& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Whose voice is it anyway?

Image take from Native Appropriations website

There is a fierce and polarising debate going on in the Canadian media and literary circles over ‘cultural appropriation’.  As with any debate, it has many sides, but not all get reflected in the angry interactions on media, and especially on social media. 

An edited version of the following piece that I wrote for my friend George Abraham was published in the New Canadian Media in January (Whose Voice is it Anyway?). 

Here’s the original piece, for whatever it’s worth.

Last year my debut novel Belief was published in Canada. It’s a story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream, and just when, after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, everything seems to be falling into place, the family discovers their son’s evident involvement involved in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours and inform a police officer known to the neighbours. It leads to the son’s arrest. The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story because it deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants. Hearteningly, one (of the three) reviewers of the novel understood the nuanced and calibrated approach I’ve adopted in portraying this difference. Author Veena Gokhale, in her review in Montreal Serai, an online literary journal, observes, “Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend.”

This is an important issue because in the desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make that critical distinction that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same. While writing my novel, I had a simple objective to achieve – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with the society, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction? I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalization and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate. I’d still want to believe that for the parents there wouldn’t be much to differentiate. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is not radicalised and is not a terrorist.

The other challenge of portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada was posed by the fact that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil? I was born in a Hindu family, where but for my grandmother nobody really practised the religion regularly and ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades. When I was young Bombay was proudly cosmopolitan.

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed firsthand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered. And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here). Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be something that he isn’t quite – a native; his defence is that he feels like one, even if genetically he may not be.

To frame the issue in the Indian context (which I can claim to know better): should an upper caste Brahmin be allowed to depict the life of a Dalit (the so-called lower caste that was considered untouchable, till the Indian Constitution banned such practices)? The example that came to my mind was of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati (Deliverance). Premchand, one of the foremost Hindi language writers of the 20th century, was born into the upper caste but was a radical progressive who advocate equality. His short story Sadgati is an evocative tale of the plight of a Dalit. Satyajit Ray, the iconic 20th-century filmmaker, who also belonged to the upper caste, turned it into a cinematic classic.

Let me hasten to add here that the exploitation of the Dalits in India continues even today in all forms – economic, cultural, social, and political – despite innumerable laws that are meant to prevent it, and that it is about time opportunities especially in the arts are created for them.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and sincerely advised that I abandon the misadventure. I was of course not going to do that mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience. I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief, my debut novel, and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Matter of Geography – Jasmine D’Costa

Different areas of old Bombay had their own individualistic and peculiar characteristics acquired from the different ethnic groups that dominated those areas. For the first ten years of my life, at the intersection of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street in old Bombay. 

My grandfather's father came to Bombay in the late 1890s, and since then, for a little over a hundred years,  we lived in Bombay for four generations, till I decided to make Toronto my home in the 21st century.

From north of that intersection, Kalbadevi Road was predominantly a Gujarati locality, right up to Bhuleshwar. The temple of Mumbadevi, the goddess that gives Bombay its name – Mumbai, is on this road. The cotton market (Mulji Jetha), the gold market (Zaveri Bazar), the hardware (of the hammer and nails variety, because then there were no computers) market (Lohar Chawl) were all linked to Kalbadevi Road and the Princess Street.

The road parallel to Kalbadevi Road – Jagannath Shankar Seth Road – is the one that I’m more familiar with as that’s the one I took to go to my school every day. This road was predominantly Marathi in character. Till the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this road has a significant presence of the Christian community, too. To its west is the famous Parsi Dairy Farm and it leads up to the Marine Drive flyover. To its south is Dhobitalao. Jagannath Shankar Seth Road led to Chira Bazar, Thakurdwar, the St. Teresa’s church. The road to the right of this intersection went to Prathna Samaj and to the left went to Charni Road station.

Pydhonie, which was to the north of Kalbadevi Road, was predominantly Muslim, and further north was Mazagaon, which had a significant presence of Christians. Bombay was cosmopolitan, but its localities were insular, dominated by a specific ethnicity. This world gradually changed, as many locals moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and the 1980s. I haven’t been to the old areas of Bombay in a very, very, long time. But it stays etched sharply in my mind.

Reading Jasmine D’Costa’s A Matter of Geography revived those memories. The novel, Jasmine’s first, is set in Mazagaon, and is a story of a handful of neighbours who live in the Billimora Building, which is what Bombay calls a chawl (single-file tenements, connected by a corridor, with shared toilets).

The novel is about the love between Peter and Anna, what separates them, brings them together and keeps them apart. It is set in the backdrop of the 1992-93 communal violence between the Hindus and the Muslims after the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya (a town in north India, linked to the birth of the Hindu God Ram according to the mythological classic epic Ramayan).

Jasmine’s book brings alive the horrors of the communal carnage that left hundreds dead across India and broke the back of Bombay, changing it completely and permanently. A significant part of the novel is about the valiant efforts a group of Christian families undertake to save the lives of their Muslim neighbours – Ali and his mother (Saving Ali) from the rampaging Hindutva mobs.  The beauty of the novel is that the violence and the constant tension that forms its backdrop doesn’t ever overwhelm. Jasmine’s pithy observations about people and their lives keep the tone of the novel light and often hilarious.

Also, the characters that form the novel are all sharply carved, each distinct in their own unusual way. Anna, of course, is the one that is developed most lovingly by the author. The unpleasantness that makes her immigrate to Canada makes her stronger. When she returns to Bombay after a long time, as a mature, level-headed young woman, she is a caring person who is unwilling to be swayed by emotions and makes hard choices both for herself and for Peter.

The title of the book gets explained in what turns out to be the books most heart-wrenching scene when Anna decides that although she loves Peter and Peter loves her, she would return to Canada without him, and not want him to wait for her, because Canada is no place for first generation immigrants who are in their late 30s or older. Those who come to Canada when they are young have a generally successful and better life than those who come here when they are older. 

This passage, where Anna describes to Peter the slow disillusionment her parents experience after immigrating, is one of the most severe indictments I've read (fiction or non-fiction) of Canada’s utter failure at integrating its newcomers to enable them to have more fulfilling lives. Jasmine writes with empathy, which is a rare gift; and she writes with confidence.

The novel is published by Mosaic Press. Click here to buy the book: A Matter of Geography

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interview with Koom Kankesan

 Koom Kankesan is a novelist and a graphic art aficionado

Koom participating at the Toronto Comic Jam

Koom Kankesan was born in Sri Lanka. While his family lived abroad, the civil war in Sri Lanka broke out and this caused them to seek a new home. They eventually settled in Canada and have lived here since the late eighties. He has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. Koom contributed arts journalism to various publications before becoming a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Since working as a teacher, he has taken semesters off now and again to work on his fiction. The Tamil Dream, his new book, is his most ambitious to date. It looks at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how it affected Tamils here in Canada. Besides literature and film, Koom has deep interests in history and science, and an enduring love for comic books.

What explains your interest in graphic novels?

Let me rephrase that question to say 'what explains your interest in comics'? Way before I ever heard the term graphic novels, I was engrossed by comics of all kinds: newspaper strips, technical manual illustrations, cereal box mascots, superhero stuff, cartoon animation, anything that made use of pictures and words. I think that the term graphic novel is just a way of classy-ing up the form and I sort of wish that Will Eisner had never coined it. I suppose everything eventually tends towards class-ism and the seeking of prestige and status, and so this half-acceptance of the comics medium by the arbiters of culture is a double-edged sword. It was almost better when comics was left alone to authentically be itself, its joyous carefree self. Comics still retains some of that - you can approach most comics creators in a direct way that you can't with literary writers or filmmakers, but there might be the danger of this inherent classism or snobbishness in the future.

But yeah - to come back to your question, I was mesmerised by comics from the first moment I laid eyes on them. We were poor, living in England, and I can remember when my father bought a black and white Marvel comics reprint issue of Spiderman and the Valkyrie. I was maybe about five. I was just mesmerised by the way the pictures (and later words) fit together, the way the perspective could move up the side of a building and into the air. It was like you were flying. There was a magic to it. Of course, film also shares this magic and I love film too. Later, I would obsessively take out volumes of Tintin and Asterix from the library and there was something about entering this other world, this mirror cartoony world of ideal forms which were stylised in a certain way, their flat sheen and colour, their sensibility, that I found irresistible. Tintin remains one of my all-time favourite works to this day.

·         Have you attempted to do a graphic novel?

I've always been drawn to comics but never really had the confidence to do my own. When I was younger, I drew one or two or three-page strips for university publications but they were sporadic and took a lot of work and I always had to look at photos for reference. So I never really developed the confidence or horsepower to do my own stuff. That was around the time (in the mid to late nineties) when I met Seth and he was kind enough to give me some pointers and set a few assignments for me. I tearfully worked through his assignments but never felt great about them and ended up abandoning my efforts and turning to writing prose. It's always been one of my deepest regrets that I didn't persevere, sketch regularly, and take advantage of Seth's generosity and time. It wasn't a lack of skill on my part, but a lack of effort and confidence. His popularity and fame blew up a few years later so I was very lucky to know him when I did.

