& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Jaipur Literature festival - Toronto

The Jaipur Literature Festival came to Toronto with a day-long program at the Young Centre in the Distillery District. Of a dozen or so panel discussions and chats, I participated in three and missed one.

Meenakshi Alimchandani interviewed MG Vassanji on his novel A Delhi Obsession (2019). His ninth novel is an exploration of history, memory, and identity, the broad themes that are integral to everything that he has written.

Vassanji has a rare skill to mask his piercing observations on contemporary society with a wry sense of humour. In his new novel (which I haven’t yet read) he returns to India and to Delhi. His part memoir, part travelogue, part ruminations on identity, religion and culture, A Place Within: Rediscovering India, won the Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction (2009).

He is both an insider and an outsider in India. A product of the syncretic culture, where identities are not rigidly defined, he is forever abhorrent of the Indian obsession to compartmentalise everyone into religious and caste categories.

He describes his unease with identity thus: “I find the labels ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ discomforting because they are so exclusive. They have not defined people for me in Africa (where we were simply called ‘Wahindi’ Indians), in the United States (where I lived for some years), or in Canada. I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ only in the context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence.

Despite being a two-time winner of the Giller and several prestigious awards, Vassanji is an undervalued and underappreciated Canadian master. The Jaipur Literary Festival organisers did the right thing by having Vassanji talk about his book; they could not have thought of a better way to kick-off the Toronto edition of the festival.

John Ralston Saul is another underappreciated genius. Among the most vocal votaries of the rights of the indigenous people of Canada, Saul’s latest book Comeback argues that Canada would be a better place if it acknowledges and respects the rights of the local people.

In a freewheeling conversation with Daniel Lak (Al Jazeera), Saul spoke about the revival of the indigenous civilisation and culture and how it will be beneficial to Canada’s future, if only Canadians don’t interfere with the natural growth trajectory of the indigenous people.

I’ve read Saul’s A Fair Country (2008), in which he argues that Canada is a Métis nation (as opposed to a ‘western’ nation) that has been shaped by aboriginal ideas of egalitarianism and nonviolence.

The book successfully explains the absence in Canada of the dilemmas of identity, the existence of the ‘other’ in a society of multiple minorities that dominate other western societies.

Finally, William Dalrymple, Suketu Mehta, Pico Iyer and Andre Aciman read passages from their travelogues. Mehta read about the onset of the wonderous Bombay monsoon (from Maximum City, 2005); Dalrymple read a passage From the Holy Mountain (1997), that deals with the affairs of the Eastern Christians; Aciman read about the permanent nature of exile, where an exile continues to search for home and is never able to find one; and Iyer read a passage from his book about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Japan.

I was keen to listen Farzana Doctor speak to Shree Paradkar in Dictionaries of Desire, but it was too late in the evening and I’m now too old to spend an entire day out, even it is for contemporary literature.

Recently, I also went to the Munk Centre to listen Ramchandra Guha speak about the four faultlines of the Indian Republic. Guha is a secular scholar who has written on a number of Indian subjects including the environment, cricket, Indian history and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

According to Guha, the four faultlines are:
  • Deepening religious division
  • Persisting social inequality – caste, gender, tribal
  • Environmental degradation
  • Degradation of our public institutions

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Bombay Rose - Gitanjali Rao

Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose is a melange of quintessential Bombay – people and places, and sights and sounds – in all its cosmopolitan, egalitarian miasma. Both the city and the film are a place where distinctions between good and evil blur because they don’t matter.

Love is a momentary fantasy, an all-too-brief interlude between the grim certainty and the crusty, caked grime that covers the city and the lives of its people. The Bombay of Bombay Rose is a place where there's hope, but it has to be stolen from the sweeping and melancholic hopelessness of utter destitution.

Set in a traditional gaothan, that small, defiant village that refuses to change with time, and is unconcerned of the bustling megapolis that surrounds it, the film has a rough hewn authenticity to it because the filmmaker has hand-painted all the scenes. Computer animation would've turned this soulful tale kitschy. 

Bombay Rose is a bunch of stories of people who have been left behind. They belong to the dark underbelly of the City of Gold that prefers to focus on glitz, glamour and wealth. Bombay Rose is the world of hand-pulled carts, slave children, wasted men, and demure yet defiant women.

A homeless immigrant family comprising a grandfather and two granddaughters exist on Bombay’s pavements. Kamala, the older granddaughter, makes and sells mogra gajras (jasmine garlands) on the street, outside their shanty. The grandfather is disguisedly unemployed. He has a makeshift shop where he repairs watches that people stopped wearing a long time ago, and so just whiles away his time smoking beedis and sipping cutting chai.

On the other side of the road is a paan-beedi shop owned and operated by Mishraji, another immigrant to Bombay. Salim, a newcomer, has come from Kashmir (it’s no longer a paradise, he says, it’s somewhere between jannat and jahanum – heaven and hell).

Kamala toils hard to ensure that her young sister Tara gets the opportunities she deserves to get ahead in life. Tara goes to a local convent school and gets coaching in English from Ms. Shirley D’Souza, a cat-loving, idiosyncratic Catholic spinster, who lives in the past, and adores young Tara.

Shirley spends her time reminiscing about her days in cinema, when it was more colourful perhaps because it was black and white. Anthony, an antique shop owner doubling up as a pawn dealer, buys useless (but not valueless) knickknacks from Shirley, and flirts with her in the hope of getting her piano.

Tara befriends a young boy who is on the run from the local police, tasked with preventing child labour. And there is Mike, a local tough, who wants to be Kamala’s saviour by pushing her into the sleazy world of dance bars, and promises to take her to Dubai.

Then, there is the Bollywood megastar Raja Khan. His chiselled body, larger than life screen persona and the masala-themed movies, provide the only escape from reality for immigrants to Bombay such as Salim. He drives a red-coloured sedan and casually drives away from an accident scene with impunity (just as Salman Khan did some years ago).

Salim & Kamala
Inevitably, Kamala and Salim fall in love in the middle of Bombay’s famed monsoon; both know the odds are against them but have the will to fight prejudice and destiny. Mike, the villain, is willing – almost eager – to kill Salim to prevent their love from flowering.

Along with the hand-painted scenes, the imaginative music – both background score and the songs – gives the film its strong and distinct identity and texture. The endearing Konkani ditty played intermittently throughout the film, and especially when Shirley cavorts around Anthony, enlivens their otherwise dreary lives.

Cucurrucucú Paloma, a refreshing, surprising choice, playing in the background is an apt finale to Shirley’s unfulfilled life. Kamala humming of a dirge-like love song about the Rewa (Narmada) river reflects her deadened desires, and the raucous, rhythmic drum beats, when the city celebrates its many festivals, form a constant, angry backdrop depicting the latent rage of most of its inhabitants.

Thematically, Bombay Rose is no different than a Bollywood masala, with all the staple ingredients such as song and dance, romance, and a heavy dose of melodrama. And yet, it transcends these formulaic barriers and rises to touch the crimson sky that envelopes the city everyday as the sun goes down.

Bombay Rose was shown at the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

Credits: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8435324/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

Thinking like an Oulipien

Guest Post

Review By Fraser Sutherland

Wishes: Georges Perec

Translated and transmogrified by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall
Wakefield Press 2018, 229 Pages, $17.95, ISBN 9781939663337

The day my review copy of George Perec’s Wishes arrived I had spent part of the time wondering what a Shakespearean sonnet would look like if it had been written by a sheep.

I sheepishly admit that I naturally didn’t get far with my woolly speculations. Other than the indefinite article (“ah”), Shakespeare’s lines tend to lack the short a, and anything resembling “baa baa black sheep” is nowhere in sight. Unwittingly, though, I was thinking the way Oulipians like Georges Perec do. They make up rules and obey them, come what may. As Jacques Roubaud says, “An Oulipian author is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.”

As a group, Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, “workshop of potential literature”) was co-founded about 1960 by the prose polymath Raymond Queneau and included Perec, whose most famous, or perhaps notorious, work is perhaps the book-length lipogram La Disparition, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void. The novel entirely dispenses with the letter e, the most frequently used alphabetical letter in French (and English.)

Oulipo rebelled against a heavyweight literary movement, surrealism.  In Perec’s words

At the OuLiPo
We prefer
The cocktails of Queneau
To the quenelles of Cocteau

If playfulness sometimes descends into sheer silliness, unlike surrealism or automatic writing it never becomes so mired in depth psychology so as to become humourless. Like surrealism, it specializes in opening doors to the unexpected. To that end, one of many Oulipian subversive tactics is “N +7”: each noun is replaced in a specified text by the seventh noun following it in a specified dictionary. Thus “To be or not to be: that is the question” becomes via Random House College Dictionary (1979) “To be or not to be: that is the quibble.”

Most of Oulipo’s members, except for the American expatriate Harry Mathews and the occasional elected luminary like Italo Calvino, have been French. France may be the only country ever to honour a merry band of literary jokers by issuing a postage stamp, which it did for Oulipo in 2002.

Oulipo’s predecessors or anticipators can be said to include Lewis Carroll, with his crazed logical consistency, and Alfred Jarry with his “pataphysics,” his so-called “science of imaginary solutions.” And one may as well throw in James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who share Oulipo’s devotion to puns. For an Oulipian, as for them, a pun is not just the source of a cheap laugh, but the repository of a complex truth. No wonder Oulipians adore the creative mishearings (to which personally I’ve always been prone) called mondegreens. In one of his works Perec tells of an elderly Russian Jew who arrives at Ellis Island. He’d been advised to choose an Americanized name to offer the immigration officers. Unfortunately for him, he nervously forgets Rockefeller, the name he had chosen, and stutters, “Schon vergessen” (“I’ve already forgotten.”) The officer puts down “John Ferguson.”

Between 1970 and 1982 Perec sent about 100 or so people New Year’s greetings in the form of short texts which, as Maurice Olender says in his Foreword to Wishes, raise “the pun to the level of punishment.” Especially, one may add, punishment of a hapless translator. Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall bravely copes with the abundant challenges posed by the texts by producing two versions, one a “semantic” translation focussing on meaning,” the other a “transmogrification…that renders the play (rather than the meaning) of Perec’s text into English.” Added to them are tables that list the words or phrases generating the text.  But, as Wythe-Hall admits, “to present direct homophonic renditions of Perec’s tables into English along with their semantic meaning is simply impossible.” She gets high marks for translating what are in effect translations of names, titles, proverbs, and clichés, like trying to solve a crossword puzzle with maddening clues.  Reading Wishes demands a lot of consulting back and forth.

One example: a table gives “Rare est rire aux rues” (“Rare is the laughter in the streets,”) which Wythe-Hall translates as  “A passerby remarks how exceptional it is to hear people laughing in the street.” “Les choses (the things), in a table is transmogrified to “Lay shows” in answer to the question “What should one say to a girl exiting a bedroom, her face flushed, her clothes wrinkled, and her hair disheveled?” Les choses is also the title of Perec’s first novel. Oulipians are prone to in-jokes.

Historically free verse came about as a liberation from imprisoning, rule-based end rhyme and metre. For the Oulipian the greater the constraints, the more fruitful can be the results: a complex verse form like the sestina is more productive than rhyming couplets. So is the cento, a poem composed of other poets’ lines. Oulipian procedures and processes can lead to wonderful imaginative discoveries. The Canadian poet Christian Bök won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize for his Eunoia (“beautiful thinking”) that includes five chapters, one for each vowel: “Awkward grammar appals a craftsman,” “Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech,” and so on. Still, the pursuit of literature would be tiresome, trivial, or ultimately sterile if it were confined to wordplay and language games, entertaining or rewarding as they often are.

Harry Mathews, author of the marvellously inventive and hilarious novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, came up with one of many Oulipian innovations, the “perverb,” a cross between two proverbs, e.g., “A rolling stone leads to Rome.”  

Which may be true. Nonetheless, all roads need to roam.


Biographical Note: Fraser Sutherland is a Canadian poet and lexicographer.  He’s published 17 books, 10 of them poetry collections, this year forthcoming Bad Habits (Mosaic Press.) He lives in Toronto.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 36

Karpur, Mahrukh and Che in Pune (2018)

‘A decade in Toronto’ series has occupied my mind for over a year now. Last year, I began recording vignettes of my life in Toronto since 2008. I had planned to write every week and conclude by end of December 2018.

