Mayank Bhatt: Making Stories, Making Change

Mayank BhattEver since Mayank Bhatt landed in Canada, the topic of immigration and diaspora has preoccupied his literary imagination. Mayank considers his immigration to Canada “the riskiest gamble” which presents him with multiple adversities but also with invaluable opportunities to develop his literary talent and engage with what he loves the best: writing.  Mayank Bhatt – a former media and marketing professional – came to Canada in 2008 with his wife Mahrukh and son Che from India. Like many immigrants, he struggled to find a decent job and make ends meet. Facing discrimination and poverty in one of the most prosperous and supposed ‘multicultural’ nation did not drown his literary energy; rather, it served as the canvas and fuel for most of his writings to come.

While working as a security guard in a condo, he started holding literary discussion sessions with eager condo residents. Then he started a literary blog site called Generally about Books in which he features and reflects about diasporic writings on critical issues including exile, migration, identity, and remaking of national and global fabric. And in the process, Mayank himself morphed into a passionate writer of diasporic issues in Canada. His writing range from everyday quintessential immigrant experiences (like his piece on My First Christmas in Canada) to tackling difficult issues like the role of religion in globalizing world and in contemporary multicultural nation like Canada (see his powerful article, Divine Diversity). In less than two years his writings have made their way into contemporary Canadian literary scenes, including in Diaspora Dialogues as well as mainstream platforms like Canadian Voices and the Spur festival.

This is Mayank’s journey of (re) imagining Canada and inspiring change – by making stories. At the end of this post is also a personal story – Self-improvement – that he wrote specifically for this Immigrants as Nation Builders blog series.

A security guard who organized literary circles in a Saint Clair condo

Mayank’s first exposure to the literary scene in Toronto and, in his words, to Canadian society in general, is at an unexpected place: his “survival job” working as a security guard in condo. Initially reluctant to commit to a job below his qualifications, when financial pressures built, Mayank quickly trained up as a security guard and started working night shifts in a condo on Saint Clair Avenue. The night shifts provided an opportunity: in absolute isolation, Mayank had the time to think and write about the realities of immigration and diaspora.

Picture 2 - MayankWhen his shift changed to an evening one, Mayank started connecting with residents in the building, and soon he found himself holding impromptu discussion groups on literature: “Once you begin talking to them, they begin to realize who you are. That I used to be a journalist, I used to work as a trade officer later. They would discuss books with me. Every evening, I would have four or five of the residents come and talk to me. There would be a group discussion on books.”  The residents read his stories and engaged with them, they made references to literary events in the city and recommended that he submit his works to the Diaspora Dialogues mentoring program. But most of all, the condo residents became Mayank’s second family: they gave him furniture, electronics, and helped him in the transitions to Canadian life; they even helped him with adapting to what he humorously calls ‘a greater predicament’: the Canadian winter. In the meantime Mayank enrolled in the journalism program at Sheridan College and attended the Allyson Latta’s memoir writing workshop at North York Central Library.

Making Waves in the Canadian Literary Scene

Picture 3 - MayankIn 2009, following the advice of one of the condo’s residents, Mayank submitted his short stories and was selected for the Diaspora Dialogues mentoring program. This is where he met with MG Vassanji and had a chance to work with one of Canada’s reputed writers. Today he is one of the five immigrant authors featured in the special initiative of Diaspora Dialogues – A Day in the Life of Toronto. Mayank’s short stories have been published in TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, in Canadian Voices II and in Indian Voices I. His journalistic writings have appeared in Canadian Immigrant while his personal and literary journey has been featured in the Historica Canada blog and Toronto Star. He is starting to get invitation to be panelist or facilitator in important literary events like the Spur Festival and Inspire, Toronto’s first International Book Fair.

Mayank is currently working on his first novel. He is determined to make a solid mark in the Canadian literary scene.

Picture 4 - Maynk
Mayank Bhatt (top right) with other authors featured in Diaspora Dialogues TOK Book 5

 

Generally About Books: Advancing Diasporic Literature

After sending out hundreds of job applications Mayank eventually managed to get a job with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce . He currently works at a law firm, Simmons da Silva LLP.

