& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Parables of Sri Ramkrishna Paramhans


Once a man went to a certain place to see a theatrical performance, carrying a mat under his arm. Hearing that it would be some time before the performance began, he spread the mat on the floor and fell asleep. When he woke up all was over. Then he returned home with the mat under his arm!


Once upon a time two friends were going along the street when they saw some people listening to a reading of the Bhagavata.

“Come, friend,” said one to the other, “let us hear the sacred book.”

So saying he went in and sat down. The second man peeped in and went away. He entered a house of ill fame. But very soon he felt disgusted with the place.

“Shame on me!” he said to himself. “My friend has been listening to the sacred word of Hari; and see where I am!”

But the friend who had been listening to the Bhagvata also became disgusted.

“What a fool I am!” he said. “I have been listening to this fellow’s blah-blah, and my friend is having a grand time.”

In course of time they both died.

The messenger of death came for the soul of one who had listened to the Bhagvata and dragged it off to hell. The messenger of God came for the soul of the one who had been to the house of prostitution and led it up to heaven.

Verily, the Lord looks into a man’s heart and does not judge him by what he does or where he lives.

Image: http://www.manicksorcar.com/ 

Trenchant yet compassionate

Earlier this week I attended a roundtable discussion of the shortlisted authors for the RBC Taylor Prize at the Toronto Reference Library. Of the five shortlisted works, I’ve only read MG Vassanji’s memoir And Home Was Kariakoo – A Memoir of East Africa.

The other books are:  

They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson 
One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe, by David O’Keefe
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times, Barbara Taylor
Boundless, by Kathleen Winter

The prize that will be announced March 2.

Mark Medley, the books editor of Globe and Mail moderated the discussion.

The discussion was lively and engaging, and highlighted the increasing popularity of memoir, a genre that is often ignored or not taken seriously by the literary gatekeepers. The authors explained their reasons for writing the book, and delineated their (different yet similar) approaches to writing nonfiction, the availability and accessibility of material for research to augment their arguments, and their desire to reach out to a larger audience to enable a deeper and better understanding of their subject.

Medley’s questions were specific for some authors and general for others, and made me wonder whether he had read all the five books. But he was able to sustain interest of a packed audience at the library’s atrium on a cold February evening.

Vassanji’s memoir is an insider’s story of a changing Africa, and covers a large terrain, both physically and metaphorically. It’s not an easy book to read because it challenges many preconceived ideas especially of readers like me who have not visited Africa. And I’m sure the book would make a reader familiar with Africa even more uncomfortable (just as Rediscovering India – A Place Within had made me).

Vassanji is both trenchant yet compassionate in And Home was Karikoo.

Here’s a passage from the memoir (a long one) that exemplifies this duality of emotion – anger and melancholy:

In 1961 as the “winds of change” ushered in the country’s independence, a euphoric slogan was heard around the country. Uhuru na kazi, meaning “freedom and work.” The idea was common sense. We had our own flag and anthem, we had our beloved president; no longer were we an insignificant part of the British Empire, a pink smudge on the map, overseen by the colonial government and His Excellency the Governor, in a hierarchy where the white man, the bwana, was superior. But freedom came with responsibility; there was a price to self-respect and dignity: hard work. We should have to work for ourselves to make progress. In the years that followed, growing up in the postindependence heyday, we schoolboys and schoolgirls of the nation were exhorted by another slogan: be self-reliant. Jitegemee – “Help yourself.” And yet another one: Nyerere’s words: “It can be done, play your part.” There were many self-help projects in the country. It was implicit in the mood of those Cold War years that it was shameful to be reliant on other nations more powerful and consequently to be subject to their demands. The British and the Europeans were, after all, the former “colonial masters.” What sort of independence was it if we had to go to them, begging bowl in hand, in order to feed ourselves? If they still told us what to do? In 1965 West Germany stopped its military aid to Tanzania in protest against an East German consulate in the country; the country said, So be it, and refused to accept all West German aid. The conflict was resolved in a few months, but the East German consulate remained, standing large and solid, on Upanga Road. Tanzania did need military aid from West Germany, especially after the scare of the army mutiny of the previous year. But this was a matter of principle. We ran our own country.

