story very close to my heart, as it allowed me to take the reader down memory lanes of all the characters seated around a dinner table in an exquisite Indian restaurant in New York City. What starts as light-hearted banter in this story, soon takes an intriguing turn when Sita narrates how her groom was found in an open bazaar—a shopping to which the bride had no permission of choice.

Soon after finishing this story, life put me through a gruelling personal experience of my own, the tremors of which are still fresh in every pore of my skin.

Vinita Kinra
The blinding white lights above, the masked faces surrounding me from all sides—their visible eyes tense with anticipation; my head felt light, my body hollow, as I sank deeper and deeper into the induced sleep of the anesthesia. I was going through an emergency surgery after suffering an internal hemorrhage caused by the bursting of the tube which was accidentally carrying my fetus, instead of the uterus. 

When I regained consciousness, my husband held my hand and said, “God spared your life for He wants you to finish your stories.” This phrase rang in my ears night and day through my recovery, and as soon as I was able to sit up in bed, I started filling blank pages with colourful characters once again.

Bheem Ojha of “Splash!” humoured me through this dark interlude of my life, and promises to bring a smile on every reader’s face through its surprise ending set in a simplistic village of Bihar, India.

The seawall running along the English Bay beach in Vancouver had inspired many stories in my mind, and I decided to pay tribute to it by using it as the pristine backdrop for “The compromise.” On the surface, it’s a story about a nondescript stroll of a mother and daughter along the jovial shores of the Pacific Ocean on a beautiful fall afternoon; scratching the surface reveals its many layers of the mother’s struggle in escaping the nightmares of Dharavi slum in Mumbai to come to the surreal beauty of Vancouver. Is she able to convince her daughter not to separate from her partner? Is any relationship perfect? Don’t we all compromise with life to attenuate the severity of its myriad challenges?

“The Package Deal” is a brilliant craftsmanship of love, humour, intrigue and surprise ending, all woven into a single story involving arranged marriages in India. Even though the title of this story is self-explanatory and the introductory lines reveal the mystery in advance, the reader is bound to be surprised in the end.

“The Inseparables” is a heart-wrenching story of selfless love between a young girl and a parrot. It is at once adorable and shocking, forcing humans to be more humane towards each other.

“The Perfect Match” stirs a roller coaster of emotions when Lovely takes the readers on her arduous journey to find a husband—her perfect match—in Canada.

“The Camel Trader” is nail-biting suspense in the middle of the lonely and savage deathtrap of Thar Desert, where Makhan Singh finds himself alone on his treacherous journey aboard his faithful camel, Veeru.

And finally, “The Curse of a Nightingale” is as beautiful as it is devastating. A stunning young girl with a magical voice is marred for life. She may have been horribly disfigured, but she can still make it big with her golden voice. Or can she? The anticlimax of this story is raw, compelling and jolting. It will linger in readers’ minds for a long time.

Images courtesy the author