& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Authors don't retire - 1

Writing books as a new retirement activity
Guest Post by Sharad Bailur

I retired from active service in 2005 after three surgeries to my left eye for retinal detachment. Of my parents, who I had taken care of throughout my professional life, my father died in 2002. His influence on me was both malign and persistent, spread over forty years. The lifting of that heavy burden that was the consequence of his death unfortunately did not sort out matters as well as I would have wished. My mother demanded special attention and a home of her own in which I should live with her rather than in my own home. That was not possible. The matter continued to fester till 2015 when she finally passed away. Both were influences in my life that dragged my potential down for decades.

I have written since as long ago as 1968 when I first did a music concert review for a local English newspaper in Lucknow, as a college student. There were long years of desolation in my life dealing with my personal problems that prevented any useful work when I was working for the State Bank of India. Bank managers don't write articles.

And yet during my four years with the Economic and Statistical Research Department of the State Bank, I managed a first rough outline of a novel that I titled, "Safe Custody". It is yet to see the light of day. This was interspersed with articles on various subjects, some of which found favour with newspapers and magazines. Many of them were on Macro-Economic issues. Some were on scientific developments like Diamond Film, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Some others, that did not find favour, and remain in my files, were on concepts like turning metropolitan sewage especially faecal matter into biogas for use as fuel, and developing what I imagined were "revolutionary concepts" like a wing cross section for an aircraft that saved fuel, and a vertical shaft windmill design that could be put atop skyscrapers to generate electricity. I even dabbled in a medical "discovery", that eventually led to Stanley Prusiner winning a Nobel some years later.

In essence, I have been a restless mind that has not been able to stay the course for want of adequate support.

Then quite by chance a suggestion came to me about writing an article on cloning when the story of Dolly the sheep made world headlines. I wrote the article. I was not satisfied with it. It was too involved and pretended to an understanding of science at a level that did not meet with layman standards. Also, it was too long. This was at a time when I was trapped in that famous cloudburst that hit Bombay some time in 2006. I was stuck in my hilltop home in a small place called Dapoli in Ratnagiri district where the rain is about twice as intense as it is in Bombay. I was under a waterfall that hammered down on my roof for a week.

During that week, I sat down to try out an outline of a novel that brought together two diverse threads. The serious part was about human cloning, because it involved hard science. The more entertaining part was that the cloning involved humans, more specifically a famous actress of the fifties and early sixties – Madhubala. The aim was to make a science fiction story appealing to the masses. This was written specifically to be fiction, unlike my first attempt "Safe Custody" which is a sort of "Alternative History" of a political kind.

My biggest difficulty, it turned out, was with the writing of dialogue. I was no good at it. It has taken me years of practising the art of dialogue writing and to this day I am not confident about being realistic enough when I write it. For almost ten years after I wrote that first novel, I could find no publisher for it. Even ten years later in 2017 there was no constructive suggestion about how I should go about getting my novel published.

Sharad Bailur with Mayank Bhatt at the
latter's home in Toronto

Continued in the post below

Authors don't retire - 2

Sharad Bailur remembers his exciting journey to authorhood
Continued from the post above

And then Mayank Chhaya happened to me. He had been a journalist working in Bombay at the time I was heading Public Relations for the State Bank of India and we were vaguely familiar with each other's names. We rediscovered each other on Facebook after almost three decades. He apparently liked what I wrote on Facebook and asked if I had done any serious writing. I sent him the manuscripts of both my novels. He liked them both. And then he suggested that I self-publish them on Amazon.

Since I knew nothing about self-publishing, he offered to help. He then designed the cover for "TheTelomere Problem", my attempt at science fiction, and we gingerly launched it sometime in the middle of 2018, expecting some highly involved scientific criticism refuting the idea. None came. That was a first step. I did not expect it to do too well. It did not. It continues to tick along because it is specially written for a niche market that understands science more than fiction. And that market is microscopic, even by world standards.

