Back In Dubai – Part 2

Off the boat, we took a break at one of the many open-air restaurants that now dot the creek’s boardwalk, running from opposite the Carlton Tower up to the Radisson (formerly the Intercontinental). The coffee was excellent; just don’t ask for beer—alcohol is still quite a challenge and comes at a steep price within the larger hotels that serve it. And talking of the Radisson, a place I used to hang out once upon a time with visiting Air Lanka crew members who were friends, it now had a range of restaurants, the best being the fusion Emirati one that gave you a sense of how subsistence Bedouin food had been elevated to haute cuisine with money and imagination—we ate there twice during our brief stay and the food was excellent.
I walked into the bazaar area, where I had once lived after my time at the Carlton Tower, and my money, had run out, back in 1980. It had been a warren of narrow streets overflowing with single South Asian men, the working class who were unable to bring their families across, who, dressed in baggy pants and flowing kaftans, held hands and stood chatting, or were busily shopping, or who frequented the many restaurants in the vicinity to partake of masala, khorma, thaali and kababs, accompanied by pickles, onions and lassi, the local diet that my westernized stomach could no longer handle but which had been my staple food back then. In those days, the shops had been filled with electronics, accessories and appliances that every expatriate loaded up on to take back home—the raison d’être of living and working in Dubai, and for some, a side-line import-export business. Well, the shops, the electronics, accessories and appliances were still there, on a larger scale now, and the streets had become more orderly, but the restaurants had vanished—perhaps zoning had come in to separate merchandize from food. And the single men were still holding hands and thronging the place, especially as it was a Friday, the weekend.
My old apartment building, in the heart of the bazaar, where I had shared rooms with two other expatriates, had now been converted into a hotel and was looking in better repair then when I had lived there. I walked past the various offices that my brothers and I had worked in and they had all changed names, but their buildings were still standing—a way of life had vanished but trace-lines of the past still remained, like embers after the flame has died out.
Emerging from a side street, I fell upon Baniyas Square, once a signature destination, a park with the twin peaks of the Deira Tower on one side, the British Bank of the Middle East on the other, and a host of other bank towers lining the third side of the grassy catchment in the centre into which Al Makhtoum Road fell and circled after heading in from the direction of the airport. This was the place I used to drive first-time visitors directly upon their arrival, to show them the glittering lights and clean streets of the emirate, before spinning around and heading back to my apartment (the second and last apartment I lived in) beside the Deira Clock Tower. I wanted to give them a favourable first impression of Dubai, and that detour always helped. Well, today Baniyas Square was less well-illuminated (LED street lighting, I guess) and the buildings were a bit worn (they were 30 years older, I had to remind myself), the banks had been replaced by hotels—banks add stability, security and modernity, while hotels bring transients, clutter and sin, I’m told. I realized why some of my friends who still lived in Dubai did not come out to this place anymore: this was the old Dubai, this was the equivalent of the downtown Sands Hotel area in Las Vegas; everyone preferred the uptown Belagio, or in Dubai-speak, “the world’s biggest this and that” areas. And yet, as I walked around Baniyas Square, I recalled shopping here with my family, especially for clothes, as my son outgrew his once a month, a pastime we also indulged in as there wasn’t much to do in Dubai in those days, and popping into Baskin Robbins (lo and behold, it was still there!) for one of its 32 flavours at the end of those expeditions—fond thoughts to wrap myself in as I walked in this city-state that had undergone several incarnations since I left 30 years ago.
On our last day, I took a final walk along the creek at dusk, past the municipal building that now sported the pictures of the rulers of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and I wondered whether the dual representation of power, that had never previously existed, had something to do with Abu Dhabi bailing out Dubai in the last financial crisis; I mean why had Burj Dubai suddenly changed names to Burj Khalifa? I concluded that I knew nothing about the labyrinthine world of Emirati politics just as I didn’t understand its society, and that is how it would remain—heck, I couldn’t even figure out why Americans had voted for Donald Trump!
On my walk, I met this lad bicycling towards me. He must have been in his early twenties. He promptly stopped alongside and said. “Sir, can you get me a job?”
I was taken aback by his directness. I explained that I was a visitor from Canada with no such powers of creating employment, even though I had once lived and worked in Dubai.
“Can you get me a job in Canada, then,” he asked, unfazed.
“I’m afraid, I can’t do that either. Do you have a job here?” Everyone usually had a job in Dubai, especially if they belonged to the migrant labour class.
“No, Sir. I’ve come here on a visit visa to look for a job.”
I found out that he was a nurse back in Pakistan, earning 20,000 Pakistani rupees per month, a wage slightly higher than the minimum.
“In Dubai I could earn ten times more, Sir.”
A familiar bell rang for me. I had also come to Dubai, a lifetime ago, at his age, to earn ten times more than what my home country had been paying me. Over seven years in the emirate, my tax-free “enhanced” salary had helped me raise a family, build a nest egg, immigrate to Canada and start a new life comfortably. His was not an unrealistic expectation.
“What’s stopping you from applying to the hospitals? I see a pharmacy on every street corner, there must be a lot of sick people here.”
“I need a special government nursing certificate, Sir. And for that, money has to change hands back home, many times, before I get it.”
“ I see.”
“And I don’t have that kind of money, Sir.”
I didn’t know what to tell him, except to wish him well and move on. The last glimpse I caught of the young man, before twilight got in the way, was of his swaying bike as he peddled it vigorously. His was a different world and a different time to mine, I guess. But he, like me, had gotten out of his world and come seeking, and I was sure that by some combination of determination, effort and luck he would land on his feet somewhere in this Emirate. I knew that he was not going back to Pakistan with his tail between his legs, that was for sure, he was not the type, not with that direct approach of his. I bet that even to get out here on this “exploratory” visit, money must have changed hands many times back home.
As I returned to the hotel to pack my bags, take a nap, and head out to the airport, I realized that many like that young man, like me once, had come to this place, built nest eggs and moved on to enrich other countries and themselves. And through it all, Dubai, like a faithful investment bank, has soldiered on, giving birth to these immigrants while gathering strength over the years despite the occasional financial slump, despite being surrounded by warring and hostile nations all around it, nations that seemed scared of touching this oasis in the desert and destroying the hope for humanity that somewhere in the world there was still a place to make a fresh start with no questions asked (and no answers given). Perhaps the rulers of those hostile nations regarded Dubai as their “out” in case things got bad at home. There were a lot of things that didn’t sit right here, they never have, but coming from the developing world as I did, I cannot deny that Dubai gave me the launching off push to the First World that my home country never did, and for that I am grateful.
I was also glad that I spent my time on this visit in the rustic part of town where everything had begun for me, in my Dubai, not in the artificial one that is splashed in the tour brochures.

