& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Fruitful City

The Fruitful City: Helena Moncrieff

Late last year, my friend Shirin Mandani arranged for me to participate in a book reading that Heritage Toronto organised at the St.Lawrence Hall on Toronto-themed nonfiction books. 

The books and the authors featured included The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff (ECW Press), The Missing Millionaire by Katie Daubs (Penguin Random House), The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History by Rob Bowman and Daniel Tate (Dundurn Press).

It was my first visit to the grand St. Lawrence Hall, at one time the hub of Toronto political, social, and cultural activities. The venue reminded me of my visits in the 1980s to the annual lectures on Bombay’s history at the Heras Institute at St. Xavier College.

On a Saturday afternoon, St. Lawrence Hall seemed forlornly in its old-world splendour, isolated in a city that has rapidly transformed into a postmodern metropolis eager to abandon its colonial era shibboleths. Except for two or maybe three people, the audience was almost entirely Caucasian. But I suppose that has to do with the composition of the city’s history.

The program was deeply enriching because the three authors and their works reflected the 
vibrancy and the sociocultural diversity that is Toronto’s strength. I know little about Toronto’s music scene to talk about it with any degree of confidence, and so, I’ll focus on the other two books that were discussed that afternoon.

Toronto Star’s Deborah Dundas is a master at talking about books and talking to authors. Her chat with the three authors brought out the nuances of the research by the authors.
Katie Daubs’s The Missing Millionaire is about the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Small, the owner of the Grand Opera House, in 1919. Mahrukh is reading the book at present, and will, hopefully, write about it once she’s done reading.

I found Helena Moncrieff’s premise of her book fascinating. The Fruitful City is a slim book of the different types of trees that are grown by homeowners in their backyards. Trees that reveal the homeowners’ past, their roots in a different land and an attempt – sometimes rather desperate – to replicate a culture from which they were uprooted.

One of the great losses of urbanisation is the near-total lack of knowledge about greenery and the foliage that surrounds us. Toronto, with its ravines, is probably one of the few urban centres in the world, where you are always close to a forest. Moncrieff digs deep into Canada’s history to narrate its fascinating horticultural history, the story of its immigrants and how they imported their trees with them to their adopted homeland.

The book acquired a totally different dimension when I learned from my friend Pawan Chankotra that he was planning to grow a neem tree in his backyard. Moncrieff has a number of examples where immigrants have not only brought trees of their birthplace to Canada, but take tremendous care of their trees, including providing them artificial heat.

The Fruitful City won the Heritage Toronto Book award for 2019. Here is an excerpt from the book; it’s longish only to illustrate the depth of the author’s research:

On a 1791 map from the Ontario archives, pale, watery colours of pink, green and yellow mark off sections of geography, and cartographer Henri Chatelain had covered the margins in tidy script with lists of fruits and other resources identified around what we now know as Ontario. He documented apples, pears, plums, cherries and a variety of nut trees “comme en Europe.” Four berry species are listed too: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and currants.

In fact, more than two hundred small fruits are native to Canada. That might sound like plenty, but most don’t appear in our pantries. To call them all berries is a simplification, although that’s what they look like. Blueberries and gooseberries are “true berries.” The rest fall into the categories of drupes, like cherries and elderberries; pomes such as saskatoons or serviceberries, as they are known in the East; and aggregates, like strawberries and raspberries. They’ve grown here for a long time. Indigenous people used silver buffalo berries to flavour, as the name suggests, buffalo meat. Saskatoons were a key ingredient in pemmican. Plenty more of those native fruits are said to be tart but very good in jellies. You could survive on them if you were lost in the woods, but most need a lot of sugar to make them truly palatable to today’s tastes.

The Huron-Wendat tapped maple trees, harvested berries and grew corn, beans and squash in small cleanings in what’s now Southern Ontario. The habitat was rich with wildlife, horticulture, shelter and access to water travel for many Indigenous societies. A short article in First Nations House magazine on Toronto’s Indigenous history describes the area as being not unlikely the Mediterranean, “in that many cultures and peoples met for the purposes of trade and commerce – dating back thousands of years prior to European contact.”

In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, wrote in her diary about the berries she collected – fox berries, mountain tea berries and wild gooseberries that, she reported, were excellent stewed as sauce for salmon. The Mohawks gave her young son Francis a gift of cranberries, and Francis offered apples in return. At their white pine cabin on the edge of the Don River, young Francis, whose ailments are well documented in the diary, was said to be “much better, and busy in planting currant bushes and peach trees.” The peach tree is long gone, and all that’s left of the estate is a subway station name, its nomenclature taken from the cabin aspirationally dubbed in the honour of the son: Castle Frank.”

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Delhi Obsession

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MG Vassanji
In 2012, I had been in Canada just four years and read Indian newspapers online regularly. I discovered an interview of MG Vassanji in India’s Mint newspaper when his novel The Magic of Saida was published.  The interview was competent, or so I thought. It covered all the things that a newspaper reader would want to know about an author.    

I sent the link to Vassanji, thinking that he would be delighted. I told him that I had posted the link on social media. He told me to remove the link. He was actually livid. 

I asked him why, and said, “They have labelled me. Would they have called Margaret Atwood a Christian author? Or Amitav Ghosh a Hindu author? I doubt it; they wouldn’t. Then, why label me as an Ismaili Muslim.”

I didn't quite understand his anger then. But over the years, as I have got to know him a bit better, I have begun to comprehend his irritation over being labelled. 

It is impossible to categorise Vassanji on the basis of faith or nationality because it is impossible to fit him into a specific ethnic, religious, national silo. 

He is like the Indian raita (an Indian dish of finely chopped cucumber, peppers, mint, etc. in yoghurt, served with curries). The Indian raita spreads on an Indian thali, freely mixing with different vegetables and curries in the thali, and in the process, both acquires their taste and gives its own flavour to them.

Ismaili-Khoja culture is a mix of both Hindu and Islamic traditions, blending the streams into a fusion of Sufi/Bhakti. Although today’s generation believes in having a distinct as opposed to a defused identity, the religious songs of the Ismaili-Khojas called Ginans reveal the strong syncretic roots of the community.

To help me understand the unique syncretism that has made him who he is, Vassanji had sent me a review of a book on Ginans. (Ginanic Travails: Conflicted Knowledge)

Over the years, in many a heated discussion about the religious tensions in India that we have had, Vassanji invariably points out the tendency amongst Indians to label people; even Indian liberals are not above the labelling, he would complain. This labelling leads to stereotypical understanding and portrayal of the two communities in general, but especially of the Indian Muslims.

Finally, in 2019, with A Delhi Obsession Vassanji has published a novel that sensitively depicts the insensitive Indian habit of identifying and categorizing people on the basis of their religion. 

The novel is a love story, an illicit love story between a married Hindu middle class woman in Delhi and a Muslim widower from Toronto, who is uncomfortable every time everyone identifies him as a Muslim.

Early on in the story, when the newly-in-love couple visit a shrine, the tension over identity is palpable.

Image result for a delhi obsession"“The shrine was modestly decorated with marigolds and an idol of a god, behind which quietly sat the priest. Mohini covered her head with her sari end, joined her hands and knelt before the idol, Munir looked around nervously, then shakily half-knelt beside her, joining his hands, too. The priest gave them some water, which following Mohini, Munir sipped from his hand, dabbing his head with what remained. The watching priest then gave them each some coarse sugar pellets.

When they were outside, back in the brightness, she turned to him and said, “But you are a Muslim.”

He took a breath, then replied, “If you say so. But I don’t describe myself by a faith.”

He felt stupid saying that, but it was the naked truth.

“But you bowed to our gods.”

“Your gods…Well, I paid my respect to the gods.”

“What are you, then?”

“Do I have to be something?”

“How do people know you, then?”

“As just another person. A friend. A neighbour. An author.”

Towards the end, when the Hindu nationalist rabble rouser Jetha Lal and his brutish acolytes surround Munir at the club, threatening him, Munir exclaims in despair and anger, “I’m a Canadian. Don’t put your labels on me.” To which the uncouth Jetha Lal patiently responds, “Canadian, sir. But you like Hindu women, I see. Better than Canadian women, no?” He waited. “No doubt. But you are Muslim, sir. Mlechha. Different.” 

(The word Mlechha is italicised perhaps to emphasize it, not because it is an Indian word).

A Delhi Obsession is an incisive portrayal of the unbearable intensity of Hindu nationalism that is rapidly transforming India into an intolerant, bigoted place where fear rules. Expectedly, the novel ends tragically; illicit love stories often do. But the end is as unexpected, sudden, brutal as the end of the popular Marathi film Sairat. The end keeps you awake at night, long after you have read the last page. 

