& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, July 31, 2015

Subway to Downsview

I haven't seen her in here;
these days she meditates
in the traffic on the 401,
commuting 60 miles between home and work

but I meet
that part-timer from Walmart
– a full-time artist
as he furtively glances at
the young woman’s
d├ęcolletage, which seems
delighted to be left
uncovered in summer’s warmth

he smiles at me, and nods
when I peak into his notebook,
as I get off at Lawrence West,
and see two ripe breasts
dominating the page

─ he’s sketched her in the nude

Epic Retold - Chindu Sreedharan

Ramayana and Mahabharata fascinate Indians across all times and ages. I'm no exception. I'm no expert, and have read them only in English translations (C. Rajgopalchari’s classic Ramayana and Mahabharata published in 1951 by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan).

Of the two, Mahabharata is without doubt, more complex and infinitely more interesting, because unlike in the Ramayana, where everyone is an epitome of virtue, in Mahabharata everyone is utterly human; including gods; and none of them are above pettiness, chicanery, and shenanigans.

I read Irawati Karve’s Yuganta more than three decades ago. It tore down the epic of all heroism and interpreted the characters from a secular point of view. Originally written in Marathi and then translated by the Karve into English, Yuganta locates the epic in its historical time.

For instance, Karve notes, “What people eat, they offer to their gods, and inversely whatever is offered to the gods is consumed by the people. Horses and goats were certainly sacrificed then. And though cattle is not mentioned as having been an item of offering, new archaeological evidence does show that cattle too was used similarly. Does this mean that beef was eaten as a matter of course and perhaps for that reason finds no special mention, while game does?”

The last time I read the epic was with my son when he was young enough to enjoy picture books. I doubt whether he remembers anything that I read to him.

Earlier this year, I read Chindu Sreedharan’s Epic Retold. It is Mahabharata for the social media generation. It’s a brilliant interpretation of the epic, and a uniquely creative work because Sreedharan has written the entire epic (supposedly the world’s longest poem) into a series of 140-characters twitter feeds.

The author, a former journalist, reinterprets the epic from Bhima’s point of view, and portrays him as an anti-war advocate, disgusted with the internecine palace intrigues, and one who prefers quality time by himself in the forest. He is brave, strong and skilled, but clearly a reluctant warrior. He is aware of his lowly status in the pecking order of the five brothers, is aware that the younger brother Arjun is really the hero of the epic, and dislikes the elder brother Yudhistira for his double standards and hypocrisy.

Sreedharan’s effort is breathtaking because he successfully compresses the entire epic, without missing any important episode. When the battle at Kurukshetra ends, after Ashwathma has set everyone and everything on fire, Bhima sighs: “Is this what we fought for? I sink on to the sand under the crushing weight of our victory.”

A couple of years back, I came across another interesting version of the two epics by Satvik Patel, who reinterpreted the epics in the form of Facebook status updates. Here are the links: Facebook-Ramayana, Facebook-Mahabharata.

Cosmopolis Toronto

Colin Boyd Shafer is a documentary photographer who came up with the idea of defining the multicultural character of Toronto, arguably Canada’s most multicultural city. And he did that in a unique manner – by photographing a person from all the countries of the world now calling Toronto home.

He began the project by raising money through crowdfunding in 2013. I saw his announcement on Facebook and responded immediately. In October 2013, Colin chose me to represent India. I was to decide the venue of the shoot – a place that made me feel at home in Toronto. Without a second thought I told him that place would be the Toronto Reference Library, because Toronto gave me the opportunity to write fiction, be nearer to books, authors, reading and writing. I began this blog in Toronto.

He also wanted me to get something from my city of birth that was precious to me. I took a black and white photograph of Eros cinema probably taken in the 1950s. To me it was representative of the time when Bombay was truly cosmopolitan. Indeed, a time before my time, and a time about which I have only read in books. I imagine Bombay in the 1950s was what Toronto is today – utterly cosmopolitan in character.

