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:

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.

MORE OF IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARD:

Gastronomic Empathy

Manto and A Car