& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 26

Let’s continue with the film theme for the last post for 2015. I saw The Best of Enemies at Bell Lightbox; a documentary that’s a feast for political junkies and students of journalism. It’s a documentary on the epic television battle between the conservative William F Buckley Jr and liberal Gore Vidal; a debate that shaped television journalism for the next five decades.

Pico Iyer has moulded global consciousness in many ways, and it was an absolute delight to hear him speak at the launch of Ratna Omidvar’s Global Diversity Exchange. Iyer gave us The Global Soul, a treatise that has shaped our understanding of the immigrant culture that is slowly taking over the world, even if the phenomenon is causing tremendous heartburn in large swathes of Europe and North America, causing political upheavals that has brought the extreme right wing to power in many countries in the developed world.

But the inexorable decline in the population in these parts of the world, and the continuing rise in Africa and Asia will see the "great unwashed" showup at the airports and on the shores, and it’ll be difficult to stop their flow for long.

Pico Iyer believed then that Canada, and especially Toronto, understands immigration.  
He says,

“I came away with a sense of possibility I hadn’t felt as I’d traveled to other of the globe’s defining multicultures, whether in Singapore or Cape Town or Melbourne, on the one hand, or in Paris and London and Bombay, on the other. On paper, at least the logic was clear: Toronto was the most multicultural city in the world, according to the UN’s official statistics and it was also, statistically, the safest big city in North America and, by general consensus, the best organized. Put the two facts together, and you could believe that a multiculture could go beyond the nation—states we knew and give a new meaning to that outdated term, the “Commonwealth.” Add further my sense that Toronto had the most exciting literary culture in the English-speaking world, and you could believe that it not only offered an example of how a country could be even greater than the sum of its parts, but presented visions of what that post-national future might look like.”

Two performances that I saw that year stay etched in my memory – the Swatri Group’s Gujarati play કાય પણ ઍક ફૂલ નુ નાં બોલો તો and the other was a two-part dance ballet Woman: A Search by Mrudanga Dance Academy. 

And in addition to Akshya Mukul’s important book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, I read MG Vassanji’s masterly memoirs, And Home was Karikoo. It’s an insider’s perspective that has an outsider’s objectivity.

Here’s a passage that is especially relevant to most first-generation immigrants:

“…I left the country after high school; therefore, I missed the hardships that others endured in the years that followed. What right do I have to show this outrage? It is easy for me, the comfort of my situation in North America, to condemn the nation’s reliance on foreign aid. To which I answer that leaving a place does not sever one’s ties to it, one’s feeling of concern and belonging. We are tied to our schools, our universities, our families, even when we’ve left them – then why not to the place of our childhood, of our memories? Surely a returnee has some claim to the land which formed him – which is not in some godforsaken corner of the globe but in the centre of one’s imagination. And surely distance lends objectivity, allows one to see a place as the world see it.

The series Literature Matters was launched in 2015 by Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature. The first program featured Thomas King and Naomi Klein, and the subject was climate change. Klein’s epic This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. Climate Change is a book that will continue to remain relevant for a long time, and will become the basis of policy when young people (such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal) take power away from the three generations that have destroyed our home planet’s environment.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 25

Che and his classmates with
Toronto Mayor John Tory, promoting cricket
Che is to the left of Mayor Tory

2015 was the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India after over two decades’ stay in South Africa (he returned to India on 9th January). He had left for South Africa in 1893, a year that is significant to Indian history (and I’ve written about this earlier, too) as it was in 1893 that Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago, transforming the world’s comprehension of a civilisation. It was also the year when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak launched the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav to bring about caste unity.

Gandhi went to South Africa as a lawyer and returned from South Africa as a leader of the masses, equipped to take on the might of an empire. He would transform Indian society and in following decades and have a tremendous impact and influence on the 20th century movements that led to the end of colonialism, the rise of the underclass (the unwashed masses) across the world, and the assertion of fundamental human rights to protect one’s identity.

To commemorate the Mahatma’s return from South Africa, the Government of India launched the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2003 – a three-day congregation of the Indian diaspora that commenced (until Narendra Modi changed the date, for no reason except probably his ideological distaste for all things Gandhian) on January 9 every year.

