& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, June 08, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 31

With Mahrukh at
The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD)
May 2017

I return to A Decade in Toronto after a long gap. 

The story of my decade has reached the ninth year - 2017 - and life in Canada became predictable, routine, mundane.

The publication of my debut novel in 2016 was a turning point. I was invited to many readings and the one that I enjoyed the most was chatting with Saima Hussain at the Mississauga Central Library. Saima edited a collection of personal stories by Muslim women The Muslimah who fell to earth, which Mawenzi House published in 2016, along with Belief.

I bought table space at the Word on the Street in the hope that I’d be able to sell my book, but – unsurprisingly – didn’t sell enough copies to justify the steep price I paid. Undeterred, I also took a table space at Brampton Book Bash (organised by FOLD) and sold nearly two dozen copies.

In 2017 spring, after I was featured at the Festival of Literary Diversity, my friend Gavin Barrett – who came to nearly all my readings, and who couldn’t make it to FOLD – wrote to me about an idea he had of organizing a reading series. Without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed.  

Gavin named it the Tartan Turban Secret Reading Series (Tartan Turban is the logo of the advertising agency Barrett & Welsh – where Gavin is the co-founder, partner and creative head) and we started in May 2017 (18 May 2017).

Gavin had obviously put a lot of thought into what he wanted the series to be and evolve into. In his own words, “The Tartan Turban Secret Readings celebrate and support writing by multicultural/visible minority Canadian writers with a special focus on those who self-identify as black, indigenous or people of colour, who have few such platforms.

“At the same time, all writers who want to celebrate Canada’s multiculturalism, diversity and indigenous heritage, and have talent to share are warmly welcomed. Please feel free to bring any of your friends of every minority whether "visible" or otherwise - non-minorities are warmly welcomed too.”

When we launched the series, we planned to do a few readings during the summer of 2017 and then when the season changed, to bring down the curtain. However, the series caught on with the literary community and there was no way we could just stop.

Two years later, it continues to grow. I believe the main reason for its popularity is that Gavin invites an author/poet to curate the series, and then she invites six other authors/poets to read. This brings variety to the series.

I must shamefacedly admit that I share the credit for an immensely impactful, relevant, and popular program for which my only occasional contribution is to suggest names of authors who may be invited to read or curate.

Gavin does everything – including arranging for wine and samosas – and all I do is just show up for the readings.

Our lives are strange in many ways and the strangest is the way we make friends. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, someone becomes a friend and even when one doesn’t meet or interact with this person for long periods of time, or even consistently, s/he remains a friend that one thinks of first on a special occasion or when something important happens in one’s life.

Gavin Barrett is that friend. I have written extensively about him here and if you are interested, you may read all about Gavin on GAB here:


2017 was an important year because it was the seventieth year of India’s independence. It was the centenary year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; also, the centenary of Indira Gandhi (To read the post, click here: She knew India’s heartbeat).

It was 50 years since Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia (and 20 years since his remains were discovered); also, 50 years of India’s Maoist Naxalbari movement.

Many who contributed to our culture passed away into history. Among them were actors Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, and Om Puri. All great actors and stars. Shashi Kapoor was a bit more special to me than the others and I couldn’t help but blog about him (To read the post, click here: Shashi Kapoor).  

Musicians Girija Devi (Hindustani classical vocalist), Gord Downie; journalists Gauri Lankesh (murdered by Hindutva terrorists) and Piroj Wadia (a dear friend. To read the post, click here: Piroj Wadia). Poet Eunice de Souza, who I had the privilege of knowing briefly when I worked at the Indian Post with Veena Gokhale, among others, and Eunice was the editor of the literary page.

We also lost authors Robert Pirsig and Bharati Mukherjee. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (To read the post, click here: Zen) is an important book that I read two times – first when I was in my late teens and then in my late twenties – and it was only upon the second reading that I understood it.

Winter morning in Brampton 

In 2017, I gifted the book to my then colleague, who in jest told me she needed Zen more than Yoga.

I want to briefly segue into an issue that is misinterpreted often deliberately by newcomers to Canada. Nearly all newcomers to Canada feel that their qualifications and experience are ignored because they lack what is euphemistically termed as “Canadian experience”.  

Now let me narrate the experience of my former colleague’s husband (the colleague to whom I gifted Pirsig’s book). He is a Caucasian Canadian, born and raised in Canada, studied to become an engineer, and served in the Canadian Armed Forces in the Balkans and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One would imagine than upon his return to civilian life, he would be welcomed by our people and would easily get a job matched his engineering qualification and incredible experience of having served the nation.

However, that is not what happened. Neither does his present job reflect his qualifications, nor his abilities and experience.

If our system cannot take care of our veterans, there will be many who will legitimately ask, “Why should then Canada give favoured treatment to refugees and immigrants?”

Until we don’t have a satisfactory and logical answer to this question, the issue of immigration will continue to be polarising and it will always turn ugly and emotive.

During my days as a journalist, I’ve seen exclusivist political formulations demand protection of the rights of the native people (sons of the soil). In today’s context, the forces that oppose immigration globally represent the same values.

However, unless there is a real solution to securing economic opportunities for the native people, the ire against immigrants and refugees will rise, not dissipate.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Narendra Modi wins India

Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India is comprehensive. In the heat of the campaigning, some of us who didn’t want him to win, believed (actually, fervently wished) that he’d form a minority government. In retrospect, it may appear that the Modi baiters were willfully ignoring signs that he would sweep the elections.

In January 2019, I was in New Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bombay and nearly everyone who I spoke to – the cab driver, the hotel manager, the official at the chamber of commerce, the director of a think tank, an academic, a former diplomat, a serving diplomat, journalists, nearly everyone in India, when asked for an unbiased viewpoint, confessed that Modi would return.

In many post-election analysis, the following arguments are being made:

1. The victory margin would’ve surprised even the most ardent Modi acolytes.

The massive mandate in favour of Modi shows that the Hindutva juggernaut – led by Modi and Amit Shah, two battle-hardened veterans – was working to a clear plan: unprecedented victory, and a pan-India sweep.

2. Modi appealed to the Hindu identity and focused on religion rather than the not-entirely-dubious record of his government.

The indisputable fact is that the appeal of Hindu identity cut across all traditional electoral barriers everywhere (except the south) and gave Modi the result that he knew he’d get.

Modi’s strategy – which he has perfected since his ascendency from 2002 onward – is three pronged.

  • Coalesce the Hindu identity by the simple act of identifying an external enemy (terrorism abating Pakistan) and an internal enemy (beef-eating Muslims). 

  • Then, attribute the perceived marginalisation of the Hindus to the secular policies that the previous governments followed, which led to the appeasement of the minorities (both religious and caste-based).

So, when Muslims were being lynched in some parts of India and the urban elite took to the streets with #NotInMyName banners, the Modi supporter derisively dismissed their concerns as hyperbolic and exaggerated; and defiantly indulge in whataboutery – “Why the silence over the massacre of jawans in Pulwama?”

The India that voted for Modi is the one that has seethed with rage at the urban elite’s control over the levers of power in the post-independence era. According to the Modi voter, this urban elite – educated in English language – asphyxiated the aspirations of hundreds of millions of Indians struggling to survive. Worse, they – the elite – let a corrupt political class emerge and let it run rampage for 70+ years, milking India dry.

Post-2019 victory, the Modi supporters are openly saying that India is a Hindu civilisation, just as most western democracies are all a part of Christian civilisation. These countries, while democratic, keep their Christian identity. And that the BJP is a Hindu version of the Christian democratic parties that flourished in these democracies.

The corollary is there is nothing wrong for India to promote its Hindu character while broadly adhering to democratic norms. Democracy by this logic is tantamount to nothing more than majoritarianism.

Taking a leaf from the Indira Gandhi style of mass politics (Garibi Hatao, 1971), Modi projected himself as the only leader who mattered, who could deliver and the only saviour of all Hindus. It paid rich dividends because people of India voted for Modi, without looking at the local representative.

So, what does the Modi victory mean for India? The idea of India will be transformed and will acquire a distinct saffron hue. India will happily say goodbye to secularism during the next five years, just as India bade farewell to socialism in 1992.

And as had happened with socialism, when India firmly took to a free market economic model, the leaders continued to profess undying adherence to socialist values; Indian leaders will continue to profess their adherence to secular values, even as they India into a Hindu Rashtra.

While there’s absolutely nothing secularists can do about this transformation, one hopes that Modi would now have the gumption to bring about fundamental changes in improving the quality of life of rural Indians.

The World Poverty Clock (https://worldpoverty.io) estimates that “the number of Indians living on less than $1.90 (considered “extreme poor” by the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda) has fallen from 306 million in 2011 to some 70 million in 2018.”

By early 2021, it forecast that the number of Indians living in extreme poverty will fall below 3% of the population, a benchmark which some development economists consider a watershed moment in a country’s efforts to eradicate extreme poverty.” (source: https://worldpoverty.io/blog/index.php?r=14)

In 2017, when I went to India (my third trip to India since my immigration), I met a cross-section of Indians to understand Modi’s India. I wrote a four-part series,

Modi’s India 2: The angry Hindu

Modi’s India 3: Controlling the mind-space

Modi’s India 4: Hail Hindutva

and upon re-reading the series, what strikes me is that even then, into the third year of Modi regime, there were obvious signs that his sway over India and Indians was complete, unassailable, and unlikely to diminish for a long time.