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A Life In Revolution
by Allan Casey

Ven Begamudre finds himself drawn into the orbit of India`s cultural heritage in his search for fictional raw material WEN VEN BEGAMUDRE was just a year old, his mother and father left India to study in America, leaving their son to the care of his grandmother on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Several years later, fresh from graduate work, Begamudre`s mother - now a glamorous stranger from the West - came back for him. As soon as his father could find a good-paying job, the family would be reunited somewhere in America. At the age of six, Begamudre was about to become an immigrant; his childhood years would be spent in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Kingston, Ontario, among other places. Next to the Rockwellian ideal of child-rearing in post-war North America, such protracted separation and abrupt reunion might seem almost cruel. But for Begamudre, such was the cost of human migration; it was nothing to be bitter about. In Sacrifices (Porcupine`s Quill), Begamudre`s 1986 novella, a little boy named Hari nimbly adapts to circumstances very much like the author`s own early experiences, gracefully incorporating the wrenching changes from the topsy-turvy adult world into his magical childhood realm. "People don`t seem to realize how immigrant families were split up," says Begamudre, now 35, while swaying to and fro on a wicker rocker in the living-room of his Regina home. "This kind of thing happens all over the world. In Canada, it happened to Eastern Europeans, Chinese labourers, Indian professionals. So if I take it in stride, it`s because I realize this is not a unique experience. The remark reveals a basic tension that informs Begamudre`s approach to writing. While he may take in stride many of the facts of his immigrant roots, he nonetheless finds the subject sufficiently compelling to write about, and he feels mostly comfortable in the "transcultural writer" pigeon-hole. But he maintains a cool detachment from his subject matter that you won`t find in breathless newspaper articles about "the plight of our minorities" - or, for that matter, in much of "transcultural" fiction. From the quiet sanctuary of his home in Regina`s old Cathedral neighbourhood, Begamudre chuckles now and then in recounting his long and unlikely journey to the world of serious fiction, a trip that began in Ottawa in the late 1970s. On a break from his daunting public administration program at Carleton University, he picked up a best seller, Richard Rohmer`s Ultimatum. Begamudre had always been a hungry reader, but this was his first contemporary Canadian author. Unaware of names like Atwood or Laurence, he naively assumed that he was exploring the very pinnacle of CanLit. And he didn`t like the view. "It was absolute trash. The book was so bad, I wrote a letter to the author and pointed out where I thought he could have improved it. I was going out to mail the letter when I thought, `If you think you`re so good, why don`t you try writing a novel?"` Rather than try to reform CanLit single-handedly, Begamudre spent the next five weeks whipping up a political thriller of his own. The result will not likely be remembered, but Begamudre had caught the writing bug and learned some valuable work habits. He launched into a second pot-boiler of 1,000 manuscript pages, which, when finished and unsuccessfully flogged to publishers, joined its precursor in deep storage. Then, on a five-month visit to India, where his father had returned to live, Begamudre made a tentative try at more personal fiction. He wrote yet another unsuccessful mass-market novel, but this one had immigrant characters: "Here I`d written three huge novels for mass-market publication, and when the business of sending the third one out to publishers came around, I was tired of writing for other people." If his experience of India didn`t seem to amount to very much - that one five-month trip and some fleeting childhood memories - the search for more compelling fictional raw material somehow stirred up his submerged foreignness: folk tales told him by his father, his mother`s Hindu spirituality, and his early uprooting. On a whim, he wrote a fairy tale for one of his nephews that was reminiscent of the kind of Indian parables he`d heard years before. He was so pleased with the result, and so encouraged when the story won him a scholarship to the Saskatchewan School of the Arts Fort San writers` retreat, that he left mass-market writing behind for good. Although the "fairy tales" turned out to be an intermediary step in his maturation as a writer, Begamudre retains a strong interest in this "magical-mystical" sub-genre. The Indian characters in his A Planet of Eccentrics (Oolichan, 1990) are fond of invoking parables from their mythology, and the story collection opens with an authentic, and comic, Hindu folk tale. Vishnu the Protector, beloved of gods and men, looked bored. He gazed so intently at his navel he did not notice Garuda until the king of birds declared, "Evening, Lord." "You," Vishnu sighed. "Of course. I heard a passing comet chuckle." At Fort San, Begamudre fell in with writers like David Carpenter, Myrna Kostash, and Pat Krause, and began to take the full measure of CanLit through reading and study. He continued to write "fairy tales;` though by no means did he yet consider himself an Indian writer. In fact, he resisted coaxing in that direction. "When I would tell stories about our family god around the dinner-table, people would say, you should write this stuff down, and I would think, why would anyone care." The final push came during Jack Hodgins`s critique of one of his stories, a fable set in Japan that both agreed was the best work Begamudre had done. "Hodgins wanted to know why the mother in my story couldn`t be Indian. And I said, oh no, Jack, if she was Indian, she would be much sharper-tongued. And Hodgins said, see, you know a lot more about India than you think:" Hodgins devoted the next hour to an inspirational lecture about how Isaac Bashevis Singer had become an interpreter of Hebrew culture for North America, and how Begamudre might do the same for Indian culture if he only tried. "I thought, this man does not realize how little I know about Indian culture," recalls Begamudre. "But at the same time, as he was talking, I was looking out the window and I saw jungles, I saw waterfalls, and I thought, something is happening." "Holiday Father;" the first "Indian" story to spring from that conversation, became Begamudre`s first published work, and eventually reappeared as a chapter in the novella Sacrifices. The piece came together so quickly and amid such a rush of creativity that he was convinced he had at last found his metier. "It was a Dominion Day weekend and I had Friday off. I wrote `Holiday Father` by lunch-time, I wrote another story by supper-time, I wrote another story that night. By the end of the weekend I had written five stories, and there was no turning back:` IN 1991, an anthology titled Out of Place (Coteau), edited by Ven Begamudre and Judith Krause, appeared. Begamudre and Krause collected work from a broad range of prairie writers many of whom they had met while teaching at the nowdefunct Fort San colony - on themes of dislocation and sense of place. Often, the volume reads like a compendium of immigrant and minority suffering: we glimpse Old World religious persecution and the terrors of war, the Nazi Holocaust is eerily invoked, and we sample the gamut of Canadian racism from the blatant to the insidious. There is a grim, documentary feel to much of this writing. By contrast, Begamudre`s own writing seems to co-opt the colder lessons of history and politics into the service of fiction, rather than the other way around. "You could start all my stories with once-upon-a-time," is a generalization Begamudre is fond of making. In "A Planet of Eccentrics;` the story that lends its name to his volume of short fiction, Begamudre introduces the district of Nanjangud, an area near Bangalore in southern India that will become the setting for roughly half of the stories. But rather than using it as the kind of social microcosm that it might be in the work of R. K. Narayan or V S. Naipaul, Begamudre is primarily interested in Nanjangud as a source of good stories.`As with any district, Nanjangud boasts a regulation complement of characters;` he writes, and goes on to introduce several: a secretly wealthy beggar, a blind knife-thrower, and "Thanthiappa, the arthritic telegraph operator, who remained at his post long after he began stuttering in Morse code:" Revelling in his sheer story wealth, Begamudre discards all three characters and begins his real narrative, this one about a strange, reportedly transvestite doctor and his secret, tragic love affair. Elsewhere, Begamudre does examine more closely the kinds of crosscultural problems you find in Out of Place. In "Mosaic," which is set in Canada, we look over the shoulder of an investigator who is compiling a dossier on an Indian immigrant named Ramesh. Ramesh has been fired from his job for what may be racist reasons, and he is brutally beaten by a pimp for reasons that are certainly so. But Ramesh is a far from sympathetic figure: pompous and prissy, he seems equally contemptuous of his adopted Canada and his native India. "There`s a lot of agonizing going on about the role of the minority writer in this country;" says Begamudre. "But you have to look at what kind of minority the writer is from, and what class they belong to. The kind of person who comes here from a Third World country and has to write when he`s not mopping somebody else`s floor is in a completely different position from someone whose parents were allowed into the country because Canada needed doctors or scientists." The Begamudre clan, and most of his fictional characters, clearly belong to the latter group. As Brahmins, Begamudre`s mother and father occupied the top position in the Indian caste hierarchy. The Brahmins had long been in quiet cahoots with the equally class-conscious British and, by the end of the Raj, had a stranglehold on Indian education and bureaucracy. When the British finally left, however, a backlash from the lower castes began, and a whole generation of educated Indians saw the writing on the wall. As evidence of just where his family stood on the Indian social ladder, Begamudre notes that all of the women in his parents` generation had at least one university degree. The social changes in India dovetailed neatly with Canada`s post-war effort to expand its technological base. "Around the turn of the century" Begamudre remarks, "Indians were brought in as cheap labour. But in the `50s and `60s, the Indians allowed in were brilliant people with good educations` " Begamudre is conscious that his parents had to pay a steep price in prestige to come to Canada ("but they had the education and advantages to win it back") and that they met their share of racism. But their forsaken India, as recreated vividly in his fiction, is more often a country of fading splendour than depressing squalor: The Buick stopped in front of a verandah with white columns festooned with pink and orange bougainvillea. The verandah was far larger than Hari and Ammas house. Every room boasted blue and ivory rugs from Agra, ferns in red clay pots, and white ceiling fans. (Sacrifices) "IF I WANT to set a story somewhere that I haven`t been, then I go there," says Begamudre. It`s a sunny, zephyrous fall day in Saskatchewan and he`s contemplating a new story, one about an old Indian writer who lives in a former Catholic parish rectory converted into a condo. From the end of Begamudre`s front walk, you can actually see the old rectory; and since the planned story will take the character to Europe, it`s no coincidence that Begamudre is just three days away from a two month busman`s holiday on the continent. For a writer whose first-hand experience of his native country amounts to less than three years - two of which were spent before he was school age -Begamudre has made the utmost use of his eye for detail and nuance. Some of his most hypnotically rich and emotionally vibrant stories are set entirely in India, and deal with subtle social and familial pressures that, though you wouldn`t guess it from reading them, he has grasped through stubborn research rather than extensive experience. "The Evil Eye" and "A Promise That We Shall Wake in the Pink City after Harvest" are companion stories from A Planet of Eccentrics. Both chronicle the mutedly tragic arranged marriage of a rich country boy and a city girl. The first story is told from the groom`s vantage point, the other through the eyes of the bridewidow, and both are set in Nanjangud, the centre of Begamudre`s fictional universe. "The autobiographical component of the Nanjangud stories is simply that I lived in a farmhouse there for five months and just watched what was going on;" says Begamudre. Bestha stands waist-deep in the canal. Singing without break from sunrise until noon, he scoops water into the ditch with a bucket. Then he stops to eat without leaving the water. She thinks she knows why: his legs would cramp if he did. He continues working, singing until sunset, when he emerges wrinkled like a fig. ("A Promise That We Shall Wake in the Pink City after Harvest") Paradoxically, the fictional India Begamudre has struggled to create demands a great deal of foreknowledge on the part of the reader. Sacrifices, which he describes as "very much a first novel" and "a too-demanding book," may puzzle those lacking a fairly detailed understanding of India`s social and religious matrix at independence. A Planet of Eccentrics also leaves much of the cultural framework implied rather than stated, but more mature technique tends to pave the way much further. There is even a glossary of Indian terms appended, an ironic touch since the author himself speaks no Indian languages. Begamudre will continue to challenge the reader with Van de Graaf Days, a sequel forthcoming from Oolichan that picks up where Sacrifices left off. But a non-fiction book about Indian immigrants in Canada called Load Shedding- a mixture of text and photography on which he is collaborating with his wife, Shelley Sopher promises to be even more controversial: "When Load Shedding is finished, there`s going to be a lot of angry people. It`s not a nice book:" Begamudre seems simultaneously attracted to his subject and intellectually distant from it. As the narrator of "A Planet of Eccentrics" says: "Like a satellite unable to escape the gravitational pull of the earth, my life continues revolving around my father`s district of Nanjangud." "Sometimes, I think that my best writing came from the years when I had more questions," he says. "I seem to have solved a lot of them ...and each time I finish a book, I have to decide if I`m going to continue writing. I think, OK, you`ve written everything you know. "But sometimes there are no easy answers, and sometimes rather than arriving at solutions, you just arrive at a set of new choices. There`s always more to learn."

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