Author Tags: Fiction, Poetry
According to his main publisher Arsenal Pulp Press:
Ashok Mathur was born in Bhopal, India, and immigrated to Canada with his family in 1962 when he was one year old. Journalism school followed high school, and by 1981 Ashok was working as a photojournalist with small Alberta dailies and freelancing for magazines and wire services. "I was interested in how the visual image told a story," he says.
In 1985 Ashok returned to school, completing bachelor and master of arts degrees at the University of Calgary, after which he started teaching at the University and the Alberta College of Art. "It was then that I became involved in community activism," he recalls. Ashok sat on the board of the New Gallery, an artist-run centre, and joined the editorial board of the literary magazine absinthe.
"All the while I was fascinated by the process of literature and publishing," remembers Ashok. So he and co-founder Nicole Markotic started disOrientation chapbooks with the intent "to publish relatively unheard voices in a chapbook format."
Ashok also became active in Minquon Panchayat, an activist artist collective comprised of First Nations artists and artists of colour that addressed racism in the arts on a national level.
In 2009, he was employed as the Director of the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia.
He is the author of the poetry book Loveruage: a dance in three parts, published by Wolsak and Wynn, and novels published by Arsenal Pulp Press.
Following his Once Upon an Elephant and The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, A Little Distillery in Nowgong (Arsenal Pulp 2009) is a fantastical historical novel, narrated by a child yet to be born, traces the lives of three generations of a Parsi family in India from the late 1800s to present day. The narrative follows the family from the intricacies of village life in the jungles of central India to the complications of urban life in turbulent pre- and post-independence struggles to contemporary diasporic realities in the United Kingdom and North America. The novel begins in 1899 with the birth of a boy named Jamshed to a rural Parsi family in central India. As he comes of age, Jamshed feels he is faced with the choice between spirituality and materiality: he has the opportunity to train to become a Parsi priest, or may follow family connections to a business opportunity as a distillery manager. Jamshed, who will become the family patriarch as a result of his choice, quickly becomes obsessed with the question of free will, and he passes on this obsession to his descendants. His preoccupations, however, are complicated by frequent, often disturbing, visitations by his as-yet-unborn grandchildren, who may or may not come into existence based on the choices he makes. After much soul-searching (and fantastical communications), Jamshed decides to take on the management of the distillery where he discovers the almost-magical properties of its main product, a much sought-after rum called Asha. This curious liquor becomes a leit-motif, reappearing in various forms and incarnations throughout the generations of the family.
Loveruage: a dance in three parts (Wolsak and Wynn)
Once Upon an Elephant (Arsenal Pulp)
The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar (Arsenal Pulp)
A Little Distillery in Nowgong (Arsenal Pulp 2009) 9781551522586
A Little Distillery in Nowgong
from John Moore
A Little Distillery in Nowgong by Ashok Mathur (Arsenal Pulp Press $27.95)
No fiction is harder to write than magic realism.
Even its evil twin, modern Gothic, is a Sunday stroll in the cemetery; a skein of realism at the beginning, then pile on the gore and let prurience prevail over probability. But to write a naturalistic novel that incorporates and actually hinges on events most readers would consign to the realm of the supernatural requires the sly skills of a seducer, not the maniacal theatrics of a psychotic.
Using nothing but language and without resorting to shock tactics, the writer has to make us believe the unbelievable. One false phrase, one over-arch aside or clumsy sentence, the magic bubble bursts and the whole novel fails.
Done right, as in Ashok Mathur’s A Little Distillery in Nowgong, it’s pure delight, a hot-oil massage for the imagination.
This novel opens with a detailed account of conscious birth, homage to the great-granddaddy of imaginative fiction in English, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and an apt overture for a work whose subject is the struggle of a soul to get itself born.
The year is 1899, the place is central India and the boy-child Jamshed, born into the Parsi minority of Indians who follow the teachings of Zoroaster, is not the narrator of his own story. That role belongs to Sunny, a future grandchild of indeterminate sex, whose spirit is able to drop in on Jamshed pretty much from the moment of conception as Sunny attempts to stage-manage the circumstances of its own entry into the ‘real’ world.
Visitations by a spirit no one can see and only he can hear have a disruptive effect on the life of young Jamshed. He becomes famous in his village for ‘going right,’ a posture of attention he adopts when he’s listening to Sunny, which others, especially teachers, interpret as a kind of idiotic trance, a problem behavior.
The image of parents sitting uncomfortably in a schoolroom under a ceiling fan whirling like a karmic wheel to endure a parent-teacher conference about their ‘difficult’ child becomes a recurring drama that links the generations.
Within India’s close-knit Parsi communities, Jamshed’s reputation for being a bit ‘odd’ always precedes him, yet it works to his advantage as well, giving him a heightened sense of his own divided nature and of the opportunities presented by India’s emergence from colonial serfdom and its accelerated entry into the modern world.
As the son of a dastur, a Parsi priest, by tradition he ought to follow in his father’s footsteps, yet he is also drawn to the world of business. Though he willingly fulfills his filial obligations and becomes a dastur, he also becomes the successful manager of the little distillery of the title, where he literally blends the religious and secular elements of life in the recipe for a marvelous rum called Asha, (Truth), which induces a state of enlightenment in the drinker. (For the record, a friend of mine brought me some whisky from his home town, Chandigargh, which had a remarkably similar effect.)
Over the course of his life, Jamshed develops into the kind of Renaissance ordinary man the world so desperately needs. The presence of Sunny in his life doesn’t give him foreknowledge, since Sunny’s future ‘existence’ seems as uncertain at times as his or her presence is scientifically unverifiable. What it does give Jamshed is a heightened sense of the mission of each human being; to be a good person and to engender and nurture future generations of good people.
Jamshed is capable of great passion. He persuades his Parvin, a customer in the shop where he works, to marry him by very politely threatening to kill himself if she refuses. His belief in the future represented by Sunny also teaches him the patience to endure the deaths of two sons in infancy without undue bitterness.
It is Jamshed and Parvin’s only surviving child, the precociously bright daughter Piroja, on whom responsibility for Sunny’s existence ultimately falls. She embodies the spirit of the newly independent India, reaching out for freedom and equality while burdened with the weight of history and tradition. Excluded by the latter from becoming a doctor, reluctantly she settles for becoming a nurse, but breaks tradition by marrying Pradeep, a Hindu doctor, after her affair with a Muslim intern founders on the rocks of his refusal to challenge his family’s objection to a ‘mixed’ marriage.
Together, Piroja and Pradeep tend to the victims of the terrible violence that accompanies the post-Independence partition of India and Pakistan. Together they make the difficult decision to leave India, first for England, then Canada, in search of a better place to raise a family. Together, in spite of working long hours, often on opposite shifts, and having to re-qualify professionally each time they move, they make their ‘mixed’ marriage work.
The job isn’t made any easier by Sunny’s ability to make trans-generational social calls and he isn’t the only spirit Piroja has to contend with. The truculent ghost of her mother, Parvin, keeps popping in to suggest and abet ways she might rid herself of her ‘inappropriate’ Hindu husband.
Piroja and Pradeep’s daughter, the suggestively named Sunila, grows up to become an international recording star of bhangra, the catchy fusion of traditional Punjabi music with contemporary rock that became India’s major contribution to the explosive popularity of multi-cultural ‘world music’ during the last three decades. Sunila’s successful musical career is another motif of the reconciliation of differences through ‘mixing’ Mathur weaves into the story—like her parents’ marriage and her grandfather’s combination of religious and secular careers, not to mention the blending of his famous rum.
But is Sunila truly Sunny? You’ll have to read the book.
Mathur takes some acrobatic risks in the manner he chooses to tell what is essentially the story of a family making the big move from a traditional parochial village culture to the Global Village.
Using a disembodied spirit, who exists outside time but still has a ‘personal’ stake in the outcome, to help tell the story is a slick way of getting out of the Omniscient Author/third person narrative bind that can trap a writer into telling too much and breaking the delicate spell of magic realism. Though the early parts of the story are set amid some of the most traumatic events of a century destined to be characterized by its horrors, like his characters Mathur resists the emptation to rationalize the politics of the modern age.
One of the most poignant episodes in the novel is the description of Piroja and Pradeep working round-the-clock shifts at a hospital during the Partition, the largest and most violent migration of people in recorded history. They both notice that none of the victims, Hindu, Muslim or bystander, understand why these terrible things happened to them.
Like Jamshed, who politely resists the overtures of his best friend to involve him in the politics of Independence, they learn first-hand how the Us versus Them psychology of modern mass political movements turns everyone into a potential victim or victimizer.
By telling the story of India’s twentieth century through the lives of one family, Mathur reminds us that politicians merely make noise; it is the millions of ‘little people’ who make history and who have to make the choice between good or ill for mankind.
Ashok Mathur teaches at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, where he is the Director of the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada.
Not surprisingly, Mathur is deeply involved in world-wide ‘reconciliation’ projects which seek to maximize the effect of the arts to bridge racial and cultural differences so often played on by cynical politicians to create fear and distrust. His previous novel, The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar (Arsenal Pulp Press), was a Commonwealth Writers Prize finalist.
Last words: having recently read Arvind Agoda’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, I have to say that while it’s an amusing satire of contemporary Indian life, in my opinion A Little Distillery in Nowgong is both better written and a more perceptive book.
That B.C. publishers continue to publish fiction of this calibre, when the brutal economics of the trade and the hostility of government suggest they’d all be better off just publishing cookbooks and self-help manuals, is something we should all be grateful for.
-- review by John Moore