What has happened since then? A new term came into circulation, donor; it denotes a benevolent foreign entity that looks after you; and the head of the state’s job description apparently includes touring the world seeking more aid from “the donor community.” The donors make demands on economic policies, and surely they have their political and strategic motives behind their beneficence. A few years ago, I heard a news report that at an international conference, the Tanzanian president had told the audience that his country was so poor it could not afford mosquito nets for its people. Immediately a benefactor came forward, a Hollywood actor, with an offer to donate the nets. For those of my generation who have not forgotten the calls for self-reliance and dignity, who volunteered to build houses during our vacations, and recall the pride we felt at Nyerere’s rebuff of a pushy foreign power, this is humiliating. Surely there are enough wealthy people in the country, those who own office towers and insurance companies, who own mines and export fish, who could make the donation? According to a news report in the Citizen, wealthy Tanzanians own a few billions stashed away in offshore accounts. How can a government that purchases costly military equipment, and pays its members lavish travel allowances, say it cannot afford mosquito nets? One wonders, how does the leader of a nation feel, making that statement at an international conference? Have we lost all dignity?

Here I must answer a rejoinder. I left the country after high school, therefore I missed the hardships that others endured in the years that followed. What right do I have to show this outrage? It is easy for me, the comfort of my situation in North America, to condemn the nation’s reliance on foreign aid. To which I answer that leaving a place does not sever one’s ties to it, one’s feeling of concern and belonging. We are tied to our schools, our universities, our families, even when we’ve left them – then why not to the place of our childhood, of our memories? Surely a returnee has some claim to the land which formed him – which is not in some godforsaken corner of the globe but in the centre of one’s imagination. And surely distance lends objectivity, allows one to see a place as the world see it.

I often find myself protesting that media images to the contrary, Africa is not simply wars, HIV, and hunger; people don’t simply drop dead on the streets out of sickness and hunger. (Just as I had to explain to my host family in New Jersey, way back when I was a student, that lions didn’t come roaming into our sitting rooms.) I speak of East Africa, of course. Despite hardships there is life there; people sing and laugh and play music; they go to school, they get married. In many towns, the markets are abundantly full; life is teeming, so much so that Toronto, upon my return, often feels rather moribund. Sitting on my coach at home I sometime find myself, a modern-day Don Quixote, sparring with the television, railing against reporters who fly from one starving place to another, presumably in helicopters – with all good intentions, how can one even question that? – and, with the brand-name pained expressions and sober voices that we know so well, point at the distended belly of a toddler, the fly-covered nose of a child, the shrivelled buttock of an old man. Why don’t you go somewhere happy, just for a change, I protest; report a wedding, a taarb concert, a school games day; show a well-endowed man or woman (but not a fat politician). People do celebrate, not only in Texas, but also in Temeke.

Youngo Verma (1938-2015)

I met Youngo Verma only once – at the launch of Picture House – The Art of Bollywood that Ali Adil Khan and Asma Arshad Mahmood curated in 2011.

Ali introduced me to him, and we exchanged pleasantries over a glass of red wine. In his flowing white beard, the diminutive artist, seemed out of place in the gathering that was a mix of art lovers, connoisseurs, and critics, with a few charlatans and poseurs thrown in for good measure.

Then, in 2012, Ali curated Youngo’s exhibition called Cosmic Energy and Tantric Enlightenment. This was the second exhibition Ali's South Asian Gallery of Art had organized of Youngo’s works.

Along with Ameena Chaudhry analyzed Youngo’s work for the exhibition’s catalog.

“Youngo Verma’s drawings examine the complex phenomenon of cosmic energy. What is cosmic energy and how can we tap into it? How are cosmic energy and individual creativity related? Will exposure to cosmic energy heighten one’s consciousness and personal creativity? What insight can be gained from an artist’s interpretation of cosmological questions? Youngo uses lighter pointillism in the centre of darker pencil work – this interplay is the magic of his artistry. He plays with our perceptions of forms – it is hypnotic and expressive – the work standing out distinctly for its chastity and austerity. Youngo subconsciously succeeds in manipulating the medium to create an illusory, three-dimensional almost palpable feel compelling the viewer to reach out and touch. His soothing Tantra-inspired simple graphite drawings evoke a sensitivity towards both the sculptural outward form, and the inner essence of a though process of movement and stillness.”

Youngo died in January, and Ali organized a celebration of his life at the Royal Ontario Museum in February.

It was a quiet program attended by guests probably handpicked by Ali and Deepali Dewan of Royal Ontario Museum. Dewan gave an evocative insight into Youngo’s work that ROM acquired (Tantra #21,pencil on paper, 1981), emphasizing upon its roots in Indian epic and folk traditions.

She said that perhaps the staid Canadian art market is not yet prepared for artists from the subcontinent such as Youngo who are seen as radical; and perhaps that was the reason why Youngo didn't get the recognition he deserved.

Ali gave an insightful background of Youngo’s journey as an artist. Youngo learned from masters such as BC Sanyal and KS Kulkarni. He taught at Jamia Millia in Delhi, and then moved to Germany in 1971 to work under Michael Croissant. He moved to Canada in 1981, and had made Toronto his home. 

