& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Trump’s Jerusalem decision

Cartoon by Dave Granlund / politicalcartoons.com
Until recently, most liberals were convinced that the US President Donald Trump was a bumbling idiot who got lucky. However, these days, in face of mounting contrary evidence, most of us are veering away from that grossly inaccurate generalisation, and have begun to realise that Trump may actually be an evil genius.

His calculated decision to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 is a sterling example of the savvy politician that Trump has transformed into during the 12 months that he’s been the President.

Although it’s being made to seem like Trump has revolutionized the US foreign policy, the fact is that by taking the Jerusalem decision, he has only completed an endeavour that began two decades ago when Bill Clinton was the President and one that has been sanctified by the United States of America’s Congress.  The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 legislates that the United States should move its embassy to Jerusalem no later than “May 31, 1999.”

Since it became law on November 8, 1995, the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act has been postponed by a Presidential waiver every six months. Trump signed the waiver up to June 2018 and then informed the Palestine Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas that he’d be moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem thereafter.

Trump’s critics argue that the decision will alter the course of the “Mideast peace process” (which over the last six decades has proved to be chimerical). Moreover, it’ll also effectively scuttle any possibility of the Palestinians ever getting the legitimacy that they desire and deserve.

However, that reasoning doesn’t take cognisance of the traditionally strong relations that the United States and Israel have enjoyed (except during the previous Obama Administration, when Obama and Netanyahu couldn’t stand each other).

The strong bond between the two countries is even reflected in the text of the Jerusalem Embassy Act 1995 when it states at one point that, “In 1996, the State of Israel will celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem since King David’s entry.” 

It also justifies the move by logically stating, “The United States maintains its embassy in the functioning capital of every country except in the case of our democratic friend and strategic ally, the State of Israel.”

In his seminal book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith – Religion in American War and Diplomacy, Andrew Preston explains the rise of Jewish influence on American domestic and foreign policy. He lists the following three factors that led to the pre-eminence of Jews in the USA.
  • Emergence of Holocaust as a significant cultural and political force in American life
  • Surprise Israeli victories in the 1969 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War
  • The rise of multiculturalism enabled Jewish pride to flourish in a domestic climate that was receptive to ethnic assertions of a unique and not originally “American” identity

Preston observes that although the Jews had never exactly ignored or forgotten the Holocaust, neither had they dwelt on it. But that sort of projected indifference changed drastically when in 1960 Israel captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. He was tried, convicted and executed in 1961.

Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher and theorist of totalitarianism, and herself a Jew, attended the trial and published her observations in a hugely controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Preston observes, “The trial, followed by Arendt’s book, reintroduced the Holocaust to a people who had thus far discussed it only privately, in hushed tones.”

Subsequently, in 1967, over the course of six days in June 1967, Israel and its Arab neighbours fought a war for supremacy in the Middle East. Tensions were mounting between Egypt and Israel, and it was feared that Egypt with its allies Syria, Jordan and Iraq would attack Israel. In a preemptive move, Israel launched an attack on Egypt and in six days the Arab coalition sued for peace.

Preston observes, “For the Arabs, the war was an unmitigated disaster that resulted in Israel’s capture of Jerusalem and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza…for American Jews, the impact was momentous.” Rabi Marc H. Tanenbaum observed that the impact of the six-day war was a “collective metanoia or spiritual conversion.”

Finally, the rise of multiculturalism enabled Jewish pride to flourish in a domestic climate that was receptive to ethnic assertions of a unique and not originally “American” identity. Before, the immigrant experience was based on the melting pot and its assumptions of assimilation.

However, the emergence of a powerful rights consciousness among minorities in the 1960s pushed forward by the civil rights and Black Power movements and the removal of immigration quotas, challenged the legitimacy of the melting pot.

Further, the Jewish American identification with Israel deepened with the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on two separate fronts only to wind up with the same result: an Israel victory.

