Immigrant’s Postcard: Walking with Memory Shards

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

So we’ve been living in a new city for the last ten days. Last week, on my way back home from the indoor market (housing local farmers, butchers, bakers and dairy owners), I got lost–for the second time in three visits. Severely direction-challenged that I am, this isn’t new to me. A lot of times, I actually enjoy losing my way, only to find myself in an interesting part of the city. When this happened to me in London about three years ago, I remember having walked  into the area of Soho, where the evening seemed eager to graduate to  the tantalizing night ahead. I was in London for the first time and might not have visited Soho alone in a planned manner. Getting lost thus pushed me into an experience, which though unexpected, turned out to be memorably charming.

Back to last week’s loss-of-direction episode in my current city. When I finally realized my mental mapping skills were not taking me any closer to home, I sought a fellow-walker lady’s help. Thanks to her accurate directions, my feet quickly found solid ground and marched toward our apartment complex.

A couple of hundred meters from the apartment complex is a casual eatery with patio seating outside. As I passed the cafe, I heard an elderly gentleman asking a couple sitting in the patio for some help. I couldn’t hear well, but I heard him say, “My Alzheimer’s…” to which the gentleman sitting at the table on the patio said, “Well, you are still very much in London, sir.” By then I had moved farther. When I turned back, the lone, walking gentleman no longer stood next to the patio.

Even as I tried to make sense of the streets and intersections to reorient my geography, here was a man wandering with fractals of memory and no compass to rely on, wondering if he was still in the city where he started his walk.

It struck me then that we were in a city of the aging, with more visible services for the elderly than possibly any  other demographic group.

London, Ontario that is.

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Immigrant’s Postcard: Maybe next time?

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

Summer has nearly preempted spring in Toronto, as the mercury keeps shooting past 20 degrees Celsius, breaking all kinds of records. From the time we arrived here (June last year), we have been warned and reassured in turns of the perilous winter that lay ahead and exactly which jacket and which brand of snow boots to get to beat the cold. Well, the winter seems to be behind us and not only the weather (hardly snowy, never perilous), but even my wardrobe has started mocking  me. So we went to buy some summer clothes.

At the departmental store, a Caucasian family of four–the parents and their two young boys–preceded me in the customer service line. As the father proceeded to make the payment for their purchases, the mother and the younger son, not more than three years old, hustled back to grab one more item. When all his items had been scanned, the father said to the counter lady, “Please wait a minute. There’s one more thing I’d like to get. But not if it’s too expensive.” The mother, with the toddler in her arms, hurried back. The little boy had a toy–a small stuffed monkey with a green back and an orange head–in his hands. As they reached the counter, the father handed the stuffed toy to the counter lady. She scanned it and turned the computer screen towards the father– “Twenty dollars.” The father was quiet for a few seconds, as if numbed by the price.

Shortly, mum and dad exchanged a few words in what seemed like some Eastern European language. By this time, the little boy, still in his mother’s arms, had grabbed the colourful monkey back. The father didn’t say anything to his son (nor did the mother); he just shook his head at the counter lady.

The customer service lady, evidently an Indian, looked at the golden-haired kid and said, “Maybe next time?” When he still didn’t look ready to part with his monkey, she gently took it from him, saying, “Here, let me scan it, so we can have it ready for you the next time?” The boy remained quiet, didn’t create any fuss, and the family left the store.

The counter lady’s gentle intervention in the tricky situation reminded me of a line my husband remembers from his childhood. Every time he asked for something that was out of his parents’ reach, they would cajole him, “Kal le denge, haan?” meaning, “We’ll buy this for you tomorrow.” It is the golden promise that makes “tomorrow” so coveted for children across generations.

Letting down a toddler must be hard for any parent. It’s perhaps a tad harder for immigrant parents who have come to a new country and a bleak economy.

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Immigrant’s Postcard: “Open to Close”

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

On my way back from a job interview, I wait for my bus to return home. Direction-challenged, I wonder if the stop is the right one for me. In a while, a short, curly-haired black lady arrives. She is wearing black goggles and greets me with a broad smile. I seize the opportunity and ask her if the bus I am waiting for will take me to the desired place. She confirms it will. A little later, she chirps,

“It’s going to rain!”