Asma Arshad Mahmood, the curator of Promenade Art Gallery, recalled her many interactions with Youngo in a touching tribute. Other dignitaries also spoke. 


I did a feature on religion in Canada for the February 2015 edition of the Canadian Immigrant magazine. I spoke to a cross section of the Canadian society to get diverse views on how a multicultural, multi-religious society coexists and the issues we should be aware of to retain our secular character.

If you’re interested in reading the feature (which was the cover story), please click here: Divine Diversity. Many of whom I interviewed for the feature said that immigrants tend to become more tolerant of other religions and cultures after they have lived in Canada for some time.

Then, several incidents suddenly propelled the question of tolerance right back to the centre stage.  For instance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper emphasized that women who wear a niqab should remove it when taking the oath of citizenship. Another incident: Media also reported that many Canadian teenagers (from Edmonton and Montreal) have left Canada for the Middle East to join the ISIS.

Harper’s statement has surprisingly found support from a cross-section of the Canadian society. And only a small (but vocal) segment has criticized the Prime Minister for his narrow views. This is not a new debate; it’s similar to the issues that were raised in 2013 when the controversial Quebec Charter was being discussed. The Quebec voters rejected a narrow interpretation of religious neutrality.

The Canadian Interfaith Conversation had then clarified: “Although the stated goal of the proposed Charter is to emphasize and give legal recognition to the neutrality of the state with respect to religion, the prohibition on wearing religious symbols presents an unacceptable restriction on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion guaranteed in both the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Another instance of institutionalization of intolerance is the anti-terrorism bill (C-51). Thankfully, the opposition to the bill is strong, and expected to grow more vocal and vociferous. Eminent academics have in a signed letter said that the proposed bill is a “dangerous” legislation, and needs to be suitably modified as it gives tremendous powers to the government and removes constitutional and safeguards, and parliamentary oversight.

The CBC reported: While introducing the bill, Prime Minister was asked how the government would distinguish between ‘teens messing around in their basements and someone who is radicalised, Harper said it would be a serious offence “no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what the age of the person is, or whether they’re in a basement, or whether they’re in a mosque or somewhere else.”

The statement was roundly criticized for singling Muslims (as opposed for Jihadists) being a terrorist threat to Canada and Canadians. This statement underlines the government’s explicit bias.

It is this systemic prejudice that is used by the astute proselytizers of Islamic fundamentalism to recruit callow young boys and girls to abandon everything that they can call their own, and offer to sacrifice their lives in a cause that they don’t even fully comprehend.

On a different note, the recent incidents in South Asia such as hacking to death of Avijit Roy in Dhaka by Islamic fundamentalists, and the hounding of Teesta Setalvad by the pro-Hindutva government in India, are also signs of a shift of paradigm in the debate over freedom and security. Increasingly, it would seem, that people are willing to keep quiet and hope for more security as majoritarian views throttle democratic right that seek justice, advocate secularism, and oppose religious intolerance, all in the name of fighting terrorism.

I’d much rather end the piece on a lighter note, only because that is truly the Canadian way. 
Here’s a piece from How to be a Canadian (by Will and Ian Ferguson).


Here’s everything you need to know about religion in Canada: when Jesus decided to reveal himself to Canadians, He chose a Tim Hortons as his venue. True story. It happened in September 1998, in Cape Breton town of Bras D’Or.

In what became known as the “Miracle of the Doughnuts,” an image of Jesus began appearing nightly on the wall outside the Bras D’Or Tim Hortons. Hundreds of faithful flocked to the site (although, in honesty, some of them came for the doughnuts). Stranger still, an image of the late Tim Horton began appearing on windows in the Vatican. No, no. We’re just kidding. But the Christ of Tim Hortons was real enough.

There was even a movement launched on the Internet to create the Church of Tim Horton. It wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, the main elements were already in place.

A.     a departed saint (Tim)
B.     a chain of churches (both drive-thru and sit-in)
C.     a hymn (“You’ve always got time for salvation!”)
D.    daily communion (a box of timbits and a double-double)
E.     a pilgrimage site (64 Ottawa Street North in Hamilton: the very first Tim Hortons, opened in 1964 and still going strong)
F.     it’s very own Mecca (Moncton, New Brunswick, with more Tim Hortons per capita than any other place in Canada), and, last but not the least,
G.    a faithful following (Canadians i.e., a tribe of sugar-dependent, dough=addled caffeine addicts)

Sadly, this ecclesiastical movement seems to have faltered, and Christ Himself has left building. The miracle ended when the assistant manager at the Bras D’Or shop changed some of the light bulbs outside and the image of Jesus disappeared. Still, it is nice to know that even Our Lord and Saviour gets a crawling for a maple glazed now and then. In Canada, it’s not religion that is the opiate of masses – it’s doughnuts.