These factors resulted in the rise of Orthodoxy. Preston emphasizes, “Jewish self-confidence and mainstream acceptance bolstered the already considerable political influence of American Jews. Though Jewish support for Israel had already played a large role in domestic politics, it had not yet coalesced into one of the most effective lobbies in Washington. The Six Day War changed that almost overnight. Donations to the American Israel Political Action Committee and other pro-Israel groups soared.”

Tracing this rapid evolution, Preston says, “Though they remained loyal Democrats, on policy toward the Middle East and the Soviet Union, Jews often found common cause with the Republican Party. With an appeal in both parties, and with their population scattered throughout the country but centered in key states – Florida, New York and California in particular – Jews were able to influence the domestic debate on Middle East policy, sometimes (but not always) decisively. Their opinions certainly could not be ignored, no matter which party was in the White House. From a loose collective of various Zionist organisations, the Israel Lobby was born.”

Preston says by the mid-1970s, the Judeo-Christian ethic and the civil rights movements had made prejudice against Jews – and by extension, Israel – unacceptable, even un-American.

In the last four decades, Israel’s relations with the US have only grown stronger. Moreover, there is a growing disenchantment (notwithstanding the UN vote against Trump’s decision in mid-December) with the infructuous peace process in the Middle East.  Trump has played his cards well.

Following the refugee crisis after Syria’s implosion and the rise of ISIS, the entire western world is experiencing a palpable collective fatigue. There is little to no resistance to the rise of conservatism that is trying (and succeeding) to turn bigotry into a public policy.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Welcome back, Tiger!

Spoilers ahead

The very few who read this blog know how passionate I’m about popular Hindi cinema; and by the way, it's majorly disconcerting to all those who love mainstream Hindi cinema that an entire industry is known across the world as 'Bollywood,' which seems like a cheap derivative of the original American brand. Anyway, the point is that it shouldn’t surprise the few readers of this blog that I frequently write about popular Hindi cinema especially after I see a film in a cinema hall.

These days, thanks to the Android box that we have installed at home, we are able to access Indian movies and television channels easily. No more having to buy pirated DVDs for $1. If one is indifferent to the quality of the print, one can get to see the latest releases in Bombay the same or the next day. I don’t watch any television news from India because I no longer relate to it in the way I did a decade ago when I was in India. 

Yes, I’m in the tenth year of living in Toronto. Reminds me of the Pink Floyd lines from the timeless ‘Time,’

“…and then one day you find
ten years have got behind you
no one told you when to run
you missed the starting gun.
And you run and you run
to catch up with the sun that’s sinking
racing around to come up behind you again
the sun is the same in a relative way
but you’re older
shorter of breath and one day closer to death…”

Isn't that classic, yes it is. But also maudlin and depressing. So let’s get back to popular Hindi cinema.

On Christmas eve Mahrukh and I went to see Tiger Zinda Hai – on the first weekend of the film’s release. And it was as expected a totally awesome experience. The crowd was like it'd be in India. The cinema hall, which probably takes about 500 people, was brimming full with people.

I've written about the unique and unparalleled experience of watching a Hindi movie in Toronto on two occasions in 2016 so I won’t repeat myself. If you’re interested in reading about it, here are two examples:

Back to TZH: The audience erupted into a mighty and ceaseless applause as soon as Salman Khan came on the screen. From then, when he wrestles with wolves, to the end when he sings and dances to Swag se karen ge sab ka swagat, there is constant and loud cheering, whistling on a few occasions, and sporadic hollering; the applause just doesn’t cease. In any other movie this would be a disturbance, but in a Salman Khan movie, I guess it's background score.

The Tiger series is special to me because it advocates a sensible approach to India-Pakistan relations, and does so at present times when the powers-that-be in India have convinced them that Pakistan is evil. There seems to be an imminent possibility that the subterranean tension may bubble over and turn into something more than a mere exchange of gunfire across the borders. 