So, I decided on a new novel. It was titled "The House on Pali Hill". This time it would be a straight murder mystery. It began with a conventional story of a murder being committed and then the perpetrator found out. I was dissatisfied. The murderer should not commit the murder. He should only conspire.  He should subcontract it to someone who know how to do such "jobs". Still not good enough. The murderer should be murdered!

After all even Hitchcock had tried that in "Dial M For Murder". And it had worked. Then again, there is an undercurrent of incest in Indian social life. I call it the Bhai-Behen phenomenon. I decided to add a soup├žon of that to spice up the story. Like the earlier novel this one took on a life of its own and went into territory I knew little about. I had to invent as I wrote. This was new to me. But I have noticed this happening to most of whatever fiction I have written. It turned out to be too short - just about 17,000 words. So, I decided to add a second story to the first. That came a cropper because it was on an altogether different theme. And yet it was closely related to "The House on Pali Hill". So, I decided to break them up into two separate novels and to call the second, "Darkness at Midnight".

But I have made it clear that "Darkness at Midnight" takes off where "The House on Pali Hill" left off. In fact, that house features prominently in "Darkness at Midnight", as well. I have also ensured that a large number of my invented characters are a common feature in the entire series of six. This should encourage the reading of the other novels in the series. "Darkness at Midnight" has just been launched. In it, I venture, with trepidation, into the issue of National Security.

In essence, I have, sort of, blundered into the writing of novels, because my articles did not get much purchase, and I love to write. Also writing novels does not restrict the writing when you are in full flow and the inspiration comes out in a gush. There is no upper limit to the size of novels.

To this day I insist that the money my novel writing makes is not of much importance. It is a mere added bonus, if that. What is of importance is that it keeps my mind active searching, always searching, for new avenues for writing and subjects on which to write my novels. And for the first time I have never been happier with my life.

For all of this, I must place on record my gratitude to Mayank Chhaya who takes care of the publishing end. I have been insisting that he deserves at least fifty percent of the earnings. He is adamant that he wants not a penny. There are very few friends like Mayank Chhaya. And, incidentally, I am not trained is Science, or Security or any of the other subjects I deal with. I read them up before I write.

My next offering involves the poisoning of the entire populations of Delhi and Agra including the top political and Armed Forces leadership of the country. It will be titled, "Not a Drop To Drink". I then turn my attention to the "Swami-Baba-Sant" phenomenon that bedevils the minds of the people. I have titled that "Agehananda". After that comes an attempt to sabotage our uranium mines and the smuggling of arms using the Lakshadweep as base. It is titled, "My Name is Kutty, Baby Kutty." And then will come the last one titled, "Irongate- Athena" based on a fictional attempt to sabotage our nuclear centrifuges. If it is possible, I will finish off this long effort by getting my first novel, "Safe Custody" published last.

What is my next subject or field? I find Space Travel boring. Most of it is limited to Newtonian Physics and involves humans. It is difficult to write on Time-travel because it involves concepts like Entropy which flummoxes even highly intelligent and trained minds. Aviation, perhaps. Or Shipping and the Navy. And there is always that old staple – science fiction in a non-space setting.

Do I have a "writing style"? I don't really know what writing style all is about. Some write contrived stuff based on the styles of older well-known writers. My father wrote in the style of HG Wells. I write as I think and have come to regard "style" merely as a sort of mental shortcut to words, and sentence construction, that one resorts to most often. Style as I understand it, is a form of mental laziness. I try to avoid it. Unsuccessfully, so I am told.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 29

Tahir Gora and Haleema Sadia have been successfully running the multicultural television channel TAG TV now for nearly five years. I have had the privilege of knowing them ever since I was involved with the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts; Munir Parvez introduced me to them.

I found Tahir to be a soft-spoken, decent human being with strong convictions on human rights and civil liberties. He openly supports the Conservative Party of Canada and holds hawkish views on religious radicalisation and is critical of those he considers are apologists for such forces in developed societies of the west. However, he is also a thoroughly professional journalist and never lets his personal political views come in the way of the news coverage on his channel.