Picture 5 - MayankBut at heart, Mayank is a storyteller who is passionately writing and promoting diasporic stories that is (re) imagining Canada. His blog site — Generally about Books – has evolved into more than just a forum for discussion of South-Asian diasporic literature but a catalyst for change. His writings feature works of immigrant and alternative artists, musicians, filmmakers and poets who are perhaps as talented as the ‘national mainstream,’ but remain unacknowledged. Specifically, Mayank writes about, and is an integral part of, what is refers to as the “cultural tumult that is transforming Canadian cities.”

The Guest Editor for this post is Dilyana Mincheva, PhD.

Did you know?

  • Based on 2011 National Household Survey data, compared to average Canadian workers, artists are more than twice as likely (11% compared to 5%) to hold multiple jobs.
  • The average annual income of Canada’s 136,600 artists is $32,800 which is 32% less than the average annual income for the nation ($48,100). The average annual income for immigrant artists and racialized artists is even lower, $25,221 and $23,802 respectively.
  • Canada’s artists and cultural workers (curators, archivists, graphic designers etc) have much higher levels of formal education than the overall labour force. The percentage of artists with a bachelor’s degree or higher (44%) is nearly double the rate among the overall labour force (25%), while 38% of cultural workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • The 28,000 immigrant artists in Canada represent 21% of all artists, just slightly lower than the 22% that immigrants workers make up in the overall labor force. Racialized people tend to be more under-represented in the artist occupation category.  While racialized workers represent 18% of total workforce, the 17,400 artists from racialized backgrounds comprise of 13% of all artists.

Source: Hill Strategies Research, “A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada. Based on the 2011 National Household Survey and the Labour Force Survey”, http://www.hillstrategies.com/content/statistical-profile-artists-and-cultural-workers-canada

Further Readings:

The Guest Editor for this post is Dilyana Mincheva, PhD.

A Short Story by Mayank Bhatt

Self-improvement

How I quit smoking

It’s said that new year resolutions are made to be broken. If you’re really serious about achieving something, don’t make a resolution.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve resolved to quit smoking. Every year, I gave up within a day, a week or a maximum of two weeks. Usually, I’d give up the next morning.

Last New Year, January 1, 2009, I made a happy discovery: I hadn’t smoked in nearly six months.

I smoked my last cigarette on July 11, 2008.

The next day – July 12, 2008 – I landed at the Lester Pearson Airport in Toronto. I forgot all about lighting a cigarette in the excitement of finally arriving in Canada.

Moving into the agent’s guest house for the next month in remote Malton, it became impossible for me to access cigarettes. There were no shops in the vicinity.

Other guests in the guest house were smokers. I could’ve borrowed a cigarette from any of them.

I refrained.

When I could do without smoking a cigarette for a couple of days, I decided that I’d start smoking only after I got a job.

This way, I wouldn’t be wasting the family’s funds on useless and harmful habits. Surprisingly, I managed to hold out without a cigarette. A week stretched into a month.

We left Mississauga and moved to Toronto. On the busy intersection Keele and Lawrence W. Now, cigarettes were freely available in many of the neighbourhood shops. I didn’t have a job. So, no cigarettes.

Two months, no job, no cigarettes. The third month, I got a survival job that gave me just enough money to pay my rent and put food on the table. Obviously, I’d die of guilt if I wasted money on cigarettes.

Six months passed by. I got OSAP loan to start my studies. I had money now. The family needed warm clothes rather desperately. So, no cigarettes.

Soon it was eight to nine months without cigarettes. Three more months and it’d be a year. Now, I was keen to complete a year without smoking. I achieved that effortlessly. A year passed away without any desperate urge to smoke.

I didn’t celebrate. It’s said – and I guess for good reason – that it just takes one cigarette to get hooked again. I’m quietly confident I won’t smoke ever again.

Among the many good things that have happened to me in Canada, this is the best. I didn’t even make any New Year resolution about it.

Extreme makeover

“Mr. Bhatt, have you considered being clean shaven?” The young employment counselor at an employment assistant centre for newcomers asked me without thinking whether she should be asking me such a personal question.

“I…hmm..I..why?” I couldn’t manage a coherent response.

“You see Mr. Bhatt they don’t give jobs in Canada to people who look like homeless hobos,” she said.

“Oh!…well…ahh..hmm..Oh!” I stuttered again.

“Your grey hair and beard make you look much older than your age.”

She checked the form to see my age. “You’re in your mid-40s, but you look like you’re nearing retirement age. As an employment strategy you should think of removing your facial hair.”

I came out of the meeting mystified. I narrated to Mahrukh what transpired inside the room. She cackled. Wives can be so cruel.

After couple of months of despondency – when frayed tempers and crushed egos contributed to a loss of confidence and direction – both Mahrukh and I decided that we have to get any job to survive in our new homeland. I began to work with an energy company and my pay was to be a percentage of sales.

For 10 days in August 08, I travelled across the GTA. Every day, I would knock the doors of at least 50 homes.

What surprised me was the reaction of people – all of them were Caucasian Canadians – to my appearance.

As I was being trained, I was asked to accompany a certain Hector; an immigrant from Jamaica. Hector seemed like a regular guy. At every door we knocked, people talked to him engagingly and with effervescence. But every time there was a pause in the conversation the homeowner would look in my direction and give an involuntary shudder.

The two days I was with Hector, he made only one sale, Hector informed our supervisor Misha about this. Misha took me to Tim Hortons the next morning.

We had this conversation:

Misha: “You should shave off your facial hair. That will make you less distinct and more acceptable.”

Me: “But Misha, I’ve had a beard for more than two decades…”

Misha: “You want to stay with our group, you shave.”

So, I quit.

The thought stayed with me. How would I look without a beard? I had started growing a beard when I was in my teens. Beard was an integral part of my non-conformist, contrarian being.

Then, one evening in middle of August 08, I went down to Wal-Mart, bought shaving cream and razor, came home and began to shave. After the deed was done, Mahrukh and Che looked at me with a mixture of amusement and bemusement. Mahrukh sent my photograph to my mother, who didn’t recognize me at all.

That is the story of the momentous step to change my looks.

It’s often made me wonder why people give such importance to appearances. Why is it that homogenization – of looks, language, values and culture – so necessary to be integrated in a society that takes pride in its multiculturalism?

Phone etiquette

Hello.

Yes?

My name is Mayank…I want to talk to…

Who?

Mayank

Maniac!

No. M-A-Y-A-N-K

Oh, okay; and who is it that you want to speak to?

I’ve had such frustrating telephone conversations several times with several people since I’ve been here.

But this isn’t half as frustrating as having to talk to a machine.

Hi, you’ve reached Frank Sinatra on Tuesday, November 30. I’m at work today but either on the phone or away from the desk. Please leave a detailed message and I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Thank you and have a great day.

At this stage, most people purr sweet nothings into the telephone give a satisfied smile and disconnect.

My impulse is to disconnect and send an email, hoping the person would get the message on his / her Blackberry.

Instinctively, I avoid talking to a machine. I just can’t get myself to do it.

Leaving a voice message is inevitable in an office environment. So, I did what the tele-marketers are taught – write a script and read it every time I had to leave a voice message. With some practice, I gained confidence and am now able to leave a voice message with reasonable confidence if not complete coherence.

In general, telephone conversations test my patience. I speak with a pronounced Indian accent. Often, that is difficult for people to understand my accent. When they don’t understand, I become nervous. When I become nervous, my Indian accent becomes even more pronounced. In a very short moment, I’m practically spelling every word I speak. And then, they find it hard to distinguish between my “D” and my “T”.

It’s a vicious circle.

I’m not sure about the cause of my discomfort. I used to believe it was my age and my background (I grew up in a home that didn’t have a telephone).

But I realise that most newcomers don’t have what is commonly described as phone etiquette. It’s something they have to learn fast if they wish to get on professionally in Canada.

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