& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience - II

Rohinton Mistry
Recently, I attended a six weeks program on Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience conducted by Sanja Ivanov of the University of Waterloo at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (Spadina and College).

I couldn’t attend the concluding session because of extraneous disturbances not under my control.

I blogged about the series in February, but the observations in that blog were primarily derivative and based on just one session. The subsequent sessions gave the series new meanings, and new insights.

With each new author the group discussed different aspects of the theme of exile and belonging.

David Bezmozgis

We read and discussed five stories by four authors:  Roman Berman, Massage Therapist and The Second Strongest Man (from David Bezmozgis’s collection Natasha and Other Stories); The Inert Landscapes of Gyorgy Ferenc (from Tamas Bobozy’s Last Notes and Other Stories); Squatter (from Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Firozsha Baag); and No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences (from Dionne Brand’s Sans Souci and Other Stories).

Each author deals with the issue of exile and belonging differently, each is steeped in a specific cultural milieu, and each is situated in Canada (in fact, in Toronto – and I guess the Toronto Public Library must have insisted on that).

Each of the story is deeply disturbing, even if it occasionally some scenes in the stories evoke chortles or at least an amused smile (especially Squatter).  

In all the stories, the newcomers are unable to adjust to a new life, a new thinking, to their changed circumstances. They become so alienated that their own people seem alien.
In some cases the – as with Gyorgy Ferenc in Dobzy’s story and the Caribbean woman in Brand’s story – the characters experience mind-bending turmoil and become paralysed with fear and loathing.

In No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences, Brand describes the transformation thus:

Dionne Brand
“Returning home her imagination tightened the walls of the apartment giving them a cavernous, gloomy look. She would lie on the floor and listen for footsteps in the corridor outside. The phone would ring and startle her. The sound would blast around in her chest and she would pray for it to stop never thinking to answer it. It would course its way through her arms so that when she looked at her fingers they would seem odd, not hers or she, not theirs.”  
And while Dobzy’s story is about the father Gyorgy Ferenc, and his utterly hopeless spiral into a world that cannot exist, a great insight into the immigrant’s perennial dilemma is revealed towards the end of the story when Gergo (the narrator) returns briefly to Hungary. 

He describes his experience thus:

Tamas Dobozy
“It was only many weeks later, when I’d fully realized what it was to lose a country – after I had gone astray in the streets of a city I thought I knew as well as myself, after I’d seen the growth of apartments on the outskirts of Debrecen, after I’d stepped onto the Hortobagy and been unable to shake the sense of infinite distance between the soles of my shoes and the ground they stood upon – that I remembered where I’d last seen the smile Akos had worn at the airport. You see, either everything had changed in Hungary, or I had changed, and what was most disquieting about the trip for me was not only that I couldn’t stabilize my sense of being in the country, but that I couldn’t even fix upon the country I was trying to stabilize myself in relation to.
“The greatest nightmare was that both of us had changed – the country and myself – and that we were constantly changing, which made the possibility of us ever connecting again a matter of complete chance, the intersection of two bodies on random flight patterns, ruled by equations so different there was little chance of us resting, even for a second, on the same co-ordinates.”
As I said, unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the last session and so missed my chance to thank all the wonderful participants and Sonja Ivanov, the amazing program instructor.

Sonja conducted the series with deft competence and confidence, giving opportunities for all the participants to dwell on the subject, giving each of us time to explore and expound on the theme.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

India, Empire and the First World War - I

MJ Akbar
A minstrel is a mediaeval bard who sang songs and told tales of distant places, of real or imagined events from the past. When the European courts evolved under the influence of mercantilism, minstrels lost their appeal and began to travel around, becoming wandering minstrels.

I’m often reminded of the wandering minstrels whenever a public intellectual from India visits Toronto. I get to meet them and hear them talk at the Munk Centre which organizes their visit with a reassuring regularity. 

Romila Thapar, Ramchandra Guha, and Rachel Dwyer, among many others have engaged the Indian diaspora in what may be described as a conversation among the believers. And by that I mean that both the speakers and the listeners are all generally speaking liberals.

MJ Akbar was here a couple of weeks ago to talk on India, Empire and the First World War organized by the Bill Graham Centre for International History.