I apologise for spoiling the reading experience of those who haven't yet read the novel, but I was horrified by the end of the story. In half a page, it brought alive the horror that is India today.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Power of Opportunity - Richard Rothman

Long before the present publishing boom began in India, Richard Rothman, then a bureaucrat with the United States Government in India, published a collection of short stories that was breathtakingly original.

Then, being the maverick that he has always been, Richard kicked his comfortable job to launch his own consultancy – in an area nobody would've thought of as a business proposition – Opportunity.

His second book on the subject The Power of Opportunity is being launched in Bombay later in January. In a short, e-mail interview, he talks about his book and ‘Opportunity’.

Richard’s consultancy Open Mind Consultancy has teamed up with the Penguin India team to create a very India-centric roadmap to both individual and business success.

What is this book about?

The Power of Opportunity presents a thorough methodology of thought and action on personal and business opportunities. It is the first book to attempt to do this since Edward DeBono published his book Opportunities in 1978.

Why is the book titled The Power of Opportunity?

Because opportunities have tremendous power to change our lives for the better. They are the seeds from which all success grows. For example, a couple years ago I met a 20-year-old entrepreneur, still a boy really, who had dropped out of college to develop an internet app. This boy, from a very modest background in Bihar, had managed to raise $20 million from Tiger Global, a major US venture capital firm.

This example highlights two fundamental things that give opportunities tremendous power:

1) all opportunities are free. You can't pay for them even if you want to. There is no “opportunity shop” where you can buy them. That means that opportunities are available to even to penniless boys from Bihar.

2) the best opportunities are like powerful magnets that attract all the resources needed to scale them. Why had Tiger backed him? Was it because of his track record? Obviously not. Tiger was pouring resources into the opportunity, not the entrepreneur.

But resources flow only to the best opportunities, what I call golden opportunities.
Therefore, it is crucial to consciously choose opportunities by using a systematic process, and not rely on luck, as most people do. Unfortunately, most people end up pursuing Nopportunities, which are not opportunities, because they don't use a systematic process to choose them.

This is the second book you have written on opportunity. How is The Power of Opportunity different from Master Opportunity and Make it Big?

My previous book, Master Opportunity and Make it Big, presented the stories of 18 "Opportunity Masters" who had started with nothing and made it big by taking advantage of excellent opportunities.  Although all of these people had succeeded, they did not necessarily understand why. In The Power of Opportunity, I present a methodology of thought and action which is based on my experience with the over 2,000 businesses I have consulted with over the past 30 years as both an Opportunity Consultant and Trade Commissioner. Therefore, it is an original theory which I have developed.

You're probably the only Opportunity Consultant in the world, what exactly do you do or can do for corporations and for individuals.

As the first and only Opportunity Consultant in the world, I offer companies a systematic process to uncover, recover and discover opportunities for sustained, profitable growth. How am I different from other management consultants? Most follow the principles of strategy developed by Michael Porter and others, which uses “competitive advantage” as the main filter through which to view opportunities. I’ve found that using competition as a filter can lead to increasing market irrelevance over time. After all, do your competitors buy your products? Are they part of your team? Of course not. I focus instead on providing useful service to stakeholders.

You have worked in India for the last 25 years, in terms of your specialisation (Opportunity) how has the Indian market changed? Are there more tangible opportunities at present then there were in the early years of economic liberalisation.

On a macro level, I firmly believe that India is the greatest land of opportunity in the world today. Half of India’s population are still subsistence farmers, a business model which is fundamentally broken in the modern age. Over the coming decades, they will move to cities and take better opportunities as wage earners and entrepreneurs. Since the demise of the License Raj in 1991, the Indian opportunities landscape has liberalized - but it still has a long way to go. The government has got to focus less on ideology and more on growth through opportunities.

In your sphere of expertise (identifying opportunities) what changes have you noticed in India over the last two decades?

The Indian mindset is gradually shifting from the pre-license raj mode of opportunity through connections, bribery and extortion, toward a modern rules-based system that rewards opportunity based on merit. This migration to the rules of the modern era will take decades, but the trend is in the right direction, and India will benefit from it.

You have published an amazing collection of phantasmagorical short stories and a novel.  Why did you abandon writing fiction?

I haven't abandoned fiction. I plan to resurrect and publish my novel eventually. But at this point I'm focused on spreading the mantra of Opportunity.

You may buy the book here (in India): The Power of Opportunity

Kindle edition is available here (in Canada): The Power of Opportunity