In 2015, at a get together that I organised when Kumar Ketkar came visiting, Tahir suggested that I should do a program on his channel. He suggested a name, Living Multiculturalism, to the show and said I should interview authors and poets in Toronto who live and create in the multicultural milieu. It was exciting and I at once agreed. 

I figured I could run the show at least for a year just talking to my friends. And that’s how it turned out – I did most of the interviews in 2016 and then took a prolonged break before recommencing in 2017. Unfortunately, my health concerns prevented me from doing more than 25 interviews.

I interviewed the following creators

  • Diana Tso, playwright, actor
  • Dawn Promislow, author
  • Danila Botha, author
  • Amatoritsero Ede, author, poet, editor
  • Sang Kim, chef, author, curator, tutor
  • Farzana Doctor, author, curator
  • Katherine Govier, author, activist, Rasha Elendari, Camila Uriona, Shoe Project participants
  • Loren Edizel, author
  • Mehdi Rezania, musician, professor
  • Jael Richardson, author, curator, artistic director
  • Michael Fraser, poet
  • Haniely Pableo, musician
  • Lisa de Nikolits, author 
  • Banoo Zan, poet
  • Jasmine D’Costa, author
  • Ali Adil Khan, curator
  • Andrea Thompson, spoken word artist
  • Safia Fazlul, author
  • Meena Chopra, poet, artist
  • Ravi Naimpally, musician
  • Sid Sawant, actor
  • Tahir Gora, author, journalist
  • Daisuke Takeya, artist
  • Tushan Unnadkat, curator
  • Mariam Pirbhai, author

Through these interviews, we attempted to create space for voices that are generally ignored by the mainstream Canada. In retrospect, I think it’s attempts such as these that truly make multiculturalism in Canada meaningful and while I don’t claim that Living Multiculturalism was able to encompass Canadian multiculturalism in all its complex facets, it was a small step in that direction.

The entire series is available here: Living Multiculturalism

My interviews on TAG TV assisted in creating a buzz around the launch of my debut novel Belief. Mawenzi House quietly announced it in July 2016 on twitter. TAGV TV and Tahir created a special program for the launch of my debut novel Belief on TAG TV and invited prominent authors and poets from the South Asian community to discuss the novel.

Haleema, who’d actually read the book, conducted the interview and asked incisive questions. Then, she opened up the session for discussions. Many participants discussed several aspects of the theme of the book – the turmoil that a family experiences when their son is involved in what the west describes as a terrorist plot.

It was important for me to have this platform that Tahir created for me because I was able to reach out to a religious minority (both in Canada and in India) that is stigmatized and often ostracised for no other reason except that they belong to a religion.

And to my satisfaction, I realized that I’d succeeded in portraying a recurring phenomenon in our societies from a different perspective that at least compelled some readers to look at it more as a human tragedy rather that from a binary prism of good or evil.

In 2016, the same year that my debut novel was launched, there were a number of great books that I read. Three that stood out were Andre Alexi’s Fifteen Dogs, Tahir Gora’s Rang Mahal, and Ruchira Gupta’s Rivers of Flesh.

Alexi’s novel was published in 2015, but I read it only in 2016. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the best novels of this decade. At a particularly poignant moment in the novel, Majnoun, one of the 15 canines who has developed humanlike faculties of thought and speech, thanks to a wager between Hermes and Apollo, describes to Nira, his female human friend, what to a male canine is a perfect dilemma: to choose between two compelling desires of sex and hunger.

– Do dogs have stories? Nira asked him one day.
– Of course, said Majnoun.
– Oh, Maj! said Nira. Please tell me one.

Majnoun agreed and began.

There – There is the smell of bitch, but I am before a wall. The smell is strong, and I am going mad. I can’t eat. I can’t drink. The wall is too thick to knock down and it goes for miles in this direction and for miles in that direction. I dig under and I dig and I dig. The master cannot see my digging, so I dig until there is air beneath the wall and the smell of the bitch is stronger than it was before. I call to the bitch but there is no answer. But there is air beneath the wall. Should I go on digging? I don’t know, but I dig even though I can smell the master’s food from his house. The smell of bitch is stronger and stronger. I call out, but now I am hungry.

Here Majnoun stopped.

– Is that it? Asked Nira.
– Yes, said Majnoun. Do you not like it?
– Well, it’s…different, said Nira. But it doesn’t really have an ending.
– It has a very moving ending, said Majnoun. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?

Tahir’s Rang Mahal is equally pathbreaking. I read the Hindi translation of the original Urdu; it deserves to be translated into English and other languages.

Rang Mahal challenges common precepts of fiction on all its fundamentals – there is no plot, there is no linearity, no continuity and no conclusions; there is a cinematic depiction of the external surroundings that at once stimulates one’s senses – the reader experiences smells, colours, taste and touch in all its sensuousness as well as its coarseness.

The narrative also dwells deeply into the thought processes of the characters, revealing a subliminal depth and liminal uncertainty. The characters are sophisticated and yet raw, uncouth, seething with passionate anger. Their anger is directed more against themselves rather than at the world. This anger has its roots in the utter hopelessness that they experience as individuals (not necessarily as immigrants) who find themselves in situations that they help create but also wish to quickly and permanently escape from forever.

Activist Ruchira Gupta compiled a collection of Indian short stories on the theme of sex workers. Rivers of Flesh and other stories: The prostituted women in Indian short stories. The unifying theme of all the stories is the inherently exploitative relationship that prostitution imposes on the woman.

Ujjal Dosanjh’s memoirs Journey After Midnight was also launched in Toronto in 2016. It narrates the harrowing attack on him for speaking out openly against Khalistani terrorists. I also read the phenomenal The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It is quite simply a masterpiece.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 28

Celebrating Che's 19th birthday at Montana steakhouse
I’ve been writing these blogs on my decade in Toronto since 2018. When I began, I’d hoped to complete the entire narrative of ten years in 52 weeks. But as that line from Robert Burns’s poem To the Mouse famously predicts, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley,” my resolve crumbled in the face of rapidly changing circumstances sometime in the spring 2018.

And a project that was to be completed last December, continues to drag.

Che: from adolescence to adulthood
Recently, I also complied all the posts into a Word document and realised that I’ve put together over 30,000 words so far (2008 to 2016) and I guess, when this exercise will be completed, it’ll all add up to nearly 40,000 words. In these days of shortening attention spans and the habit of reading falling side, 40,000 words is about the right sort of length for a decade of life.

Upon re-reading some of the posts, two things struck me:

The first was that most of the posts are based on my blog, which is sort of obvious because I’ve been blogging for the last decade, and the blog has become some sort of an unofficial journal, albeit one that mainly focuses on books and authors, poets, and book-related events.

To overcome that anomaly, I’ve taken some inputs from Facebook, to connect the narrative to my life, and to provide some context to the changes in my life in the last decade with what happened in the world.

I’m skeptical whether I’ve succeeded.  

The second was that I realized that this is a sanitized version of my life in Toronto, and I’ve kept out unpleasantness. I’ve commented on this briefly in one of my earlier posts, too. Nobody’s life is without unpleasantness, mine is no exception; if you’re looking for a life without unpleasantness, you’re likely to find it only on Instagram.

We choose not to dwell too much on unpleasantness primarily because those experiences are caused by our own expectations; expectation of what we want others to do for us or not do to us. And these others are not strangers that we exchange glances with and nod ever-so-slightly to on public transit, but people we consider our own – family, friends, co-workers, neighbours.

Before I’m accused of transmogrifying into a fake Baba, a sort of Buddha of Suburbia (and suburbia here being Toronto’s West End), let me quickly return to the narrative, with just a brief digression: I interviewed Hanif Kureshi after his debut novel was launched in India for The Daily at Strand Books. He was mildly annoyed at everyone constantly referring to him as following Rushdie’s footsteps.

