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.
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Immigrant’s Postcard: Maybe next time?

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

Summer has nearly preempted spring in Toronto, as the mercury keeps shooting past 20 degrees Celsius, breaking all kinds of records. From the time we arrived here (June last year), we have been warned and reassured in turns of the perilous winter that lay ahead and exactly which jacket and which brand of snow boots to get to beat the cold. Well, the winter seems to be behind us and not only the weather (hardly snowy, never perilous), but even my wardrobe has started mocking  me. So we went to buy some summer clothes.

At the departmental store, a Caucasian family of four–the parents and their two young boys–preceded me in the customer service line. As the father proceeded to make the payment for their purchases, the mother and the younger son, not more than three years old, hustled back to grab one more item. When all his items had been scanned, the father said to the counter lady, “Please wait a minute. There’s one more thing I’d like to get. But not if it’s too expensive.” The mother, with the toddler in her arms, hurried back. The little boy had a toy–a small stuffed monkey with a green back and an orange head–in his hands. As they reached the counter, the father handed the stuffed toy to the counter lady. She scanned it and turned the computer screen towards the father– “Twenty dollars.” The father was quiet for a few seconds, as if numbed by the price.

Shortly, mum and dad exchanged a few words in what seemed like some Eastern European language. By this time, the little boy, still in his mother’s arms, had grabbed the colourful monkey back. The father didn’t say anything to his son (nor did the mother); he just shook his head at the counter lady.

The customer service lady, evidently an Indian, looked at the golden-haired kid and said, “Maybe next time?” When he still didn’t look ready to part with his monkey, she gently took it from him, saying, “Here, let me scan it, so we can have it ready for you the next time?” The boy remained quiet, didn’t create any fuss, and the family left the store.

The counter lady’s gentle intervention in the tricky situation reminded me of a line my husband remembers from his childhood. Every time he asked for something that was out of his parents’ reach, they would cajole him, “Kal le denge, haan?” meaning, “We’ll buy this for you tomorrow.” It is the golden promise that makes “tomorrow” so coveted for children across generations.

Letting down a toddler must be hard for any parent. It’s perhaps a tad harder for immigrant parents who have come to a new country and a bleak economy.

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:

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