For 2015, the Government of India produced posters highlighting Gandhi’s rise as a leader in South Africa. I have reproduced one here (these are taken from an earlier blog on the subject: A Pravasi Comes Home). 2019 is the 150th year of the Mahatma.

Today, when nationalism is acquiring dangerous dimensions, and there is a tendency (especially in India) to call anyone who disagrees with the official Hindutva line as an “anti-national”, it’d be relevant to understand Gandhiji’s views on nationalism.

During the Vaikom Satyagraha (anti-untouchability agitation), Gandhiji defined his nationalism thus: “My idea of nationalism is that my country may become free—free that if need be the whole of the country may die—so that the human race may live. There is no room here for race hatred.” (Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings (p. 164). Edited By Irfan Habib. Rupa Publications. Kindle Edition.)

For a unique perspective on the ongoing Sabrimala agitation and its linkage to the Vaikom Satyagraha, read Ramchandra’s Guha’s article: Remembering the Vaikom Satyagraha in the light of Sabrimala

The Pulwama attack by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 44 Indian soldiers has dominated social media in India and in the Indian diaspora abroad. I have often wondered how effective Gandhiji would have been with his satyagraha and nonviolence if he’d faced religious fundamentalists of today. There’s little doubt that he’d have been assassinated all over again, and in double quick time.

There’s a Nathuram Godse in all religions because fundamentalism is an ideology, not religion, and fundamentalists use only those parts of religion that preach intolerance against other religions.

Masood Azhar’s supporters (the perfidious Pakistani establishment) can justify that he is fighting the good fight for his fellow Muslims in Kashmir. But, there’s little to distinguish his thought process from Godse’s. Azhar regularly masterminds the massacre of innocents in the hope that he can bend the Indian state to do his ideological bidding – leave Kashmir. Godse assassinated a man who influenced an entire civilisation to do his bidding for living peaceably together.

In this context, I want to briefly return to the nationalism debate. My former colleague Sudheendra Kulkarni walked out of a television debate recently when the host (the abominable Arnab Goswami) called Sachin Tendulkar anti-national.

Kulkarni's voluminous Music of the Spinning Wheel has a fascinating anecdote of a meeting between the Mahatma and Romain Rolland (Kulkarni presented the book to me when I met him in 2017). 

“I played him the Andante from the Fifth Symphony, and, on Gandhi’s request, returned to the piano and played Gluck’s Elysian Fields from Orfeo, the first orchestral piece and the flute melody,” writes Rolland.
Kulkarni says, “Since Gandhi never showed much interest in Western classical music, we can ask ourselves the question: Why did he expressly ask Rolland to play him Beethoven?” There are many answers to this question, Kulkarni says, and then adds: “…there is another, more important, reason behind Gandhi’s request to Rolland to play Beethoven for him. That reason was Mirabehn.”
What follows is a fascinating narration of a little-known history:
“Strange though it may seem, Beethoven had played a pivotal role in bringing Madeleine Slade to Gandhi. She fell in love with Beethoven’s music when, at age of fifteen, she first heard a composition by him, Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 She writes in her autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, that her whole being was stirred by it; she played it over and over again…She learnt French so that she could read about Beethoven’s life in Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (the 10 volume novel that got him the Literature Nobel)…”
Upon meeting Rolland, she was advised her that “the only living person worthy of the sort of veneration you have felt for Beethoven is Mahatma Gandhi.” Of course, Madeleine had never heard of the Mahatma. Then, after she had read Rolland’s book on the Mahatma (which he had written without having met him), she decided to visit India.
Kulkarni writes, “(Rolland)…had been himself craving deeply for many years to receive Gandhi in Villeneuve and to let him experience Beethoven’s sublime music. In a letter to Mirabehn on 25 April 1927 (that is, four years before Gandhi came to meet Rolland), he had written” “If Gandhi knew him (Beethoven), he would have recognized in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”
“Earlier, too, in his letter to Mahadev Desai on 24 February 1924, Rolland had described Beethoven as ‘our European Mahatma’ who ‘sings in his Ode to Joy; Let us – millions of human beings – embrace each other.’”


