A Tribute to Rana Bose (1950-2023)

Photo: Lisa Foster

Posted on: 2 June, 2023

Category: Member News, QWF News

by Nilambri Ghai

I find it difficult to imagine that Rana Bose, an iconic figure in Montreal who made daily visits with his dog Willis to the Café de Mercanti on Monkland Avenue—and a mentor and friend who succeeded in “bringing the margins to the centre” to better reflect humanist values and highlight the impact of settler colonialism in Canada, particularly among those who have experienced their own histories of colonization—is no longer with us. If I were to describe him in a few words, I would say that he was a prolific writer, poet, and playwright; a steadfast scientist, engineer and warrior; and a dauntless supporter and friend. His most recent play, Tribes! (No Matter What), is set to be performed at MAI from June 8 to 18. Co-produced by Theatre Espérance and Teesri Duniya Theatre Co., it will be directed by Howard Rosenstein.

It was back in 1983 that I met Rana and Dolores Chew—young parents at the time. My husband Ajit Ghai and I had just had our second child and moved into a small house on Panama Street in Saint-Hubert. We were eager to join the South Asian Community Centre, which is now called the South Asian Women’s Community Centre, and we often met with Rahul Varma, Shree Mulay, Daya Varma, Rana, Dolores and others who formed part of the Indian People’s Association of North America (IPANA). We were also involved with the Teesri Duniya Theatre Co. that was producing progressive plays like Sue Townsend’s The Great Celestial Cow, directed by Rana, and performed at the Centaur Theatre in September 1985. Somehow Rana was able to find the actor in those of us who had never been on stage before. He told me once that anyone who can feel can perform.

The launch of Montréal Serai as a magazine and theatre group in 1986-87 was driven by the outrage we felt after the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, the anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and the killing of Anthony Griffin, an unarmed 19-year-old black man, by Constable Alan Gosset outside an NDG police station in November 1987. We felt the need for a forum to express our voices, and Serai was born to support “New Arts, New Communities.”

Rana, as the lead, provided the impetus, and Ajit did the layout each month on a Quadrex Information Systems’ Spacewriter, a machine invented in Montreal that was touted as “both electronic typewriter and word processor.”

Through his writings and discussions, Rana touched on far-reaching subjects that are at times difficult to describe. I recall him reflecting on the state of the arts sector, searching for models that would allow writers, artists and performers the freedom to survive on their art alone. More recently, he turned his thoughts to nationhood:

Nationhood … is not about borders, (legislative) bills, physical contours, customs clearance or toll gates. It is a state of ancestral learning and continuitylessons learnt in relationship to the land, the mountains, the forests, the sky and the people who have lived under it. It is about the historical and intellectual continuity of those who were there from before. The Indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of the land—their struggles, their opposition to colonization, their efforts to preserve their languages and culture. 

There was never any dearth of material. The theme for the upcoming issue of Serai – “Gender Identity, Binarism, and Quantum Entanglement” – was very close to his heart. It reminds me of Shaf’s words to Ben from Rana’s fourth novel:

I tried to explain that reality was relative and measurable, especially when large and observable, but when it came to very small particles, matter, force and energy did not behave in a similar manner. There was an element of probability introduced and matter or waves did not obey Newtonian physics…. My main intent was to take him [Ben] on to the concept of ideas travelling and having the same impact as force on an object. In other words, I wanted him to know or understand that like quantum mechanics, ideas do not have the same impact on the opinion of people. That people have a built-in psychosis and truth or reality cannot prevail on everyone in the same way. But what is that built-in psychosis? 

Shaf and the Remington, p. 138-139

In one of his email messages to me, Rana explains why he writes and what he writes about. As he put it, his novel Fog was:  

… an outpouring about being in conflict with yourself. And I carved three characters into a popular Montreal setting. All were in self-conflict, like a certain schizoid frame of mind…. In Shaf and the Remington, I have written about the Balkans, spanning nearly 100 years. I went back 500 years to research the topic. Why would anyone be interested? Why don’t I write about vampires in a village near Kolkata? I do not write to win awards, to make a living. I don’t need to be careful. I don’t care to be careful. I feel that I do not need to cater to the popular bandwidth. I have a few friends here in Montreal and Toronto who have the same approach. They write with enormous poetic intent… but they have a purpose, a desire to influence. And that is also my intent. To change minds about popular wisdom. Popular wisdom is a scourge.

I will miss these impassioned questions and discussions. Like many, I drew my energy from Rana and his partner in later years, Lisa Foster. So much so that even though I moved to Ottawa in 1993, they kept alive in me the soul of my friends in Montreal and Serai. I cannot end this piece without expressing a profound appreciation for Lisa’s tireless efforts in bolstering Rana through the scourge of multiple myeloma and endless treatment protocols. I fondly recall their visits to Ottawa with Willis when Rana spoke nostalgically about food at Punjabi dhabas (street cafés) in Kolkata. I want Lisa’s and Rana’s family—his adult children and grandchildren—to know that we share a connected sense of deep loss.

More about Rana Bose

Five Questions for Rana Bose (2019)

Rana’s acceptance speech for QWF’s 2016 Judy Mappin Community Award (on YouTube)