A minor digression: One wonders whether Akbar should continue to be included among the liberals after his new-found love for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial aspirant of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. I guess many in India and amongst the Indian diaspora who categorize themselves as liberals have found (and are finding) new reasons to support Modi. So, we shall leave the categorization in abeyance for now.

Apart from an utter incapability to understand or appreciate Akbar’s pro-Modi tilt, which sort of tends to cloud my perspective about everything that he writes these days, I must admit listening to his erudition is unquestionably an enriching experience.

Although he was to speak about India, the Empire and the First World War, he deftly encompassed many themes in his talk and focused mainly on the making of the modern Muslim world. For those aware with his works – especially his 2002 book The Shades of Sword – the Conflict between Islam and Christianity, there was a familiar note to a lot that Akbar said that afternoon.

Some of his positions are well-known and have hardened over the years. But his approach of examining history as an interplay between empires that rose and fell over the last millennium, rather than looking at it from the narrow prism of nation states remains unique and compelling.

The breadth of the lecture was wide, sweeping across centuries, spread across geographies, and peopled with innumerable figures; and punctured with innumerable diversions.

In the middle of the talk, he stopped and quoted from Matthew Arnold’s poem Stanza from the Grande Chartreuse
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born

Wikipedia described Arnold, as an English poet from the Victorian era, who wrote this classic to describe the irreconcilable differences between science and religion while on a brief visit to the Grand Chartreuse, the abode of the Carthusian order. 

Akbar used the lines to describe the present world order where the old world of the 20th century is evidently dead, but a new world order is yet to be born.

Another riveting insight: Tracing the west’s global domination over the last five hundred years, Akbar observed that the simple reason was technology. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Gutenberg press (introduced in the same decade) changed the discourse of dominance. It wasn’t just the battlefield where supremacy mattered. Gutenberg opened up a new front – supremacy of ideas. 

And the Islamic world was kept away from this revolution (especially in South Asia) by the trade unions of the khatibs, the scribes, who prevented the introduction and use of the movable type.

Describing India’s strong roots of syncretic traditions, he quoted Mughal emperor Babur, who said one could either eat beef or rule India, one couldn’t do both.

Continued in the post below

India, Empire and the First World War - II

Continued from the post above

It isn’t quite possible to capture an hour’s lecture into a coherent report. What follows are some nuggets gleaned from his talk.  

According to Akbar, the birth of the modern world lies in the collapse of two major Muslim empires – the Ottoman and the Mughal. Both the empires started in the 13th century and ended the 19th century (although the Ottoman ended after World War I, Akbar termed the gap of 60-odd years between the end of the Mughal and the Ottoman Empires minor, meriting no more than three paragraphs in any conventional history book).

The World Wars were so termed not because the worlds were at war, but because these were wars for the control of the worlds, he said.  “At the end of the First World War, Muslims across the world were either defeated or colonized.”

However, unlike the Western paradigm of empires (as laid down by Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire) which evolved in three stages – rise, decline and fall, the Islamic paradigm envisaged a fourth stage – renewal.

So, post-World War I, when there were no Islamic empires left in the world, the struggle continued within Islam for renewal. Hitherto, Muslims had never equated a change in ruler to a threat to faith. This happened only after World War I when the holy centres of Islam – Mecca and Medina – came under British control.   

There weren’t just two World Wars, there were, in fact, four – the first two, then the Cold War, which ended in with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and then the War on Terrorism, which will end with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2015.

For the radical Muslims, within a period of a century – from 1914 to 2014 – Islam had successfully defeated three of the biggest powers that the world had ever seen – the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Akbar said it’d probably take a century more for the complexities in the Islamic world to work out. If the First World War ended two of the last Islamic Empires – the Ottoman and the Mughal, it also gave birth to two modern models of renewal – again in Kamal Ataturk’s Turkey and Gandhi’s India.

Congress view of Khilafat
Muslims had several options for renewal and among these were Gandhian nonviolence, the Intifada movement of insurrection, Pan Arab nationalism (socialism and Arab nationalism, which reduced itself to Naseerism),

The Khilafat movement that Gandhi launched was the first jihad where the leadership of the movement was in the hands of a non-Muslim. 

In Shades of Sword, Akbar has termed it the peaceful jihad. The unity that Gandhi forged during Khilafat was lost forever when he abruptly withdrew the movement. The Muslims of the subcontinent never went back to Gandhi.

Muslim view of Khilafat
In 1939 Jinnah changed the story – from the future of Muslims in the subcontinent, it became the story of the future of Islam. Pakistan was formed on the belief that religion could be the basis of nationhood. It failed.

India followed the path of modernism which involved following four broad principles – democracy, secularism, gender equality and economic equality. 

According to Akbar, Pakistan and China are not modern societies because they don’t fulfil these four prerequisites of modern statehood.

A video of his talks is going to be made available on Munk Centre's website.

Visuals: http://www.thehistory-project.org/book/index.html

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Arrow is a young woman and a sharpshooter. Kenan is husband to Amila; father to two daughters Aida and Sanja, and son Mak; and neighbour to Mrs. Ristovski. Dragan is middle aged, alone. His wife Raza and their 18-year-old son have escaped the madness that enveloped Sarajevo when the Serbian forces laid a siege around the city between 1992 and 1996 – the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.

Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of Arrow, Kenan and Dragan as they come to terms with the reality of a war ravaged city that they have lived all their lives. The novel narrates the different ways in which these three civilians come to terms with their radically altered circumstances during the siege.

To Galloway’s credit, nowhere in the novel does he ever mention the siege from a macro perspective – Serbian forces that surrounded the outlying hills of Sarajevo are never named, and neither are the Bosnian government defense forces named.

The novel shows there isn’t too much to choose between the attackers and the defenders, and depicts the daily trauma of living in the city that is changing forever, its inhabitants slowly wilting, decaying, and disintegrating.

Arrow, the reluctant sniper, who is tasked with protecting the cellist who decides to play his cello for 22 days to commemorate the death by mortar shelling of 22 people who had lined up to buy bread, regrets Sarajevo’s transformation.

“The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what they were. It didn’t matter what you were, what your ancestors had been, or what your children would be. You could hate a person for what they did. You could hate a murderer, you could hate a rapist, and you could hate a thief. This is what first drove her to kill the men on hills, because they were all these things. But now, she knows, she’s driven mainly by a hatred of them, the idea of them as a group, and not by their actions.”

The three characters in Galloway’s novel seem to derive inspiration from the cellist and resist the all-pervading sense of gloom that has engulfed the city.

Listening to the cellist play, Kenan is transported into a different era, an era of peace. As the cellist plays, “(T)he building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and paint, and windows reassemble, clarify and sparkle as the sun reflects off glass. The cobblestone of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and colour. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.”

Dragan, caught in a sniper crossfire that hits Emina, an acquaintance, and kills a stranger.
“Was being killed really better than being wounded? He isn’t so sure now. The idea of knowing the moment of your death is imminent no longer seem so bad compared with an instantaneous ending. Emina will survive, of this he feels confident, but if she didn’t, if she were more seriously wounded, wouldn’t it be better to get one last look at the world, even a grey and spoiled vision, than to plunge without warning into darkness?

“What makes the difference, he realizes, is whether you want to stay in the world you live in. Because while he will always be afraid of death and nothing can change that, the question is whether your life is worth that fear. Do you face the terror that must come with knowing you’re about to die, just for the sake of one last glimpse of life? Dragan is surprised to find his answer is yes.”

Then later, he realizes that giving up would mean defeat.

“Dragan doesn’t want to go to Italy. He misses his wife and son, but he isn’t Italian, and he never will be. There’s no country he can go to where he won’t be from Sarajevo. This is his home, and this is the city he wants to be in. He doesn’t want to live under siege for the rest of this life, but to abandon the city to the men on the hills would mean that he would be forever homeless.”

The significance of the novel is that what happened to Sarajevo can and does happen to other cities quite suddenly, and there is no way to predict and prevent it. 

When people are filled with hatred – often for who they are or what they have become – they always look for and find the other. In destroying the other, they destroy themselves.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is Toronto Public Library’s One Book community read for the Keep Toronto Reading festival of April 2014. More details are available here: http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/ktr/