I want to focus on the arts (mostly popular) in this post.

Popular Hindi cinema is a passion for both Mahrukh and I. We don’t miss any opportunity to go to a Hindi movie, especially if it has one of the three Khans in it. Lately, of course, two of the three Khans have only given duds, but they remain our perennial favourites.

All the three Khans gave memorable films in 2016. Fan was Shahrukh Khan’s valiant effort to move away from the stereotypical roles and do what he perceived to be different and challenging. It bombed comprehensively. Perhaps not as badly as his 2018 dud Zero. But Aamir Khan’s Dangal and Salman Khan’s Sultan (both based on wrestling theme) were tremendous hits.

I’ve found the moviegoing experience in Toronto so unique that I’m always tempted to write about it every time I go to see a movie. After going to the downmarket Albion cinema to watch Hindi movies for the first couple of years, we changed over to the Cineplex at Yonge and Dundas.

Here’s a brief passage of what I wrote about the cinema venue when we went to see Dangal:

I’d have thought that the first-generation immigrants such as Mahrukh and I would comprise a majority of the audience at the Cineplex in downtown Toronto because that is the kind of audience that comes to see Hindi movie in cinema halls.

However, for Dangal there were a good number of second and third generation Indo-Canadians, and a substantial number of students from India enrolled in Canadian universities.

All making for a rather raucous audience that was totally involved in the film; clapping, cheering, grunting, sighing and exhaling as the story unfolded.

Wisely, Cineplex had permitted audiences to get in half-an-hour before the show time, and the sprawling hall for screen 13 had filled up in no time. Once again, the sight of so many northeastern Indians surprised me.

A lot of nachos were being consumed, and a lot of Coke was being drunk. The smell of food was at once overpowering and nauseating.

In addition, there was almost a muted roar inside the hall; this is because wherever there are Indians, there is immense and unceasing chattering. As the movie began, there were a few whistles and a lot of clapping when Aamir Khan came on the screen.

For a more involved piece, I suggest you read the post on The Sultan Experience in Toronto. Salman Khan is one-of-a-kind, helluva of superstar. The audience participation for any of his film is qualitatively different.

2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and it was a great reason to write about Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogyMaqbool (2003, based on Macbeth), Omkara (2006, based on Othello) and Haider (2014, based on Hamlet). Street Soldiers, a local, Toronto production, was an exceptional film that handled the drug scene in Toronto with a rare maturity and panache. Some of the actors in the film were theatre veterans (from the SAWITRI Theatre) and their performances were expectedly stellar.

In 2016, I suggested to Tushar Unnadkat, who’d been given charge of the annual community festival organised at Gerrard Street’s Little India. I suggested to him to have a literary component to the festival and he invited me to organise and moderate a panel discussion on South Asian Canadian theatre. He agreed with his usual alacrity. I invited all the South Asian theatre veterans I knew to participate in the panel discussion.

Panelists at the discussion
(l to r: Dalbir, Jasmine, Ravi, Andy and Sally)
The panelists were: Jasmine Sawant, actor, producer, writer, manager, and the Co-Founder and Artistic Co-Director of the award-winning SAWITRI Theatre Group, based in Mississauga; Jawaid Danish, a playwright-poet and translator, and the artistic Director of Rangmanch-Canada, a not for profit Indian Theatrical Group; Ravi Jain is a Toronto-based stage writer, director, performer who works in both small indie productions and large commercial theatre; and Dalbir Singh, a PhD Candidate in Theatre and South Asian studies at the University of Toronto, and recipient of the Heather McCallum award for Emerging Scholars. 

At the panel discussion, we were also joined by Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah (both of SAWITRI), Andy Hazra of York University, Sally Jones of Rasik Arts, and Tushar Unadkat. I’d also suggested to invite Rahul Verma of Teesri Duniya from Montreal for the discussion, but budgetary constraints prevented his participation.