Like his predecessor Kabir Khan, who introduced the world to Tiger, Ali Abbas Zafar, the director and the co-writer of the sequel, too, has an idealistic and romanticised view of how the subcontinental relations should be.  I harbour a similar hope that the subcontinental neighbours will at least be civilised with each other if not turn into best buddies. I felt that for a few brief moments during the duration of the film when everyone suspended their disbelief, there were some in the audience who agreed with the director's vision.

But most of the audience members remained unmoved, at least so it seemed. It’s probably an indication of how the audience – although South Asian, but predominantly Indo-Canadian – feels about the present situation in the subcontinent. 

I found the scenes where the Indian and the Pakistani agents bicker only to end up as friends deeply satisfying and emotional, but the audience didn’t react to the scenes in any discernible manner. There were minor guffaws and short, almost embarrassed, laughter. The scene where both the Indian and the Pakistani flags are raised on the bus carrying the Indian and Pakistani nurses was greeted with only half-hearted cheering. 

The rescue of the Indian nurses and the intricate and ever-changing circumstances that lead to constant twists in the storyline keep the audience engaged. In Tiger Zinda Hai, the story invests into bringing alive the ISIS-unleashed crisis by introducing a young lad being used as a human bomb by the evil head of the outfit Abu Usman.

Sajjad Delafrooz, an Iranian actor, who performs this role turns in a refreshingly studied and underplayed performance. He shows an amazing ability to switch from rose-tinted tenderness to blood-red menace especially in scenes with the head nurse Poorna (Anupriya Goenka). This is no crazed dictator of a murderous movement, Usman is a cool-headed, calculating head of a militant outfit that knows what he wants and how to get it.

Paresh Rawal as Firdaus, the sleazy middleman who slithers into a position of benefit irrespective of the situation, is expectedly consummate. Thankfully, Katrina Kaif’s character, Zoya, the Pakistani agent now married to Tiger, and mother to his son, Junior, is not just a pretty face (although, admittedly, pretty she is. Indeed, very pretty) and has enough action scenes, which she performs dexterously and with chutzpah that is clearly missing from Tiger’s action scenes. 

As it turns out, Zoya is a Shia because she prays to Ali and whispers Ya Ali Madad before taking on the bad guys in a hand-to-hand combat. Although the outfit Usman runs is not called ISIS in the movie, the parallels are unmistakable, and the writer-director appears to have got the Shia-Sunni tensions right.

Salman Khan is cool and does what he knows best – be himself. Then, in a pivotal scene, he takes his shirt off. The audience gleefully whoops and drowns the ensuring dialogues for the next few minutes.  Together, Salman and Katrina make a perfect couple. Their chemistry is amazing. It’s time they got married in real life, too.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Authors and friends

During the year that is about to end, I met many authors at book-related events and bought their books, They include Aileen Santos’s Someone Like You, Caroline Vu’s Palawan Story and David Cozac’s Finishing the Road.

Aileen Santos
Aileen Santos met me at a book festival organised by Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton. She introduced herself and bought my book (incidentally, I sold more books at this FOLD organised book event than at the WOTS; and there is no comparison of the cost of the table between the two festivals).

The next day, Aileen sent me a message on social media terming her interest in my book “serendipitous” because the book is based in Brandon Gate, Malton, Mississauga, which is where Aileen teaches in a school. Aileen was born in the Philippines and her family immigrated to Canada when she was just two-years-old and lived in Mississauga, which is where Aileen’s debut novel Someone Like You (publisher: Two Wolves Press) is based.

The book’s protagonist Vanessa Soares is experiencing a metamorphosis after becoming a mother and begins to realise the common traits she shares with Maria, her mother, a person she hasn’t been close to ever since she can remember.  Both women are resilient, living through hardships that strengthen their connection as women and as mothers.

Caroline Vu
Caroline Vu is an award-winning novelist based in Montreal. Her novel Palawan Story (publisher: Deux Voiliers Publishing) is about Kim, a young Vietnamese refugee who escapes on a boat and manages to reach Palawan, a refugee camp in the Philippines. From there, she is sent to the US where she is raised by a family that adopts her. Many years later, she returns to Palawan and begins to record the stories of the refugees, but her own memories remain blanked out.