Back In Dubai – Part 1

In the 30 years since I left Dubai to reside in Canada, I had returned to the emirate only once, eight years ago. But on that occasion, my host had focused on introducing me to the “world’s biggest” attractions that had sprung up in the intervening years and made Dubai the Las Vegas of the Middle East: Palm Island, Burj Dubai, Burj Al Arab, Dubai Mall, the theme parks, and all the “cities within the city” like Computer City, Sports City and Medical City. We had travelled down massive highways and traversed the urban sprawl that now connected Dubai and Sharjah, and Dubai and Jebel Ali, where once there had been only white sand desert between those points. None of these new places, monuments and concrete jungles had any significance for me on that trip. So when I returned this time in January 2017, I wanted to be right at the heart, where it had all begun for me, at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Deira by the abra boats that crossed the creek and had taken me back and forth to work twice-daily.

The airport is a bit of a shock—massive, is an understatement. Transferring from an arriving flight to the arrivals terminal can take 20 minutes by apron shuttle. The insides of the airport are opulent, littered with duty-free shops and built to carry expanding traffic for the next 20 years. On the outside, the airport stretches way past Al Ghusais which was once the outback for us. The airport taxis come in different flavours: metered, limos, and liveried with female drivers for women passengers and families. We took a liveried taxi with a courteous female driver who efficiently delivered us to the hotel, at a fare that was only a few dirhams more than the fixed rate of 30 dirhams we used to pay the stern, uncommunicative, male Emirati drivers burning rubber in Mercedes Benzes.
The Carlton Tower, where I spent my first two weeks in Dubai back in 1980, had been my initial refuge because Ramadan was declared a couple of days after my arrival and finding food during daylight on the street was impossible; the restaurant in the hotel had been most obliging. Today that restaurant had been supplemented with a coffee shop and two nightclubs, Thai and Russian, testament to Dubai’s growing diversity and boldness. Outside my window, the creek still bustled with dhows and smaller boats but many of the dhows, once used to carry cargo up and down the Gulf, had been converted into “dinner and show” sailing boats for tourists. The temperature in January hovered between 15-20 degrees Celsius, pleasant, compared to my initial entry on the hottest day of the year (48 degrees Celsius), in July 1980, when they fried eggs on car bonnets, and the exhausts from air-conditioners blowing out into the streets made a walk outdoors feel like stepping through Dante’s Inferno.

I walked over to the abra dock, formerly a flight of stairs leading down to the water where you jumped off the last step into the boat and hoped you didn’t fall in the drink, where the captain sat in the central well of the vessel and banged his fists on the floor boards midstream, demanding that the twenty passengers seated around the gunwale toss their 25 fils coin at him as passage fare (those who threw larger coin were frowned upon and those who didn’t throw anything were tossed overboard, or so the legend went), and where the smell of diesel fuel was so overpowering that you disembarked on the other bank with a petroleum high—the mark of living in a petrodollar state, the legend also said. This time the abra dock was secure with gates, and steps led right on board the many boats that came and went in rapid succession. The price for crossing the creek had climbed up to a dirham (still cheap!) and the captain courteously collected his money by walking around, handing out change where necessary, and doing all this before we took off. And now, an overabundance of gulls followed us, a population that had seemingly thrived over the years, diving in riveting formations whenever anyone threw food overboard—a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics during the ten-minute crossing.

I had learned by now, when visiting places after long intervals of time, to follow the road, for the road never changes, the buildings around it do. I decided to revisit the Souks, following the familiar pathways that had once taken me to them. The Textile Souk on the Par Dubai side covered most of the streets radiating out from the abra station. I remembered bargaining for silks to take back home as gifts that the relatives painstakingly tailored into saris, pants and blouses; now that practice was inconvenient, for we only bought disposable garments ready-made in China, sold with American brand labels. And yet bales of cloth in all colours and textures stood proudly displayed inside shops in the souk, manned by Indian merchants armed only with a pair of scissors and a calculator, ever-ready to “cut a deal.” And while we walked, the muezzin called loudly from loudspeakers in the many mosques that dotted this neighbourhood. On the opposite bank, in Deira, the Gold Souk and its companion Spice Souk, another set of narrow streets with canvas overhangs in the old days, had become tourist attractions; groups descended from boats and busses and flocked to these souks that were mazes of well-marked and illuminated streets glittering with the precious metal displayed in fragile windows and overflowing with bags holding rare spices from around the world. I wondered whether the Three Wise Men had stopped here en-route and stocked up on gold, frankincense and myrrh while following that elusive star—they had surely missed out on the red saffron that seemed to be everyone’s hot favourite!

The Dubai Fort had been a crumbling relic of the time when the Trucial States guarded the waterways of the Arabian Gulf and extracted tolls from merchants. Today, the outer fort remained the same, and yet below-ground was a vast museum: an array of subterranean displays built to depict the life of the Bedouin who had settled this area, including a room with artefacts from the Ruler’s private collection that provided clues to this civilization’s connection to the classical Abbasid caliphate, artefacts uncovered from archeological digs in nearby Jumeirah.
As I had no interest in Dune Bashing or Sandboarding, two popular tourist activities for the more physically agile, we decided on a sedate creek cruise. Back on the Deira side now, and after a brief bargaining session which satisfied both buyer and seller (one always bargained here – it was a cultural requirement), we took a water taxi for a ride down the creek in the opposite direction to the earlier abra rides. As we neared the Al Makhtoum bridge, I recalled that my two road accidents in Dubai had been on this very bridge—one while crossing Deira into Par Dubai and the other while returning in the opposite direction—results of the manic speeds that everyone behind the wheel of a vehicle in the emirate had to follow lest they be run over or side-swiped. I remembered the little park by the bridge on the Dubai side beside the British Council Library where I had tried to teach my son to play cricket; that attempt proved unproductive for he was snatched up by baseball instead when he got to Canada a few years later. There were newer bridges across the creek now, in addition to the Makhtoum Bridge, the more distant Al Gharoud Bridge and the Shindaga Tunnel of the past, but our boat had to turn around at the newer Floating Bridge as it was closed to water traffic during the day.

As we sailed back, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, rose like a needle piercing the heavens, rising behind the very private, late-Qatari Emir Sheikh Ahmed’s palace (one of his wives was the daughter of the former Ruler of Dubai) that graced the banks of the waterway, a vast property secluded now as it was then, making me realize that for all the years I had lived in Dubai, I had never been offered a glimpse into the lives of the Emiratis. We expatriates, who vastly outnumbered the locals, then as now, had led compartmentalized lives within our ethnic enclaves, meeting for exchange and intercourse only when engaging in some kind of forced business or social transaction. The locals had always lived apart and had been our bosses and sponsors, whose assent gave us permission to reside and work in Dubai, and for some of us earning a sufficient amount of income, the opportunity to bring our families along with us.

(To be continued…)

Sri Lanka Revisited – part two

An ultra-modern “village in the jungle” (with apologies to Leonard Woolf) is how I would describe the Cinnamon properties (the Lodge and the older Village) situated in the middle of the Habarana wilds. While monkeys roamed the vast grounds, guests enjoyed peace and quiet in semi-detached chalet-style apartments, replete with every type of modern convenience.

Habarana is a great jumping off point to the attractions in what is now known as the Cultural Triangle that includes Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, each situated within short drives from the hotel complex. In this part of the country, the well-paved roads are less crowded and the traffic is more likely to be stopped by a straying wild elephant (and we saw plenty of them by the side of the road as we toured).

The historic sites have been restored and cleaned up since my last visit 8 years ago. There was also a conscious effort being made to portray the religious side of these sites, in particular, their Buddhist aspects. Where once upon a time all visitors had to remove footwear prior to entering hallowed premises, now women, especially tourists, had to additionally cover necks, shoulders, arms and other revealing skin.

The water tanks, built by far-sighted Sinhala kings, that had been allowed to languish in colonial and post-colonial times had been restored, for there was actually water in them now; the Sea of Parakrama was actually a giant body of water helping to irrigate farmers’ fields in the vicinity. Gone, I hoped, were the droughts of my childhood, or the excuses of droughts, when whatever rain that came was supposed to have fallen outside the catchments of the tanks, leading to the lack of food, to power cuts, and to other shortages.

Onto Trincomalee, a place I had visited in my childhood and youth. I remember taking a never-ending boat ride around the giant natural harbour, walking through the streets of the old town, and vacationing at my great-uncle’s sprawling estate home where everyone was welcome, where the food was plentiful, where there was no electricity, where we sat outside at night under the stars and swapped stories while listening to a battery-powered radio.

My great uncle and his family emigrated to Australia a long time ago, and the great man himself had since passed away, and so I decided to experience another side of Trincomalee – the beach. We spent two days on the beach outside town and it was a restful break from the constant travelling of the last few days. The seas were rough but the water was warm and the beach was strewn with dive shops, guesthouses and sea food restaurants. The local fishermen conducted a daily ritual of running a giant net out into the water, without a boat, and then hauling it back very slowly, the lead fisherman bobbing out far in the rough seas as he towed the net out and in. The sorting ceremony that was performed on the beach opposite our hotel after the laden net came in resulted in a battle between the gulls and the crows for the spoils left behind by the fishermen – a raucous event, and you had to watch out for falling offal from the sky. The unevenness of the beach became clear after while: this entire strip had been washed away in the giant tsunami that ripped the island in 2004.

