Tag Archives: Canada

Nuit Blanche 2011: Art for Art’s Sake

Ride the Rocket, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 6th October 2011 (print version).

This year was a cold Nuit Blanche. If you think about it, it almost sounds morbidly romantic. The Cold White Night. You know, the whole shindig about the blank canvas painted with the creativity of art. Yes, that. Except, it was très cold.

So, another year. Another Nuit Blanche. My fourth year. I was excited. Honest. It was the first Saturday since I had handed in my M.A. thesis. My mind was devoid of academia and free to take in the sights and sounds of the novel art fest that I look forward to each year. Last year was disappointing, no doubt. But this year took the cake… in disappointment.

My night started late. I joined a couple of people (friends and friends-of-friends) at around 9:30 on October 1st in Zone A, at Bloor and Yonge. After trying to figure out the map for a while, we ended up walking west on Bloor. The night was young. So were we. Spirits were high (literally, since some of us were surreptitiously drinking). Conversation was flowing. Kind of. And then, bang, at the corner of Bloor and Bellair Street, we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of couples dancing to classical music.

Dancing Couples (unoffical exhibit), Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

“Wait, guys,” I said. “This must be an exhibit.”

One of the guys sniggered. I wanted to smack him (as I will for most of the night, but that comes later).

After two minutes of checking them out, we walked on (later, I pored over the list of exhibits to locate what/who they were. Finally, I must conclude that they were an unofficial exhibit.).

Next we ended up at Avenue and Bloor, and entered Church of the Redeemer that hosts an exhibit without fail each year. We were greeted by a smiling old lady who went “welcome”. And then, we were face-to-face with static-y televisions. “This is art?” the same annoying guy started again. “Open your mind,” I said, tersely. The church atmosphere was awe-inspiring. You have to admit that there is something about a holy place that demands reverence. And, silence. But some giggling teenage guys (perhaps, drunk, too) kept yelling out obscenities. The tiny candles, however, along with the choral music, kept the ethereal atmosphere of Compostela alive.

Compostela, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

We moved on, and out into the cold. Where to now? We wondered. “Can we go to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum)?” one of them asked. “No baby, they are not open today.”

“Actually, they might be,” I ventured. “They had an exhibit last year too.”

We wandered upto the ROM, only to be greeted by milling people, but no sign of any exhibits. There were no welcome Scotiabank info tents to help us either. Wow, we must really be in the midst of a recession, I thought. As we were walking away, I saw people heading out of the side entrance of the ROM. Then, I noticed pictures of Bollywood flicks plastered on the side, announcing the Bollywood Cinema Showcards exhibit. “Guys, they are open!” I yelled, happy as a clam. For those who are not in the know, this exhibit had made its appearance at AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) a while back, and now it was being recycled for Nuit Blanche. The reason for my happiness was that I had missed it earlier (read: working on my thesis), but now I got to catch it. For free!

The exhibit had us climbing three flights of stairs. “They must really want to discourage us from catching this!” I said out aloud. The exhibit, however, was every bit worth it. It was interesting to watch non-brown people reading out the names on the hand painted showcards, and not getting what they meant. There was one that cracked me up. Ek Sapera, Ek Lutera. One Snake Charmer, One Robber. It had a figure of a very lust ridden Feroz Khan gazing equally lustfully at a helpless half-naked wide-eyed damsel, while in the process of robbing her honour. And there was a snake charmer too in the corner, but it was unclear what his role was. I surmise she falls in love with the snake charmer, who saves her from the Lutera. Oh, well.

Our steps took us to a Niagara Falls exhibit next. Slow Falls Rising, located on the University of Toronto campus, was a video installation of Niagara Falls rising upwards. In slow motion. Don’t look surprised. Yes, that’s all it was. “Je-sus, if this is art, I am entering something next year!” one of my friends called out. “Hey, look at me! I am walking backwards in slow motion!”

Slow Falls Rising, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

We sniggered and tee-heed and went to look for something meaningful in this melancholic night of disillusionment.

We ended up in the middle of Queen’s Park and spied a large exhibit in the distance. We walked, without inspiration. And then, we were silenced. Because The Feast of Trimalchio did just that. Subliminally sexual, the images created tension (all kinds of tension, if I may add). We were silenced, as were most of the crowd. Most of them were open-mouthed and unable to walk away. Reminding myself that the night wouldn’t last forever, and there were many, many more exhibits to catch, I reluctantly moved away. The annoying guy, however, put a damper, as usual, “My evaluation: this sucks”. I had to retort to shut the prick up, “My evaluation: you have no imagination” (He ignored me for the rest of the evening. Not that I care.). We lost him and his friend momentarily in their quest for washrooms (thank god!) and headed to Hart House. There were atleast four exhibits there.

The Feast of Trimalchio, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

The first three inside the building are nothing to write home about (and I won’t even bother). But the one in the courtyard should be applauded for its innovation. Known as Medicine Walk, and organized by the Aboriginal Studies Program at UofT, it was a group exhibition on (quoting from the Nuit Blanche booklet) “aboriginal knowledge, artistry and language”. I made out a beehive made of wood and big enough to accommodate atleast 10-12 adults in it. There was this one guy handing out a drink of some sort. I refused, well, because I had my own drink. There were also rows of pod-like capsules that were filled with crickets. A man at the exhibit explained how crickets needed a certain amount of warmth to stay active (the pods had some kind of heating), and they went into hibernation once they lost that warmth.

Wooden beehive (part of Medicine Walk), Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

After having exhausted Hart House, we walked to meet up with the annoying guy and his friend, and went to catch a train from Queen’s Park. Meanwhile, I was informed in hushed whispers that the annoying guy had decided to head home (again, thank god!). The train took us to St. Patrick, and hence, to Zone B.

The first thing we saw was Ride the Rocket, a multimedia video installation that transformed a street car into a virtual ride through video. It appeared to be a popular exhibit, judging from the long line, so we moved on, after taking pictures for posterity.

Next, we walked into The Heart Machine. Termed as an “interactive fire sculpture” in the booklet, the exhibit was too crowded to get a clear glimpse. However, I think the heat from the sculpture may have something to do with that. Cold night. Hot sculpture. Freezing people. You make the equation. I did catch some shooting flames in the air, but it wasn’t enough to keep me around.

Egerton Falls, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Our next stop took us to Dundas Square, again too crowded to move about in. We headed towards Ryerson University, and stumbled upon Egerton Falls. The fog, music and the lights around the water had me transfixed for a few moments. But the increasing cold (and a desire to empty my bladder) pushed us along. Looking for a restroom, we ended up at Atrium on Bay. After my business, we headed to the underground parking to catch a sound installation known as Border Sounds. The novelty of the exhibit was that it was in an underground parking. The exhibit had different makeshift stations with tons of headphones at each station. Each station played music that referred to a particular area. I caught Israel, Pakistan, India and finally, Canada. And, if you like dubstep, then this was probably your scene.

Border Sounds, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Later, we caught Paparazzi Bots on Yonge Street. The bots moved around and took your photos and then displayed them on a screen. Brownie points for another inventive project. After this, we stumbled upon Shannon’s Fireflies that had strings of LED lights that react to people’s whispers and convert them into light. Sure, it was “pretty,” but it was also similar to Ning Ning on Bond Street last year. Another case of recycled art? Bah. (Apparently not. Check comments section below.)

Paparazzi Bots, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

We meandered into Zone C, after I filled my belly with some yum yum from one of the food stations in front of Nathan Phillips Square. No, I didn’t see the flying human birds at the Square. Maybe, I was too tired and cold to care. Also, hungry. Hunger makes me blind. The first exhibit that caught my eyes in Zone C was Cardiac Combustion Chamber.  It was a bunch of guys playing drums in the center of car parts suspended into space. The music was mesmerizing, and I wanted to stay. But one of my companions (and, my ride back home) was cold and wanted to leave. It was probably minus 1 at this point, and I wanted to catch Bone Dump, before we called it quits.

Cardiac Combustion Chamber, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

On our way there, we passed by I just know that something good is going to happen. People were standing in lines to grab an umbrella and experience rain. Yes, rain. In the cold. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. Sometimes, people are crazy, or too drunk, to care. We also passed by New Dawn Fades on 100 Yonge Street. It was a row of cyclical rings lit by blue lights. There was a line to get in. Again, I don’t know why. It didn’t look very interesting from outside. Not in my opinion, anyway.

I just know that something good is going to happen, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

I just know that something good is going to happen, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

And finally, we came upon Bone Dump in the Financial District, in an alley between 10 and 18 King Street. It was a dump of porcelain bones. At this point, my friend gave me a look that said, “This is what you made me walk in the cold for? This?” “Oh, come on,” I said, “this is better than most of the crap we saw tonight.”

Bone Dump, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

“True,” he nodded. And, we headed back home.

(Interesting stuff seen that night that was not a part of Nuit Blanche: a man in a green skin-tight suit, two guys vomiting together and a man in Snuggies.)

Man in the green skin-tight suit, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Two vomiting guys, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Man in Snuggies, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

At two-thirty, when we left, downtown was pretty crowded. This was new. People were genuinely out to enjoy the fest, despite the insipid “art”. But hey, that is a good sign. For artists. For the city. And, to an extent, for the economy. Smile, Rob Ford.

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur (if it wasn’t obvious, already).

Crickets in pods (part of Medicine Walk), Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Shannon's Fireflies, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

New Dawn Fades, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

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Good Indian Boys Do Not Cut Hair for a Living

Posting an old interview that was published by South Asian Generation Next on 7th July 2010.

Gay, Proud and Successful: Sunil Prakash on his Life as a South Asian Hairdresser

What happens when your first-born son comes up to you and says, “I want to become a hairdresser”? Do you blink rapidly like a goldfish and wonder to yourself that maybe he is joking? Or, do you balk and then give in to your urge to scream?

Then...

Suave, sexy and a true gentleman, Sunil Prakash, the co-owner of ‘The Lid Lounge’, a high end salon in downtown Toronto, and a hairdresser himself, had the following reaction from his Indo-Canadian father: “Any idiot can cut hair!” Not one to take things lying down, he answered, “Well, if any idiot can cut hair, then you go cut mum’s hair, and we’ll see who’s an idiot!”

... and now

With a far-away look in his eyes and a tiny smirk, he says, “I got cut off financially… I didn’t know what [my father] was trying to do at that point… I got student loans, did my own thing… and (with some pride creeping into his voice) [have] been quite successful ever since.” And, indeed he has, since his salon boasts of famous clientele like Shyam Selvadurai (author of Funny Boy).

Of course, becoming a hairdresser and admitting his desire for an alternative career (as a South Asian) was not the only concern for his parents. When asked if he had a difficult time ‘coming out’ to them, he glibly responds, “Yeah, absolutely… and, as a first-born son too!” He admits that his relatives back in India were more “okay” with it than his parents. He further goes onto explain why most South Asian parents may be reluctant to open up to the idea of homosexuality as a reality within the South Asian community, “Most South Asians here [in Canada] are immigrants or have come with an immigrant mentality, meaning, their socialization has sort of stopped… They are not socially current as Indians [in India] are. You go to India today and Indians of the same age as my parents are far more liberal. My dad left India in the 1950’s and his Indian values are of that someone from the 50s. But (he adds hurriedly) [he is] all cool enough… now.”

However, he admits that it wasn’t easy for his two younger very-straight brothers either, “When they started to go out with their [girlfriends,] my parents started with ‘These Canadian girls’. They had a problem with that too… I don’t know why! (Laughs)” Thinking for a second, he offers an explanation, “Think about it. My father’s Indian. Mother is from England. My brothers and I are all biracial. [We] are both of our parents and neither of our parents. They could relate to us on many different ways but in some ways they couldn’t relate to us because we were slightly culturally different from them.”

Talking about his partner, with whom he co-owns his salon, he says, “My partner and I have been together for twenty years… My parents really respect us for being together for so long. We owe the longevity of our relationship to the example which my parents set for us. And, my partner’s parents have been together for… forever [as well]. We have pretty strongly rooted families… Time is a great leveler, so it all worked out in the end”.

And, are you guys married? He shakes his head and replies, “By the time they changed the same-sex legislation, we had already been together for such a long time that [it didn’t matter]… The commitment is to each other. [Marriage] would be an afterthought at this point”.

Sunil ends with his words of wisdom that maintains its hold on me as I walk alone to the subway to catch my train back to Mississauga, “Never be afraid to be yourself. I haven’t and it’s worked out for me”.

For more informaton on Sunil Prakash’s salon, visit www.lidlounge.com

Photographs: Copyright Sunil Prakash

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Doing the Bharatnatyam to Jazz on the Hyphen

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 14th April 2011.

A better life and

all that jazz;

isn’t that why we come here,

crawling on all fours, begging

for that permanent resident card,

begging to be let in?

All that jazz is

                                    wondering

when all that jazz could become

learning to dance

to an erratic tune,

and making it your own. 

– “All that Jazz,” a poem in progress by yours truly

Every time I think about who I am and where I belong to, I always come up with a big, fat hyphen. On one side of the hyphen, it says Indian, and on the other side, Canadian. Yes, that’s my label: Indo-Canadian.

Labels are not easy to live with, especially hyphenated labels. There is a sense of disorientation when it comes to choosing one side or the other. There never is only one side. Parts of me are fragments of Indian-ness and Canadian-ness, with no clear lines that distinguish the two. I have to live a perpetual balancing act, careful to negotiate my space on this hyphen.

Imagine this. You are at a social function [in Canada]. You meet somebody new. And you get asked:

“Where are you from?”

“Canada”

“No, where are you really from?”

For me, it’s easy to point to my origins, being an immigrant myself. But I have a friend who was born and brought up here, whose parents were migrants from Pakistan, but who has never, ever in his life stepped outside of the borders of Canada. He cannot speak Hindi/Urdu, speaks with a thick Canadian accent, and indulges into all of the normal “Canadian” guy activities. Of course, he won’t watch baseball, but that’s just him.

It’s tricky, though, to decide what activities are strictly Canadian, and what are not. What/who is Canadian? Canada is an amalgamation of countless different cultures. To be Canadian, is not to be “white Caucasian”. In fact, Russell Peters’ proclamation that “white Canadians” are a minority is probably true! No, no. What Canada really is a “tossed salad,” with its July 1st (Canada Day) and O’Canada (national anthem). If you haven’t realised how problematic that image is, let me point it out. Even tossed salads have distinguishable borders.

So, yes, I understand, that it makes it easier (for you) to pin down a label onto someone you have just met. It’s easy to say, “oh, so-and-so is a South Indian, so she must be a vegetarian, or so-and-so is Russian, so he must love vodka!” But even with simple labels, there are problems. Some people contend themselves with a broad term, like immigrants, or South Asians. Both are like brand names that signify a separate category. Immigrant signifies newness or, the perpetual “other”. While South Asian signifies a marginal community; again, the “other”. Do you see how there is a tendency to separate “Canadians” from the mainstream by the virtue of their (our) labels?

And, what about those who have multiple identities? Like Canadian author, M.G.Vassanji, who is an Indian who lived in Kenya and now lives here in Canada. Or, Kwai Yun Li (author of The Palm Leaf Fan and other stories), who was a Chinese born in India, and then moved to Canada. How do we categorise them? Or, should we even attempt?

The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories by Kwai Yun Li

There’s more to somebody than where they are from. And belongingness cannot be narrowed down to one area or place; take me for example. I am from India, and I have lived in Dubai for nine years, and recently I became a Canadian citizen. I am not just Indian or Canadian. I am not completely any one of these things, because there is more to who I am and what I identify with. My cultural identity cannot be pinned down to a category or label. Labels are after all static; while one’s cultural identity is dynamic. It’s ever changing.

Let us again imagine a conversation I had with X. X represents all those people I came across over time (and still do) in Canada:

“From Calcutta? You are Bengali, right? So, you must love fish!”

Yes, I am a Bengali from Calcutta, but much of Calcutta is made up of non-Bengalis. Also, I don’t love fish, although I grew up eating it.

“You people love sweets!”

No, I don’t possess a sweet tooth.

“Rabindra sangeet?”

Puts me to sleep.

This imaginary conversation can go on, but why bother? All the stereotypes will fall flat on their faces.

What I want to point out is, our hyphenated labelled existences are expected. We are expected to respond positively to these kinds of annoying and ignorant statements.

How shall I put it? I am… me. I am able to sing the Indian National anthem without a fault, while I still fumble on “O Canada…”. Yet, I feel more comfortable on Queen Street in Toronto than at Chowringhee in Calcutta. So, what does that make me?

But don’t misunderstand me. I am not confused. I know who I am. But, I don’t see why I have to explain who I am to a stranger I just met. My identity is my own.

Let’s start over. Hi, I am Sanchari. I belong to me. What about you?

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Marriage Aaj Kal*: An Ultra-Feminist Take on Arranged Marriages

From the Kamasutra

*Today and Yesterday 

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 3rd March 2011.

Chanakya of the Mauryan dynasty, and a prime minister of his time, is said to have remarked, “A good wife is one who serves her husband in the morning like a mother, loves him in the day like a sister and pleases him like a prostitute in the night.” It’s impossible to confirm whether he actually said this, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine based on the time period he hailed from. What I find strange is that after all these centuries Indian men still harbor a similar attitude. This attitude can be traced to the Kamasutra as well that he allegedly wrote (many historians assert that Vatsyayana, author of the book, and Chanakya are the one and the same). As mistakenly understood by many, the book is not just about the art of making love, but also about the male art of making love to women without committing sin. According to the ancient text, it is perfectly ok to sleep with another woman if there is an ulterior motive involved. For example, in an English translation by Deepak Chopra, a rule states that: “I love another woman, who is this woman’s best friend. If I sleep with this woman, I can get to the one I really want.” Another example, “By winning this woman over, I can kill her husband, whose riches I covet”. Note that these rules apply only to men, and deem it tolerable to objectify women in order to satisfy personal again.

But I don’t want to refer to ancient texts (or their translations) to give you the picture of unrealistic expectations of Indian men. Gayatri Gopinath, a queer theorist of diaspora, in her article “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion”, points out that patriarchal attitudes of men towards women not only exist in the homeland (India), but also in the diaspora. The female gender is viewed as “the symbolic center … [for] … “home” and “family””, and heteronormative female sexuality can only exist “within the familial and domestic space”. Thus, it is acceptable to be sexual if you are married and only with your husband, while homosexuality is either criminalized or ignored. Gopinath cites a real-life example, where the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) was denied the right to march in the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) sponsored annual India Day Parade, in New York City, both in 1995 and 1996. Consequently, the FIA is run by a group of Indian immigrant businessmen.

All this only leads up to the question of ‘why’. Why would these men be so hind sighted to ignore that women nowadays are free, independent agencies, who are not confined to traditional gender roles whether in India, or outside of India? The only answer, in my opinion, is their false sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that they have this ancient right to have these equally ancient expectations. As the SALGA example would suggest, men outside the “homeland,” have been unable to evolve beyond their view of traditional gender roles, as applied to women back in the homeland. Maybe, it can also be attributed to parental and societal pressure that plants the seeds of such inane ideas into their heads at tender ages, so that they grow up having expectations that only become more traditional with time. For example, this summer, when I was in Calcutta, a neighbor subjected me to a volley of questions. She is currently on the prowl for a bride for her younger son (who never wants to leave India). Some of her questions were:

Do you know how to cook?
Don’t you want to settle in India?
Do you know how to wear a sari?

All her questions were addressed with a smile. It was as if she hoped I wouldn’t see through her façade of “innocent” questioning. Instead of being mortified, I was faintly amused. Really? Do I represent the ideal future daughter-in-law for your “modern” son, who also expects to have a very traditional wife at home (ironically, chosen by his mother. Really, you can’t get more traditional than this!)? I had some questions for her too: Does he know how to cook? Doesn’t he want to settle abroad? And, why on earth does he talk with that put on accent? It sounds neither British, nor American. Just an Indian trying very hard to sound “foreign”!

Source: Meera Sapra's blog at http://lifesacomicstrip.blogspot.com/

However, don’t castigate me yet. I don’t have a problem with arranged marriage. On the whole, I find the concept very gratifying. It’s really very similar to set up dating. You say ‘yes’, only if you feel you are compatible. Yet, with the unrealistic expectations of Indian males (and in this case, their mothers) all around, it’s difficult for us women to find someone to “live” with.

To assuage the attitude of men here in Canada, I had a discussion with some of my male friends on the topic of marriage and what kind of qualities do they want in their future wives.

“She must know how to cook!”
“She should keep the house nice and tidy.”
“She should be a virgin!”

I was faintly aghast at such pronouncements. These were Indo-Canadian men living here in Toronto for the past ten-twelve years. Were they actually hoping to find the “wife” described by Chanakya? The irony was that not all of them were virgins, and none of them had any experience with cooking or cleaning.

In the case of my parents, I believe they got lucky when they found each other. Their’s was a love marriage. And, even though, my father is not exactly the most liberal man alive, he definitely didn’t hope for the ideal Chanakyan wife. And, since my mom works hard at home, and at the office (she is my dad’s business partner and they work together), I can only imagine her staring scornfully at Chanakya, if he had made the mistake of making that comment in her presence.

In my case, I too have the image of an ideal man in my head. He may not be THE ideal man, but ideal enough for me. He would be someone: who looks decent (this might appear a little vain on my part, but if I had to choose between the frog and the prince, the frog would probably end up dead face down in a pond somewhere); can clean, if not cook; and has a tolerant nature, since I tend to get impatient and lazy at times. He need not be a virgin. Most people I know of my age, are not. He need not be super intelligent. However, I wouldn’t tolerate a super idiot. And definitely, he must not have too many unrealistic expectations of my abilities. I cannot speak for other women, but my girlfriends also harbor similar “attainable” attributes within their future spouses. Yes, I do believe that we are the more rational gender, but that’s my personal bias.

So, I ask you, where do we women expect to find our men? And, where and when exactly do these men of today expect to find their women? With distorted realities clashing into each other, the answers may be “in our imaginations” and “never”.

I think I have come to terms with that reality. The question is: have you?

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Mom Says I have to Date a Brown Man

 

Source: Lovecrusader.com

 

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 10th February 2011.

The day my mother found out I was dating K.B., she threw a fit, “But he’s white!” It did not matter that he was well-read, funny, had a great job with a well-known pharmaceutical company, was a true gentleman and had never once tried to get me into bed. And, when the relationship fell through, she said, “It could have never worked. He was white.” That is not why we broke-up, I reminded her. Sure, I remember getting stares while walking with him, holding hands, but I think that was mostly because he was 6”1 and I reign under 5”. 

In retrospect, it was not his colour my mom was referring to, but to his culture. She always insists that I marry someone from an Indian background so that I can connect with him on different levels. Sure, K.B. loved Bollywood movies. We even went for Om Shanti Om. However, while I remember enjoying the movie, he was busy speed-reading the subtitles. And later, he complained of a headache as a result of his speed-reading. 

Tasnuva Rabiyat, however, does not believe that a cultural difference is the problem. She firmly believes “[t]he biggest problem is where we grew up and how we grew up rather than cultural”. According to her, environmental conditioning differs from person to person, and regardless of race and background, if two people hail from the same environmental conditioning, they have a better chance of having a successful relationship. Born in Bangladesh and brought up in Canada, Tasnuva has been dating her American boyfriend, Justin, of a Polish-Italian descent for the past two years. For her, the “biggest problem” she might face with Justin is that of political differences, “It’s not [a] problem between chicken curry and fried chicken… It’s really a problem with the environmental differences…He comes from a very conservative political family [and] I come from a very liberal brown family.”

Justin and Tasnuva

For Reshma Dhrodia, on the other hand, it was a difference between belief systems (of the parents) that created initial hesitance on both sides. A former Phd student at York University and the current chair of the collective board at Toronto Rape Crisis Center, she has been dating her boyfriend, Tony, of  North Korean descent, for the last two and a half years. She smiles as she reminisces over how they met, “[We met] on Lavalife!” I squeal with surprise, “No way! Does that even work?!” She laughs and reveals, “I joined because I was trying to get over some guy… He was the first Lavalife date I went on.”

Tony and Reshma

And, obviously it worked for both of them. But what about the parents? Reshma smiles and continues, “My mom was a little hesitant and then she met him and really, really liked him. Tony was more nervous about telling his parents because they are… also very, very Christian.” Being a former Ismaili Muslim, and now an atheist, this was more of an issue for Tony’s parents rather than Reshma’s race. “It took him a while to reveal that he was dating me. Since then I have met his mom and [s]he still wants to me to accept Jesus… and she wants us to pump out kids. But I have told her to hold her horses on that!”

Both Reshma and Tasnuva admit that there has been an integration of some sort of the two cultures. Reshma reveals, “The biggest part of our cultures that we have each latched onto is food. I make curry on a regular basis. I have grown to really like Korean food. I have got recipes from his mom… I really enjoy spending time with his family and friends, who are primarily Korean… When I get invitations to weddings, they include him. We even went to Gerrard [street]… and got him a kurta”.

Tasnuva also mentions spending family holidays with Justin’s family, “I have gone over to his place and spent American Thanksgiving with them. I have never done that before and it was amazing. And [I have spent] Christmas and Easter [with them]”. I note a slight tinge of regret in her voice when she adds “and I want [Justin] to experience Eid and Ramadan… and Bengali culture”. She divulges the dilemma of being a South Asian woman, “Initially [my parents] had concerns just like any parent would. In fact, if I was dating anyone from my own culture… they would still have a problem because that’s how parents are [but] he did a great job in showing them respect… There is a problem with my parents. [They are like] ‘what do we call him when he comes over? I cannot call him your boyfriend’. I understand the kind of mindset they come from, and I will not change that. I will respect that.  He will be exposed to [my culture] when we get married or engaged”.

 What stood out of both relationships was that it was the eventual acceptance of both sets of parents that allows for these relationships to flourish. Tasnuva sounds grateful when she mentions that “[My parents] have had a love marriage. They basically accepted it on the fact that [Justin] is a good person. My dad is a super liberal person. I really got lucky with that.” Reshma also echoes similar sentiments, “No one really has blinked at [Tony and me] because of our relationship and I feel fortunate to have experienced our relationship that way. There was really no drama… A little bit of resistance on his side but I think both of our sets of parents are really supportive because they see that we love each other, support each other and are good for each other.” She laughs and adds, “[And a] couple of times we get told that we would make beautiful babies!”

So, mom, I know you want the best for me and want me to be happy, but if I happen to fall in love with a man from a different cultural background, all I have to say is, “But we would make beautiful babies!” Atleast you can take comfort in good-looking grandchildren, if nothing else.

Update: I wrote this article back in June 2010. Since then my parents have modified their attitude towards who I date or end up with. In fact, being with a brown guy is not as much as the issue as being with someone who can make their daughter happy.

Photographs of the couples: Copyrights belong to the individual owners.

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Clearing the Air on World AIDS Day

Posting an article I wrote last year on HIV/AIDS for World Aids Day. It was published by South Asian Generation Next on 2nd December 2009.

HIV/AIDS: Myths and Misconceptions

“How do you get AIDS?”

“What do you think?”

“Kissing?”

“No.”

“Hugging?”

“Wrong again!”

“Touching then?!”

“Not really…”

First of all, let’s get the facts right. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a disease, and HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) causes it.

