& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

George Fernandes

George Fernandes in Muzzafarpur jail

It was 1998, a few months before I’d leave journalism to join the US government as a media advisor. I was at Business India as an assistant editor covering the interface between business and governments. I was at the Mumbai Municipal Corporation building waiting for my appointment with the Municipal Commissioner. In the waiting lounge were George Fernandes and Sharad Rao. Fernandes, if I recall right, was recently appointed minister in the AB Vajpayee government (Vajpayee’s second stint).

As a journalist, I’d maintained cordial ties with Sharad Rao, but I’d no real connection with Fernandes. However, when he saw me there, he beckoned me and asked about Meghnad, who had passed away a year ago in 1997. He asked about Durga, about how I was doing, put his hand on my shoulder and patted me. Sharad Rao stood beside him with tears welling up in his eyes. Just then, they were called for their appointment.

George Fernandes, the firebrand trade union leader, who was now a minister again, hadn’t forgotten his roots or his old supporters.

Meghnad was a close associate of Fernandes when he began his journey into national politics. The 1967 elections, when Fernandes defeated SK Patil, was historical in many ways, and especially so personally to our family because Meghnad worked tirelessly with a bunch of other young men and women to help Fernandes win.

Fernandes’s meetings would be held in our two-room tenement at Princess Street. These young men and women shared a vision of a new India that would be just, would ensure equality and where workers’ rights were not trampled upon. Surprising many political observers, Fernandes won handsomely and went to the Indian Parliament.

Sharad Rao and Meghnad were among the many of Fernandes’s lieutenants who had the opportunity to join him; Meghnad didn’t because he wasn’t sure how he’d support his fledgling family. Sharad Rao did and prospered.

Meghnad continued to work at Mafatlal’s and in the mid-1970s launched the first trade union with Fernandes and Sharad Rao at the Mafatlal Centre in Nariman Point. This was after Arvind Mafatlal, the head of the Mafatlal group, threatened Meghnad to get him arrested under the draconian MISA.

During the Emergency, Meghnad became – like many others – a conduit for information sharing through informal networks. There’d be heated debates amongst his friends on the torture that Fernandes’s associates such as Snehalata Reddy had to face.

After George’s arrest, his election victory, the formation of the Janata Party, the political equations changed. Meghnad didn’t share the visceral anti-Indira Gandhi sentiments that had brought all the opposition together.

He was deeply suspicious of Morarji Desai’s brand of Gandhian politics, as he was of the Jana Sangh brand of ultra nationalism. In fact, the socialists (especially of the SSP variety) were vociferous in their demand that the dual membership of the Jan Sanghis – into RSS and the Janata Party – shouldn’t be allowed, which eventually split the Janata Party.

Meghnad and his generation totally supported Fernandes’s decisions as a minister in the Janata government to drive IMB and Coke out of India. Throughout the 1980s, Fernandes remained a towering figure for many. The anti-Congressism of those days is similar to the anti-Modi politics of today – it united every political party. And Fernandes was a key figure in that schema.

There were some irksome decisions and actions that Fernandes took then – such as joining forces with Bal Thackrey to defeat Datta Samant in the 1980s – which were an indication of pliable politics that George would adopt rather dexterously and shamelessly in the future.

Throughout his political career, the sole focus of Fernandes’s politics was the defeat of Congress at any cost. In the mid-1990s, he’d no qualms joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party. I remember telling Durga, after the second Vajpayee government was formed, that it was good that Meghnad had passed away before he’d have to see the ultimate capitulation of the socialist dream.

The next decade saw the total and willing immersion of Fernandes into the quagmire of political shenanigans, including accusations of corruption and bribery, leading to his resignation and then subsequent political humiliation by the likes of Nitesh Kumar, leaders whom he’d created.

But Fernandes will be remembered for standing up for justice, giving hope and allowing the common Indian and especially Mumbaikar to dream of a better tomorrow.  

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 22

L to R: Kumar Ketkar, Sharada Sathe, Mayank Bhatt and Jatin Desai
at the launch of the Marathi translation of Belief

A trip to India is an effective way to put perspective into life. The recent trip – I returned a couple of days – was unique in many ways. After a long time, I was part of a business delegation visiting multiple cities (New Delhi and Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar) on official business. Then, when some of our delegates left for Varanasi, to participate in the annual jamboree of the Indian diaspora, I went home to Bombay to participate in the launch of my novel Belief’s Marathi translation.

Ten days of hectic, whirlwind jet setting may seem glamorous but I’m just too old to handle such an adrenaline rush, and after the first four days into the tour, I was practically immobilized by the pollution in New Delhi and Gandhinagar. Fortunately, I recovered in time for the book launch in Bombay and then had to rest for the next couple of days before returning home.

After a decade out of Bombay, I no longer belong to that city. Yes, it is a part of me and will always be, but I have no place in it anymore. Surprisingly, I don’t feel sad about it at all. The biggest reason, of course, is that people whom I’ve known for all my life, have moved on, and justifiably so. It becomes difficult for them to find time for me at my convenience; I’d think it’d be as difficult for me to find time for them in Toronto, if they visited unannounced and made demands on my time.

Friends at the book launch
However, the book launch turned out to be a tremendous success and most of my friends and some of my family members did manage to find time to be there at the Mumbai Press Club. A special thank you to all those who made time to be with me, and for all those who couldn’t – well, thank you for trying.

During the visit, I met Neerav Patel, the eminent Gujarati Dalit poet. He’s been a social media friend ever since he visited Toronto to be a part of the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts in 2015. 

Neerav believes that I should turn my ‘A Decade in Toronto’ series into a book. That’s a flattering thought, but I don’t think my experiences in Toronto are markedly different from those of hundreds of thousands of other immigrants.

But let's leave that for the later. And for now just continue with the saga of recollection.

This week, I’ll focus on authors and books.

In 2014 Ramchandra Guha came to Toronto’s Munk Centre to launch his book Gandhi Before India (which is about Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 to 1915). Guha spoke about Tolstoy’s influence on Gandhi and how the young Gandhi, who had just embarked upon Tolstoy's pacifism, was confident that his practice of non-violence non-cooperation would transform the world.

If interested, read more: Gandhi Before India

That year, MJ Akbar, by then firmly in the Hindutva camp, visited the Munk Centre, and gave a scintillating insight into India, the Empire and the First World War. The lecture was to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and Akbar gave an original interpretation to end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one.

Akbar’s reputation is besmirched and seemingly beyond repair. When I mentioned his name at my book launch in Bombay, in reference to a question, there were visible frowns from my women friends.

I’m too insignificant to defend Akbar and indeed the allegations against him if true are indefensible. However, that shouldn’t take away from his achievements as a journalist, editor, historian and a fine raconteur.

If interested, read more:

The two books that I read and loved were MG Vassanji’s India: A Place Within, and his memoir And Home was Kariakoo. Of course, India: A Place Within is a special book; undoubtedly one of the finest on India. “This country that I’ve come so brazenly to rediscover goes as deep as it is vast and diverse. It’s only oneself one ever discovers,” Vassanji says.

If interested, read more: India: A Place Within

That year, I also attempted my first translation of my father’s poem from Gujarati into English. A son’s poem to his dead father remains a favourite because it is applicable to everyone who reach a certain age when angst overrule all other emotions. 

And finally, one of the most insightful sessions on immigrant writing was a six-week program on Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience conducted by Sanja Ivanov then of the University of Waterloo (and now at the University of Toronto) at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (Spadina and College).

We read and discussed five stories by four authors:  Roman Berman, Massage Therapist and The Second Strongest Man (from David Bezmozgis’s collection Natasha and Other Stories); The Inert Landscapes of Gyorgy Ferenc (from Tamas Bobozy’s Last Notes and Other Stories); Squatter (from Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Firozsha Baag); and No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences (from Dionne Brand’s Sans Souci and Other Stories).

