India at 70: The Many Partitions

I had the opportunity to guest edit a special issue of Cafe Dissensus this month. It coincided with the 70th anniversary of India’s independence and partition.

Read the full issue.

Read my editorial.

 

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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

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.

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: 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.

Image

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

The Alleyway, by Rabindranath Tagore

One day, this concrete-laden alleyway of ours set out—twisting her way right and left again and again—to find something. But she would get stuck at every move–a house on the right, a house on the left, a house right across.

From what little she could see by glancing above, a streak of the sky revealed itself—as narrow and as skewed as herself.

She asked that filtered slice of sky, “Tell me sister, of which city are you the blue alley?”

In the afternoon, she would catch a glimpse of the sun for just a moment and think, “I couldn’t understand any of that.”

Thick monsoon clouds cast shadows over the two rows of houses, as if someone had scratched out the rays of light from the alleyway’s notebook with a pencil. Rain slid through the concrete, swooshing the snaky stream away with a snake charmer’s drum beats. The road became slippery, the umbrellas of pedestrians hit each other, and the water from an open drain suddenly splashed up to an umbrella, stunning its carrier.

Overwhelmed, the alleyway uttered, “There wasn’t any problem when it was parched dry. Why this sudden pouring trouble?”

                                                                                                   ***

At the end of spring the southern wind looks delinquent, raising swirls of dust and sweeping torn pieces of paper. The alleyway says, bewildered, “Which god’s drunken dance is this?”

She knows that all the garbage that gathers around her every day—fish scales, stove ash, vegetable peels, dead rats—are reality. With those around, she never thinks, “Why all this?”

Yet when the autumn sun slants itself on the balcony of a house, when the notes of Bhairavi float from the puja nahabat*, she thinks for a second, “Perhaps something big really lies beyond this concrete track.”

The day yawns; sunlight drops from the shoulders of the houses to rest in a corner of the alleyway, just like the slipping away of the end of a housewife’s sari. The clock strikes nine; the maidservant walks by, tucking to her waist a basket of vegetables she bought from the market; the smell and smoke of cooking envelopes the alleyway; office goers get busy.

And the alleyway thinks again, “All of reality is contained within this concrete road. What I had thought of as something big must be just a dream.”

* Music room or a tower from which live music is played/performed during festive occasions.

Translated by: Bhaswati Ghosh
Image courtesy: Flickr