Occasionally Polar would share photos–of magnificent evergreens keeping a vigil along frozen lakes, and stories–of accidentally killing a deer while driving through a snowstorm at night.”
Every evening, the Polar Bear waited for me.
NEW DELHI, INDIA
Knowing he would wait only increased my anxiety as I negotiated the choking maze of Delhi traffic on my way back from work. Once home, I would step right into the Back Porch, where Polar patiently sat. With more than eleven thousand kilometres separating his home in Calgary to mine, Polar had become my daily bridge to the great white north.
But he was more than a bridge. For a cloistered aspiring writer like me, the fifteen-minute session with Polar was a lifeline. We belonged to an online writing community where Polar was an administrator. “Back Porch” was a private chat room where a handful of us met. An electrician in his day job, Polar would start his work days by greeting me as I ended mine. His virtual handle, “Polar” and mine, “Suryamukhi,” (Hindi/Sanskrit/Bengali for sunflower) couldn’t have been more appropriate, given our geographies.
My friend’s knowledge of India was as good as mine of Canada — sketchy and stereotypical. I imagined a permanently frosty landscape with blankets and mittens taking folks hostage. Polar thought of a scorching furnace (he couldn’t imagine being in temperatures above 30 degree C) ready to collapse with the weight of its people. He knew about turbaned men (Sikhs) and samosas from India, though — the latter more intimately than the former.
Years later, I would go with a turbaned man to live in Canada.
Occasionally Polar would share photos–of magnificent evergreens keeping a vigil along frozen lakes, and stories–of accidentally killing a deer while driving through a snowstorm at night. Snapshots that stamped in mind an impression of Canada as a pale frigid place where people barely survived and wandering deer posed the greatest danger to innocent drivers. We rarely discussed politics, and the closest I came to know of the Canadian economy was holding a two-dollar coin or toonie that Polar sent on my birthday along with a stuffed polar bear.
In a virtual coup of the virtual writing community, the original group fizzled out. Polar was not only an administrator but a founder in the new regime. Bereft of the Back Porch, I felt like an online refugee and drifted away. As did Canada from my consciousness. I quit my day job and freed myself from the daily tyranny of city traffic.
In between freelancing for a living and personal writing, I started a blog and met B, my future husband through it. We blogged about literature and politics, themes that would intersect in our first joint project — a book written by an activist (now a friend) working among Bhil tribals in central India. B, then working in the United States, had come across a PDF copy of the book and blogged about it, attracting the attention of a professor in Australia who offered to fund the book’s publishing. B and I took it upon ourselves to edit the book.
A few months later on a visit to India, B brought me a book in appreciation of my volunteer editing effort. It was a novel by Canadian author M.G. Vassanji, written in the aftermath of communal riots and an alleged state-sponsored pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat that happened five years ago, in 2002.
I imagined a permanently frosty landscape with blankets and mittens taking folks hostage.”
I questioned our sanity, too, as the frizzy, chilling blizzard of Toronto mocked the wispy jacket I wore.”
Two summers later, B and I were married and that winter I joined my husband in California, his new work city. As an H1B visa spouse, I was ineligible to be employed in the United States (four years after I left that country, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extended the eligibility for certain H1B spouses) and split my time between domestic rituals and scribbling a novel. In the eighteen odd months we spent in a city called Dublin, I had my up close and personal brush with the pre-Obamacare American healthcare system — an experience that could well have been the final push to drive me up north to Polar’s country.
“Are you crazy? Why would you leave California to come to Canada?”
The cleaning lady at our friend’s Mississauga house where we stayed for our “landing process” in Canada was incredulous to hear about our decision to move. I questioned our sanity, too, as the frizzy, chilling blizzard of Toronto mocked the wispy jacket I wore.