I observed another phenomenon in Trincomalee, a town that has always been predominantly Tamil and Muslim: the burqa had replaced the salwar khameez. I wondered whether moves by the previous government to firmly entrench the nation as a Sinhala Buddhist one had resulted in religious minorities retaliating and staking out their own turf, and whether a subtle polarization was taking place – again. Or were returning housemaids from the Middle East wearing their work clothes to avoid buying a second wardrobe to wear at home? When the driver advised me that in the recent census, Muslims instead of Tamils were now the dominant minority in the country, I raised my eyebrows even more. And talking about politics, I realized why the common man was still enamoured with the last regime, corrupt or not; he had witnessed visible signs of progress with the last gang: roads, infrastructure, and price controls on essential goods, on a scale never seen before. The common man did not care that the new guys were saddled with the former guys’ bills, or that the new guys were still trying to figure out how Green and Blue (traditional rivals since Independence) could work together, or that they were trying to reduce – yes reduce, not increase – Presidential powers that lead to dictatorship.

Last stop: Jaffna. I have been trying to get to Jaffna since 1978. On that last occasion, I had turned back on my bike due to the “troubles” that were brewing, especially as my pillion rider was an American friend with a powerful camera who could have been mistaken for a CIA spy. But this time the rebuilt highway (and railway track) ran uninterrupted into the northern city with scarce traffic accompanying us. I saw the signs of the recent war immediately: military camps in every major town en-route, police check-points spot-checking motorists (we were stopped twice and my driver said that the cop was disappointed when he saw two tourists in the car, preventing him from collecting a customary bribe), the bombed out water tank in Killinochchi lying on its side as a stark reminder despite reconstruction going on around it.

My old school teachers used to tell me that Jaffna was a hot place where they only grew chillies and garlic. Well, if those pundits are still alive I’d like to inform them that they are wrong. Many tanks and ponds accompanied us as we entered the peninsula, and paddy fields, coconut estates, palm and corn fields ran right up to the outskirts of the city. Jaffna itself is a smaller version of Colombo with its teeming Pettah-like centre, the fishing harbour, the stately colonial buildings, the Fort (a military one unlike the commercial one in Colombo), and the temples and churches (make that Hindu temples and Catholic Churches). There were no Buddhist shrines to be seen, unless I missed them. But the signs of “We beat you, now buckle up and behave” were everywhere: the army’s foot patrols that walked the town, bullet-scarred houses of those who fled or died crumbling into decay beside modern structures of those who survived rising beside them, and hotels with management staff who spoke only Sinhala and English, sent from head-offices down south to manage lower level local Tamil staff. Temple Road leading to the famed Nallur Temple, once dubbed NGO Row had lost all its NGOs as those benevolent organizations had packed up and returned home when the war ended. Our Tamil tour guide lamented that now they had no help in the reconstruction as the foreigners had left and the government in Colombo was wrapped up in its internal conflicts. Testament to his lament is the state of the Jaffna Fort, slated for reconstruction but only with its outer walls restored, the inside is still a mass of bombed out structures with cattle grazing in the tall grass growing amidst the rubble. The only sign of hope was the fully restored Public Library, burned down twice in recent history by those who have no appreciation of history; I now only hope that its sparse collection of donated books and periodicals would increase and multiply over the years. Unlike in the Buddhist temples where we had to cover up, I was asked to remove my shirt at the Nallur temple, and I wished I had been permitted to take a selfie – darn!

We took the train back to Colombo. And we travelled “local” this time: second class. The CGR (Ceylon Government Railway) is still the same as it was 40 years ago; its rolling stock, its railway lines, its stations; the toilets still stink and there are no garbage pails so you are encouraged to throw your refuse on the track outside. Vendors ply their trade on board between stations, and railway guards turn a blind eye because there is no restaurant car. But we left and arrived on schedule, 7 hours later, something unheard of in the old days.

Before I left the island, I had to revisit my old home in Nawala where I had lived for 18 years. I had learnt by now that old landmarks are useless after 40 years, only the narrow, un-expandable road remains constant. The turns, inclines and declines in the road were my markers, except that over-construction in the once open land on either side had shrunken distances. I followed this road to my old address, but it had vanished behind a giant wall, even the number on the gate read differently. After much jumping up, ferreting, and snooping like a thief, I discovered that our former garage had now morphed into the main building and the old house was just an annex. Over the top of the wall I caught a glimpse of the American-style bungalow roof that my mother had picked out of a magazine and my father had charged the contractor to build for us. I could not proceed further; I did not know the new residents, and to all intents and purposes, I was an intruder. However, I was lucky to find my former neighbour, a retired octogenarian doctor and an eminent writer, at home, as well as a former teenage buddy (now retired, sobering thought!) who came rushing home from wherever he was as soon as his wife phoned him to announce that I had arrived unannounced. And their instant showers of Sri Lankan hospitality, replete with fish cutlets, patties, cake, tea and Lion Lager beer, all magically produced from the recesses of their kitchens and the kindness of their hearts, were… well, heart-warming.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka. However, I left with optimism. This country may not be my home anymore but it is a place where I feel extremely comfortable, in its hustle and bustle, its polluted traffic, its mouth-watering food, it’s side-splitting humour, its social contradictions, its irreconcilable political differences and its incomparable beauty. It is a place to return to, again and again, because HOME, after all, is only a state of mind.

Sri Lanka Revisited

One always runs the risk of upsetting someone when recounting a visit to the old country, especially when viewing it through the eyes of a westerner. My visit back to Sri Lanka this Christmas, after eight years, was a pleasant surprise, especially since my last one after a longer 21 year-gap had been during the height of the civil war when movement had been somewhat restricted. This time the country was finally in motion, going in the right direction for a change. And everyone was engaged, even if it was in criticizing the government (which is a national pastime, no matter which government is in power).