It was a fruitful and engaging discussion that explored the limitations, challenges and prospects of the topic we decided to discuss. The focal point was what is South Asian and what is Canadian, and does the canon have space for non-English language theatre. I’d urge you to read a report on the discussion here: South Asian Canadian theatre

That year, Ravi Jain’s company also brought Piya Baharupiya (Hindi adaption of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) to Toronto, and SAWITRI brought Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhure. Both were exceptionally good.

Monday, March 11, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 27

March 2016
In 2012, my family physician Dr. Bertram Wing King asked me whether I felt tired all the time. I replied in a matter of fact manner, saying that I couldn’t afford to be tired. And it was true. When you immigrate to Canada when you’re past the median age, it’s difficult to settle quickly and acquire a lifestyle that one is accustomed to back home.

So, both Mahrukh and I had to do whatever it took to acquire a comfortable lifestyle for us. Not having – and not wanting to have – a car helped immensely. The resultant sacrifice – of long commutes, which tend to be horrible in the winter, and an utter ignorance of the self-realisation inducing long drives on the highways.

I was being factual when I responded to my family physician. I genuinely couldn’t afford to be tired. Dr. King was worried about my kidneys. But I got caught up with a million things and health was put on the backburner.

June 2016
Then four years later, in 2016, I went to get my foot checked. I’d sprained it and the pain continued seemingly endlessly.  He recommended blood tests and when the results came in, he immediately told me to go see Dr. Melvin Silverman, a nephrologist – a kidney specialist.

Dr. Silverman saw the test results and told me that my creatinine levels were abnormally high. As the kidneys become impaired for any reason, the creatinine level in the blood will rise due to poor clearance of creatinine by the kidneys.

Abnormally high levels of creatinine thus warn of possible malfunction or failure of the kidneys. It is for this reason that standard blood tests routinely check the amount of creatinine in the blood.

September 2016
Dr. Silverman said I had Glomerulonephritis, which is an inflammation of the glomeruli, which are structures in one’s kidneys that are made up of tiny blood vessels. These knots of vessels help filter blood and remove excess fluids. If the glomeruli are damaged, the kidneys will stop working properly and one can go into kidney failure.

Glomerulonephritis is a serious illness that can be life-threatening and requires immediate treatment. The condition is sometimes called nephritis. There can be both acute (sudden) glomerulonephritis and chronic (long-term or recurring) glomerulonephritis.

Apparently, the only manifestation of this abnormality is a sudden loss of weight, and 2016 at the Annual Gala of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, everyone commented on how thin I'd become. 

The specialist recommended biopsy just to check the problem wasn’t malignant. In September 2019 I was admitted for a day at St. Michael’s Hospital for a biopsy. Fortunately, the kidney failure wasn’t cancerous and was only a localised phenomenon.

However, it forever and almost completely changed my life. For starters, my diet changed. I was no longer supposed to have a protein rich diet because my kidneys couldn’t process protein adequately. I changed over to having salad for lunch, and fruits. I was instructed to exercise, which I did for about a week and then stopped.

My kidneys were smaller than they were supposed to be, and perhaps the only reason I could think of for their malformation was the serious bout of pneumonia as a baby; apparently it was so severe that it caused swelling of my kidneys. The illness had two long-lasting effects on my health. The first was my teeth, which didn’t grow normally after my milk teeth fell (and about which I will write when I come to 2017), and the other was the failure of my kidneys.

The biggest impact of this condition was mental; almost overnight, I became mentally old. My outlook to life changed. There was a growing impatience but also a sense of acceptance of life in its many and myriad forms. I was no longer eager as before to change my circumstances and strangely I wasn’t willing to accept them either.

My condition had a salutary affect on my relationship with Mahrukh and especially with Che. Mahrukh has taken pains to ensure that I get the right diet every day, and for that she has worked hard; Che grew up to shoulder more responsibilities. Gradually, over the next year or so, he also realised the necessity for having a proper training and education.

2016 was to become a big year for me in Canada. It was the year when I finally became a published novelist.