I've always been drawn to comics though. It possesses a sensibility and magic that is different from literature or film (although there are relations), and have always come back to them. I sort of see myself as somewhat of a failed fiction writer (no one reads my stuff) so I've been thinking of trying to get back to my roots and interests in terms of comics and sci-fi. A few years ago, I tried to work with an animator who said he'd be interested in doing a graphic novel with me but he just couldn't commit. Animators are always inundated with work and if you can't pay someone upfront, it can be an unreasonable expectation that they will simply carry out your project and illustrate it in the hope of future rewards or glory. 

Koom at the Erie Art Museum in PA
with Klaus Janson (left) and John Totleben (right)
Who are your favourite prominent Canadian graphic novelists? Why?

There is so much coming out now that there's no way I can stay abreast of it all. Koyama Press is celebrating its tenth anniversary and I feel like I don't really have a sense of everything they're doing and their presence on the comics landscape yet. Back in the 90s, I used to read Drawn & Quarterly's sporadic anthologies but of course, now they are an international player that sources many artists from the U.S. and other parts of the world, as well as Canada. Back in those days, I used to follow the work of Seth, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown (the 'Toronto three') and they were three of my favourites in terms of indie comics creators. Joe Matt isn't Canadian but he lived here for a long time - now I believe he's in L.A. - but I loved the humour and self-evisceration in his work and that led me to the work of Seth and Chester. As mentioned before, Seth was kind enough to give me some pointers and that's how I knew him. His work is immaculately beautiful and stylised and there's such a deep appreciation for comics history and the form that informs his work that I don't think I fully appreciated him back then. I just thought of him as this local artist that was producing autobiographical comics. I loved Chester's weirdness, especially in Ed the Happy Clown and some of those other absurd short stories, but he - like Seth - has gone on to carve this very reputable body of work that's both idiosyncratic and weighty at the same time. I don't think anybody back then realised or foresaw how respected and recognised these creators on the outskirts would become. Did D & Q help create the wave of respectability or were they buffeted by it? It's sort of a chicken and egg philosophical conundrum. It's one of those interesting tides of cultural history that only the most zealous anticipated.

I've been influenced by many comics that were not Canadian though. As I mentioned before, living in England, I devoured Tintin by Herge and that has become something (both in its aesthetics as well as its values) that has worked its way into the core of my being. If there's anybody whose influence I will never be able to escape (and that's a good thing), it's the work of Alan Moore. I don't need to go into why his work (and he, himself) are phenomenal - even the stuff that I write about being Tamil, which you'd think is very remote from Moore's body of work, is heavily influenced by Moore's oeuvre. I was also heavily affected and influenced by Frank Miller's storytelling and writing in the 80s. He was such a stellar poetic writer that seemed to lose his touch once the 80s was over. Sin City became so heavy handed and seemed to go against the natural intelligence and dynamic creativity of his earlier stuff. Paul Chadwick's Concrete is another personal favourite that has had a great effect on me - its gentility, humility, intelligence and unequalled sensitivity to life and knowledge is unparalleled and I think it's a great pity than Chadwick's work is somewhat neglected or forgotten. Jaime Hernandez, and his brother Gilbert's early Palomar work have also really moved and affected me. Once you start talking about this stuff, it's hard to know when to stop. It's such a rich field, and fascinating, like watching a universe unfold.

You were teaching a graphic novel appreciation course at U of T some years ago, what sort of a program was that?

That was something I was hoping to repeat but it ended up being a one-time thing. I'm loosely affiliated with the creative writing department in the Continuing Education division at U of T. They already have somebody teaching a 'making comics' class, so I suggested a graphic novel appreciation class. There was enough enthusiasm to fill up one section but the following year and the year after that, we couldn't get enough people to run the class. We read a representation of what are considered great graphic novels. Only the first one was superhero based - Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born Again. The class was composed of young adults who loved comics and mostly, we deconstructed the language of comics and techniques in the books we looked at, using Scott McCloud's wonderful Understanding Comics as our guide.