The jury of the Concordia First Book Prize (for which Caroline’s novel was shortlisted) describe the novel as one that “…shows what refugees live through – the atrocities, the inhumanity, the fear. She takes us beyond the images we’ve seen on TV and illustrates the consequences of the physical and psychological rapture with one’s homeland, language and culture. A wonderfully written and vibrant novel.”

David Cozac
David Cozac was a member of a now-defunct writing group that Joyce Wayne launched at Depanneur, a restaurant in Little Portugal on Dundas Street West. Besides Joyce, the other members of the group included David Panhale, Dawn Promislow, and Jasmine D’Costa. David Cozac and I were the only unpublished writers working on our manuscript in 2012 when the group met at this restaurant that specialised in artisan cuisine.  

Finishing Road (publisher: Tightrope Books) is a mammoth 360+ pages novel. The length of the manuscript would surely have been a reason for the prolonged delay in getting it published. The other reason, of course, is that David began working for the United Nations first in the US and at present in Ethiopia. His novel is set in 1990s Guatemala, a country that has been in a civil war for decades. David introduces us to a land beset by loss and to people seeking to end their isolation, free themselves of doubt and rekindle human connection.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Shashi Kapoor

Shashi Kapoor in Utsav

Shashi Kapoor was one of the most underrated actors of his time. He was always restrained and preferred to underplay rather than go over the top in his performances, as most of his contemporaries did.

I want to talk about just two scenes where he held his own when pitted against actors who were considered superior.

The first is, of course, from Deewar (1975, director: Yash Chopra). In the scene which has become one of the five most memorable scenes in the history of Hindi cinema (Mera paas Ma hai),  Shashi Kapoor is subdued and calm as opposed to Amitabh Bachchan’s fire and brimstone persona.  In the 1970s, when Amitabh Bachchan was a colossus, Shashi Kapoor held his own in the scene and in the film.

The scene in Deewar was written for Vijay, the character Amitabh Bachchan enacts, and it showcased his versatility – the tall, imposing personality, his swanky, foreign car, his black shirt and grey suit, his hands in the jacket’s pockets, and the rich baritone with which he berates his younger brother Ravi for his obduracy and obstinacy in persisting with a principled way of life even though it has only ensured penury.

The audience loved the scene more because of the muted but emphatic manner in which Shashi Kapoor conveys his disappointment with his brother’s criminality through his expressive eyes, and modulating his soft voice. 

The other one is from Junoon (1979, director: Shyam Benegal). The film has Shashi Kapoor playing the character of Javed, a Pathan, who is an esteemed member of the local Muslim aristocracy in a small town in the then United Provinces, during the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857.

His younger brother Sarfaraz, played by Naseeruddin Shah, is the firebrand revolutionary who is part of the mutinous cavalry battling the English soldiers across the Indo-Gangetic plains.

Javed is besotted with a young English girl (Nafisa Ali, in her first film), and holds her family captive in his haveli, much to the annoyance of the younger brother, who berates him to join the armed struggle to overthrow the English forces. Shabana Azmi plays the neglected wife.

Shashi Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah have two memorable scenes together. The first is at the beginning when Sarfaraz urges Javed to join him in the armed struggle, and Javed displays utter cynicism towards the cause as well as the people leading the rebellion.

(watch from 2.42)

The second scene is when Sarfaraz returns from the battle, wounded and bruised, and angrily pounces upon Javed’s pet pigeons and flinging them out from their pigeonholes. Javed just pulls him away wordlessly.

Shashi Kapoor shows the shocked disbelief and the despondency of the rebellion’s defeat in Delhi with his eyes, without uttering a word.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Charles Pachter Canada's Artist

The first time I heard of Charles Pachter was in the Walrus magazine when I saw his famous painting of the Canadian flag. It was a simple and yet a magnetic image of the red maple leaf in a red and white background.

