& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Firesmoke - Sheniz Janmohamed

It’s been four years since Toronto poet Sheniz Janmohamed published her first collection of English ghazals. 

Bleeding Light was a bold attempt at fitting into a form that is not natural to the language, but she seemingly enjoyed the “discomfort of squeezing yourself into a form.” 

She described ghazals as “the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered by a hunter and knows it will die.”

Her first collection had some memorable ghazals.
The one that stayed with me was In Crimson because of its rich imagery.
In Crimson
A man sells packets of socks in a gully where most men walk barefoot.
What can he do but rest his head on that ledge, hastily painted crimson?

In Old Town, Allah hu Akbar pounds the walls of crumbling Fort Jesus.
A taxi cuts us off, Allah is Great plastered on his window – in crimson.

At the Coast, we bargain shillings for bags and kisii stone elephants.
Indians are not good customers. The seller brands our skin crimson.

Bombs detonate at the steps of every mosque, in the throat of every believer.
If Allah is a war cry, how can we lift Bismillah from asphalt stained crimson.

If only we planted a thousand trees for each page we discard and crumple.
When her last pen snaps, Israh will draw blood and scrawl words in crimson.

Recently, TSAR published Sheniz’s second collection of poems Firesmoke. It’s a combination of ghazals, free verse and short verse. The poems are in three sections – kindling (ghazals), fire (free verse) and smoke (short verse). 

In the Preface, Sheniz says, “…to write this poems, I had to locate, gather and lay down the kindling of my past – my attachments and fears – and watch them burn. I had to let go of my idea of what the future would hold and watch it disappear like smoke. The only presence that was present was the life of the fire itself.”

Time transforms everyone, ageing us, slackening our muscles, making our bones brittle, turning our breath sour. For all of us it’s an entirely avoidable process, especially because it doesn’t make us any wiser. Time transforms the poet, too, but in an entirely pleasant manner. It helps the poet discovers her voice, and although the journey is perhaps no less painful for the poet as it is for you and me, it is tremendously more enriching for the poet than it is for us, this is because time doesn’t necessarily mean the same to the poet as it does to us.

In Firesmoke, Sheniz has found her voice – wanderer, lover, mendicant, and activist, a lover of nature, and, of course, a woman. Some poems have a rough texture to them, the hoarseness of sloganeering. Some are impervious, impermeable. As in the first collection, the ghazals in the second collection weave a rich tapestry of imagery and emotion.
I liked Unleashed – perhaps because it describes a common Bombay occurrence.

They believed a witch unleashed a storm when she loosened her hair.
How many hurricanes have hurled through towns because of your hair?

Leaning against a traffic light, a ragged street doll clasps her hands together.
A couple of coins will never rinse the pain out from her dirt-streaked hair.

Each strand of her hair is silk spun from the night. She will never tie it.
She tells me her power is not in her hands, lips, eyes. It’s in her hair.

Her glance is an arrow cracking the oak of your heart.
Even thunder whispers when Israh unties her hair.

Israh is Sheniz’s takhallus

Saturday, November 29, 2014

More Matata - Braz Menezes

Authors like M G Vassanji have brilliantly covered much of the Asian experience in East Africa. But Goa, now a part of the cultural mosaic of India for over 50 years, has been somewhat neglected. Portugal imposed its religion and culture on Goa and its people for over 450 years, creating a distinct blend of Indo-Portuguese. 

Early in the 20th century, the rulers of British East Africa were desperate for administrators and accountants; bartenders and bakers; cooks and clerks; musicians and mechanics; engineers and tailors; doctors and doormats. 

The people of Goa fit the bill perfectly and they created no matata (trouble). They spoke English, wore western attire and drank Scotch whisky. They played card games and cricket. Although they gyrated to the mando and dulpod, they also danced the lancers, the waltz and the foxtrot.

They were Catholics and were considered reliable to handle the public purse strings. They stayed with their faith and never strayed into politics. They did what they were told and were always loyal and docile. Above all, when compared to the cost of British labour, they could be had cheap — very cheap indeed. They flocked to East Africa by the hundreds.

Braz Menezes, the author of More Matata Love after the Mau Mau, says, “When I sat back to reflect and digest the facts, I decided their story needed to be told: how a small community from Goa, played an inordinately important and quiet role in the administration and the services economy of British East Africa. When it was time to leave Kenya, many went. Others stayed behind in the land they loved. In previous novels by European authors, especially those set in Kenya, the Goans were merely minor ‘props and shadows’ in other people’s stories. That is how the Matata Trilogy was born.”

‘Matata’ means trouble in Swahili. The trilogy is set against the evolving nation of Kenya and the twist and turns that political decisions taken in London, Lisbon and elsewhere affect everyday life.

The first book, JustMatata – Sin, Saints and Settlers (Matata Books) is from the view point of a 11-year-old (Lando), a Catholic Goan, trying to understand the dichotomy and conflicts of his parents' and community culture (Catholic-Portuguese India) and the different realities in Kenya, with its entrenched racial segregation (colour bar) and religious separation.

For example, Catholic Goans were not allowed in European Catholic schools, and kids (especially boys) were sent to Jesuit-run boarding schools from about the age of 10, to complete high school and university in Goa, Bangalore, Poona and Bombay. They would return to Kenya at age 23, strangers to their siblings. Fascinating travel by steamship, and very interesting and poignant account of life in boarding school and clever maneuver to escape back to Kenya.

More Matata is a continuation of the story by the same narrator (Lando). It is based on true events, and is a story of a teenage boy growing to manhood, at the same time as Kenya strives for Independence. It takes place in the early 50s during a brutal struggle, initially by mainly one tribe, the Kikuyu, against colonial Britain. Schools and residential areas were segregated by race until 1955. The Mau Mau fighters were driven by British military forces, from the settler-dominated ‘White Highlands’ first, into ‘African Locations’ in urban areas, and then, into the servants’ quarters of non-Africans, pursued relentlessly by security forces.

Lando attends an Indian high school adjacent to the African areas and later enrolls in the first multiracial college in Kenya. In a chance meeting after graduation as an architect, he meets the irresistibly beautiful, biracial, Saboti. The intertwined stories of political and ethnic strife, cultural differences and forbidden love, are set against the history and natural beauty of Kenya.

The trilogy – two novels have been published, and the third is being written – has been a labour of love for Braz. He says, “I took my first creating writing class at George Brown in 2006 at age 67. I started to tell another story, instead as I researched events, I got sucked into a bigger story of how the relatively small community, unwittingly played a key role in implementing Britain's colonial administration Kenya. I never expected to find the art writing, so satisfying, absorbing, and yet complicated. I never expected to have to self-publish, and even less to handle the marketing.”

The final book continues the intertwined stories of the key characters, where all the tables on race and privileged are reversed and a new set of unintended events are set in motion, leading to new and unexpected consequences.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan

Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan passed away in Montreal Saturday 22 November 2014. He was 62.

The first time I saw him was at TSAR’s fall launch in 2009, when his English translations of Tamil poems was released. Subsequently, I got to know him better when MG Vassanji invited me join the managing committee of the Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts (FSALA) that is now called the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts.

I met him formally in 2010. Vassanji had called for a meeting at his place, and just before the meeting was to begin, he remembered he had to pick up his son from the airport. So, Chelva and I, meeting for the first time, both guests of one of Canada's preeminent authors, chatted for an hour about literature in the absence of our host. 

Chelva spoke of new writing in India, especially since the 1980s to the present. We discussed Allan Sealy, who Chelva thought deserved more attention that he had got. When you are in the company of someone who is both knowledgeable and erudite, time loses its meaning. By the time Vassanji returned home with Kabir, Chelva and I had become good buddies.

During the festival Chelva contributed with ideas, arranged for the different venues, and was instrumental in getting eminent authors and film makers from South Asia to participate in the festival, these included, among others, Mahesh Dattani, the eminent Indian playwright; and Prasanna Vithanage, the Sri Lankan filmmaker.  He was also instrumental in getting Hari Krishnan’s InDance involved with the festival, and getting Dalbir Singh, his student, to interview Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani in 2011.

The literary festival got together highly individualistic bunch of people to work together. This inevitably led to friction. At the end of the 2011 festival, Chelva threw up his hands; he had had enough, he had decided to quit the committee. When I heard about it, I wrote to him the following note:

Hi Chelva,

I cannot claim to be your friend, but over the last year or so that I've come to know you a bit better, I've begun to respect you as a person. I knew about your professional and literary achievements in a very general sort of way till FSALA-11, and then I heard you recite poetry and deliver a speech. I was particularly impressed with your rendition of Cheran’s poetry in English...

You make scholarship and creativity sit lightly on your shoulders, which I think is a mark of any extraordinary human being. You prefer to be in the background, even while you make sure everything falls into place and works.

Chelva, this long and meandering preamble may confuse you and try your patience, so let me come straight to the point. I want you to reconsider your decision to quit FSALA organising committee. If there is anything I can do to change your mind on your decision, I’d be more than happy to do so.

I cannot imagine FSALA without you, so please don't quit. I look forward to a positive response from you.



