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: A Prescription for Healing

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

It’s my first visit to the doctor’s office in my new city. The pain in my right leg is nagging to the point of being obstinate. Right at the entrance, next to the reception window, a sign says “If you are rude to my staff, I won’t see you today.” That’s not a very friendly doctor, I whisper to my husband, who is accompanying me to lend moral support. After the initial wait time (about 15 minutes), my name is called, and the clinic assistant checks my blood pressure, a routine exercise. Then begins the wait for the doctor. A good 20 minutes go by, until she knocks the room before entering it.

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After the initial pleasantries, the doctor asks me if I speak Hindi. I nod yes.

I tell her that my pain worsens upon standing on any hard surface for a while. She asks if I have to stand in the kitchen a lot.

“Yes,” I say.

“There’s a particular type of mat that has a cushioning effect. Place that in your kitchen,” she tells me, even suggesting the store from where to get it.

After writing a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication, the doctor returns to the thread she had left off with her reference to Hindi.

“Where in India are you from?” She asks.

“Delhi,” I say, hastening to add that my husband is a Sikh, from Punjab.

“We are from Lahore and speak only Punjabi at home.” She says, making it a point to let me know that the Punjabi she speaks is “very similar to what Sikhs speak.” That’s because she belongs to the jatt caste, one of the many who were converted to Islam, she informs.

She ends the (very friendly) conversation by recommending the cushioning mats again. “I too have this pain and always use the mats whenever I have a daawat at home and have to stand in the kitchen for long.”

It is technically India’s Independence Day. Two women from opposite sides of a land split into two in a cleaving that saw insane bloodshed share slices of history and culture over a medical visit.

And, they share insights on lessening pain.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

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: 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.

MORE OF IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARD

 

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.

MORE OF IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARD: