& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Poems about identity

Racism should have no place in a society that constitutionally guarantees multiculturalism. However, that is pure fiction as anyone who lives here knows and understands. Everyone encounters racism every day in some form or the other. We all learn to tolerate it, ignore it, live with it, and get worked up over it. Different people and different groups experience it differently.

Two recently published volumes of poetry deal with racism – Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving (Tightrope Books) and Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp Press); although the treatment is different.

Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving is a collection of poems that profile black heroes. The poems are revelatory, educative, and inspirational. They tell (or retell differently) stories of heroes – some admired, loved; but many unsung, forgotten.  As Michael said in an interview to Open Book Toronto, “To Greet Yourself Arriving is expository in nature for readers who are oblivious to these great Black historical figures.”

That this is a historically significant book is evident on every page. In his foreword to the collection, George Elliot Clarke, puts it simply: “I think this book is an event in Anglo-Canadian poetry, which is usually about (white) anti-heroes: Billy the Kid, Louis Riel, even serial rapist and teen-girl-murderer Paul Bernardo (see Lynn Crosbie’s Paul Case). Moreover, these other portraiture poems tend to be of disturbed – and /or disturbing – personalities. But Fraser gives us characters who, even if tortured by their experiences of “race” and / or racism, win through to a stardom that edges into heroism, not just (justified) narcissism. The “Panthers” were bad black brothers in black leather and black berets, but they also “fly-kicked / and cold-slapped cotton-hooded laws with upstart intensity.” Can I get an amen? Fraser doesn’t just show his subjects with scars and flaws, gold stars and halos, but almost always with a generous, cinematic light, eliminating any notion of Squalor.”

What makes the collection memorable and masterly is that none of the poems are hagiographical. Each has been crafted and carved, polished and chiseled with care and attention. Here is one that will resonate with global audience.


I never allowed my feet to
drift the way others did,
even when my age occupied
the area of two splayed hands.
I placed flags and kicks in
the collective mind slavery erected.
I shattered racism’s edge and
introduced Brasil to itself while
Garrincha and I were TV heroes,
two of eleven disciples conducting
sermons on pitches greener than our
flag, the future’s symbol. It’s spinning
globe shouts, “ordem e progresso,”
order and progress through all the months
of February. When this carnival nation
started bleaching itself into oblivion,
I ushered in acceptance of black players
and distilled laughing sambas through
the ball’s movement. In a polyglot
world, there is only one true
language, and I’m its ambassador.

I interviewed Michael in March, just prior to his book launch, on my show Living Multiculturalism on TAG TV. Here's it is:

Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white is often an angry cry but is also sardonic, sarcastic plainspeak that doesn’t mince words. It frequently has the reader wincing at the raw and passionate exposure of wounded emotions. Articulate and vocal about her orientation and preference, Vivek often uses words as a knife, with a clear intention to wound not kill, just as racism doesn’t kill, but leaves a deep, permanent gash that never heals. Her poems are wounds that she shares with us, wounds that fester forever.

In a recent profile on the Toronto Arts Council website, Shraya describes the collection thus: “… [P]oetry allowed me to articulate truths and pose tough questions without needing to provide answers.” Shraya, who sees poetry as a freeing genre, in part, because there’s no sense of pressure to create a resolution for the reader. She goes on to explain that “Discussions around racism are often met with defensiveness so I am hoping that readers will allow the words to sink in and work through the questions posed in the poetry.”

Writing about the poems on the back cover of the collection, George Elliot Clarke, says, “even this page is white demands that all of us account for our visions of ‘colour’ and / or ‘race’ frontally and peripherally, with ocular proofs. Shraya is the poet-optometrist, correcting our vision and letting us see our identities without rose-coloured glasses, but with naked optics. Her book isn’t even-handed, but dexterous and sinister, in demonstrating, in revelatory poem after revelatory poem, why ‘often brown feels like but’ and why even a good white person – with a ‘golden heart’ – ‘can be racist.’ Reader, you have work to do!”

The collection is stark in its portrayal of everyday racism, the everyday encounters of prejudices and biases, and how these affect us all. Here’s a great sample from the collection:

the truth about the race card

is that even before i knew what it meant
i knew not to play it refused

to spin brown into excuse let it hold me back
believed you when you said we are the same

blamed my parents and camouflaged to prove
you right no wonder you couldn’t see me

people who said racism were whinny or lazy
and i was neither

but there’s no worth for my work no toll for my toil
when you hold the cards keys gavels

unravelled, brown is not a barrier you are
and when you say don’t play the race card

you mean don’t call me white.

I'm going to interview Vivek Shraya on my show in June. I'll post the video link once it's uploaded.

Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespearean trilogy

Recently we celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.  The bard’s continued relevance surprises (in a pleasant sort of way) all literature aficionados. Social media was flooded with many quizzes about Shakespeare’s works, and anyone with any nodding acquaintance with even a few of his plays would have scored high on those quizzes. I particularly liked the one that the London’s Guardian ran where readers had to identify whether the quotes were from Shakespeare’s corpus of work or from Miguel de Cervantes’s (take the quiz here: Shakespeare/Cervantes; I scored 8/10). Apparently, Cervantes also died on the same day as Shakespeare (23 April 1616).

The Guardian, among other newspapers, reported that according to a British Council survey, Shakespeare was more popular in the emerging economies (India, China, Mexico, and Turkey, among others) than in Britain.  The report explained that the low percentage of popularity for Shakespeare’s works in Britain was because Britons were taught Shakespeare in his original while in other parts of the world students often studied him in translations that used a more contemporary language. That may perhaps be true. I studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (in a more accessible version) when I was in middle school, and it is one of the two only things that I remember about being in Grade 8 so many years later (the other, of course, is the unforgettable Noorsultan Daruwala).

However, what has kept Shakespeare alive and relevant in India is the frequent adaption of his plays by popular Hindi cinema. There have been countless depictions of Shakespearean plays in Hindi cinema, and directors such as Gulzar (Angoor) have successfully Indianized the bard’s creations.  More recently, a director who has interpreted Shakespeare in a breathtakingly original manner is Vishal Bhardwaj. His trilogy Maqbool, Omkara, and Haider are cinematic masterpieces.

Maqbool (2003) reinterpreted Macbeth in a contemporary Bombay underworld setting, and treated the audience to a rare cameo by two of Hindi cinema’s stalwarts – Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, who played two middle-aged cops (originally the two sisters in the play). The film brought into limelight Irrfan Khan (Maqbool), who along with Tabu (Nimmi), plot to murder Pankaj Kapur (Abbaji).

Omkara (2006) reinterpreted Othello. Bhardwaj sets the tragedy in rural India which remains in the stranglehold of political goons (mostly upper caste), who do as they please to gain political power. A competent set of actors turned the film into a gripping drama, with Saif Ali Khan (as Langda Tyagi) turning in a performance of his lifetime. Gulzar’s raunchy Beedi Jalaile set to tune by Bhardwaj and filmed on Bipasha Basu defined the film. The tragic dénouement was filmed with perspicacity and sensitivity.

Haider (2014) was Bhadrwaj’s reinterpretation of Hamlet. Set amidst the turmoil of Kashmir, the film is a bold portrayal of the contemporary realities of the desolation of Kashmir, both of the place and the minds of its people. The film belongs to Tabu, who gives a performance that will be remembered decades later. Shahid Kapoor also gave his career-best performance.

By setting the trilogy in a contemporary Indian milieu, Bhardwaj makes Shakespeare relevant to the Indian audience. Through his mastery at storytelling through his films, Bhardwaj succeeds in transcending the limitations of language and succeeds in reaching out to a global audience. Not surprisingly, the trilogy has won much acclaim in India and globally. Of course, the main reason for the critical and popular acclaim of the films is the strong stories and characters that Shakespeare created in each of the plays.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mohan Rakesh's Aadhe Adhure

Mohan Rakesh is credited for ushering the modern era in Hindi theatre. His plays Ashad Ka Ek Din (One Day in Monsoon, 1958) changed the course of Hindi theatre by pulling it up from the quagmire of literary didacticism, and for using contemporary, real life language that people spoke, understood, and could easily relate to.

Along with Dharamveer Bharti, Mohan Rakesh changed changing the face of Hindi theatre. Bharati’s Andha Yug (The Blind Age, 1954) used the Mahabharat to depict the malaise in society when everyone becomes unseeing and uncaring. What Bharati and Rakesh achieved in Hindi was part of a pan-India movement at transforming theatre that was initiated with the launch of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1942, the formation of the National School of Drama (NSD), and involved many mid-twentieth century stalwarts such as Ebrahim Alkazi. Integral to this evolution, which continued for two decades, were other pioneers such as Badal Sircar (Bengali), GirishKarnad (Kannada), and Vijay Tendulkar (Marathi).   

Mohan Rakesh’s second play Aadhe Adhure (Halfway House, 1959) was also path-breaking because it dealt with contemporary realities of a modern, mid-twentieth century India trying hard to rid itself of the colonial vestiges, and seeking to find a new voice that though wasn’t confident, at least had clarity.

Aadhe Adhure depicts the destitution of a single-unit family in an urban setting. It is about a middle-aged father Mahendranath, who is a failed entrepreneur; and mother Savitri the single-breadwinner, who is desperately seeking a better life; and their three children son Ashok, who is unemployed and seemingly unemployable; two daughters – Binni, who elopes to marry, but has returned seemingly forever; and Kinni, the rebellious teenager who frequently raises hell just so that she gets the attention that she constantly craves for.  There are three other characters – all men, who are intricately linked to the family’s failing fortunes.

The play is primarily about Savitri who is convinced that she deserves better in life. She is convinced that her no-good husband Mahendranath is unlikely to ever become successful; she is frustrated that her life hasn’t shaped in the manner that she had envisaged two decades ago when she was young and just starting up with Mahendranath. As the play unravels, the audience learns of the many and desperate attempts Savitri makes to change her circumstances, seeking relationships with successful men.

Despite her desperation, and the abuse she suffers from her husband, she continues to labour hard to keep the family from drowning in penury. It is a sacrifice that she makes without having a choice, and she is clearly unhappy about it. Unfortunately, all her attempts to change her life don’t go anywhere. The play ends with both Savirti and Mahendranath returning to home, perhaps realizing that they don’t have anyone else but each other.

Anubha Jha Shankar & Poornima Mohan
The Hindi Writers’ Guild of Canada staged Aadhe Adhure in collaboration with the Savitri Theatre Group at the Sampradaya Dance Academy auditorium in Mississauga recently. It was a superlative show with all the actors performing brilliantly. The standout performances were by Poornima Mohan as Savitri, who did justice to a role that requires consummate skills but also the art of underplaying; and by Anubha Jha Shankar, as Binni, the elder daughter, who is conflicted because she wants to retain what is hers (and her family’s), even as she attempts to become a new, independent person.

Although written six decades ago, the play retains immediacy and relevance. However, the conclusion rankles because in early twenty-first century, we clearly would not like to adversely judge a middle-aged woman’s quest for a better life by wanting to abandon her circumstances of the past two decades which didn’t give her anything more than toil and abuse. 


Support: Sawitri Theatre Group
Director and set design: Prakash Date
Stage building:Suman Ghai
Stage Manager:Shaba Shringi
Music: Deepak Sant
Production Assistant:Naimesh Nanawati; Medha Dandekar
Lights and Sound: Sulakshan Mohan and Keyur Shah
Props: Dr. Shailja Saksena
Wardrobe: Namita Dandekar
Make up: Akhila Jog/Monisha Date
Tickets and other support: Vijay Vikrant

Savitri: Poornima Mohan
Mahendra Nath: Vidya Bhushan Dhar
Binni: Anubha Jha Shankar
Kinni: Anchal Sahgal
Ashok: Uday Chauhan
Singhania: Nirmal Siddu
Jagmohan: Milind Karindikar
Juneja: Vivek Gulvade

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Human Migration and the Changing Demographics of Canada

Immigration and refugees are words that have become an anathema in Europe, evoking strong emotional responses, making it impossible to conduct a rational debate on the subject. The rise of the Donald Trump brand of politics in the United States indicates that there is a groundswell of opinion that covertly supports stringent measures to keep a check on the influx of immigrants. Even though the other side of the political spectrum may seem balanced, there is an unmistakable unease amongst some of the most liberal minded leaders and their followers about the possibility of the great unwashed turning up in planeloads at the nearest airport.

