Immigrant’s postcard (mini) – Four days in Québec City — Part 2

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Day 3: Wet-weather friends

DSC05593It’s a rainy day.

Since morning, we haven’t accomplished much, other than eating brunch, visiting the observatory, and walking to the bank to draw cash. After a mostly sleepless night, my zombie feet refuse to dance in the rain anymore without a burst of caffeine.

We keep dragging ourselves through the soaked streets of this still-much-foreign city, desperately looking for a café. It’s nearly three in the afternoon on Canada Day, and many cafes and bistros have downed their shutters.

Discouraged, we keep plodding towards our hotel when a 24/7 and “Ouvert” sign flashes before me. We walk in – it looks like a big sports bar – hockey plays on multiple TV screens as I take a seat and put down my drenched umbrella. My husband walks over to the counter to place our order of coffee and baklava.

“Bonjour,” the cashier, a young Francophone, greets him. “Where are you from?” He asks my visibly tourist husband.

“We’re from Ontario,” B says. The answer is less than satisfactory.

“No, I mean where are you from originally?”

“Oh. India.”

“Namaste,” says the cashier, offering a knowing smile and not a handshake but a full-blown namaskar.

He has more to offer.

“Naam kyea haie?” He asks B.

“Bhupinder. Aapka naam kya hai?”

“Francois.”

On a soggy afternoon, three people fleetingly enter a spot of friendship over steaming coffee and the sticky sweetness of baklava in a mostly empty sports bar.

DSC05913-001Day 4: Lead kindly light

We’ve just been to the unabashedly gorgeous Montmorency waterfalls. Soaking wet in the fall’s mists, as we sit back in the dry comfort of the car, my husband tells me of a religious shrine that’s among the region’s attractions.

And so we alight in front of the impressive Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré , moments later. After clicking the customary outside photos, we walk in. The church’s magnificence — in scale, splendour and decoration — enthralls me. I gesture to my husband to take our seats in a pew.

The sanctum is abuzz with activities and devotees keep streaming in. B uses the time to click photos of the stained glass windows, sculpted walls and spectacular ceiling. An elderly man is seen walking towards the pews, talking to people. He soon comes to us and asks B,

“Bonjour, Francais?”

“English,” B says.

“Oh. French – not yet?” The gentleman says, the possibility in that question perceptible in his hopeful affection and playful smile. “They are going to have a Mass in five minutes. No cameras during that time, please. You can take all the photos you want after that. Welcome to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.”

When the service begins a few minutes later, we see the same man attired in full priestly robes – he is the Father of the church.

And so we sit through an hour-long Mass without understanding a word of it (all French), yet enveloped in organ music and stirring singing, soft light, burning candles and incense smoke, prayer chants and the Father’s impassioned address from the pulpit.

Is it because we want to take photos afterwards (we don’t end up taking that many)? Maybe. But I believe it’s more because of a priest’s gentle voice and kindly smile.

What we experience can’t be photographed anyway.
Read Part 1

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Immigrant’s postcard (mini) – Four days in Québec City — Part 1

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Day 1:  The Sisters

DSC05665After a 10-12 km walking tour of the fortified city and along the river, we sit down on a bench at the foot of the majestic Château Frontenac hotel to catch our breath.A stream of people—mostly tourists, some office goers, a few elderly folks—pass us by.

A group of three Chinese women (sisters? friends?)—probably in their fifties—arrives. We can’t decipher their animated conversation. But two of them take their cameras out to photograph the third lady, who is only too happy to pose.

She stands next to a bench facing us, holding an arm up. “Hold on, I’m not done yet,” she seems to say to her friends while swiftly moving up the hill behind the bench. There, she takes her position, raising an arm and a leg even as she prods the other two women to click fast.

Passersby pause in their walk to take in this unique scene; some explode into laughter.

And although there is no sea in sight, all I’m reminded of is the comradeship of the widowed sisters-in-law in Tapan Sinha’s “Nirjan Saikate.”

Day 2: Pocket change 11707794_10153519566065087_1302432540971826171_o

Back from a lush and soothing ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River, we buy crepes from a mother-daughter stand at a local artisan fair. We walk into a park to consume the supper.

A couple of young musicians emerge to set up their arrangements even as snatches of a conversation between two members of the audience floats over to my ears. The man is telling his female partner/friend about the man-woman busker team we saw perform at the Château Frontenac square yesterday.

As with every street performance, the daring duo had requested the gaping, near-voyeuristic audience to make donations at the end of the show.

Our man in the park today talks about his chat with the male busker. “I asked him how much money do people actually put in your hat after the show?

“He told me most people put pocket change – the quarters, nickels and loonies. Very few – maybe one or two people – actually put five or ten dollar bills.

“And so that’s what you give after watching a 45-minute show in which the performers risk their lives. And right after that, you spend $200 on dinner.”

I can validate what he is saying. Yesterday, when I sheepishly carried two five-dollar bills to put in the buskers’ hat, I noticed those were the only non-coin currency items in the hat.

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about eating crepes clumsily in the park instead of dining at a fancy restaurant.

Read Part 2

Immigrants postcards (mini) ~ I

1

The driving instructor, a middle-aged man of calm demeanour gets frustrated when his Indian student waits for his instructions before making even the simplest of moves. “It’s not your fault,” he tells her. “I see this with girls and women from India, Pakistan, South Asia…all the time. You see, over there you’re taught to listen to the man!”

The instructor is from Afghanistan.

2

A young colleague — the only person in the entire office with whom I can converse in my mother tongue — talks about his home, not far from Dhaka. We talk about the rise of fundamentalist forces in our home countries and of the asphalt-melting heat there. He saves the best news for the last. “I have a newborn niece,” he says with a soft smile. “Abbu-Amma don’t call me as often now. She’s the first girl in our family, you see.” Nieces are fun, I tell him from experience.

He plans to visit his family in the fall. I don’t need to ask him why.

3

I discovered the magic of Alphonsos only in Canada. Back in North India where I grew up, the trio of Dusherri-Langda-Chausa ruled the mango scene.

There or here, I haven’t learned the dainty way to eat mangoes. It has to be skin-licking, pit-sucking, juice-flowing messiness. Stains and all.

Read the regular Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Immigrant’s Postcard: White is White (even when it isn’t)

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

My husband has a visit scheduled for his vision test. The optometry is close to his workplace. A couple of days before his appointment, the doctor leaves him a voicemail to confirm the time, date and location. The message is an elaborate one; short of reciting the exact map, the doctor makes sure his patient has all the necessary information to show up for the test. At the appointed time, my husband finds the doctor to be an octogenarian, as he had imagined him to be by the tone of his voice and his laboured speech in the voicemail. The oculist smiles widely on seeing my husband. “So you are a Sikh.” My husband acknowledges with a soft smile as the doctor goes on to tell him of his English lineage. On hearing B’s date of birth, he says, “Oh, so you were six months old when I moved to Canada.” “Have you been to Goa?” He asks my husband. “Yes.” The affirmative response encourages the elderly specialist to share the story of his friendship with a man from Goa. “He had a Portuguese heritage. For some reason, he was dark skinned even when everyone else in his immediate family had a light, Caucasian skin tone.” In between applying eye drops and asking my husband to stick his eyes into machines the ophthalmologist has to use but doesn’t have much faith in, he regales him with how his Goanese friend, a fellow ophthalmologist, travelled around the world in a ship. “I can’t tell you all his stories, but I can tell you one today.” This is the story goes on to narrate.

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The Goanese oculist once visited South Africa to attend a conference on ophthalmology. Those were the apartheid years. After the conference, the group of ophthalmologists he was travelling with went to dine at a restaurant. Everyone but the oculist from Goa was allowed inside the “Whites only” restaurant. The man accepted the verdict and made as if to leave the spot. He had barely stepped out of the restaurant’s precincts when a woman, a member of the restaurant staff, came running to him. “Sir, please wait a minute,” she said. The man turned around, half surprised. “Sir, please come in,” the lady huffed. “We have been able to confirm that you are white.” The dark-skinned Goanese man of Portuguese descent walked in to join his colleagues, as sanguine as he was moments ago when he was denied entry into the restaurant.

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Game

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

She is petite, her skin a burnished coffee tone. Ever smiling, this beautiful Ethiopian woman is a janitor and my friend. We chat about her weeknight chores and weekend plans. She tells me about her gang of girlfriends, the one that’s stuck together for 14 years, the one that meets every month for a potluck or a fun outing.

“No husbands or kids,” she tells me. The rules of the game are uncompromisingly clear. The women, all hardworking immigrants from Ethiopia, earn this–their day of leisure–and they wouldn’t let encumbrances of domesticity ruin it.

I point to her braided hair and request her to teach me how to do it. Not a problem she says, flashing her toothy smile.

The next time we run into each other, I find her extra animated .

“Did you see Survivor? On TV last night?” she asks me.

I nod in the negative. We don’t have cable, so I don’t get to watch that show.

“You know, there is an Indian girl in it. You’re from India, right?”

“Yes,” I nod.

“Oh my god–she is so good. She has a good strategy, she is smart…she knows how to get there. We are all wishing for her to win.”

I have no idea of the show she is talking about.

But I know she is right.

Survivor — that’s a game Indian girls of all ages play. A lot. With or without strategies. At home, on streets, in buses. And inside cars and university campuses.

Immigrant’s Postcard: The March, the masks, the meal

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s only Tuesday, but the collective spirits of myself and the husband included are already sagging. We decide to give in to the trite solution of an impromptu eating-out outing. I suggest the Chinese restaurant located at a stone’s throw from our apartment.

Winter is setting in, and it’s dark by the time we walk towards the place. It remains dark even when we arrive at its doors–no glowing OPEN sign beckoning us. That’s when I read the restaurant’s hours, painted in red and yellow on the wall. Closed on Tuesdays, it says.

The spirit lurches further, but  we continue to walk on. B suggests we check out a shawarma place, about half a kilometre away, in the opposite direction. So we turn back, the chilly November breeze blasting on our faces. We pass by the shawarma joint, suddenly enthused to explore a bit more–maybe another Chinese restaurant? Down a few more paces, suavely-dressed people look out at us from the swanky and unaffordable Che resto-bar, even as I ponder on the incongruity of its name.

McDonalds and Jambalya–a Thai-Caribbean restaurant get a miss from us too. We are looking for cheap food, yet give an elitist ignore to McD. As we cross the road, I realize agitated hunger bugs are good agents for fighting a drooping spirit. I feel the bugs chorusing in my belly.  We walk by another expensive Thai restaurant and veto a “Vietnamese and Pizza” place before walking into a corner store that also sells Caribbean take-out. The words Goat Curry on the menu light up our faces, but the shine is erased a moment later, when the kitchen manager–a sturdy black lady–emerges from the kitchen with a broom in her hand and informs us they are about to close the doors.

The hunger bugs align with the spirit and heave in my belly.

As we wait for the walking signal to cross the street, something silky-soft kisses my head, then my face. I turn around astonished even as a young man pulls a huge flag away from me, saying, “I am sorry, didn’t mean to flag you.” With him are a few more young men, some of them in white Guy Fawkes masks. We cross the street together.

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A sudden craving for burritos seizes the husband, although there are no Mexican eateries anywhere within our walking range. We have already covered a couple of kilometres on foot, so I turn down the idea of going back home, getting out the car to go to his favourite Mexican grill. He remains relentless in his burrito demand, yet makes a turn–as abrupt as the heroine of Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” when she spurns her letter-writing lover–towards a shawarma shop.

A chubby-cheeked young man greets us from behind the counter. He’s cooking up a storm with chicken shawarma and hands us nibbles to taste as we place our orders. He makes two chicken shawarmas for us, and every time he receives our nod for adding a condiment (Tzatziki, hot sauce, pickled turnips, red onions), he says “Shukriya” with a self-assured smile. With the selfsame cordiality, he asks us to sit and eat and not do a take-out. Our tired feet agree, and we become the only two patrons in the big restaurant, its walls punctuated with prints of Babylonian structures. As he sits down with his own shawarma for dinner, our young host tells us he’s from Iraq but had lived mostly in Syria before moving to Canada.

In one evening, B and I unwittingly become participants of the Million Mask March and receivers of delicious Middle Eastern hospitality.

Shukriya/shukran, for both.

Read all Immigrant’s postcards here.

Where a line is a circle: Toronto

This personal essay appears in the third issue of Earthen Lamp Journal. The journal’s theme was ‘East, West: Juxtapositions and Intersections.’

world-cup-2010_02Flags. They had become the latest automotive displays, fluttering atop cars – sedans and pickup trucks, SUVs and smart cars – in crazy abandon. The tiny flags caught my eyes in the summer of 2012, as I drove around Mississauga, the Toronto suburb that was my home. Canada Day, the official holiday to celebrate the unification of three colonies into a single country called Canada, was still nearly a month away. So the sudden show of patriotism puzzled me.

As more flag-bearing cars cruised along in the days to come, I discovered not all sported the red maple leaf of Canada against a snow-white backdrop. If anything, the colours and images of the flags far outnumbered the colours or breeds of the cars that flew them with pride. That’s when the reality – its transience – of Euro Cup struck me. Admittedly a provisional vexillologist for the period of the tournament, I turned to Google with curious search terms – ‘Red and white flag with pigeon,’ and ‘Red and green flag with emblem on top.’

As the Euro soccer mania gained momentum, television news channels in Toronto didn’t have to send correspondents to different European countries to get viewer reactions. Nor did they pick up news feed from international agencies. That’s because Europe itself lives in Toronto – people of European descent form the largest bloc of immigrants in the city. When Italy entered the tournament’s final, the TV channels needed to do little more than to place a camera in Toronto’s Little Italy, where all hell had broken loose as fans erupted to celebrate their home team’s victory over Germany in the semi-finals.

My own move to the land of abundant maple syrup and universal healthcare marked a diagonal shift in more ways than one. From the sun-dappled mountains of San Francisco, California, my husband and I decided to come to Canada as landed immigrants. ‘You will like it in Canada,’ he had reassured the writer in me, while we were still contemplating the move. His observation alluded to his comparison of the US west and east coasts (the latter being closer to Toronto). Occasional work-related trips to certain parts of New York exposed him to the thriving diversity there, manifesting in a rainbow of costumes in the streets, words from different languages drifting into one’s ears as well as the vibrancy of the region’s arts and literature scene.

Read the rest of the essay here.