So, what you “get” is the HIV virus. Think about it this way. H1N1 is the virus, while swine flu is the disease. Similarly, HIV is the virus, and AIDS is the disease.

Now for the misconceptions. HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another through the following bodily fluids- blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal secretions. It cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat, tears and urine. You don’t get the virus by breathing the same air. It’s not a cold! You don’t get it through hugging, kissing and touching. These are simple misconceptions that alienate those who need help the most.

A former York student (name withheld) revealed an incident that threatened to shake his existence about five years ago. He had to take the medical tests during his Canadian immigration process and he had been tested positive. He had been scared and nervous. He had wanted to kill himself. However, he confided in his family who persuaded him to take a retest. The result? He was negative.

This is not common, but not unlikely either. In June 2004, a young man in Faridkot, Punjab, India, was mistakenly tested positive for HIV. The result nearly destroyed his life. His engagement was broken off and he became an outcast from his social circle. Just like the former York student, he thought of committing suicide. However, before he could do anything rash, he was persuaded by his family to seek a second opinion. To his relief, he was tested negative. Just to be completely sure, he sought a third opinion. Same result.

Yet, what compelled these young men to take a second test? They had their family to give them mental support.

But what about those who are HIV positive or living with AIDS? How can they survive if they don’t receive the mental strength that only their loved ones can provide?

Of course, don’t just blame the family. There just isn’t enough awareness among people out there about the disease or the virus itself that can allow for understanding. For example, a South Asian woman who is viewed as the sacred center of her household; who does not indulge in promiscuous sex; how can she be susceptible to HIV?

Well, she could have contracted it through her husband. It’s a definite possibility. But she is the one who is questioned; not the husband. And, then, there is this huge misconception that HIV is contracted through promiscuous sex only, and those who have AIDS are being punished for their lack of morals.

Well, breaking news folks.

Sex is NOT the only way you can get HIV. It can be acquired through sharing un-sterilized needles (syringes, body piercing, tattoo instruments), blood transfusion (Since November 1985, ALL blood products have been tested for HIV in Canada. Therefore, the risk is low) and vertical transmission (an HIV positive mother can infect her child during pregnancy, birth or through breast milk).

Another misconception running rampant is that it’s a “gay disease”, and is a divine poetic justice for being gay.

Not only is it a stigma for a person of the queer community living with HIV, but it’s a double stigma because he/she is queer. What has led to this misinformation?

Media can be blamed to an extent. There have been movies made in the past that sent the wrong kind of messages to the public, confusing the real with fiction. It created a huge stigma among the South Asian community, especially since there are many individuals within our community who believe that HIV/AIDS does not exist. That it’s a non-South Asian gay disease.

First of all, there ARE South Asian queer people. And, there are South Asian queer people living with HIV/AIDS. And being queer is NOT a choice. Secondly, it can affect ANYONE. Straight or homosexual. ANYONE. And, thirdly, like I explained before, it is not a punishment from God, as would be the likely belief, but a lack of information that led to the lack of prevention in the first place. 

What has been done to create awareness? Well, for one there has been an increase in movies and books that help to promote AIDS awareness.

In 2007, Mira Nair’s Jaago campaign gave rise to four short films, and in 2008, Negar Akhavi compiled a book of essays (Aids Sutra: Untold stories from India) to help bring awareness among the public. But these attempts can only help up to a small extent. For example, the short films were screened at film festivals. Film festivals target critics and avid movie goers who can afford to pay for and watch movies. They are also available online, but if you don’t have any access to the Internet, then how do you get the information? Therefore, the populations belonging to lower social economic status have little or no access to information. And, as a result, suffer the most. They have to rely on outreach programs that help spread awareness.

Fortunately, we live in a country where most of us can afford to get this kind of information. There are plenty of organizations that promote HIV/AIDS awareness among the common people. Specifically for the South Asian community, there is ASAAP (Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention). They are a “community-based, non-profit, charitable organization committed to providing health promotion, support, education and advocacy in a non-discriminatory manner”. They also have multilingual services in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Urdu. They are highly confidential and have been providing counseling and other support to their clients since 1989. In addition, they have had many outreach programs in the past that help promotion HIV/AIDS awareness and education among the South Asian community.

When I was an ignorant happy-go-lucky shallow individual who didn’t care much about the world and only about good grades, latest gossip and latest fashion, I had some misconceptions of my own as well. I thought people with HIV/AIDS die early and that you can tell them apart from other people. But, that’s not true. They look just like you or me. And, with advancements in medical technology, it is possible to live for much longer with HIV nowadays. All my misconceptions were dispelled ever since I decided to volunteer for ASAAP. They have a wonderful knowledgeable staff and an amazing network of approximately thirty active volunteers who do their bit in creating awareness throughout the year. Their most recent event was held on 27th of November at three subway stations- Finch, St. George and Queen’s Park.