However, it didn’t quite pan out the way I imagined it would. And the series has stretched on for an inordinately long time; mainly because of procrastination and my indiscipline.

I hope to end the series soon because I have broadly covered all important – and some not so important – incidents that have occurred in my life during the last decade. And I intend to devote some posts to general observations and that are connected to my life and from which a broader picture and larger themes of my life in Canada probably appear.

Broad themes such as immigration, settlement, multiculturalism, adjustment, and personal themes pertaining to middle-aged angst, building relationships, trust issues.

When I look back and read the posts from the series, two themes predominate my life in Canada – overwhelming help from strangers, and unceasing struggle against circumstances.

These themes are common to all immigrants. These themes build communities and make societies stronger. History has shown us that societies that don’t welcome immigrants, atrophy, and the one that that encourages immigrants retain vibrancy.

Canada is unique because of its easy acceptance of newcomers, but the anti-immigrant sentiment that is growing across the developed western economies has also begun to pervade the public discourse on the subject in Canada. And it is only a matter of time before Canada, too, succumbs to the pressure of restricting the flow of immigrants.

Our lives changed because we immigrated to Canada. We were able to do so because we belonged to the economically better off sections of the Indian society. Our motivation to immigrate had to do with our circumstances.

We believed then and we do so now, too, that immigrating to Canada would give our son the freedom to be himself, without the encumbrances of expectations about the choices he’d need to make in life. We believed – and do even now – that this freedom would have been severely curtailed in India. Another factor was economic opportunities.

Of course, life doesn’t let you decide everything, and it reserves some nasty surprises that it throws at you along the way. So, unexpectedly, when everything seemed to be going well, the proverbial hell broke loose.

Mahrukh couldn’t capitalise on her education and experience in social work and had to settle for what has turned out to be a gruelling retail job, Che developed anxiety disorder, and I was diagnosed with a kidney disorder that is irreversible.

Surprisingly, we found support at all levels and from everyone. For immigrants, the immediate circle of acquaintances become friends and before long friends turn into family. Mahrukh has that natural ability to make friends, it takes me a long time before I can call anyone a friend.

This is because I prefer to guard my privacy, but it’s been impossible to do so. People whom I’ve trusted and come to depend upon have breached my privacy with impunity that I find hard to believe, leave alone accept.

This breach of privacy began a long time ago in India, and continued in Canada, and by now it’s become all-pervasive and routine. Whether it’s colleagues or associates or people I call friends, my seniors, people who are community leaders – for just about anyone, my privacy is insignificant, if not a joke.

There was a time in my life when I’d be bothered by this constant intrusion, especially when people I genuinely respect didn’t think twice before deliberately mocking me by alluding to deeply personal matters about me and my family while talking to me.

I couldn’t understand then – and I don’t understand now – what I had done to any of these people (including my friends) that they seemed so eager to be hurtful every time I met them.
Some even went out of their ways to talk about my relationship with my wife and my mother; my son’s mental health condition and holding me responsible for it.

It seemed there was really no end to their viciousness.

Taking a cue from my large circle of friends and acquaintances, some of my seniors – again these are people for whom I have nothing but deepest respect – had no compunctions whatsoever to cast aspersions on my character by misconstruing incidents from my past; and without any basis whatsoever, linking me with women young enough to be my daughters.

As I said earlier, it bothered me immensely for a long time. But then I just stopped caring when I realised that I have one life to live and I will live it in the way I think is best for me. I take care not to harm anyone knowingly and am the first apologise when I realise that I’ve done so.

The only defence I have against such behaviour is to stop all forms of communications with those who wilfully and ceaselessly infringe upon my privacy. But then I realised that there was no reason for me to stop talking to these friends because I hadn’t done anything to them that could even remotely be construed as inimical.

I was and am living my life as freely and openly without breaking any law as is possible, my friends and well-wishers will have to realise that and learn to find their peace. I have a large heart, so I will love them more for their transgressions.

There is no rancour in my heart anymore because I realise that I am answerable and accountable to myself for all my actions - and my thoughts. 

Without wanting to sound puritanical, I want to emphasize that I don't permit myself any moral lassitude on issues that are fundamental to any relationship.