“It does look like that,” I say, coiling my hands inside the jacket’s pockets.

“But we can’t complain, can we,” she says with a thick accent, adding, “after all, God gave us a brilliant summer this year.”

I nod.

She points her fingers up and says, “That guy up there, he is very smart, you know. If he wanted, there would be blackout this very instant. So we got to respect his judgment.”

I continue nodding with a wan smile. Silence joins us soon.

Not for too long. The lady looks at me chirps again, “You going for work!”

It’s past lunch time. “No, I am going home!” I say with some emphasis.

She laughs and says, “You look so good, I thought you goin’ to work.” I feel a bit uncomfortable and notice, for the first time, her long, yellowed nails.

After learning that I am still looking for work, she has much to tell me.

“This is a bad time for new people to come in. There are no jobs,” she warns. I nod and try to maintain a neutral face.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” she reassures me and continues, “when you get on the bus, I will show you a new store they are constructing. You should apply there.”

This is followed by an insider’s lowdown. How they “don’t pay too well, only the minimum wages,” but how that is better than not having anything.

The bus comes, and my bus-stop friend takes the seat next to mine. True to her word, she points out to me the under-construction Wal-art.

“They have all kinds of shift–early morning, afternoon, all-night. So when you fill in your shift preferences, choose ‘open to close’. That way they will know you are really interested.”

People around us are looking at me; I am beginning to get annoyed, but keep up a smiling face. And the nods.

“And if at all they don’t take you for the counter, you can also opt for stocking. That means putting things on the shelves. Ya gotta take whatever comes your way,” my friend continues. I take in all the suggestions with total silence and utmost seriousness.

A few minutes later, we both get down at the same stop.

The chirping lady just says, “Well, good luck. Bye.”

I thank her quietly and say a little prayer for all of those like her–surviving on minimum wages, but not short of concern and hands-on tips for a new immigrant.

Occupy your city can wait. Occupy Wal-art first. Where it’s “Always Low Prices.” Of the employees even.

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Immigrant’s Postcard: Bhasha, Basha, Bari

A series on my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

The title of this post is in Bengali:

Bhasha = Language, Basha = Temporary residence, Bari = Home (usually long-term, ancestral).

We had been in Canada for just a few weeks when B, my husband, nearly complained of having to speak too much Punjabi. Having lived in the US for a number of years, his mother tongue had become a distant cousin for him–there in memory, but not in presence. I, on the other hand, would have given anything to find a soul with whom to converse in Bangla, my mother tongue. In our Mississauga neighbourhood, that possibility seemed to elude me, what with the profusion of Punjabis–from both sides of the border (India and Pakistan).

The opportunity came my way in the strangest of ways.

On Canada Day, one of B’s friends offered to take us on a strawberry-picking jaunt. His mother and wife–a second-generation Canadian Punjabi were part of the group. Their invitation extended to a brunch of stuffed paranthas at their house, once we had filled our strawberry baskets. R, the wife of B’s friend got busy in the kitchen with making the paranthas with the help of her mother-in-law. Once they had all been rolled out, aunty came and sat with us in the living room.

Earlier that morning, PK, B’s friend had mentioned that his mother knew Bengali. As we all chatted away–mainly in English, with splashes of Hindi, PK poked me and his mother alike. “How come you two are not speaking in Bengali? Come on, how can you keep yourself from doing it already?” Aunty smiled and her wink reflected permission for me. I immediately started off; in an instant, “aunty” became “mashima” for me. I learned that though a Punjabi herself, she had picked up Bengali from neighbours in Jamshedpur, where she grew up and later spent her married life. Till date, her Bengali remains spotless and free of any accentual adulteration.I was thoroughly impressed. And delighted to find my first mother language friend in the city.

Some more weeks passed. B found work, and his long commute presented a fresh set of priorities before us–buying a car and finding a house closer to the station from where he caught a train to work. While B continued to speak more Punjabi, my Bengali remained buried somewhere under the mental debris of car models to choose from, jobs to apply for, and potential rental ads to shortlist. While talking on phone with the poster of one ad, I caught a clear Benglish accent. All formality flew off, and I blurted, “Aapni Bangali? You are a Bengali, aren’t you?” And so we went to see his house. Obviously.

As K, the Bengali young man looking to rent his apartment led us in, we met his wife, infant daughter and the spartan interiors. After two years of his stay in Canada, K’s professional project had come to an end, and it was time to return to India.

“Are you from Calcutta?” I asked his chirpy wife.

“Totally from Calcutta,” she beamed.

“Ah, so you must be happy to pack up.”

“Oh yes, you can imagine what it is to go home just before Durga Puja.” She could barely hold her smile now.

That’s when it struck me. The word home. In India, I spent all my unmarried life in Delhi, the city of my birth. And yet, during a post-marriage trip to Kerala , when a man asked me where I was from, I said, “Bengal.” Where in Bengal was the next question, and I just said, “Delhi.” I remember the perplexed look on his face.

So what is home I wonder. Is it a place? Or is it more likely a language? One from which B has strayed a bit. And one which I pine so badly to belong to.

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Immigrant’s Postcard: At the Guru’s Door

A series on my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

“This place feels just like Chandigarh,” my husband remarked, walking around our Mississauga neighbourhood. He had spoken more Punjabi within just two weeks of being here than possibly in twenty years, he would observe. Though exaggerated, that observation wasn’t all that inaccurate. We know people, a lot of them from our parent’s generation, who have managed to live in the Toronto area for decades without knowing any language except Punjabi.

Major banks have signs in Punjabi and even some staff communicating in that language. You will find “Moga Pizza” not in Moga, Punjab, but in a swanky Toronto suburb. Hakka Chinese restaurants here have “Ludhiana Chicken” on their menu.

Logic dictated that we should visit one of the many gurdwaras in our vicinity. Our proddings were many. To begin with, we were unemployed and had as much time as our prospective employers wanted before taking us in. Then there was the genuine concern of friends and well-wishers. “You know, many new immigrants actually rent accommodation near a gurdwara. That way, you at least save on food expenses,” advised a well-meaning friend. Our good-natured and caring landlady too encouraged us in the same direction. In fact, I goaded my husband too. “We should at least go and pray for a job,” I suggested, though neither of us is particularly religious.

It wasn’t his disinclination for prayer, but the bus route to the most recommended gurdwara that discouraged my husband. “It’s a long walk from the bus stop. We’ll go there once we get a car.” Which, I knew, meant, once one of of us found work. So as searing summer days lazed by in what was one of Toronto’s warmest summers, we conveniently pigeon-holed inside our basement apartment.

Until an offer letter dragged us out–almost straight to the car dealer’s office. Providence smiled. Right next to the dealership was a gurdwara. We had reached it by bus after all. It was almost as if a benign “guru” had granted our prayer and gently brought us to his doorstep.

The door that almost inevitably leads to the langar hall–the common dining room in most gurdwaras. “I don’t go to pray there; I go to eat,”  admitted a chuckling friend who couldn’t stop gushing about the delicious feast on offer in gurdwaras.

A tradition started by Guru Nanak, the first of Sikh gurus, and later institutionalized by Guru Amar Das, the third guru, langar feeds people irrespective of their social, economic, religious or any other status. Works well for me.

Late one afternoon, after looking at several cars and chewing over the math for each one of them, we plodded our way to the gurdwara, hungry and exhausted. Once inside, we entered a corridor, the walls of which were lined with paintings related to Sikh history. When my husband had finished telling me the stories behind them, we entered the prayer room, knelt down, prayed and dropped our offerings into the donation box. We were walking back in the corridor, when an elderly Sikh man started following us. He called us and led us back inside the prayer room, where he offered us the delicious karah prasad.

He then said to us, “Take the steps and go down. You will be led into the langar hall; go toward the kitchen and take some dal from one of the saucepans, then take some rotis from a box next to it.” We had been wondering where the langar hall was and if we could still find some lunch at that late hour. It was as if the gentleman had appeared just to lead us to the source of food.