The painting compelled me to do a Google search on Pachter and I discovered a Canadian institution who enjoys a global reputation for his iconic work on the British royalty and the Canadian moose, the Toronto Streetcar. 

He was also a friend of my friend Ali Adil Khan, the art connoisseur, who is a pillar of Canada’s new art establishment.  

In 2016, when Mawenzi House Publishers and I were looking for a cover for my debut novel, we approached Ali to help us. Among the suggestions that we got from him was a self-portrait of Charles Pachter called Decoy, painted in 1968.

I immediately selected it to be the cover of my novel because the boy-man in the sketch had a somewhat perplexed and anguished look on his face and uncertainty and hesitancy in his gaze. To me, it was as near a representation of Rafiq, the lead protagonist of my novel.

Thanks to Ali’s influence, Pachter gave us the permission to use the sketch for free and it became the cover of my novel. Through Ali, we were also able to invite Pachter to the launch program at the Gladstone last November, and surprisingly, he came and stayed till the end.

As a person with some understanding of marketing, I believe that one of the reasons Belief has done well is because of the unique cover that we were able to manage, thanks to Pachter.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of the launch of his biography Charles Pachter Canada’s Artist by Leonard Wise (Dundurn), I went to his famous studio-home behind AGO in the Grange. The place is an art gallery that utilises limited space effectively and efficiently with postmodern minimalism.  

Leonard Wise’s biography is a lush coffee table book with many illustrations of Pachter’s works and an endearing Appreciation by Margaret Atwood.

From the book, I learnt the story behind the Painted Flag. Wise notes:

“One of the Atwood poems, “eath of a Young Son by Drowning,” ends with the line, “I planted him in this country like a flag.” Charles has often surmised that this may have led him to a new phase of his painting. In any case, one summer night in 1980, at his farm in Oro-Medonite, he constructed a flimsy, homemade flagpole – out of two-by-fours, hastily nailed together – to which he attached a small rayon Canadian flag that he had purchased at a Canadian Tire store in Orillia. He manoeuvred the unwieldy mast into a fence-post hole,  lay down in a hammock to survey his handiwork as the sun set, and watched the flag unfurl, undulating slowly in the breeze, rocking back and forth like a primitive mobile at the top of its slender stem. The effect of wind, light, and motion struck him immediately…

In March 1981, Charles began painting variations of the flag at his Grange Place studio, one after the other. Swept along by the possibilities of different compositions based on the effects of wind and light, he could have continued ad infinitum. But eventually he became “flagged out,” and after completing thirty paintings, he began preparing for an exhibition of these new works.

The Painted Flag exhibition opened on November 7, 1981, the day after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had coincidentally announced that the constitution was being patriated to Canada…In her November 14, 1981, Toronto Star review of the show, Lisa Bowen stated, “there is humour and excitement, colour and texture in this astonishing show.” John Bentley Mays in the Globe and Mail had a different view, labelling it “over-the-couch art for the walls of patriotic dentists.”

The book also has innumerable anecdotes from Pachter’s memorable life, such as his 30-second encounter with        Queen Elizabeth.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “this is such an honour. Forty-three years ago I painted you as the queen of Canada riding a moose, and it became one of my best-known images. Thanks to you I’ve made a living all these years.”  

She smiled radiantly, and said, “How amusing!”

The exchange lasted only thirty seconds but that was long enough for a Reuters photographer to take their picture. The next morning the byline “Artist who painted Queen on Moose meets queen” was in the Daily Telegraph. Charles emailed the photo to John Hondreich, the publisher of the Toronto Star, who published the 1973 picture of Charles with Queen on the Moose next to the 2015 picture of him meeting the queen in London.”

Let me conclude this post with a paragraph from Margaret Atwood’s Appreciation.