At that time, there were people from all over the subcontinent who called and made Bombay their home, just as today there are people from all over the world who call and have made Toronto their home. I was excited to be a part of the project, and eagerly participated in a promotional video, which included the first batch of participants. It gave me an opportunity to express my gratitude to a city that my family and I came to without knowing anyone seven years ago in July 2008, and a city that welcomed us, accepted us with open arms.

Earlier this week Colin released a book version of the documentary at a simple launch ceremony in Toronto. His achievement is staggering because he has managed to get people from more countries than any official list.  As he notes in the introduction of the book, “Did I photograph one person from every country in the world? I now know a definite count is elusive. Numbers used by United Nations, the US State Department and the Olympic Games are all slightly different. The question of territories or autonomous states was raised in that people born in Palestine, Tibet, Scotland, Taiwan and Puerto Rico wanted to represent what they consider to be their ‘home country’. Because inclusiveness is germaine to this project Cosmopolis Toronto has more home nations than any official list.”

Cosmopolis Toronto won at the 2014 Toronto Urban Photography Festival and was presented at TEDx-Toronto 2014. It has been featured widely in the media, including The Globe and Mail. The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic. Shafer won the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s photography competition and his work has been showcased in publications such as Doci, FStop and Foto8 Magazine. Cosmopolis Toronto has been exhibited at various venues in Toronto, including the 2015 Contact photography festival.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Will the pendulum swing left?

My 500-word rant on the referendum in Greece

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), and George Orwell’s 1984 gave the world a glimpse of the dystopian transformation that Soviet-style communism was bringing about in the name of communism. These were among the first works of art to depict the reality of a state-controlled existence where “Big Brother is Watching” would be a matter of fact and not a disquieting aberration.

The Soviet Union, by then under the control of Stalinist ruthlessness, of course, dismissed them as propaganda. It was much later – in the 1970s, during the Brezhnev era – that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published. It destroyed the last vestiges of Soviet Union’s claim that the Soviet interpretation of communism was a better and just system.

Describing the life in a Soviet labour camp between 1958 and 1968, Solzhenitsyn's book depicts the grim reality of life in Soviet Union – a life without freedom, a life of perennial scarcity and a life where equality was a mere notion. Within two decades of the publication of the book, the Soviet Union was consigned to the trash bin of history, and it wasn’t a day sooner.

The pauperization of Soviet ideology and the rise of Reagan were concomitant, and in the rapid collapse of the former lay the genesis of the rapid rise of the latter. The relentless propaganda war that the Reagan-Thatcher duo unleashed in the 1980s (Evil Empire, etc.) helped in shifting the paradigm, and the pendulum swung to the right.

Globally, fiscal conservatism became the new normal; public spending on essential services was no longer considered necessary, and was interpreted as wasteful.  Surprisingly, more than Reagan and Thatcher, it was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who abetted this transformation.

By the mid-1990s, ideological left in the West (which was radically different from Soviet interpretation of leftism) was confined only to a few institutions and individuals. Insofar as the government policies were concerned, the left was finished. Its total obliteration also led to the rise and acceptance of globalization, the rise of China, and the Walmartization of the world economy.

Twenty years later the world is beginning to come to grips with the fallout of this process – the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has pierced the stratosphere; unsurprisingly, statistics don’t capture either the absurdity or the tragedy of this inequality. And that is only the economic manifestation of the phenomenon.

The rise of religious fundamentalism, institutionalization of racial discrimination, the utter disregard for the depletion of natural resources, the devastation of the fragile ecosystems to make the rich richer are among the political and sociocultural manifestations of the Rise of the Right. These developments have had deeply disturbing ramifications, and have left a permanent scar on people and societies.

Greece’s referendum last week, therefore, gave rise to hope to many across the world that finally the leaders of Western Europe would comprehend that the pendulum had begun to swing back, and that it was now time to understand the human cost of the myopic policies that have been followed.

Will anything concrete emerge from it? The answer is an unequivocal and emphatic no.