Akshya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India was published in 2015 – the year when the first high-profile lynching of a Muslim allegedly for beef consumption occurred in India. (Dadri lynching)

It was just a year after Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister of India, and there would be many lynchings in the next three years.

Mukul's book gave a perspective to the rise of Hindutva ideology. It linked the rise to the ferment in the Indian society in the late 19th and early 20th century when for the first time since the medieval era, the Hindu identify began to manifest itself socially, culturally, economically, and politically on the Indian subcontinent.

The business class (and in India’s case, the class and the caste almost always subsume) consolidated the Hindu identity by coalescing the other two upper castes (Brahmins and the Kshatriyas) into a force that began to influence the political and sociocultural landscape.

In retrospect, what is surprising is that the subterranean influences that these forces unleashed have remained relevant and have grown in influence to dominate public life in the 21st century. They were reined in and controlled only because of the enduring combined influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mukul’s book also gives deep insights into the relationship that the Indian elite shared – it was a nurturing relationship that overlooked ideological differences in preference of protecting class (and caste) interests. To read more, click here: The ties that bind the elite.


A cinematic experience that I’ll never forget was to see Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights I, II and III at the Toronto International Film Festival, which celebrated four decades in 2015. The film comprises three parts - The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One. It is about contemporary Portugal – altogether 383 minutes that narrates the transformation of the Portuguese society through fantasy; especially graphic is the depiction of the relationship between a young woman and a banker. The film is an epic.

My motivation in choosing this all-day film was to know about contemporary society in Portugal, a country that has historical links to India.

To read more about the film, click here: Arabian Nights I, II, III

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 24

With Sonal, Karpur and Anu
Religion has always divided the world. Throughout history, the most abominable atrocities on humans have been perpetrated in the name of religion. All religions profess peace and brotherhood, but it takes little to arouse the hatred of believers who resort to extreme violence against non-believers and doubters.

Civilisation has had an uneasy relationship with religion and that unease continues to worsen regardless of any material progress that humans have made since the dawn of history. In fact, it’d be right to state that development – in terms of material well being, which is a direct result of better education, has done next to nothing to reduce global intolerance.

In the last three decades we have seen the twin rise of globalisation resulting in an integration of the world economies and paradoxically the rise of ethnic identities that tend to disintegrate into amoeba-like ever-shrinking groups.

In 2014, I stopped doing my monthly column ‘Mayank’s Immigrant Adventures’ for the Canadian Immigrant magazine. But the uncertainty that arose after my ouster from the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, made me take up freelance assignments for the magazine. Canadian Immigrant’s editor Margaret Jetelina suggested that I do a feature on the status of religion in Canada.

Divine Diversity became the cover story of the magazine. The feature explored the subterranean tensions that the Canadian society experiences but conceals by projecting tolerance and acceptance of its multicultural ethos. Tahir Gora, who’d just launched his TAG TV, spoke passionately about how immigrants who’d lived their life in secular ethos, took to strict adherence to religious dogmas after immigration.

If you wish to read the feature, here’s the link: Divine Diversity – Is it time to talk about religion in Canada; and here’s a link to a related post on this blog: Intolerance. Spur Festival also organised a panel discussion on religion in Canada, which expectedly turned out to be immensely engaging. Here’s a link to the post on that panel discussion: The role of religion in contemporary society.

In 2015, Mawenzi House Publishers, published The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada – Culture, Politics and Self, which is an invaluable volume on understanding the deep-rooted prejudice that seemingly tolerant societies such as the Canadian societies harbour against minority religions.

Describing the Muslim situation in Canada (circa 2015), Nurjehan Aziz, who edited the volume, noted about the essays, “…one observation was almost universal: recently in Canada Muslims have found themselves the objects of vilification and discrimination. Being a Muslim then means being a victim.”

Here’s the link to the post on the book: A book all non-Muslims in Canada must read.
I was invited to contribute an essay to this collection, and I wrote about my life with Mahrukh – Married to a Believer. All marriages are a maze of complexities, ours (Mahrukh’s and mine) has been especially so because of our distinct cultural moorings. Even in the face of often insurmountable differences over the last two decades, we have been steadfast in our commitment to our marriage and to creating a better future for our son.