“…in a career that has now lasted three decades, Pachter has continued vigorously to explore his several media, to diversify his imagery, and to structure and restructure his visual world. In doing so he has restructured the world around him, and has changed profoundly the way we look at our own familiar iconography, even our own banalities. His output has been immense, his wit and versatility have remained constant, and his range continues to broaden. His is a sophisticated art which draws upon many techniques and evokes many echoes, yet it remains strongly individual, and firmly rooted in a ground which Pachter has both excavated and cultivated himself.”

Masala chai

That tea’s origins are in South China and not in India is really not all that material because  Indian tea – chai – is uniquely Indian.

No tea in the world is like chai.

And a true connoisseur knows that chai has innumerable variations in the Indian subcontinent – right from the Kashmiri kahwa to the chiliya ki chai of restaurants in Bombay’s Muslim bastis (chiliya is a Gujarati Muslim community). 

Moreover, every region has many minor and major differences in the making of the concoction that affects its taste.

The amazing thing about chai is the various memories that get associated with the process that is nothing more than consuming tea.

My earliest memories of having chai are with my grandmother in the narrow kitchen and living room of our two-room tenement (chawl). I was to have milk and she’d have tea, and every day I’d argue that I wanted tea, too. And she’d promise that I’d have it when I was a grownup. I’d insist and she’d then pour a bit into my milk glass.

I also remember the tea I had at my aunt’s home. It’d green tea, mint, ginger, and just a few drops of milk in the tea. It was potent and invigorating.  

Everyone who’s lived in Bombay knows the pleasures of having a cutting chai in a small glass especially during the monsoon, and if you also managed to get a vada pao with it, that was the nearest you could get to heaven without dying.

During my years in college, I hung around a teashop nearby owned by a senior citizen known to the world only by his surname – Dubey – who made tea that nobody else in the world could. His popularity and fame were such that it was impossible on occasions to find a place in the teashop that was at best unhygienic. A young lad came and periodically wiped the tables with a wet cloth and every time he did that more flies hovered around the sticky tabletop.

I remember going to buy the tea leaves, my grandmother instructed me to always buy mamri cha (black tea prepared by the traditional crush tear curl – CTC – process).  Yes, there was branded tea those days, as now, but we were sort of poor then to afford branded tea.

During my years in journalism, tea became an addiction, and like many of my colleagues, it was normal to consume more than a dozen cups (glass) of tea all day and Old Monk rum with Coke in evening every day.  And, of course, smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes daily. Remember this little personal factoid when you wonder why I died at a relatively young age.

The first time I had Earl Grey tea was appropriately in England and since then, I’ve been hooked to it. Another memory of tea is when I interviewed the Chinese consul in Bombay for a report in Business India. Apparently, it is customary to keep serving tea to a guest if the guest empties the small porcelain teacup. I was unaware of that and must’ve easily consumed a few litres of tea before I left the consulate at Worli.

One of the most surprising discoveries I made about the shared heritage between China and India was on the streets of Shanghai when I along with my former colleague and friend Tushar Pania, who’s now a bigshot in India’s Reliance Industries.

It was rather late in the night, but the streets of the city were still fairly busy. We came across a man selling all sorts of drinks (non-alcoholic). We decided to buy something to drink and picked a bottle. The man didn’t know a word of English and we didn’t know a word of Mandarin. By frantic hand gestures, we managed to ask him what the drink was, and he shouted “cha”. 

We took that to mean something in Mandarin, paid him and took a swig from the bottle. It turned out exactly what he said it was – “cha” (tea). Apparently, tea is called cha in Mandarin, too (please confirm Mandarin speakers), as it is in Gujarati.

The last time I met Tushar earlier this year, we had cutting chai on the street outside his office building in Bombay’s Nariman Point – again made in the most unhygienic conditions imaginable, but unbeatable in flavour and aroma.

In Canada, I’ve been exposed to teas from across the world. I’d no idea that there were so many different tea producing regions in the world. Tea is big business, and there are many branded tea franchises in the business who offer a wide variety of tea. 