There are still two Sri Lankas, I realized: one for the tourist and one for the local; and for people like me, I get a pass to both, for I speak the vernacular; I am a product of the “Sinhala only” days of the Bandaranaike dynasty. In the tourist world, the experience is top notch: great hotels, vast arrays of food served by world renowned Sri Lankan cooks with signature Sri Lankan cuisine now totally outshining standard western fare, ancient cities, fantastic beaches, wild life, night life and a gentle climate. The tourist wishing to experience this Sri Lanka has to commute in air conditioned cars along new highways or in private airplanes between city centres, and on prescribed routes and itineraries. Step off this path and you wind up in the other Sri Lanka where the now well-paved roads, especially in the southern half of the country are clogged with traffic and the air is stifling in leaded exhaust fumes, where the teeming hordes spill over sidewalks, where the tuk-tuks appear to be on hara-kiri missions, where every town is a garish parade of shop signs lining narrow main streets, making them all look the same, except for the size and age of the bo tree that sits in the middle of the main intersection. The contrast between these two extremes is evident in the Colombo Fort, where York Street acts as the physical and metaphorical divide between West and East: the West heads towards developed, touristy city blocks with shopping centres like the Dutch Hospital complex, hotels and restaurants like the Kingsbury, the Stuart and the Ministry of Crab, and office towers like the Trade Centre and the Bank of Ceylon; the East draws in the sprawl of the local bazaar crawling in from the nearby Pettah replete with the detritus and smells of night dwellers who squat in prohibited places, hollowed out structures like the Ghaffoor Building, and motorcycle parking lots on Lotus Road where once I used to catch the bus home from work. The country will have “arrived” when these two worlds coalesce. And help is around the corner, for a huge land reclamation project, almost the size of the present Fort, is underway on the western end of the city to ease congestion. Hopefully, it will also bring prosperity in the way of jobs to the man on the street, so that he too can enjoy the pleasures currently affordable only by the tourist and the local 1%.

The hills of Nuwara Eliya were a welcome respite from the heat and the pollution but the switch-back roads through beautiful vistas looked perilous to the older me. The town itself was just another crowded, sign-plasted warren of narrow streets, although colonial bastions like the Hill Club, the Grand Hotel and the Golf Club still communicated grace and genteelness. I recalled fondly how I had travelled down the Ranboda Pass in a rainstorm on my scooter with a madcap CTB bus driver on my tail all the way down to Kandy back in the ‘70’s. Now being in a car, in dry weather, with no such mad bus driver to distract me, the journey looked far more dangerous – age makes one cautious! The tea estates were in good repair – a national treasure not to be squandered in wartime or peace, and the estate workers’ dwellings had improved, some were even two-storey concrete structures now. The Kandyan lass who sang out her commentary on the workings of the tea estate reminded me how much English had deteriorated in the country over the intervening years. There is an attempt to introduce English in the schools at present and students must study all three national languages now, but an entire generation has lost its opportunity for global advancement due to political expediency. This gave me the added impetus to practice my Sinhala on the locals, an effort that paid off handsomely – I didn’t get charged tourist prices when I frequented local dives and chimed “Keeyada? (How much?)”

Descending to Kandy threw us into an unbroken circle of traffic whizzing around the lake and I wondered why the authorities could not divert motorists elsewhere like they had around the Dalada Maligawa area which is now a security controlled pedestrian zone. I took in a cultural show next door to the palace and watched the Kandyan dancers exert gymnastically to the drums; then the fire-walkers trod on hot coals before my eyes and I felt the heat – this was pretty serious stuff, not an illusion. The water level was low in the Kandy lake – drought, said my driver – and I couldn’t see the fish or the myriad of coins that used to lurk below in the old days as the remaining water was murky. But a drive along Upper Lake Drive at night for dinner in one of the many cosy restaurants overlooking the lake gave us a break from the pollution and offered a bird’s eye view of this picturesque city. Arrack had become my staple drink by now, one I hadn’t tasted in years – it was cheap, available in different flavours and strengths and had even infiltrated new fangled cocktails. And a good rice and curry was always welcome, three times a day if necessary.

The stop at Sifani Jewellers was a no-pressure visit, unlike the one in Colombo where the salesman had pressed me to buy a precious stone lest his family starve for the lack of him earning a commission. The Sifani lady was gracious, giving us a history of the gem industry in the country and letting us loose in the showroom where we were free to browse and/or buy, or not; the sheer variety of stones only made me gasp. The same no-pressure approach held true at the Batik factory where we got the run down on that garment’s 8-stage creation process, and at the Ayurveda farm where we got to sample various native treatments and received a massage to boot. The no-pressure tactics worked, for we bought from these places.

Walking around the lake one evening I saw a middle-aged gentleman with brief case in hand standing for his bus. As the crowded vehicle roared by with no intention of stopping, he deftly ran into the middle of traffic and jumped onto the footboard and pushed his way inside. I used to do that in my youth, and it came to me as a shock that I could have been that man, one who had decided to stay and not roam the world like me.

The deeper I went, the safer I felt. Yes there were warts and everything was not perfect but this was an imperfection I had been raised with and come to expect as normal. Maybe it was the imperfection that made the journey comfortable and familiar. ( to be continued…)

When Truth Died and Greed Won

An uneasy silence has fallen upon the land in the wake of the US election. The unexpected has happened (again!) after those lazy, non-voting Brits screwed it up on the other side of the pond four months earlier. Following the gnashing of teeth and the spewing of sour grapes among the young and disconnected, accompanied by a mild rebound of a stock market running on irrational fear and greed, and after some populist after-shocks in Italy and France, the world is nervously waiting to see whether it has been visited upon by a demagogue, a messiah or a con-man, and whether the economy is due for a course correction after two generations of globalization.

What gave rise to these developments? The first thing that comes to mind is that somewhere along the way truth died and greed won. Truth has been steadily devalued over the last thirty-five years to the point where it has ceased to be our moral currency. Greed has won out, greed that doesn’t reside only in the hated 1% but is a disease that has infected even the lowly garbage collector who believes that he will one day become a millionaire. The new climate is one where might is right, where the slick message scores over the honest gaff, where the ruling elite is corrupt and popularly perceived to be sorely in need of punishment, where the cowboy who rides in from the outside and shoots up the town is returning to cult-hero status, where positioning has transplanted admission, and where achievement is measured in celebrity status and money.

Truth has been dying for some time now, since the early ’80’s, when liberal democracy was trumped by Thatcher-Reagan neo-liberalism, and “make money at any cost” became the global operating mantra. Matters came to a head during this last US election. Both parties and both candidates contributed to truth’s final death-blow. Both candidates campaigned as upholders of the truth and yet were exposed as liars, several times, and nobody cared because truth was dead. False news channels kept mushrooming everywhere, announcing contradictory polls and dishing out well-concealed personal dirt on the candidates. Russian spy-games of the James Bond era entered the fray, adding a cinematic touch. After awhile, truth-telling had to be set aside, for no one knew what the truth was any more, and the choice boiled down to: “If this system is so screwed up, I need a change, any change, at any cost.” Enter the President-Elect, the man of the honest gaff, the dealmaker, the admitter to locker room talk that elites normally try to keep concealed, the holder-to-task of corrupt media and corporations; yet he is also a moneyed celebrity, and we wonder whether his image as the maverick cowboy bent on cleaning up Dodge is mere artful positioning? We shall see, for we have chosen him in desperation now that truth is dead and greed has won.

So what will the post-truth era look like? I see media companies being less belligerent and more co-operative for their own sakes, given that their financial positions are now weaker; thus their integrity and relevance will diminish further—journalistic sycophancy will be on the rise. If fringe media replace them, then they too will have to ensure that their message is not subverted in order to gain corporate funding or political patronage. I see more “deals” taking place behind the scenes; the existing, visible ones will be left to wither on the vine. Social Media will become the dominant advertising platform, and the dissemination of filtered news will be governed by an algorithm. The real truth will become even harder to find on the internet, even though the Net will also be the place where you will find sincere nuggets by those caring to bare all, risking censure. When “leaks” about the establishment take place (and there will be more of those!) the noise will be so deafening on social media and on the street that people will tune out, for emotion would have crowded out judgment providing impetus to the new ruling elite to carry on unfazed. Elite? I thought that was an obsolete word? Didn’t we vote in an elite-bashing cowboy? Nonsense. We just replaced one elite with an unproven one comprised of several novice gunslingers.

But all is not lost. In this post-truth era, I see an increasingly vigilant role for citizens who are concerned with the public conscience, who are essentially the public conscience, who are committed to uncovering the truth, and who are willing to stand out from the crowd by distilling the issues down to their essence so that even the unwashed get the message. This is not the time to retreat into a cave and wait out the next four years. Much would be lost if the new steamroller is left do its work unchecked over this period. This is the time to channel the steamroller to do as much good as it can while its propulsion lasts. A populist leader needs the cheers of the crowd; boos will make him unhappy and force him to rethink his strategy. And we need to boo and cheer in equal measure when appropriate so that he gets the message, even if it has to be limited to tweets in the Twitterverse where he spends a lot of his time.

Thus, as the new administration girds up its loins and heads off into unchartered waters in the new year, I hope that Americans and the rest of the sane world will be alongside, encouraging when warranted, opposing when necessary, holding to task when promises fizzle into thin air, and most of all, becoming engaged like never before in the flawed but crash-tested political process that keeps western democracies from slipping back into the abyss, an abyss that looms closer now that truth is dead and greed has won.

Support for Independent Publishers in Canada

(This article was published on the Heritage Canada website on Nov 14th 2016, where it got some attention before being drowned in that tsunami called the “Newsfeed.” I salvaged the article and am publishing it here to give it an extended life)

After a successful career in business, which I gave up to pursue writing, I graduated from the Humber School for Writers in 2002 and realized that, at the age of 47, I had arrived at the CanLit party too late. I was too old to be picked up by an agent or a mainstream publisher and too removed from the established literary community. I ended up self-publishing my first novel that was recommended by my mentor at the Humber School to its in-house literary agency, but which wasn’t picked up by that agency. My next two works, a collection of short stories and a novel, the latter which won an award at Write Canada, were published by a small Ontario trade publishing house that has never enjoyed subsidies from Federal or Provincial arts agencies despite being in business for over 20 years.