I was stationed at Queen’s Park with two other volunteers and we were assigned to sell lucky bamboos as a World Aids Day initiative. It was an enriching experience just interacting with the different kinds of people who passed by our little table. Most of them were supportive. Even if they didn’t want a bamboo, they wanted to donate. It was moving to see this kind of support from complete strangers.

And that makes me think, if complete strangers are willing to change their misconceptions and help support a great cause, then why not you? It is easy to ignore how deadly HIV can be and how easily it can be contracted. We can all act like camels with our faces in a sand hole hoping the storm will pass when it’s really raging all around us. All we need is to open our minds just a little so that we can help individuals come forward and identify themselves in order for us to help them and provide them with the information and support that they need. So that they don’t feel the need to hide behind aliases and find it easy to tell you their credentials and hobbies as simply as being able to say that they are HIV positive without experiencing the feeling of being caste aside or stigmatized. So that we can help prevent this “thing”. This deadly insidious thing that can strike any where, any time and ANY ONE.

It’s World AIDS Day today. I did my bit by writing this article. What are your plans?

Resources: www.asaap.ca, www.actoronto.org, www.hivstigma.com

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Artists Can Make it Big: A Conversation with Upcoming Photographer Meera Margaret Singh

This interview was published in South Asian Generation Next on 22nd September 2010.

Flipping through a local newspaper, I was arrested by a woman’s photograph. She sat with her back exposed and her eyes lowered. She wasn’t young, like those models on magazine covers with saucy bodies and delicious curves. Yet, there was a serene beauty in her aging body. The name of the photographer was even more intriguing- Meera Margaret Singh- and hinted at untold stories.

A week later I find myself sitting at a tiny nondescript cafe in downtown Toronto, sipping teeming huge glasses of hot drinks with the artist herself. I had expected a little proud artsy type, with an air of pretence. Instead I find all my stereotypes slipping away in the face of Meera’s candidness and down-to-earth personality.

She wasn’t born a photographer, she reveals. It was only a six week photography class that she took “for fun” after her graduation with a BA in Anthropology that introduced her to her true calling: “I had this euphoric feeling… I felt like my perception had shifted and I felt that I couldn’t stop once I picked up the camera.”

Faced with opposition from her father, she decided to pursue photography through academia: “I think my father’s perspective was more of a pragmatic look at career. Of course… you have to make money…  And definitely at first, I was discouraged. I think my father wanted to see that I had… financial stability and independence and that art could be a hobby. The way I kind of approached entering into Fine Arts was that at the end of [my degree], I will be able to teach. To my father, teaching was a profession. And, what I had to negotiate was that [art] was something I couldn’t have on the side”.

Going back for another BA, this time in fine arts, was a decision that put her on the path to becoming an artist. She believes that “academia is not for everyone in so far as art is concerned [however] what academia granted me was an immediate community… it helped me grow as an artist. Especially in Winnipeg, I had an incredible mentorship there. Through school, as well, I was allowed more access to opportunities. I learnt there how to apply for shows… for grants… What school provided me was a space to how to talk about my work and I think that’s important”.

Coming from a mixed background of an Irish mother and an Indian Punjabi father, Meera had always been caught between two worlds. When asked if she ever felt a cultural disconnect, her face lights up for a moment with her sudden laugher as she says, “Yes!”, but then she sobers up and continues, “It’s almost like a gift that you can feel a sense of belonging in multiple contexts, and at the same time, you belong and you don’t belong.” Not being introduced to her South Asian roots growing up in Winnipeg, Meera felt an urgency to access those very roots as an adult, “We didn’t have a lot of interaction [with my father’s side]… I wasn’t taught the language… [and] I had met my [paternal] grandmother once when she had come to Canada”.  While on one hand, she was able to “envision” her mother “as a young girl in Ireland” due to the healthy dose of stories that she was fed by her mother, on the other, she felt that her ‘Indian’ part of herself was a “blank”, since her father was silent about his past. She felt that she “needed to fill that part of herself”.

Currently one of the most sought after photographers on the Toronto art scene and a professor at OCAD, her philosophy on success appears to be unselfconscious: “I don’t gauge my success in the same way as my parents would… I think it’s about feeling fulfilled with yourself and your accomplishments as opposed to ‘do I have a job?’ or ‘do I have an income?’. I always struggled financially, regardless (laughs); that is the nature of being an artist half of the time”.

For more information on Meera Margaret Singh and her work, visit www.meeramargaretsingh.com

Photographs: Copyright Meera Margaret Singh.

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