Back on the Bus

First published in Indian Express (Eye)
Canada, Delhi by DTC, Kalkaji to Netaji Nagar, south Delhi, North Campus, King County Washington, spirit community, indian express
Inside the bus, secrets waited. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Riding a bus had become foreign to me. As foreign as waking up to noiseless mornings that could put nights to shame with their stark absence of light. Since migrating to Canada seven years ago, I had let myself happily slide into the snug comfort of a personal car to get around.

One winter morning, that ceased to be the case.

In the middle of December 2017, I found myself waiting for a public bus on a steel-grey dawn with mountains of stiff white snow all around me. A change in the work life of my husband, with whom I used to share a car to get to the workplace, had just shaken up my daily commute. This meant a not-so-minor adjustment, coming as it did during the country’s unforgiving, bordering on dangerous, winter. The bus stop nearest to our house was a good 8-minute walk, not the best idea in a period visited by frequent and violent snow squalls. The next best alternative was to leave early in the morning, an hour and a half before my usual schedule, so that my husband could give me a lift to the bus stop — the first of the two I needed to wait at — before proceeding to his place of work in a different city.

Standing there in the pitch dark of a sunless morning, an arctic chill cutting through my skin like a hundred hypodermic needles, I wondered if I’d be able to bear the regimen for too long.

My interest in the ethics of public transit, especially as it related to reducing carbon footprint, wouldn’t merely be put to test but seriously challenged as I became a daily bus passenger amid temperatures plummeting to -20C and below. At each of the two bus stops, I would have to wait anywhere between two-nine minutes. Then, after a half-hour bus trip, I would have to walk for another six minutes to reach my office from the bus stop closest to it. Enough time for a skin-numbing life lesson on the power of a single minute.
The Insider’s View

Inside the bus, secrets waited. There was warmth and ease, and not only because of the controlled temperature settings. The first time the bus turned a right-hand corner instead of moving straight on the road that led to my workplace, I sighed in frustration. This easily meant a longer commute than I was used to. Within moments, we were deep inside the sprawling campus of a university. A new world — of gothic buildings nestled in woods, winding roads and sidewalks and a river bisecting the eastern part of the campus — kept extending before my eyes like a poetic dream. Even the heaps of snow that blanketed most of the landscape couldn’t mask the beauty and magnificence of it.

Over the course of the long winter I would look forward to this — the most twisted — part of my commute the most. Tall trees across the campus, rendered nameless by their wintry bareness, framed the building structures with their filigreed branches. Looking at them I forgot clock-controlled time. For an instant, I would imagine what the place would look like in spring or summer. Yet, I was in no hurry for that visual to manifest. What lay before me sufficed, spectacularly.

Immigrants are notorious creatures of existential comparison. Riding the public transit inevitably brought back for me memories of commuting to college in Delhi by DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses, necessary yet dreaded. The three years of my undergraduate programme required me to board a crowded bus from Kalkaji to Netaji Nagar, always late and often tilted with the weight of the humans it carried. My experiences as a female passenger in those three years made me vow never to ride a DTC bus once I had a job. I kept this promise to myself. From day one of earning a salary, I switched to Delhi’s ubiquitous paid personal transport — the autorickshaw. This was and felt like, a luxury, considering my paltry income. It also increased my respect for my mother, who had to rely on DTC buses for the entirety of her working life, travelling from south Delhi to North Campus. In Delhi’s hyper materialist environment, anything that cost you more indicated your ascension on the status-symbol ladder. If you could afford an auto, you would never look back at a DTC bus again.

Two decades later, as I ride the public transit at the other end of the world, the democracy of the act intrigues me. Beyond the obvious inclusiveness of wheelchair and infant stroller access, the bus here is what the suit-and-tie executive rides alongside the homeless bum with his overflowing cart of broken belongings. Its egalitarianism has liberated me from any stigma I might have been carrying for the public bus in my subconscious.
A Public Inn

Some of the closest friendships my mother enjoyed were forged in the public bus. As an introvert, I listened with envy to her stories of the in-bus sisterhood of working women. They shared everything, from in-law problems to kids’ issues, health worries and edible treats. Not having inherited her propensity for bonding with strangers, I have found books to be my most trusted bus buddies. Reading a book inside a moving bus is exhilarating. From Delhi to eastern India to rural China, the geographies I have traversed through the pages of the books I read seemed to take on a more active, pulsating life with the bus’s jerks and swerves. As I read, the distractions around me — the university students’ banter, the bus driver’s announcements, the view outside the window — taught me how the world of a daily passenger is both solitary and communal. The silent alliances formed are no less real than verbal ones. There’s reassurance in the mere act of travelling together, even if you don’t exchange a single word.

The daily bus route to my office, curiously numbered 13, didn’t merely help me survive the Canadian winter on an unyielding snow belt; it took me to a spot — aesthetic and emotional — where I ended up writing a poem on this journey. As I would discover, the public bus has its own community of poets and artists. Poetry on Buses is an initiative that encourages daily commuters in King County in Washington, the US, to write poems on their experiences on the bus and other modes of public transit. Their poems are then displayed on the local transit systems. In 2016, the project invited poems on the theme, “Your Body is Water.” The obvious comparison between water and public transport reminded me of own poem in which I imagine the streets on which the bus runs as a meandering river. In London, Ontario, where I live, a woman artist drew a series of sketches depicting life in the bus. She went on to post her illustrations at bus shelters around the city as a gesture of her appreciation for this mode of transport and its role in engendering a spirit of community.

The public bus is no longer foreign to me. It’s a mobile inn where I rest and recharge myself before the world appropriates my limbs and spirit.

 

Map Making

The cubicle slumbers with a whirr of weekday monotony.
Defying screen slavedom, we three meet for lunch. She
from China, I from India and she from Canada. School
harks back to the lunch table as I cajole her to share
my chicken pot-pie. We discuss roots. “South-western China,”
she says, hastening to add the immigrant’s near excusatory,
“but education in Beijing and Shanghai.” She nods
when I speak of women and their place in Asia. My
“decent-enough-to-earn-me-a-writing-job-English”
surprises her. We branch out into languages thus.
Mandarin is hers. She makes sure her child mutters
it too, even though he claims to be a Canadian. I
talk about my mother tongue and how it created a new
country. Their eyes brighten, ears perk up. And she, the lanky,
blue-eyed one is taking a shot at Italian, her husband’s
root tongue. “Oh Italian!” our Asian friend squeals,
“Do they all carry guns there?”

And so we begin making
maps with fleeting-floating stock images, hackneyed
threads–losing sight and redeeming it with a native’s
estimation. I tell them about India, its many topographies–
“each state a country unto itself,” the need for
its women to develop lateral vision and thick
skins. What’s her origin, I ask the blue-eyed one.
“Danish-Swede hybrid,” she says lamenting the inhuming of
both languages beneath the inter-generational sedimentation
over the arctic snow.

We part with sweet somethings, convoluted
cartography and a promise to “do this again.”

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.

20171110_094037.jpg

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]

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.

MORE OF IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARD: