& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Canadians Old and New

I’ll be celebrating my first Canada Day after becoming a Canadian citizen, and in July, I’ll also be completing seven years in Canada. As I’ve done over the last few years, each Canada Day, I browse through the two volumes of History of the Canadian Peoples, and the two volume Canadian Literature in English Text and Contexts.

Reproduced below are two posts that celebrate Canada. The first by Frederick Philip Grove (a Canadian novelist of German origin) describe Canada’s constantly evolving relationship with the immigrant. In many ways the issues that Grove talks about haven’t changed nearly a century later.

The second post is an extract from Susanna Moodie’s classic Roughing it in the Bush, one of the earliest depictions of life and living in Canada.

Happy Canada Day

Canadians Old and New

By Frederick Philip Grove

Like the statues of the ancient Roman deity Janus, this article is going to have two faces, one turned to those who, being born in this country or having lived here long enough to be fully acclimatized, invite through their recognized governmental agencies members of all white nations to come and to make their homes among them; the other, to those who have just arrived in pursuance of that invitation, or who, having arrived some time ago, did not find all they may have expected to find in the way of a welcome…

Firstly, then, Mr. Canadian Citizen, let me tell you a few truths about yourself as well as about your guests; for since you have invited the newcomers, they are plainly your guests, entitled to all the privileges which we commonly accord those whom we thus honour.

What, at the present moment, do you, the average citizen of this country, do in order to make the newcomer feel at home? Anything or nothing? First of all, you call him a ‘foreigner’ – a title of honour, indeed, since it implies that likely he has seen more of the world than you have seen – unless you have traveled. But it is well-known that this title, within the British Isles, has from time immemorial had a sinister sound…

Again, what, Mr. Citizen, do you do in order to welcome the ‘foreigner’ whom you invite? Oh, well you assign him 160 acres of land in the bush or a job in a factory or work on the road-bed of a transportation line, and therefore you leave him icily alone.

He meets with other ‘foreigners’; and if they are farmers there is soon a ‘foreign settlement’; if they are factory hands, there is a ‘foreign quarter’ in some city; if men of the pick and shovel, there is a ‘foreign gang’. The adults in settlement, quarter or gang are very apt to hang on to their vernacular, they have very little opportunity to acquire any other, especially the women. They have no desire for isolation; but it is forced on them…

Often these ‘foreigners’ come from communities with not only a vastly older but a spiritually richer environment than they find among ourselves. It could not be otherwise; our country is young, unfinished, crude. Many of them are readers in their own language – readers, that is, not of silly modern sex novels, but of the great literatures that have been indigenous to their own countries for thousands of years…Yet these very men I have seen treated by a Canadian-born station master who was a dunce, as I they were the scum of the earth because their English accent betrayed their foreign birth…

And now the crucial question. Do you Mr. Canadian, want to assimilate these people? Do you want them to give up what is theirs and to adapt your vaunted ‘high standard of living’ which is only a high standard of waste? Do you want them to eclipse themselves and to drop their good as well their evil? But the question itself is sheer nonsense. It posits as possible what is an impossibility. There is no such thing as one-sided assimilation.

But I must cease and let the other face of the Janus-head speak.

Mr. Newcomer, we invited you to come among us, and you followed the call. We bid you welcome. We are bound by a promise. We wanted you to help us till our soil; to swing the pick in order to release the ore that lies buried in the depth of our rocks; to turn the wheels of our industries. In return we promised you freedom.

We are wasteful, you are thrifty; if you were not, you would not have survived; in that lies your opportunity. Do not become Canadian in this one-point. The wages we pay in this country offer an ample margin over and above the necessities. What you do with that margin is nobody’s business but your own. If you spend it on moving-picture shows, candy, or ‘smart’ clothes, it will not be available to give you a start as an owner of land, a merchant, or a producer of industrial goods…Retain your thrift, and you will prosper.

We offer more. We offer you a partnership in the business of ‘running this country’. Live among us for five years without wilfully destroying your opportunities by coming into flagrant conflict with the law, and we will give you a share in forming that law.