In 2011, realizing that I could do better, I decided to set up my own publishing company with my money to publish my work and the work of other deserving writers across Canada who were having difficulty getting through the narrow portals of publishing. In particular, I have focussed on the writers of Northumberland County, Ontario where I live, publishing two anthologies of their work and planning another for next year. I have operated on the trade publishing model, selecting manuscripts, editing them, and providing authors with publishing and global distribution via Ingram, because I haven’t found a Canadian printer/distributor who provides a more cost-efficient service, despite having a low-dollar advantage. I use POD (print on demand) not because it is a vilified technology but because it is cost-efficient and saves trees. I also publish in e-book form (Kindle and e-pub). I pay my authors royalties and promote them via social media and fund their book launches. I wish I could do more for them, but my resources are limited. I have been publishing an average of three books per year as that is my maximum bandwidth as an unfunded independent operator who quickly came to the realization that he still had to make his living with a second job. I have incorporated my publishing company and have submitted tax returns for every year of its operation. I have not taken a cent in salary out of my publishing company for the hours I have toiled in it.

My requests (to whomsoever needs to action them) in this note, are the following:
1) Simplify the grant application process so that new entrants can understand it and play equitably alongside incumbent recipients.
2) Hold Canadian printers and distributors responsible for bringing their costs in line with global standards. Currently grants to publishers are going to subsidize printers and not to help promote authors or defray publishers’ other costs. (It would also be nice to see Canadian distributors being open for business and not act as cartels that shut out new entrants, but I am not sure if this is something anyone can influence other than market forces).
3) Make the grant system a dynamic one based on merit and not one that has become an annuity for incumbent recipients.
4) Create grant categories for “author promotion by the publisher,” if these don’t exist today; and if they do, make them more transparent. Traditional media channels are closed to small publishers and we have to find new channels – social media being our best avenue. But now social media has moved away from “free” to “paywall” when it comes to advertizing, and this needs money.

Subsidy or not, I will continue to write and publish, for I have a deep commitment to my art and to this industry. It would be nice to see our Federal and Provincial bodies recognize the fact that publishing has changed and morphed into many hybrid models compared to the original upon which CanLit was founded. These hybrids need assistance to grow and stand on their own, just like the fledgling CanLit once did. And, aren’t we all parts of an evolving CanLit, incumbents and newcomers alike?

I thank you for listening to me and look forward to seeing a more inclusive system of publishing emerge in Canada during my lifetime.

The link to the article on the Canadian Government website is:
http://www.canadiancontentconsultations.ca/stories/stories/support-for-independent-publishers-in-canada?fb_page_type=story_telling_tool&fb_tool_id=6028

Write What You Know…or Know Not?

I have tended to follow the “Write What You Know,” principle and am now wondering whether that mantra accrues diminishing returns over time. Recently, I finished writing another novel. Four of my novels have been published to date, while the other four sit in limbo waiting to get into the public spotlight. I have also written dozens of short stories, many of which have been published, including two collections of short fiction under my name. And I thought I would be beyond postpartum depression by now, when it came to writing and seeing one’s work in print. I was wrong. With the completion of this eighth yet-to-be-published novel—my shortest one yet, as I am aiming for brevity—that familiar feeling of release, mixed with loss and doubt, returned.

The first question I asked myself was: Who would benefit from reading this book? Who would care? And if no one cared, why do I continue to go around in circles crafting this stuff, picking incidents from my life, either experienced or witnessed because I am supposed to write only about what I know, when I could be doing some other good for humanity and for myself? Or do I detest humanity so much that I would rather hangout with my fictional characters whom I can bend to my will? And now that I have said goodbye to my imaginary friends at the end of this new book, am I left vulnerable and exposed again? Can I return to the fictional world, or is that gate managed by some power beyond myself, and do I need to experience and observe more of life before I am allowed in again? Who calls the timing of my re-entry? Is there a re-entry after this latest foray?

The rational side of me says, “Don’t worry, this is just the beginning of another adventure. There will be beta readers to go through, editors, re-writes, the publishing cycle, and the post-publishing marketing circus of launches, readings, interviews, reviews, book fairs and social media. Writing the book is only the beginning.” But I’ve heard this all before and gone through the “adventure” a number of times. All this “other stuff” is work that runs according to a template. The creation bit was the most important, the entry into a tunnel you never knew when or where you would exit from, and with what gifts of story accumulating in your manuscript. Creation was the true adventure, everything else was fluff.

“Write what you know,” can be stultifying, for how many personal life experiences are worth writing about, especially in a way that others would find entertaining, educational and uplifting? Some writers like Knausgaard, Kerouac and Burroughs have gotten away with it, but they either had unique lives that only they could write about, or boring ones that after a single reading need never be duplicated by any other writer. On the other hand, writing about other lives is supposed to wring hollow and is not taken seriously. And yet after writing about one’s own life from countless angles, if we don’t venture into other lives and other periods, repetition will set in. Is that why genres like historical fiction and fantasy are so popular with readers, while being financially rewarding and liberating for the writer?

I have arrived at that point, I think, where I have written all the stories from my life that I care to write about. Now, I’m at the jumping-off point into the great beyond of other lives and epochs, where the writing will, hopefully, continue for another indefinite period. I’m sure most writers have been here once; some have crossed the bridge successfully, while others have stayed in their comfort zone writing their way into irrelevance.

The Novel of the Future

I’ve tried to imagine what the novel of the future would be like. “Novel” means “new” and the form has been evolving since its invention. In fact, I am still trying to figure out who invented the novel; was it the Greeks, the Icelanders, the English, or the Japanese? Depending on which source you read, all of the above nations make that claim, due in part to the novel’s amorphous and ever-evolving form that fits any work having some kind of a narrative. But the future novel? A daunting task to conceive, yet one that every novelist tries to invent, if he is to gain immortality.

I looked at trend lines. Readers are consuming the following in plenty these days: feel-good stories, short works, long works, fantasy, crime (the puzzle), female themes, teen romances, and series (the latter, thanks to Netflix, I think). Weighty literary tomes, where the accent is on lyricism not brevity, character not plot, are attracting shrinking audiences, despite best efforts by arts organizations to elevate literary fiction with prizes, grants, and snob value. How do readers want novels to be presented; i.e. in prose, pictures, video, on paper, or electronically? Even though e-books were once touted as the emerging standard, their first iteration has not gained much ground, for three reasons: (a) their audience has come from a paper background and is required to change, (b) the devices and content are still pretty “old world”—our first generation of e-book is just another mousetrap, not necessarily better (c) publishers and e-tailers have gotten greedy and are pricing e-books closer to that of paper books to subsidize the paper that they are dumping at fire sales.

From the above I concluded that the novel of the future (and I’m talking 10-plus years from now, when the first kids to get an iPad on their fifth birthday become serious book buyers) would have to be story-driven, fast-paced, eventful, continuous, loaded with pictures and interactive video—and delivered electronically, of course.

And what would happen to the current crop of writers? Would they phase out like silent movie stars after sound entered the film industry? Or would they collaborate with illustrators, videographers, and techies to produce composite works, like the movies? Would the cost of a book therefore increase? After all, illustrations, video and sound must cost money. And these new collaborators will want a slice of the creator’s royalty pie as well, wouldn’t they ? Would we therefore have to be selective in the production and consumption of new literature due to its high cost of creation? Would advertizing become a standard appearance in novels to defray expenses? Would sponsorships be de-rigueur? And wouldn’t the older reader (i.e. my demographic) also gravitate to this new novel out of necessity as eyesight deteriorates, and a manipulatable book with the assistance of pictures, audio and video become more accessible? Too many questions…

There are more: Would I still play in this new environment? Me, who came of age reading words and conjuring up the rest (pictures, video and sound) in my imagination? Would I be happy being just a scriptwriter, for that’s what I would be reduced to (movie script-writers, please do not be offended, but novelists are the masters of their universe, editors notwithstanding)? Or would I continue writing my novels in the traditional manner and morph into an epicurean artist, like a calligrapher or a hypnotist?

Or could I depend on teachers and parents to continue reading to their children before these future readers are bestowed with iPads on their fifth birthday, thus ensuring that the tactile connection with books is still paper for generations to come? There are more questions than answers at this time when it comes to envisioning the novel of the future. And there is hope too, I think. In the meantime, we continue to write…

Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

Security is an illusion

We live under the constant threat of being hacked. In some cases, we have become immune to our e-mail addresses being used as agents for the selling of costume jewellery, Viagra and essay writing services. In other cases, our websites and Facebook pages have been taken over (see my previous article “Being Flogged on my Blog”) leading to more serious identity theft and personality hijacking. What can be done? Enter cryptography.

But pundits will argue that we have had encryption and firewall technology around for a long time and the best ones have kept one step ahead of the bag guys. But these technologies only get better “in the breach,” that is, only after the miscreants have crept in, wreaked their damage, and left a trail for us to research build further protections against. One might argue that the data security firms are the very ones sponsoring the hackers, not only to stress-test their products but also to create more customers. After all, isn’t that what arms manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and private jails do?

And the threat of a breach to one’s security goes up exponentially as we put more of our identities online for convenience sake: banking passwords, medical records, demographic information, selfies taken at every day of our recent lives, purchasing transactions, the list is building… We trust “clouds” with our data, but do we know where these clouds exist? Are they in abandoned warehouses that are fire hazards, in desert server farms subject to climate change, or in countries where regime change is imminent? We just don’t know. All the more reason to encrypt our data from even those who are holding it in safekeeping. Like the old bank safety deposit box, that needs two keys, one of them being yours, in order to open it.

Okay, now we have got to the core need. I need a key, one that cannot be copied or stolen digitally, in order for my data storage box to be opened or closed. I need a physical key. Therefore, I need my data to be stored in a place which I can physically reach and use my physical key to access. Does that mean storing my data on a separate hard drive, not accessible to the internet? And does that imply placing it in a safe or bank deposit box with its own key somewhere within commuting distance? And when I need pieces of data to work on, I just retrieve them from this storage system described above, put them back on my laptop (that is hooked up to the Internet), hoping like hell that no one grabs anything while I am working, despite my fancy firewall protection software, and quickly returning my re-worked data to my safety deposit box after I have finished my work and after wiping my laptop clean? Seems like a rather convoluted process. The world, as we know it, would come to a grinding halt while we engage in these time consuming data security actions.

And the pundits of free enterprise will argue that this back-to-basics approach would be a restriction of our rights and options, a return to hiding our talents under a bushel, to inhibiting the hacker industry and the data security industry, and by extension, the arms, pharmaceuticals and private incarceration industries.

And so we say, “WTF,” and carry on our merry status-quo way, risking hackers, risking identity theft, risking losing all our social media friends who will un-friend us the moment we start behaving peculiarly, and losing our wealth when it is stolen from our bank. Our consolation is that information theft and cryptography has existed throughout the ages, like cat and mouse. Remember those Allied code breakers in WWII? They were the good-guy hackers of the day. Hackers and Cryptographers—one will never vanquish the other, in fact, one lives because of the other, and we are the poor suckers who give them life at our expense. So suck it up and get on with it—security is an illusion.