Continued in the post below

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Marco Hülser's Masala Chai

Continued from the post above

It was with such a heavy baggage of the past (and all of the aforementioned is but a mere glimpse) that I bought tickets to see the documentary Masala Chai at the recently-concluded Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto’s Innis Townhall. Marco Hülser is a German filmmaker who’d been fascinated by India’s intoxication with tea for several years, compelling him to document it fascination on film.

Masala Chai is a multilayered documentary that explores the lives of five individuals involved in selling chai to customers. The documentary follows the lives of five different tea makers: Yogesh, a US-educated business owner of a posh teahouse in Pune; Mohammad, an elderly tea-maker who has worked in film production for 40 years; Gouri, an outspoken teen assisting with her family tea stall in Kolkata; and Sushanta and Subodh, who run small tea stalls in Darjeeling and Delhi, respectively.

Each of the tea sellers has a story to tell, and while they narrate their stories, we learn of the multifaceted, nuanced, multilayered society that is India. All of them except Yogesh are living on the margins and in extreme poverty.

The filmmaker shows India as it is, without embellishments, and without trying to create false hopes in the audience’s hearts and minds that somehow the conditions of the tea sellers will miraculously and dramatically improve.

These people belong to those strata of the society that gets adversely affected by the minutest calamity – whether personal or because of an official policy change such as demonetisation. Hülser succeeds in extracting personal stories from each of these people, without ever seeming to be intruding. And all of them have strong narratives.

Yogesh is ambitious and wants to emulate the big American-style barista coffee shops. But he doesn’t have the deep pockets to compete with the Starbucks of the world. He tries hard to give his customers an experience of having a hot beverage in cool environs but knows and understands that it isn’t going to be easy to survive and make money in a tough market.

Khan, who makes tea for filmmaking unit, is looking forward to retiring. He came to Bombay to find a life in the movies but ended up making tea for people who make movies. He believes his children will continue the business. Gouri is enthusiastic young entrepreneur assisting her dad in the business of making and serving tea from a roadside stall in Kolkata. She believes in being perfect in making tea and believes in satisfying her customers; unlike her dad, who she says, only wants to make money.

Subodh has also experienced the hard knocks of life and branched out on his own, with his own roadside tea business in old Delhi. He has taken a few apprentices, who are immigrant labourers (just as he was many years ago) from Bihar and who will eventually start their own ventures somewhere in Delhi.

The perkiest and precocious protagonist of the documentary is, of course,  Sushanta, who has married to a man from a lower caste and is the subject of scorn and ridicule by her family. Yet, she gamely continues to assist her husband in his tea business and rears her daughter be cajoling her to focus on education because it’s only through education, she believes, that her daughter can change her life.

Hülser is able to not only show these petty self-employed folks in the midst of their poverty and squalor but is also able to successfully portray their aspirations and through them the aspirations of the millions of Indians such as them. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many bookstores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accreted to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression, or so I thought.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his perspective on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going... Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance, and everything else that I lumped under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things has happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book that came out recently, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry,  Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

(Shane Joseph is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the author of four novels and three collections of short stories. His work After the Flood won the best fantasy novel award at Write Canada in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His collection of short stories,  Crossing Limbo (Morning Rain Publishing) was released in June 2017. 

For details visit his website at www.shanejoseph.com)

Reviews of Crossing Limbo could be read at:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


After three-and-a-half decades, I saw Casablanca (director: Michael Curtiz) again. It was the first time in a cinema house. The first time I saw it was in the early 1980s at Bombay’s (Mumbai) American Centre. The United States of America’s diplomatic thrust in those days was to saturate Indians with Hollywood’s and Madison Avenue’s soft power.

Casablanca introduced me to Rick Blaine, the owner of the swinging nightclub and gambling den (Rick's Café Américain), the most happening place in a city otherwise charged with wartime tension. Humphrey Bogart essayed the role. Casablanca also had the inimitable Ingrid Bergman, a stunning natural beauty who was also a consummate actor, performing the role of Ilsa Lund, the woman torn between her husband (Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid) and her former lover (Rick, Humphrey Bogart).