What I learned from teaching that course was how far behind the times I was. Most of the books on the list were older (by the likes of Moore, Tomine, Chadwick, Spiegelman, etc.) and they were all by males. It was a good experience for me because it showed me that the current audience for comics and the sensibility out there has changed considerably from when I was getting into alternative comics. I did give students the option as to whether they wanted to write analyses or write comics scripts of their own - most of them went the analysis route. I was working at an alternative high school six years ago and there, I got the chance to design a comics course which I think they continued to run. It was a Grade 11 Media Studies/Art course where we did a combination of analysing comics and drawing our own. It was quite enjoyable and I used my meagre budget to buy copies of Watchmen and Batman: Year One for the students to read. Unfortunately, I teach at a regular high school now and there's no way I could set up or teach something like that. I'm at a smaller, more conventional school, and unfortunately, right now, we don't even run a Media Studies class. So there you have it - the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, comics seems to be this universal language that they're employing for all kinds of instruction and education so I have no doubt that it'll be much more integrated into everything given a couple of generations.

Thanks for taking the time to ask me about my love for and interest in comics!

Here's a recording of a conversation between Seth and Michael Deforge, held at the University of Toronto in March 2017. The conversation was part of a symposium called 'Making History: The Cartoon World of Seth'. Click here to listen to recording: Seth

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Discreet Hero – Mario Vargas Llosa

At the Festival of Literary Diversity, I met Farzana Doctor, an author who I admire. Earlier this year she was in Beirut, Lebanon, with her partner Reyan, and was fascinated by the place. She told me she intends to weave the place into her work someday.

I humbly suggested instead of a novel, she should consider doing a non-fiction book about the place and the people, and how the place has moulded the people, and how the people have made the place what it is.

What I know about Beirut and Lebanon is what the western media wants me to know. Farzana’s book, if she ever wrote it, would be refreshing, different, and something that we need because it’d be a perspective of an outsider who’s a bit of an insider.

I’m reading Jasmine D’Costa’s Matter of Geography. It is a story set in the 1992-93 religious violence between the Hindus and Muslims that tore apart Bombay and nearly all of India. The story is about a resilient Christian community in old Bombay’s Mazgaon that comes together to rescue a Muslim neighbour from a marauding mob of crazed Hindutva fanatics.

Although I’m all too familiar with Bombay and with the 1992-93 rioting, Jasmine’s book is refreshing, different because she is able to weave a story around a people in a place and how both the people and the place affect and transform each other. (More about Jasmine’s novel soon after I finish reading it).

Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero, set in Piura and Lima in Peru, is also a story of people and places and how the two complete each other. It's a story about two senior men living a life afforded by wealth, and one that is not uncommon from others of their age and means. They are blackmailed and/or harassed because they’re wealthy and old.

In the case of Ismael Carrera, an insurance company tycoon in Lima, his layabout sons are waiting for him to die to inherit his wealth. Felicito Yanaque, a trucking company owner, in Piura, who is the other protagonist of the novel, becomes a victim of an elaborate protection racket, that turns into kidnapping and ransom as the story progresses.

Both the stories are full of intrigue comprising people who have malleable morals and possess low cunning. Both the stories are of older men falling for much younger women. Carrera falls in love with Armida, a maid, and Felicito with Mabel, a streetwalker. 

Both attempt vainly to rise above their circumstances without losing their dignity or compromising the dignity of their young lovers, aware that in the life of old men, decency in family ties is better maintained by being quiet and working quietly to safeguard the interests of those you love more than others.

The Discreet Hero is the first Llosa novel I’ve read, and it’s great to be acquainted with Don Rigoberto and Dona Lucrecia, who watch the proceedings from the sidelines and are only tangentially affected by the doings of the Carrera couple. 

They're sophisticated, cosmopolitan better off married couple who’d be more at home in Madrid or Rome rather than Lima, and constantly dream of spending time going to an opera, visiting a gallery and dining in a patio of a fine restaurant in a European city.

Apparently, Rigoberto and Lucrecia and their son Fonchito have also appeared in other Llosa novels, as have Sergeant Lituma.

Llosa’s mastery is in weaving a story around people and places and how both affect and transform each other. The descriptions of the police station, the local bars in Piura acquire a meaning and come alive because of the characters such as Felicito and Lituma. If it were not for these characters, the places would be nondescript.  

The story has a slow pace and the author is more interested in exploring relations between the characters, observing their little idiosyncrasies. He doesn't mind taking the reader on short digressions, holding the story to a standstill, while helping his reader understand a character flaw better by such explorations.

The novel is about the life and the lifestyle of its characters and not much about the linear narration of the story. For instance, the efficiency and speed with which the police resolve the mystery behind the protection racket could perhaps have made this into a tremendous potboiler, but clearly is of little interest to Llosa, who'd rather have his policemen discuss women's asses. 

There are passages in the novel that remarkably bring out the universality of emotions – love and betrayal – and how these are common to all humans.

Edith Grossman has skillfully translated the book from Spanish into English, transcending the barriers of language-specific nuances. Towards the end of the story, the novelist abandons the rigours of form and dovetails several separate sections of different characters into seamless paragraphs. This could’ve been challenging but Grossman pulls it off without any effort.

Here are some passages from the book that I found interesting:  

“I’ve been paying for my faults all these years, Felicito,” he heard Gertrudis say, almost without moving her full lip or taking her eyes off him for a second, though she didn’t appear to see him and spoke as if he weren’t there. “Bearing my cross in silence. Knowing very well that the sins one commits have to be paid for. Not only in the next life, in this one, too. I’ve accepted it. I’ve repented for myself and for the Boss Lady. I’ve paid for myself and my mama. I don’t feel the rancor towards her that I did when I was young. I keep paying and hope that with so much suffering, Our Lord Jesus Christ will forgive so many sins.”


To die just when he thought he’d won all his battles and felt like the happiest man in creation. Had his happiness killed him, perhaps? Ismael Carrera wasn’t used to it.


“It’s just that there’s something I don’t understand,” Fonchito ventured uncomfortably. “About you, Papa. You always liked art, painting, music, books. It’s the only thing you seem passionate about. So, then, why did you become a lawyer? Why did you spend your whole life working in an insurance company? You should have been a painter, a musician, well, I don’t know. Why didn’t you follow your calling?”

Don Rigoberto nodded and reflected a moment before answering.

“Because I was a coward, son,” he finally murmured. “Because I lacked faith in myself. I never believed I had the talent to be a real artist. But maybe that was an excuse for not trying. I decided not to be a creator but only a consumer of art, a dilettante of culture. Because I was a coward is the sad truth. So now you know. Don’t follow my example. Whatever your calling is, follow it as far as you can and don’t do what I did, don’t betray it.”

“I hope you’re not annoyed, Papa. It was a question I’d been wanting to ask you for a long time.”

“It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for many years. Fonchito. You’re forced me to answer and I thank you for that. Go on, that’s enough, good night.”


The function of journalism in our time, at least in this society, was not to inform but to make the line between the lie and the truth disappear, to replace reality with a fiction in which the oceanic mass of neuroses, frustration, hatred, and traumas of a public devoured by resentment and envy was made manifest. One more proof that the small spaces of civilisation would never prevail against immeasurable barbarism.


From time to time, taking a breather, the captain would burst into praise, charged with sexual fever, of the curves of Senora Josefita, with whom he’d fallen in love. Very seriously, and with salacious gestures, he explained to his subordinate that those gluteals were not only large, round and symmetrical but also “gave a little jiggle when she walked,” something that aroused his heart and his testicles in unison. For that reason, he maintained, “in spite of her age, her moon face, and her slightly bowed legs, Josefita is the goddamnedest woman.

“Hotter than gorgeous Mabel, if I’m forced to make a comparison, Lituma,” he went on, his eyes popping as if he had the backsides of the two ladies right in front of him and were hefting them both. “I acknowledge that Don Felicito’s girlfriend has a nice figure, aggressive tits, and well-formed, fleshy legs and arms, but her ass, as you must have noticed, leaves much to be desired. It’s not very touchable. It didn’t finish developing, it didn’t blossom, at some point, it went into decline. According to my classification system, hers is a timid ass, if you know what I mean.”

“Why don’t you concentrate on the investigations instead, Captain?” Lituma asked him.  “You saw how furious Colonel Rios Pardo is. At this rate, we won’t ever get rid of this case or be promoted again.”

“I’ve noticed that you have absolutely no interest in women’s asses, Lituma,” was the captain’s judgement, pretending to commiserate with him and putting on a grief-stricken face. But immediately afterwards he smiled and licked his lips like a cat. “A defect in your manly formation, I’m telling you. A good ass is the most divine gift God gave to female bodies for the pleasure of males. I’ve been told that even the Bible recognises this.”

“Of course I have an interest, Captain. But with all due respect, in you, there’s not only interest but obsession and depravity too. Let’s get back to the spiders now.”