The essay was subsequently reproduced in two online publications, both edited by my senior colleagues during my journalism days. Javed Anand, who along with Teesta Setalvad continues to fight the Hindutva regime of Narendra Modi, reproduced it in Sabrang, and Ashok Upadhyay reproduced it in the Beacon.

In December 2015, Mahrukh and Che went to India to visit Mahrukh’s family, and I went to meet my sister Sonal and her children. We met after more than a decade. Sonal and I share a relationship that has no filter. We share many traits and are always frank with each other about everything. 

It’s been a relationship that’s had its ups and downs. Both of us grew up in Teli Gali and share a lifetime of memories. We shared our family's affinity for Ganapati, something that I outgrew abruptly in my adolescence (except as an important component of Indian history), but she retains; Sonal has an exquisite collection of Ganapati idols.

I was especially thrilled to meet Karpur after so long. I’m particularly close to my nephew and share both an emotional and an intellectual bond with him. We spent a day together in New York, visiting the MOMA and other museums. My niece Anu was a mere child when she’d come to India, now she’d grown into a confident young woman who (just like her mom) believed in fearlessly voicing her views.

If you’re interested, read the posts about my New York museums tour:  New York art museums, and The Most Arrogant Man in France

A church in New York - the traditional
and the modern cheek by jowl

In 2015, Hasmukh – my aunt – managed to send me Harischandra’s (my granddad and Hasmukh’s dad) The Scarlet Muse, a book of Polish poems translated into English. Hasmukh was the matrilineal head of our extended family in many ways, and her influence on all of us, continues after she has passed away.

Here’s the link to the post: The Scarlet Muse

Devendra Joshi, a friend more than a relative, sent me a recording on the significance of Harischandra on Gujarati literature, and surprisingly, the podcast didn’t mention my father Meghnad, a poet, novelist, essayist and a man of letters in Gujarati literature. That provoked me to write about Meghnad’s relationship with his father (Harischandra committed suicide when Meghnad was just 15-years-old). I also translated Meghnad’s poem on his dad from Gujarati into English.

See the post here: Remembering a Family Man

Sunday, February 03, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 23

2015 was a significant improvement on 2014. My new job at Simmons da Silva introduced me to a number of colleagues, many of them became friends; a couple of them still are, although I’ve moved on from that incredibly dynamic firm.

The leadership of the firm is forward looking and progressive, committed to multicultural ethos, despite a majority of its members being white (or as Stephen Harper would refer as “old stock Canadians”). 

Although being a five-decades-old firm, and law being an endemically conservative profession, thanks to its leadership, Simmons da Silva constantly strives for professional excellence.

Howard Simmons

At the firm, I knew Puneet, who'd created the opportunity for me to work there, and Pathik Baxi, a person who owns the term ‘laid back’. After joining, I instantly became friends with Howard Simmons, the founder of the firm. Howard is a rare free-thinking intellectual in a profession that encourages and often ensures regimentation.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, I got to know nearly 40 individuals who worked at the firm. In any work environment, some colleagues become more important than others. And, as I said at the beginning of this blog, a couple of them remain important, even though I’ve not been able to maintain contact with them as regularly as I’d want to.

When my colleagues surprised me by
celebrating my birthday - the first time in more
than two decades that I celebrated my birthday
in such a manner

However, since there are people in our midst who have the tendency to turn everything pure and magical into prurient and ugly, I shall refrain from naming those who are still important to me only because I have no desire to embarrass them, and because what I shared with them was special and will remain so forever.

May 2015 was the last time the Festival of South Asian Festival of Literature and the Arts (renamed as the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts in 2015) was organised by the indefatigable team of MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz.

I was involved directly in organizing the East Asian panel with the help of Diana Tso, a playwright and actor. Sang Kim moderated the discussion on ‘Is Asian-Canadian a helpful label in terms of the Canadian canon’ and included the following eminent Asian-Canadian authors as panelists: Denis Chong, C Fong Hsiung, Madeleine Thien, Diana Tso, and Terry Watada.

The festival filled a vacuum in the cultural landscape of Toronto because it gave representation to authors who were invited from across the developing world, and to Canadian voices that seldom found representation in mainstream cultural programming. 

However, it clearly needed a larger professional organisational strength that the group of volunteers was unable to provide. 2015 turned out to be the last of a great series.

If interested in reading more, click here:  FSALA-15

In the summer of 2015, my friend Kumar Ketkar and his wife Sharada Sathe came to Toronto. It gave me an opportunity to invite a few friends over to my place (the party room of Lexington on the Green) to celebrate a warm evening together. 

All those invited were friends who’d helped me in my journey to become a Canadian, and while not everyone invited was able to come, those who did, contributed substantially to making the evening memorable and loads of fun.

Kumar and Sharada with friends
What I remember most about that evening was the selfless and unselfconscious manner in which Jasmine Sawant took the responsibility of doing the dishes after the party.  

Nitin and Jasmine then invited Kumar and Sharada to meet with their Marathi-speaking group for another dinner reception. It turned out to be a grand success. Both Kumar and Sharada are committed liberal progressives who have spent their entire life for the left ideological causes. 

Here’s a post about Kumar’s visit to Toronto when we went to the Toronto Reference Library: Erasmus of Rotterdam

2015 was also important for another reason – Stephen Harper lost the federal elections. He lost because of an exclusionary political agenda that targeted Muslim immigrants during the last years of his tenure. 

In retrospect, I think, Harper’s sharp exclusionary bend was probably a couple of years before its time.

By 2016-17, the tumultuous events across Europe (in the wake of the Syrian crisis and the ceaseless influx of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa) and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump’s extremism in the Presidential elections in the United States the forces that Harper tried to unleash in Canada had gained ascendency in the political narrative across most of North America and Europe.

Despite this obvious shortcoming in his politics, I admire Harper for his visionary leadership in improving Canada’s relations with India. He went to India on two occasions during his tenure and expanded the Canadian trade office network across India. And more pertinently, he understood and encouraged the role that Indo-Canadians have and can play in improving bilateral ties.

Also, he was Canada’s prime minister when I arrived in Canada in 2008 and became a citizen in 2014. These are significant landmarks in my life and Harper was an integral part of it. Thanks to my involvement with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, I was able to meet him on a couple of occasions.

With Stephen Harper and the ICCC leadership

I voted for the first time in a Canadian election hopeful that my vote would make a difference in making Canada a more just society, a society that treats all its citizens with respect. As they say, the jury is out on that one.

We lost many stalwarts in 2015, among them were: Charles Correa, the eminent architect from Bombay; novelist Gunter Grass; Narayan Desai, Mahatma Gandhi’s executive assistant and an eminent pacifist; Lee Kwan Yew, the creator of modern Singapore.

Vinod Mehta, one of India’s finest editors; and Praful Bidwai, an activist journalist, also passed away. And we lost RK Laxman, the legendary cartoonist of the Times of India, the creator of the Common Man. Laxman shaped the sensibilities of three generations of Indians by his cartoons. I shared the same workspace with him briefly when I worked for the Times Group. Here's the link to a post that narrates my encounter with him:

Uncommon encounter with the creator of common man

In India, Hindu fundamentalists assassinated Govind Pansare, a Communist, and MM Kalbargi, a Kannada academic. A couple of years ago in 2013, they had assassinated Narendra Dabholkar, and a couple of years later, in 2017, they'd assassinate Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was vociferous in her opposition to the right-wing Hindutva nationalist politics that has come to control India. 

I remain worried for my more outspoken friends in India, and have often told them that in case they perceive any threat to their lives, they should immediately hop on to a plane and reach Toronto. I'd help them in every way possible to get settled here and continue to wage their ideological battle.

I lost a friend – Najia Alavi, a Pakistani-Canadian, and an active member of Communications, Advertising, Marketing Professionals (CAMP), Canada’s first voluntary organization for the marketing fraternity. She died by drowning while on a family vacation in Dubai.