The fabled crop of winter

First published in DNA

For the past two years, from the time of my intercontinental drift to North America, winter hadn’t coiled me in its viper-like grasp. I had thus brushed off warnings of “bitter, brutal Canadian winters” as hoax spun by hyperbolic weaklings. Then, the winter of 2013-14 happened. Like a nightly creature that keeps its movements hushed, it pounced on me — surreptitiously and with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

Curiously enough, while I found myself abjectly underprepared to deal with the onslaught of the season’s icy blows, my imagination experienced an odd and even mystifying boost. A spruce tree coated with the first dust of snow became a young-at-heart old man for me. A pine tree, resolute in its evergreen dignity, seen from the window next to my seat at work, became a trusted companion when all the other trees surrounding it bared their branches. Snow-covered cupped hedges appeared as giant ice-cream cones ready to be licked clean by overgrown kids like me. As my mostly unimaginative mind ran wild with wintry metaphors, I began digging into winter in fiction.

To my delight, I discovered that this bone-numbing, grinding stone of a season has moved many a storyteller’s creative muscles. In The Snow Man, O Henry sets the winter scene up in the countryside amidst a menacing snowstorm. Arguably not in league with his finest short narratives, the story nevertheless resonated with me — because the narrator’s disdain for snow equalled mine.

Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow… [The Snow Man, O Henry]

Interestingly, the story opens with this sentence, “Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.” Going by the number of times schools in our area shut down this winter owing to snow-related danger on the roads, I suspect I know why children love the white stuff as much as they do.

At the same time, the prospect of snow days can prove to be a jolting annoyance in the routine lives of stay-at-home parents. Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. [Let it Snow, David Sedaris]

By late November, snow had enveloped every house, building, tree and park in the laidback Ontario town where I live. My city was a white-hooded mischief maker; even street signs hid behind pillows of snow, conning rush-hour traffic. Amnesiac fields of snow quizzed me, “What is the colour of green?” In the eyes of Dominican-American author, Julia Álvarez’s young protagonist, snow resembles something much more sinister. At the Catholic school she goes to after immigrating to the United States, her teacher draws a picture of mushroom cloud on the blackboard to explain the consequences of a nuclear war in the prevailing Cold War environment.

Then comes the girl’s first snowfall. The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, “Bomb! Bomb!” Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. But then Sister Zoe’s shocked look faded. “Why, Yolanda dear, that’s snow!” She laughed. “Snow”. [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Álvarez]

Between December and February, the winter of 2013-14 unleashed its redoubtable fierceness. A massive ice storm hit parts of Ontario, knocking out electricity and bringing entire cities to a standstill.

Arctic gales blew mercilessly as did blizzards and snow squalls. It was no longer just a matter of battling nature’s forces. Despite being wrapped under layers of clothing, the promise of central heating and the luxury of a fireplace, I recoiled as the cold pulled me into its vortex.

This was a chakravyuh no limping flame, no pale sun could touch. In a visually arresting winter story by Tobias Wolff, three hunting friends brace not just frigid shrapnel but also the frosty chill of mind games and human bitterness.

The wind was blowing into their faces. The snow was a moving white wall in front of their lights; it swirled into the cab through the hole in the windshield and settled on them. Tub clapped his hands and shifted around to stay warm, but it didn’t work. [Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff]

Wolff’s story is a rough territory where the dense vegetation of a forest and the cutting arrows of winter contend against the complex equation between the three hunters. It’s hard to tell what stings the skin more — the slap of blowing snow or the barbed comment of a comrade.

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This feeling of being left cold at a deeper, psychological level is portrayed superbly by James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues, the gut-wrenching story of a young musician struggling with addiction, and the “icy dread” his older brother, the narrator, feels at various points during their interactions.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside…” [Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin]

As winter continues to exert its inexorable grip where I live, usurping spring, threatening to blot out even summer, I wonder what is it that ticks a writer’s fancy in the wintertime.

Is it the result of forced solitude — months spent cooped-up inside? Or is imagination the only escape, the only coping mechanism, when the daily reality is that of zero-visibility on the roads, a mountain of snow to shovel before work, and watching one’s step all the time to avoid slipping into ice?When hope, optimism and anticipation all fade before the determination of this year’s winter, I take refuge in Oscar Wilde’s words in The Selfish Giant, a story he wrote for children.

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. [The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde]

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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.

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Child is the Grandmother of the Woman

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s the first day of swimming lessons for my husband and me. After the class, the instructor suggests we practice in a different lane. Apart from the two of us, a young Canadian girl and a gentleman from Pakistan join the practice. I am still practicing floating when a girl, snow white in complexion and no more than five years old, walks across the deck to stand near me.

“Is the water warm or cold?” she asks me.

“It’s not too cold,” I say.

She jumps in and squeals in delight, “It’s warm!” then jumps right out.

As we float, holding on to the deck wall for our dear lives, she asks me,

“Are you and him, Mom and Dad?” She points with her eyes to the Pakistani gentleman, floating in a corner away from the three of us.

“Me and who?” I ask her.

She points again to the Pakistani swimmer, saying, “This one.”

“No,” I say and draw her attention to my husband, floating right next to me, “Me and him are together.”

“Ah, so you are parents,” she says knowingly.

“No,” I simply say.

“So you are grownups.”

“Yes.”

“You are going to have a baby?”

“No.”

“You have a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“No, I don’t.”

“I know you do.”

“No…”

“The baby got out. I know it did.”

With that, she walks away, casting one last all-knowing glance my way.

I beseech, “No!”

But to no avail. By now the little lady has already moved on.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Photo courtesy: http://vdleek.blogspot.ca/

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.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

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: 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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