& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

'It’s only oneself one ever discovers'

I’ve just finished reading MG Vassanji’s memoir And home was Kariakoo. It’s a book that one can’t read quickly; every ten pages or so, one is forced to pause, and reflect. It’s a book that’s disturbing and makes you uncomfortable. Later, I’ll reproduce some select passages from the book.

I want to end the year with a few passages from Vassanji's A Place Within Rediscovering India – a book that the Mint newspaper recommended to Narendra Modi when he became India’s Prime Minister.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part ruminations on identity, religion and culture, A Place Within is about India that we know and yet don’t know.

Here are some passages from the book:


hy this obsession with the past? I can only conclude that it reflects the deep dissatisfaction of unfinished, incomplete migrations, a perpetual homelessness in my life. My colonial existence – in which memory and the past were trampled upon in a rush to better our lot – and the insecurities of an unorthodox communal culture, in the process of extinction and reinvention by the exigencies of globalized living and modern politics have both created an uncontrollable and perhaps vain desire to know and record who I am. There are the ways of the mystic and the scientist to answer this question; and there is the way of history and fiction, which I find more compelling. In how I connect to the history, I learn about myself.


 always cringe at the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’; they are so final, so unequivocal. So exclusive. For ‘Hindu’ – itself derived not from the name of a founder as ‘Christian’ is or a philosophy or attitude (of submission) as ‘Muslim’ is, but from a geographical marker, the river Indus – I often substitute ‘Indian’ for India’s primary identity is rooted in its ancient history and culture, which preceded those religious divisions. I imagined India as my ancestral homeland; to witness upon, upon my arrival, its divisions running so deep was profoundly unsettling. It was to be asked to carry an open wound where perhaps only an itch had existed; to accept difference at the profoundest level.


artition had sharpened the separation and Muslims, it seemed to me, instead of asserting their essential and primary Indian-ness, shouting it from the rooftops and from their guts, had fallen into the trap of allowing themselves to be seen as a minority and as outsiders, accepting a primary identity defined by faith in a unity, in a unity (called the “umma”) that crosses political, cultural, and ethnic boundaries. But such an identity is often abstract and culturally rootless. How dangerous such a self-affirmation can become for young people who have witnessed in our own times – for example in the July 7, 2005, bombings in London – when in their frustrations about the plight of their “brothers” across the world, they run amok attempting to destroy the very societies that have nurtured them.


n the other hand, I come across Muslim sympathizers – in India as well as Toronto – who need their Muslims as the distinct Other, the antagonist to pit against the “majority” society they consider unjust, to which of course they implicitly and comfortably belong. To tell people that politically and culturally you don’t subscribe to this gulf among the same people, and that in matters of faith you were brought up in a very local Indian tradition that was a blend of the two faiths, is to appear naïve or quixotic. It is to meet a blank stare, it is to end a conversation.


ne of the ironies of the upsurge of middle-class Hindu nationalism is that this same class of privileged Indians is instrumental in shaping the new concepts of citizenship in Canada, Britain, and the United States, by their immigration to these countries and their largely successful struggles for equal rights even as small cultural, racial, and religious minorities. Their Western host countries, of course, no longer see themselves in racial or nationalist terms – which is not to say that such consciousness, especially in discussions of culture, do not exist. But it is always contested, and not the least by people of Indian origin. Affirmative action continues to be used successfully to redress a racist past, and systemic non-representation. In a reverse irony, many of the Indian middle classes, assured of their rights in their new, multicultural homes, turn around to support financially and promote militant nationalism in the native country. Many of them would wish for a Hindu India but not a Christian or Euro America or Canada.


fter my first Indian visit, I would be asked, back in Toronto, why I let the violence bother me. I did not live there after all, had never lived there, and I was safely here, anyway. I could have said that surely all violence anywhere should affect us; what came to mind instead was that I could not accept India’s embrace and turn away from the violence. It must in some way be a part of me.

Two necessary disclaimers.

I have already said that I find the labels ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ discomforting because they are so exclusive. They have not defined people for me in Africa (where we were simply called ‘Wahindi’ Indians), in the United States (where I lived for some years), or in Canada. I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ only in the context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence.

So deep is the suspicion when one talks of conflicts, that one has to state over and over that to describe the murder of a Muslim here is not to deny, let alone justify, the murder of a Hindu elsewhere, that a fanatic group does not represent an entire people, and there is no entire people, Hindu or Muslim, anyway. Attempts to create them, of course, have always been there.


hen I was a boy in colonial Africa, history began and ended with the arrival in Zanzibar and Mombasa of my grandparents or great grandparents from Gujarat. Beyond that, nothing else mattered, all was myth, and there was only the present. After a few years in North America, I came upon the realization that that ever-present, which had been mine, my story, had itself begun to drift away towards the neglected and spurned stories of my forebears, and I stood at the threshold of becoming a man without history, rootless. And so origins and history became an obsession, both a curse and a thrilling call.


his country that I’ve come so brazenly to rediscover goes as deep as it is vast and diverse. It’s only oneself one ever discovers.

Thank you

On August 27, 2014, 

I became a Canadian citizen. 

Your support made my journey from a landed immigrant to a Canadian citizen memorable. 

Thank you.


A son's poem to his dead father

Harischandra Bhatt
Readers of this blog are probably aware of Harischandra Bhatt (1906-1950), the Gujarati poet, who introduced western influences on Gujarati poetry.

Earlier in 2014, a television program broadcast in India critically analyzed Harischandra Bhatt’s poetry, and evaluated his contribution to Gujarati literature.

It is an incredibly nuanced piece on Harischandra and his poetry.

My uncle Devendra Joshi sent it to me recently.

You may listen to it here: audio recording 

Meghnad Bhatt
To my dismay, the hour-long segment on Harischandra, didn’t mention a word about his son Meghnad Bhatt, also a Gujarati poet. One doesn’t know the reason for this glaring omission, but one can’t help but think that the omission was deliberate.

I’m reproducing Meghnad’s poem on his father.

I’ve translated the poem in English, and as this is my first attempt at translation, I welcome suggestions to improve it. 

(English translation follows)

સદગત પિતાને 

                 - મેઘનાદ હ ભટ્ટ

ચૌદ વર્ષના છોકરના શબ્દકોષમાં
'આત્મહત્યા' શબ્દ કદાચ સમાઈ શકતો નથી,
પણ પોસ્ટમોર્ટેર્મ કરેલુ શરીર
નાંનકડો નાદાન છોકરો જો જુઍ
તો તો ઍ છળીજ મરે-
- આવોસંદેહ મારા કાકાનેખરો.
તમારુ મુઆરમોઢું પણ હું જો નશ્ક્યો!
આજે તો
તમે જેઉમ્મરેઆત્મહત્યા કરી
તે જે ઉમ્મેરના ઉંબેરપર હું ઉભો છું
તમને હેજી હું આલખીશક્યો નથી.
અવસાનના અવસાદને અતિક્રમી જતું
મરણોત્તર 'સ્વપ્નપ્રયાણ' કરવાને બદલે
હું શ્વાસ લીધે રાખું છું
અનેશ્વાસ લેવાની ઍ પ્રક્રિયાને કારણે
જીવંત હોવાનો ભ્રમ પણ સે સાયો રાખું છું
આટલું પરંતું ન હોય તેમ
સ્વપ્નપ્રયાણ પણ કરં છું
સાચ્ચે જ તમને હું નથી આલખી શક્યો,
નહીં તો કયરની મેં આત્મહત્યા કરી નાખી હોત.

To a departed father

               - Meghnad H. Bhatt

A 14-year-old boy’s dictionary wouldn’t contain the word suicide

But if the young, callow boy was to see the body after post-mortem

He would definitely die.

Such thoughts may have preoccupied my uncle

As a result,

I wasn’t allowed to see your dead face


I’ve reached the age when you committed suicide.

And yet

I can’t claim to understand you.

That is the reason

I continue to breathe

When my ‘dream departure’ should have been posthumous

Through this process of breathing

I continue to harbour illusions of being alive

Although on occasions

I do manage to conclude my dream departure

Truly, I haven’t been able to understand you

Or, I would have committed suicide long ago

‘dream departure’ = Swpnaprayan / Harischandra Bhatt’s posthumously published collection of poems

(Read previous posts on Harischandra Bhatt & Meghnad Bhatt here:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology

Earlier this month, Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology was released at Windup Bird café. Edited by Theodore W. Goossen and Anindo Hazra, this anthology of literary and dramatic works introduces writers from across Asia and the Asian diaspora. The landscapes and time periods they describe are rich and varied, including a fishing village on the Padma River in Bangladesh in the early twentieth century, the slums of prewar Tokyo, Indonesia during the anti-leftist purge of the 1960s, and contemporary Tibet.

Even more varied are the voices these works bring to life, which serve as testimony to the lives of those adversely impacted by poverty, rapid social change, political suppression, and armed conflict. The works the anthology convey an attitude of spiritual and communal survival, and even of hope.
The anthology presents the complex dynamic between diverse Asian lives and the universalized concept of the individual “human” entitled to clearly specified “rights.” It also asks us to think about what standards of analysis befit historical periods in which universal human rights and civil liberties are considered secondary to the collective good, as has so often been the case when nation states are undergoing revolutionary change, waging war, or championing so-called Asian values.

Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia’s use of the term “Global Asia” reflects an interest in rethinking Asia as more than an area determined by national borders and geography. Rather, this book portrays it as a space of movement and fluidity, where societies and individuals respond not only to their local frames of reference, but also to broader ideas and ideals. Many of the works anthologized here are the subject of scholarly analysis in Human Rights and the Arts: Perspectives on Global Asia, also published by Lexington Books.

Theodore Goossen
About the editors: Theodore W. Goossen is professor of humanities at York University and founding member of the Department of Contemporary Literary Studies at the University of Tokyo. Anindo Hazra is a PhD candidate in English at York University.
Anindo Hazra

In a brief email interview, the editors discuss the anthology.

Q: Please clarify: Does Asian mean the people who hail from the entire continent? Or are the editors of Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology using the term Asian in the North American sense to only include East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese).

A: With regard to the region, we the editors consider Asia and Asians as encompassing not merely “East Asia,” but the entire part of that world, including Indonesia, Japan, and Korea. But we must point out that our use of the term, “Global Asia” seeks to broaden further the scope of how “Asia” and “Asians” are understood. We do not limit our approach to Asia and its peoples to finite geo-political boundaries, whether regional or national. Rather, we seek to engage our readers with more fluid and/or porous representations of this region. The qualifier “Global” as we use it responds to the mobility of goods, services, peoples, and cultures effected (and affected) by complex social and economic processes brought into play in and by contemporary globalization. So, even as this anthology highlights the particular, daily contexts of living in different parts of Asia, it also seeks to make the point that neither Asia nor Asians are fixed in place. In this way, we seek to pluralize Asia. All this to say that our editorial aim has been to persuade our readers that there can be no one way of talking about “Asia."   

Q: Briefly describe the anthology, and especially, why does it includes works from both writers who are in Asia and Asian diaspora writers.

A: The following is taken from our introduction to the anthology, and works well as an answer to the first part of your question:

"This anthology of literary and dramatic works has a twofold purpose. The first is to enrich the experience of readers who have consulted its companion volume, Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia, edited by Susan Henders and Lily Cho. Many of the selections in this volume are discussed in that collection of critical essays. Second, this anthology introduces writers from across Asia and the Asian diaspora, some appearing in English for the first time. The landscapes and time periods they describe are rich and varied: from a village on the steamy banks of the mighty Padma River in Bangladesh in the early twentieth century to the slums of prewar Tokyo, from Indonesia during the anti-leftist purge of the 1960s to contemporary Tibet—and a multitude of places and periods in between. Even more varied are the voices these works bring to life. Many of these voices are raised in anger or lament, testimony to the hard lives of common people who pay the price of poverty, conflict and rapid social change. There are songs of suffering and harrowing loss, tales of abuse and exclusion, accounts of human rights abrogated or cruelly neglected. Yet in the end, the works in this anthology convey an attitude not of defeat but of spiritual and communal survival and even of hope."

As to why we chose to collect works from writers based both in Asia and in the Asian diaspora, I would direct you back to our response to your first question. If we are to think of “Global Asia,” then we also have to consider the voices of those whose lives and histories have been conditioned by the experiences of travel and migration. There are, of course, significant differences in the perspectives of authors writing in the diaspora, but we do not agree with a binaristic opposition in which “Asian” authors and “diasporic” authors are cordoned-off from one another, as it were.

Q: As the largest continent, Asia is vast, varied and complex. Any attempt to club the multiplicities of ethnicity and cultures into a single unit may appear on the one hand to be an exercise in futility because of the immense diversity that the continent represents, but on the other hand a bold and radical attempt to bring together a whole range of different creative expressions and experiences into one volume. What motivated the editors to undertake such a daring project?

A: Our anthology was prepared as a collection of different texts representing a range of perspectives, histories, communities, and individual lives. If our anthology enables a forum in which readers can engage with some of the particular contexts in which the writing of human rights narratives occurs, that will be a gratifying experience for us.  

Q: In the Canadian context, Human Rights have a contextual relevance to the many Asian ethnicities that have made Canada their home. As immigrants, as newcomers, Asians (and people from all over the globe) face challenges as they struggle to settle in Canada. Violations of their Human Rights, while probably not as flagrant as in Asia, are a reality. Does the anthology take cognisance of this phenomenon?

A: This is certainly a noteworthy phenomenon, and, while our anthology focuses largely on continental Asia, the work of a poet like Bushra Rehman would arguably be a good starting-point for a discussion of how well settled (or not) the diasporic individual is in North American society. Our anthology is paired with a critical volume of essays also published by Lexington Books (Human Rights and the Arts: Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by our colleagues at York University, Professors Susan Henders and Lily Cho). Readers of that volume will find scholarly discussions of the issue you raise: a couple of places to begin would be Prof. Theodore (Ted) Goossen’s chapter as well as Prof. Cho’s Afterword.

Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology is published by Lexington Books. To buy the book online, click herehttps://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739194133