Most of us in Canada take pride in the Justin Trudeau brand of liberalism that encouraged 25,000 refugees from Syria to come to Canada in 2015. However, as the recent Munk debate in Toronto on the subject clearly showed, even those who are inclined to support immigration of refugees appear to want strict measures in place to control the influx. 

I urge you to watch the Munk debate on the subject because it is indicative of the gradual shift of public opinion away from the liberal ethos that Canadians have by and large embraced (irrespective of their political inclinations) on the question of immigration and allowing refugees.

In the Munk debate, the audience poll showed that prior to the debate an overwhelming majority was in favour of refugees being allowed into Canada; however, the pendulum of opinion swayed dramatically in the other direction by the end of the debate. And on conclusion of the debate, even though a majority of the audience members were still in support of Canada’s liberal policies on refugee immigration, the margin between those in favour of and those opposed had shrunk dramatically, not to say disconcertingly.

The same issue was debated at the 2016 edition of the Spur Festival. The subject of the debate was ‘Human Migration and the Changing Demographics of Canada.’ The panelists were Margaret Kopala, a journalist and Conservative political activist; Kiran Banerjee, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto; Abdul Nakua, a community organizer and activist; Dana Wagner, senior research associate at the Global Diversity Exchange. CBC’s David Common moderated the debate.

The debate was pertinent, engaging, and provided a fresh perspective to the Canadian experience. Setting off the discussion, David Common observed that in the Canadian context, the debate on immigration would not be on “whether to,” but on “how to,” because, uniquely in Canada, the entire political spectrum supports immigration.

Abdul Nakua observed that increasingly the debate has veered towards the status of Muslims immigrants in the western world, and the third generation of Muslim immigrants are seriously questioning their status in the western society vis-à-vis their identity. He said that by 2030, nearly 80% of Canadians will be immigrant, so it is necessary for Canada to develop mechanisms to accommodate immigrant aspirations – immigrants continue to face cultural, economic and social barriers. Nakua emphasized that Canadian identity is not based on ethnicities but around values – Canadian values.  

Dana Wagner said in Canada integration of newcomers whether immigrants or refugees has worked quite well. She explained that when multiculturalism as a program was launched, it was state-led and aimed at the majority community to help change Canada’s predominantly British identity to a more diverse identity. However, Wagner said, Canadians cannot be complacent about social licenses because there is race-based poverty.

Margaret Kopala demanded that the influx of refugees should be slowed down immediately till Canada has proper controls in place. She said in 1981 there were just six ethnic enclaves in Canada, but that number has leaped to over 200 in present times. She warned that the 25,000 Syrian refugees who were allowed in Canada in 2015 will be allowed to sponsor their relatives and that would lead to more than 150,000 refugees coming into Canada. Kopala insisted that screening of refugees and immigrants should not just be for security but also for compatibility.

Kiran Banrejee observed that in present times, over 60 million people are affected by war and there are more than 20 million refugees across the world. He said the norms and definitions for refugees laid down in the UN convention on refugees (1951) is to a large extent outdated, but is the only policy document that protects displaced persons. He said refugee camps have been permanent when by nature they are temporary, and increasingly, refugees are unable to access permanent resettlement.

In the ensuing debate, Kopala observed that it was necessary for the countries in Western Europe and North America to go to the refugees where they are to provide them succour rather than have them immigrate. Wagner said clarity on the subject has been hampered because of a huge gap between perceptions and reality. There are two systems of permitting refugees in Canada – resettlement and inland system, she said, adding that there are three streams of immigrants – economic, refugee and family. Wagner advocated for private sector participation in integration of refugees and immigrants.

Kopala said newcomers need to understand the influence of sex, drugs and social media on their young adults. She also seemed to imply that immigrants and refugees are not economically as productive as native Canadians, and this is the key factor for the lowest productivity indices that Canada has amongst OECD countries.

Towards the end of the debate, panelists appeared to come to a consensus that for immigration to succeed, economic integration of the immigrants had to succeed.