How does it feel to be in a country of your choice with a hyphenated identity? Coping up with cultural pressures of blending and adopting the dominant worldview and norms? Assuming certain whiteness?
Canada is a country of immigrants, welcoming to people of all color, creed and race. There is so much diversity here that it is quite easy if one chooses to find people with a similar background to theirs with respect to their mother tongue, faith and food experiences at every corner one turns. As the Canadian Immigration System is based on one’s educational and skill levels, Canadian Immigrants are well prepared to face day to day challenges including meeting the high expectations of the North American job market. This is why in large part, our family has always ‘fit in’ and has never felt of hyphenated identity. Confidence in our abilities and in ourselves and knowing where we come from has certainly helped transcend this notion of hyphenated identity. Perhaps, this has something to do with age, experiences or both; feeling cultural pressures etc. may have been more prominent when making a move in your fifties or sixties rather than making it much earlier in life. For example, I first moved to the USA when I was in my forties on an official passport and after completing my term there, we chose to move to Canada. The transition was rather smooth. As I lived in New York and Toronto for twenty-five years, I did not experience ‘whiteness’ as such. Whiteness is not an attribute or a qualification to succeed. After all, white is blending of all colors and so is the Canadian society.
Reasons to write?
I started writing for newspapers and journals during my school days. After completing my bachelors’ degree, I joined a Hindi daily newspaper as a trainee editor. It is there I chose to write satire both in prose and free verse in conversational language for prominent Hindi newspapers. Plurality and justice for all became central themes in my writing. Early on, I wrote my mission statement – let my work and writings contribute to building a better world and let it be a voice for better education, equal opportunities and social justice for all. I am happily committed to this objective and it is something that continues to govern my body of work to this day.
Why Hindi/English as a medium of creative expression?
I feel that one can express the best in one’s native language. Hindi is my mother tongue, and it is the language I am trained in. A collection of my satirical essays was first published in 1984 with the blessings of renowned satirist Mr. Hari Shankar Parsai. This year Shivna Publication (India) brought out a collection of my representative poems. Several poems depicting my Canadian narrative vis-à-vis my feelings for the motherland raised the intrinsic worth of the work. The prominent critic and scholar of Pravasi literature Dr. Kamal Kishore Goenka appraised the work as noteworthy. The critical review of the book by well-known critic Dr. B. L. Acha appeared in MP Sahitya Academy’s Journal ‘Sakshatkar’ and discussed the contents at great length and remarkably appreciated the poetic approach. The point I want to make here is that the Pravasi writers can enrich the literature in their language with newer concepts and perceptions that they acquire abroad. This stimulates me to be focused and continue writing in Hindi.
What audiences you address in a country other than yours?
Most of my audiences for my readings and published work are the Hindi speakers worldwide. I do also have non-Hindi audience at times, where I present my representative poems using English Translation media. It was very well received by the audience as well as critics.
Q: Is there a market for Hindi in Canada? Similarly for Indian English?
No, not at all. There is nothing like Indian English here. Colonial English literature is more a part of academics. English and French being first languages here, obviously have a very good market.
What has been the experience as a writer in North America?
Being a non-English writer, I have limited exposure to mainstream audiences. I regularly write for North American Hindi media and prominent Hindi magazines published from India. I have more freedom to express myself but have limited audiences in North America.
Are there multicultural and multi-lingual platforms available in Canada?
In fact, there are quite a lot. Toronto is amongst the best multicultural and multilingual cities in the world; in fact, I would even call it an international city. My work though, is just not limited to Toronto, for example, I have presented my writings in various Canadian cities including Ottawa (the nation’s capital) with great fanfare. Usually, for non-Hindi attendees, I distribute English translations of my presentation, or provide a summary translation so that everyone is able to follow along and embrace and enjoy the experiences presented in the writings
What are the other opportunities for writing and publishing here? Are they better than in India?
I am based in Toronto, which as mentioned earlier is a multilingual city. In fact, more than hundred languages of the world are spoken here. In addition, most of these languages have their own local newspapers, magazines, TV shows etc. With respect to the Hindi language there are approximately 8 or so magazines and newspapers that are regularly published in Hindi from Toronto. Punjabi has larger exposure; Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and Bengali printing houses are doing well here. Canada has two official languages: English and French. Obviously, both languages dominate the commercial linguistic market and as such the publishing opportunities are world class. That said, there is definitely a place and need and more importantly a market for Hindi publications in Canada.
How strong are connections with mother nation?
Technology has enhanced connectivity to great extent. We are always connected in this true global market. Personally, and professionally, my social and literary connections within and outside India are strong. As I regularly contribute to Hindi journals in India on issues more specific to India, I closely follow developments in India.
What are your views on Bhasha Sahitya?
Most of my limited readings are in contemporary Hindi literature, particularly satirical prose and poetry in general. I read few of the representative poetry translated from other Indic languages into Hindi. I consider poetic works of few of the Hindi poets are undoubtedly world-class. I feel, the latent energy and the emotional intensity of the Hindi poetry is lost or diluted in its English translation. Maybe, for that reason, it is not receiving the recognition it undoubtedly deserves in other parts of the globe.
Memory and heritage in new contexts, do they play a crucial role in your creative process?
Obviously yes. I have no doubt that one’s background and experiences can help shape the body of work. The writer and so the artist would carry the impressions, culture, language and traditions he acquired from his childhood to his present days. My creative process would not only engage mind but the subtle energy, soul too. I am a believer and conduct myself in a manner so as to respect every living being around me.
How does Canada impact you as an ethnic writer?
I am more expressive here. I enjoy my right of expression without any fear of retribution. I respect law and law rewards me my freedoms.
Q: Your comments on the inaugural Setu Bilingual Lit Fest held on May 25 in Toronto?
It was an exploratory event. Bilingual literary events are uncommon for ethnic audience. I hope we could engage like-minded active writers to present their representative works both in English and Hindi in upcoming events.
How is the Indian Diaspora in Canada?
I would say culturally and financially rich; with an abundance of talent in the Diaspora community. For example, they have done exemplary philanthropic and charity work. When you watch the India Day Parade, Khalsa Day Parade or listen and watch Canadian Prime Minister delivering a Happy Diwali message, wearing a traditional Indian dress, you can’t help but be proud and acknowledge in how well Indian Diaspora has established itself in Canadian Society.
Are Indian artists and authors making a difference here? Enriching the existing national discourse and narrative of the adopted nation?
Indian singers, poets and Bollywood artists regularly plan Canada-wide tours which always end up being fully sold-out shows. These shows often enrich the mind, pull at the heart strings and can often be rooted in nostalgia – a trip down memory lane so to speak! I don’t see a time where I would ever treat Canada as my ‘adopted nation.’ It is home. With that said, when I walk the streets of Toronto I feel like a global citizen – interacting with people from all different walks of life. I work for a borderless and barrier-free orderly global community. I am very thankful to Canada for broadening my thought process and my vision for these objectives.
Do different Indian language writers talk to the others or come on a common platform for interaction?
Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati writers do attend and present their work in a cross-platform scenario. Though there is no such formal setup for Indic writers in Toronto (or in Canada) but I feel Panorama India can provide us a formal setting for such a program in the India Day Parade.
Memorable incident that haunts?
There are few to share. In 1997 Permanent Mission of India (New York) planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence at the United Nations. I was a part of the organizing committee. We put up a good show with participation of renowned performing artists from India. The event was attended by international dignitaries and officials of the UN. The audience of Indian origin was in tears of joy and with goosebumps when they sang the national anthem Jan-gan-man, which received a standing ovation. It’s a lifetime thrilling experience.
Let me share a recent anecdote. Last year I was performing in Ottawa, reading a satirical prose titled Sahib’s signature. I dedicated the essay to Mr. Vikas Swarup, the High Commissioner of India to Canada, who was the guest of honor. He is also a renowned novelist who penned Q & A (popularly known as Slumdog Millionaire, Oscar-winning Hindi film that was based on Q &A). The satire presented the characteristics and attributes of a colonial sahib when he puts his signature just by glancing the files put up for his disposal. The audience including the sahib enjoyed every bit of the satire and repeatedly laughed during my performance. Later, it was Mr. Swarup’s turn. During his address, he congratulated me and jokingly said ‘Mr. Jain, my signature can also take away your OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) status.’ The auditorium was filled with huge laughter.
Does an immigrant writer dream of lost homes? Of roots?
Yes, to some extent. The most I missed were my parents and my spiritual teacher. With globalization and technological advancements, however, I have access to most of the materialistic things I need or desire.
Mahaveer said ‘all creatures love their life’. So live and help others to live. Let us empower and celebrate coexistence.
(Published in Setu, May 2019)