What lifts Casablanca and makes it extraordinary is a melange of memorable scenes. Permit me to describe just two that are my favourite.

The first is when Ilsa walks into Rick’s café, with her husband Victor Laszlo, the guerrilla leader of the Resistance. She doesn’t know who Rick is, but immediately realises his identity when she sees Sam in the café, playing the piano. Dooley Wilson performed this pivotal role of the piano player and singer at Rick’s nightclub.

Ilsa strides across to Sam and after a few awkward moments where she extracts information about Rick from an unwilling Sam, requests Sam to sing As Time Goes By, a song that he sang when Rick and Ilsa were in love in Paris. “Play it Sam, for old time’s sake,” she says. And as a reluctant Sam begins to sing the song, Rick storms from the bar and shouts at Sam, “Sam I thought I told you never to play…”

Another scene that remains etched in one’s memory, long after the movie is over, is when it’s time for Ilsa and Victor to leave Casablanca for Lisbon. Rick manages to convince Ilsa to escape from Casablanca to Lisbon onward to the United States of America. He promises her that he would go with her, and dump Laszlo. But at the airport, as the aircraft is about to take off, Rick tells, no, he forces Ilsa that she should accompany her husband.  Two of the film’s classic lines “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you kid” are part of this scene.

Made in 1942, at a time when the Second World War was at its peak and Hitler’s armies were scourging large parts of Europe, Casablanca was Hollywood’s (and America’s) propaganda tool that worked remarkably well in creating public opinion against the Nazis. In all these years since I don’t think I’ve seen any male actor with such rough and raw appeal as Bogart; Harrison Ford comes close, but not quite.  Three of Bogart’s best films are the Maltase Falcon, the African Queen and, of course, Casablanca.

The Yonge-Dundas Cineplex was nearly full Sunday afternoon and an appreciative audience clapped when the film ended and the credits rolled up. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ashoak Upadhyay's The Beacon

Ashoak Upadhyay is an idiosyncratic man. He’s a leftist intellectual, an economist, a journalist, a novelist and now the editor of The Beacon online magazine promoting long-form writing.

I’ve known him since the early 1990s. He was my colleague at the Observer group, though we worked at different publications, and then he was my editor at Business India, where we routinely argued over matters that, in retrospect, seem so utterly irrelevant. 

But he was a great editor to work with. In particular, I remember a report that he conceived and for which I did the field work on the burgeoning entrepreneurialism in Dharavi slum (in those days it was called Asia’s largest slum). Subsequently, another senior journalist turned the idea into a book.

A few years back, Ashoak published his debut novel – The Hungry Edge. It’s a layered tale consisting of stories within stories and is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.(Read an earlier blog about the novel here: The Hungry Edge)

Ashoak is a great guy to be around because he can (and often does) talk on every subject with great erudition. This erudition springs from his being extremely well-read and knowledgeable and also because he is opinionated and biased. 

It’s this combination of being expertise and bias that must have led him to launch The Beacon.

I'm sharing a recent email exchange with him where he talks about his website:

What motivated you to launch The Beacon?

The paucity of essay-length writings that are not knee-jerk responses to events as they occur or are boringly academic. Less journalism, even less pedantry, more readability, imaginative analyses, contemplation. Long form writing with long shelf lives that can be read after the contingent moment has passed.

What is it that you're trying to achieve through it

Different ways of seeing and thinking about, our diversities, differences and frailties. Conversations across races, communities, genders and cultures.    

In a crowded space will Beacon achieve that you envisage it should?

The space is crowded with platforms or media urging obvious thought, even more obvious actions on the contingent; there can never be enough platforms that make readers think heterogeneously and without the categories they have been told to think with.

And what are you doing to make it more relevant to a younger demographic?

Despite the dominating categories of homogenized thinking and action being pressed upon them, the young have the capacity to imagine, to see life in its variety, to see difference as intrinsic to the human race. The Beacon offers them the windows to the ineffable, the imagined, to the possible in the impossible.