He responded immediately:

Dear Mayank:

Thanks very much for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. And the feeling is mutual. You tread lightly, but you have been a very important presence. And you are a good friend.

My intention in writing the note was simply that I was finding it increasingly difficult to budget my time. But your point is well taken. I will continue to be part of the team although during session time, I might not be able to attend meetings regularly.

With warm wishes,


After the 2013 festival, everyone was tired and nobody wanted to take the initiative to start the preparations for the 2015 edition. I met Chelva at the Munk Centre when Mahesh Dattani was in Toronto last year to release his book Me and My Plays. He insisted that we should start working for the 2015 edition, and galvanized everyone to work together.

We met at Sawitri Theatre Group’s stage shows, and on occasions at the Munk Centre, where he would critique an insightful dissertation on postcolonial literature. I met him a few weeks ago when I attended the performance of Dance Like a Man.

Yesterday, Vassanji informed me of his appointment as the Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (the highest literary recognition in Canada), and we planned to have a small get together to celebrate his achievement.

In the evening, Chelva left us forever, without even a goodbye.

He will be missed. 

Inspire - Toronto International Book Fair

Hindi Writers' Guild
Anindo Hazra & Ted Goossen (seated) with other participants

Sheniz Janmohamed
Inspire – the first Toronto International Book Fair was a major success, both in terms of the participation of authors, publishers and readers.

The three-day festival saw some big name authors discuss their work, they included the perennial favourites such as Margaret Atwood, and also rising stars such as David Bezmozgis.

The festival attracted 400 authors, and thanks to my friend Meenakshi Alimchandani, who was part of the organizing team, I had the privilege of being associated with the festival, facilitating the readings of Canadian South Asian authors.

The authors who read at the South Asian kiosk included Cheran, Cheryl Antao-Xavier, Kumkum Ramchandani, Braz Menezes, Farheen Khan, Samreen Ahsan, Vicky Bismillah, Kwai Li and Fong Hsiyng, Meena Chopra, Tula Goenka, Jasmine Sawant, Sheniz Janmohamed, Anindo Hazra, Pushpa Acharya and the Hindi Writers’ Guild led by Shailja Saksena. Eminent diplomat and author Navtej Sarna also read from his works, but at a different venue at the sprawling Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The festival gave me an opportunity to meet and make friends. I met the suave Antanas Sileika, who gifted me a copy of his novel Underground; and I also met the enterprising Robert Morgan of Bookland Press.

South Asian panel
{l to r: Jasmine, Anosh, Manjushree, Anirudh, Priscilla (at mike)}
The main South Asian event at the festival was the collaboration between Inspire and the Jaipur Festival. The panel comprised AnirudhBhattacharyya, a veteran journalist-turned novelist; Manjushree Thapa, novelist; Anosh Irani, novelist; Jasmine D’Costa, novelist; Priscilla Uppal, poet, moderated the readings.

Anirudh read from his debut novel The Candidate, which is a breezy satire on the crazier than Rob Ford world of Indian politics. Anosh Irani read from Dahanu Road, and Jasmine D’Costa read from her collection of short stories Curry is Thicker than Water. Manjushree Thapa read from her new novel  Seasons of Flight.

Here’s an excerpt from Manjushree’s novel:

Being Nepali

An American woman, a schoolteacher, earnest and frizzy, once came up to Prema and asked, ‘Mind if I ask where you’re from? Originally, I mean?’ But when she heard the answer she just stammered, unable, perhaps, to admit that she didn’t know where that was.

Most Americans did better. They would say, ‘Oh’ or ‘Wow’ or even ‘Cool’ and nod in a friendly manner. Sometimes Prema would help them out by adding, ‘It is near India,’ or ‘Where Mount Everest is’ or ‘You heard of the Sherpas?” so that they might say, ‘Geez, that’s real far,’ or ‘I could have sworn you were Mexican / Italian / Spanish,’ or ‘You speak very good English.’ And then she would smile: ‘Thank you.’

Every now and then, though a response would stop her. One day, a woman on the bust heard her say Nippon and expressed her disgust at the practice of eating raw fish: ‘That’s like eating you-know-what!’ she exclaimed. Another man, a dark-skinned grocer, South Asian himself, baffled her with, ‘Aren’t you usually from Pakistan?’ It was Prema’s turn to stammer. She had also learnt that to the foreign ear, the country’s name could sound like ‘nipple’. More commonly, though, what Americans heard was Naples, as in: ‘I love pasta,’ or ‘My husband and I went to Rome for our honeymoon, but we never made it to Naples.’