Let me conclude this blog – hopefully the last for 2014 – with a quote from Tamas Bobozy’s story, which incidentally, captures the quintessential bleakness that all immigrants experience when they return home after living in Canada.

“It was only many weeks later, when I’d fully realized what it was to lose a country – after I had gone astray in the streets of a city I thought I knew as well as myself, after I’d seen the growth of apartments on the outskirts of Debrecen, after I’d stepped onto the Hortobagy and been unable to shake the sense of infinite distance between the soles of my shoes and the ground they stood upon – that I remembered where I’d last seen the smile Akos had worn at the airport. You see, either everything had changed in Hungary, or I had changed, and what was most disquieting about the trip for me was not only that I couldn’t stabilize my sense of being in the country, but that I couldn’t even fix upon the country I was trying to stabilize myself in relation to.

“The greatest nightmare was that both of us had changed – the country and myself – and that we were constantly changing, which made the possibility of us ever connecting again a matter of complete chance, the intersection of two bodies on random flight patterns, ruled by equations so different there was little chance of us resting, even for a second, on the same co-ordinates.”

I began this blog by saying the same thing – about not being able to relate to my Bombay anymore.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 21

After taking the oath as Canadian citizens

In 2014, I joined the preparatory classes for the mandatory test that all newcomers have to take to become Canadian citizen. I’d go to Scarborough once a week for three months in the coldest months of winter (January to March) just to prepare myself to answer 20 questions.

Mahrukh didn’t feel the need to join any classes that the Toronto Public library offers to all aspiring citizens. In the final test, she got all 20 right. I got one wrong. So much for my dedication to learn Canadian history.

However, I do think it’s important for all newcomers to familiarize themselves with Canada’s history, especially to understand the seriousness with which its contemporary leaders are willing to accept historical wrongs that were committed and offer public apology for the government’s past decisions and actions.  

I have often wished governments in India would do so, but the only example I can think of is when Dr. Manmohan Singh apologised in the Indian Parliament for the Sikh genocide of 1984.

But I digress. Let’s return to the citizenship test.

Of course, taking the citizenship test doesn’t really help newcomers understand the Canadian ethos better. It’s an effective way to start. Fortunately for me, even before I became a citizen, I’d become a part of Passages to Canada, a portal created by Historica Canada.

Passages Canada volunteers share their personal accounts of cultural identity and heritage online and in person with schools and community groups. I was invited to address students of grade 6 and then invited to two different community centres to talk to newcomers.

The theme of my sessions would be adjusting to the new work environment in Canada and taking in stride jobs that don’t necessarily challenge one’s abilities, expertise, skills and don’t match one’s capabilities.

During my tenure at the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce and especially when its offices were at Yonge and Sheppard, I frequented the North York branch of the Toronto Public Library. It was a grand library (I haven’t been there is years now, and it’s been through a major renovation).

Then, in January 2014, I’d to force the then leadership to move to the new office that the Chamber had acquired and we moved our offices to the East Mall on Toronto’s west end.

As luck would have it, the year began with one of the worst ice storms in Toronto’s history. The city and its suburbs were shut down for nearly a week. The storm took a severe toll on the people of Toronto – many of whom had to live in sub-zero temperatures for prolonged periods, without power. But it turned the city into a visual winter paradise. I’d never seen (before or since) such a beautiful envelope of ice over everything, especially trees.

The Chamber originally had an office which became two offices and then three as the operations expanded. With that move, I also lost touch with office workers with whom we shared space. The entire floor formed office suites and the company than rented out these suites had a manager and two assistants.

Leslie, Mary, and Phyllis (replaced by Beatrice) became dear friends for the four years that I was at the location. They organized unarguably the best Christmas parties for their tenants. I shared a great bond with them, and especially with Mary.

I often wonder what is it that makes us closer to someone and not to someone else. In my case, I guess, the only reason is when the person treats me as more than just a coworker. 
With Pawan and Tarun

My colleagues at the Chamber, Tarun and Pawan, were much younger than me but were, like me, newcomers, doing their first job in Canada. Tarun left soon after my services were ended. Pawan continues to serve the Chamber.

Both became fathers in those years. Before them, I’d briefly worked with a young woman, Rakhee, who was also a newcomer.

With my new job at Simmons da Silva, my commuting time became longer by about 30 minutes one way. I was now commuting to Brampton and it was an altogether new experience. Thanks to our decision to have a home on Lawrence Ave, TTC’s route 52 became an integral part of my commute (it is, even now, when I work in Oakville).

I know this blog post reads a bit jumpy and disjointed, but it’s the last post for 2014 and I’m making sure that everything that I missed out in the previous posts is covered here.

My exit from the ICCC marked the end of a phase in my life and the beginning of an important one at Simmons da Silva.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Belief in Marathi

Cover of Belief
Welcome to 2019.

This blog enters its second decade. It’s a bit disconcerting that I’ve continued to write here for a decade and want to continue doing so. 

Except for being married to Mahrukh for 23 years, I haven’t done anything for quite as long.

None of my jobs have lasted for a decade, and have always ended for good reasons. A former colleague compared me to dust, because, as he put it, “I take time to settle down.” 

He was wrong. I’m not like dust. Dust settles eventually. I don’t think I can ever settle down.

So, as I said, it’s a bit unsettling to realise that I’ve been at it on this blog, posting about all things that are of interest to me, over the last decade.

Here are some reasons why started blogging.

  • To let people (potential employers) in Canada know that I could write in English
  • To reacquaint myself with regular writing – something that I’d not done in many years, as I abandoned journalism as a vocation.
Back Cover

  • To create a platform to write about books, authors, and book events. I was quite clear in my mind about taking writing more seriously in Toronto than I’d ever done in Bombay.

Despite years of writing, I cannot claim to be a proficient writer, but despite that rather obvious shortcoming, blogging is a gratifying experience. 

One frees up time from the burdens of the world to engage with one’s thoughts and turn them into words. 

Blogging in Canada led to an opportunity to become a columnist with the Canadian Immigrant (between 2010 to 2014).

I also began writing my first fiction. I struggled with the manuscript for many years and am thankful to the guidance I got from many friends and well-wishers in my journey to become a published novelist.

Belief, my novel, was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House Publishers, the Toronto-based prestigious publishing house that MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz launched nearly four decades ago to create a platform for Canadian multicultural writing.

My friend Kumar Ketkar (who is now a Member of the Indian Parliament's Upper House) and Sharada Sathe were in the USA when the book was published. Kumar insisted that I send him a copy immediately. To my pleasant surprise, Sharada decided to translate Belief into Marathi.

Sharada (second from left) when Kumar and Sharada were in Toronto in 2015.
This photograph is of a get together of friends in their honour
Although diminutive in appearance, Sharada Sathe is a formidable woman. She is one of the founding members of the Stree Mukti Sanghatana and continues to serve as the organisation’s secretary.

Over the last decade or so, Sharada has begun to translate works from English into Marathi. Her translations include works by such eminent personalities as Amartya Sen, Somnath Chatterjee, Mohit Sen, Sam Pitroda. Her most recent translations include Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi and Makers of Modern India.

Sharada completed the translation of Belief in a record time and the book was to be published in 2017 by Manovikas Prakashan in Pune. But, there was some hitch and the publishing was delayed. I'd given up hope of the book actually being published anytime soon.

And then suddenly last week, as 2018 was coming to a close, I got an email from Kumar and Sharada informing me that the book is ready and will be hitting bookstores in January 2019.

Having lived for 46 years in Bombay, Marathi is an integral part of my life. I cannot write in the language, but I read it and speak it with some degree of fluency. It is, indeed, my honour and a privilege that such an eminent personality as Sharada Sathe has translated my novel into Marathi.