Perhaps you will meet with a man or a woman here and there who will turn away from you because you have betrayed by your accent that you were not born among us. I will give you a piece of confidential advice. Put that man or woman down, in the depth of your heart, as belonging to the riff-raff of this country; you will find such riff-raff wherever you go.

Above all, hold your head high. This country does not claim to be a ‘melting pot’. What it does claim is that in it there ‘are many mansions’ – and one of them, undoubtedly, is the mansion that has been waiting precisely for you.


Source: Canadian Literature in English Text and Contexts Volume II  

Image: http://7-themes.com/data_images/out/68/7003234-maple-leaf-canada.jpg

Monday, June 29, 2015

Charivari in Upper Canada

When an old man marries a young wife, or an old woman a young husband, or two old people, who ought to be thinking of their graves, enter for the second or third time into the holy estate of wedlock, as the priest calls it, all the idle young fellows in the neighbourhood meet together to charivari them. For this purpose they disguise themselves, blackening their faces, putting their clothes on hind part before, and wearing horrible masks, with grotesque caps on their heads, adorned with cocks’ feathers and bells. 

They then form in a regular body, and proceed to the bridegroom’s house, to the sound of tin kettles, horns and drums, cracked fiddles, and all the discordant instruments they can collect together. Thus equipped, they surround the house where the wedding is held, just at the hour when the happy couple are supposed to be about to retire to rest – beating upon the door with clubs and staves, and demanding of the bridegroom admittance to drink the bride’s health, or in lieu thereof to receive a certain sum of money to treat the band at the nearest tavern.

If the bridegroom refuses to appear and grant their request, they commence the horrible din you heard, firing guns charged with peas against the doors and windows, rattling old pots and kettles, and abusing him for his stinginess in no measured terms. Sometimes they break open the doors and seize upon the bridegroom…I have known many fatal accidents arise out of an imprudent refusal to satisfy the demands of the assailants.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In Defence of a Liberal Education

In his treatise In Defense of a Liberal Education, journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria makes a fervent appeal to recognize the significance of humanities and the arts to the development and sustenance of our global society.

He says, “Technical skills by themselves are a wonderful manifestation of human ingenuity. But they don’t have to be praised at the expense of humanities, as they often are today. Engineering is not better than art history. Society needs both, often in combination.”

At a time when technology has come to dominate the discourse in all spheres of human endeavour, and especially education, Zakaria’s impassioned plea may seem antediluvian, if not irrelevant.

His argument is compelling, but it’s unlikely that it’d amount to anything more than a great read, and a reaffirmation of the values that are important to people like me. This is because education is linked to jobs, and jobs in the 21st century will require advanced technological skills.

As a father of an 18-year-old, I’m apprehensive when my son decides that he’d rather try to be a broadcaster than become an engineer. This fear stems from a concern that it’d be a waste of resources to acquire an education that may not guarantee a stable, long-term career. I’m sure this apprehension, is shared by parents everywhere.

And Zakaria, too, accurately captures the cause of this apprehension:

“A good college degree has become more crucial in everyone’s mind. The post-industrial economy rewards people who have academic training and credentials, or “knowledge workers,” even more so than before. College sports have become more popular and more profitable for the schools. But they face one trend that seems utterly unsustainable: the rising cost of college. The average college tuition has increased at an eye-popping pace – over 1,200 percent since 1978, the first year complete records were kept. That is four times the pace of the consumer price index and twice as fast as medical costs. This extraordinary cost spiral, in an age when the prices of almost all goods and services have declined, is surely one of the most striking phenomena in modern American life, and it has largely been accepted without much controversy.

“That rise in cost is at the heart of many of the concerns about the value of a liberal education. After all when one is questioning whether a product is “worth it” – be it an outfit, a car, or an education – crucial to that determination is its price. A liberal education was affordable to a middle-class family in 1965. It is much less so today. That means families have to make trade-offs between spending money on an education and earmarking it for other things. It’s often noted that the data show that a college degree improves one’s lifetime earnings, so that even a large investment in a college education is worth it. That may be true, but it also explains why families so anxious about this onerous price tag worry endlessly that their son or daughter could jeopardize everything by majoring in the “wrong” subject or getting a less marketable degree. The fact that we now use the language of ‘return on investment’ to describe the experience of getting educated is revealing.”

The book is focused on the educational system in the United States of America, but it has a broad historical and geographical sweep that takes into account global developments in the sector.

Zakaria is a great polemicist, he marshals facts to suit his arguments, and cleverly juxtaposes facts and opinions. To his credit, he doesn’t hide or camouflage his bias. For instance, at one point, he says, “For me, the central value of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill.” 

I wouldn’t expect a writer – and he’s extremely gifted – to say anything different.

I wish my son reads this book.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Beethoven got Gandhi, Rolland & Mirabehn together

June 21 is world music day

My long rides from work to home in the evenings often compel me to listen to music on my cellphone. Unlike most of my co-commuters in the bus, who have earbuds perennially plugged into their ears, I don’t normally listen to music, preferring to read news features on Flipboard, or read a book. But when I’m running low on data, I occasionally switch over to music, and often the music is either Indian or western classical.

I’m not an expert at either, nor an aficionado, but I can claim to have an appreciative ear for both, and enjoy the music.

I’ve noticed that unlike reading, which always leads to thinking and occasionally to aggravation, listening to music is soothing, it calms the nerves.

The two collections that I frequently listen to are Western Classical – Top 50, and Voices of India – Bhimsen Joshi. Both CDs bought many years ago in India, then transferred to my laptop, and now on my cellphone.

The Western Classical – Top 50 has some of the most beloved compositions known to music lovers across the world, and includes, among others, such perennial favourites as:
  • Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major);
  • Vivaldi’s The Four Season Spring (Part 1);
  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, ‘Fate’: Allegro con brio;  
  • Carl Orff’s Carmina burana i o fortuna;
  • Bach’s Suite for Orchestra No. 2 in b minor for flute and string bwv 1067 vii badinerie;
  • Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet sui; and
  • Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

My favourite, of course, is Carl Orff’s Carmina burana fortuna. Although I don't comprehend a word of what is being sung, I can never tire listening to it; and unlike most of the compositions in the collection, this one is relatively new, from the last century.

This version has the minimalist lyrics of the classic,
and that perhaps makes it more interesting

I recalled reading of how Beethoven brought together Mahatma Gandhi, Romain Rolland, and Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade). In his book Music of the Spinning Wheel, Sudheendra Kulkarni narrates the encounter between Rolland and the Mahatma:

“I played him the Andante from the Fifth Symphony, and, on Gandhi’s request, returned to the piano and played Gluck’s Elysian Fields from Orfeo, the first orchestral piece and the flute melody,” writes Rolland.

Kulkarni says, “Since Gandhi never showed much interest in Western classical music, we can ask ourselves the question: Why did he expressly ask Rolland to play him Beethoven?” There are many answers to this question, Kulkarni says, and then adds: “…there is another, more important, reason behind Gandhi’s request to Rolland to play Beethoven for him. That reason was Mirabehn.”

What follows is a fascinating narration of a little known history:

“Strange though it may seem, Beethoven had played a pivotal role in bringing Madeleine Slade to Gandhi. She fell in love with Beethoven’s music when, at age of fifteen, she first heard a composition by him, Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 She writes in her autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, that her whole being was stirred by it; she played it over and over again…She learnt French so that she could read about Beethoven’s life in Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (the 10 volume novel that got him the Literature Nobel)…”

Upon meeting Rolland, she was advised her that “the only living person worthy of the sort of veneration you have felt for Beethoven is Mahatma Gandhi.” Of course, Madeleine had never heard of the Mahatma. Then, after she had read Rolland’s book on the Mahatma (which he had written without having met him), she decided to visit India.

Kulkarni writes, “(Rolland)…had been himself craving deeply for many years to receive Gandhi in Villeneuve and to let him experience Beethoven’s sublime music. In a letter to Mirabehn on 25 April 1927 (that is, four years before Gandhi came to meet Rolland), he had written” “If Gandhi knew him (Beethoven), he would have recognized in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”

“Earlier, too, in his letter to Mahadev Desai on 24 February 1924, Rolland had described Beethoven as ‘our European Mahatma’ who ‘sings in his Ode to Joy; Let us – millions of human beings – embrace each other.’”