The dal and roti had gone cold as it was way past lunch time.

Ever since spotting that first gurdwara, we have been to three. Each time, we have returned with a satiated heart and stomach, filled in good measure with sizzling pakoras, tea, sweets, freshly-cooked curries, dals, rice puddings and hot chapattis.

But the taste of that cold dal-roti meal lingers in my mouth. And that old, wrinkled face in my heart.

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Gastronomic Empathy

Manto and A Car

Immigrant’s Postcard: Manto and a Car

A series on my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

B, my husband, and I go to buy our first car since landing in Canada. The finance guy is a young man with Javaid as his second name. His first name sounds like an Americanized version of his original name.

J: So sir, where are you from?

B: We’re from India.

J: Oh great, where in India?

B: She is from Delhi, I am from Chandigarh, Punjab.

J: Oh that’s wonderful. Actually I’m also from Punjab. I was born in Lahore…our family came to Pakistan from the Indian side of Punjab.

“I see,” I say with a slight smile.

J: Yes, they moved to Toba, you know Toba Tek Singh?

Manto’s invisible presence is suddenly felt in the cramped cubicle.

“B’s father is also from Lahore,” I say.

“He was born there, too,” B adds.

J: Oh, good, good. See sir, it’s always good to come here and find Pakistanis, Indians…your own community.

Yes, in the land of immigrants, it helps to be one community if you are from India or Pakistan.

Sometimes, it also helps seal car deals.

PS: Listen to a superb telling/reading of Toba Tek Singh by Zia Muhiuddin.

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Immigrant’s Postcard: Gastronomic Empathy

A series on my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

For the little more than two months we’ve been walking around, past, next to it, this modest-looking West Indian restaurant in our neighbourhood in Mississauga has been teasing us. We would see other immigrants, most of them presumably from the Caribbean, going in. We didn’t follow suit.

“We will have a treat here once one of us has a job,” my husband kept assuring, and the flickering orange ember peeking out from the restaurant’s counter became a silent sentinel of our pledge.

Yesterday evening, on our way back from our customary evening walk, we stepped inside Jerkies. The place wasn’t a cramped hole in the wall–there were five or six tables, enough to seat around 25 people. A crime serial on the lone TV mounted to the wall had two engrossed viewers–a black mother and her young daughter, seated on one of the tables. Right across them was the counter, behind which stood a sanguine black man. When we looked at the menu behind him, written on a blackboard with chalk, there was only one item we were sure of ordering–jerk chicken, and no marks for guessing that. We wondered what the other item should be; I suggested to my husband in Hindi that he ask our sanguine friend. No sooner than he had sought the man’s recommendation, emerged the words, “goat curry.” The confidence on his face and in his baritone sealed his suggestion as our second choice.

As we sat down at a table, waiting for our meal to arrive, Dear Husband (DH) and I whispered to each other about the conviction in Sanguine Friend’s voice while advising us to go for goat curry. “It’s one immigrant’s innate understanding of another,” DH said, referring to a West Indian’s confidence in suggesting mutton curry to an Indian.

A little later, the red-haired lady who had been so absorbed in watching the crime serial brought us a plate full of rice and beans, salad and jerk chicken. “Who’s having this?” She asked. When I told her it’s me, she put the plate before me and handed me a napkin wrapping the fork and knife. I had barely dug in and given top marks to the very well done jerk chicken when DH’s plate of goat curry with rice-beans and salad came. A few bites and we knew Sanguine Friend’s recommendation totally hit the spot. Tender to the point of falling off the bones, the curry had been spiced in a manner that it could have been cooked by an Indian. Along with our respective dishes, the lady also brought us fried plantains, complimentary. Nice!

What looked like too much food when it arrived on the table had been diminished to bare bones within half an hour; such was the fury and enthusiasm of the two eaters.I guess one of them did find a job after two months.

“How was the food?” Sanguine Friend asked when we went to pay the bill. “We’ll be back,” DH said with a smile.

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