Two months down the line, our prudence would further be called to question as B and I—jobless and car-less Permanent Residents (similar to Green Card holders in the U.S.)—went underground. Well, sort of, considering the basement we rented even as we hunted for jobs and hauled grocery bags over long distances. Clumps of worry fast replaced the rays of fresh-off-the-boat wonder on our faces. We had heard of immigrants who were ready to pack their bags and return to India after waiting for nearly a year to get a job. A scenario I wasn’t averse to, as long as it meant going back to India. But B found a job and we stepped above ground, moving from the basement to a one-bedroom apartment.
I would land a job soon, too — as a writer, editor, do-it-all compiler for a South Asian weekly newspaper. Community newspapers catering to immigrant ethnicities run into hundreds in Canada, and almost all are distributed free of cost, mostly in grocery stores serving particular communities. A Pakistani-American journalist based in New York ran the outfit I joined, an English-language weekly focused on the Indian subcontinent — South Asia to the Western world. Working at less than the minimum wage, I would take the public transit every day to commute to the damp commercial complex from where the newspaper ran, to join my co-workers — young women of Pakistani, Guyanese, and African-American origin.
In the six months I would spend at the publication, I would get to interview politicians, community leaders, writers, artists, and filmmakers. I would jostle among a hundred-thousand strong Khalsa Day parade crowd in Toronto, held to mark the establishment of the Sikh fraternity by Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh gurus and attend the first ever Noboborsho or Bengali New Year rally in Danforth Avenue, an area inhabited by a sizable number of Bangladeshis. Echoes of politics back home — from justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom (which forced many Sikhs to migrate to Canada) to demands for capital punishment for the accused in the 1971 Liberation War that led to the creation of Bangladesh — would reverberate on the Canadian soil where the communities had flown to and created new nests.
A year later, in the last month of our stay in Toronto, a chance opportunity would lead us to catch up with two of my dear friends — both reputed translators I had met during a fellowship residency in Norwich, UK. Lakshmi Holmstorm was a leading translator from Tamil into English and Amanda Hopkinson, from Spanish into English. I had known them in person for only a couple of months but found in them a lifetime’s mentors and kindred spirits.
Lakshmi’s older sister, who taught in Ottawa joined us too as we headed to Kathmandu, a Nepali restaurant in downtown Toronto. Over a leisurely savoured “South Asian” buffet, B found a comrade in Amanda. Latin American literature, Amanda’s translation specialization, happened to be B’s top reading focus. That afternoon — their invigorated exchange of notes on the canons of the Latin American literary world and Lakshmi’s engaging discourse on poetic forms in Tamil Nadu, from the ancient Sangam poetry to contemporary Dalit poetry as we all sipped our masala chai — is a coveted island in my memory. That Toronto happened to be the place where we all met for the last time before Lakshmi floated away to another world makes me think about the city’s bridge-like persona.
We seem to be making a career out of living in fake cities.”
Soon, the time would arrive for us to take our test to become official Canadian citizens.”
We seem to be making a career out of living in fake cities.
Within a year and a half of landing in Mississauga, we would have to move. An unexpected job situation for B almost saw us return to Dublin to move back with his erstwhile California employer. On the day of the second of his interviews with his prospective employer, I accompanied B to London, Ontario. At the end of the day, which I spent watching squirrels and taking photographs in Victoria Park, an 18-hectre expanse of well-curated greens, one of London’s biggest jewels, B walked out of the building across the park, an employment letter in his hand.
Despite a marked decrease in the number of brown-skinned folks we spotted in the street or grocery store aisles, London would become our home. The city offered an unhurried pace and a certain climate of belonging and nurturing. A year after we moved, we bought a house with a mostly-empty backyard. Moving into the house in the winter meant we needed six months to thaw and see the faces of our next door neighbours — a Chinese couple on one side, a Nigerian lady on the other. The backyard presented a blank canvas B seized to grow vegetables and get to know his fellow gardeners to our left and right. Less than a year later, the Chinese sold their house and brought us new neighbours — a young Bangladeshi family who satiated both my need for speaking my mother tongue and eating fish dishes I craved.
The roots kept getting deeper — of our plants and ours. Soon, the time would arrive for us to take our test to become official Canadian citizens. The citizenship ceremony involves taking oath in the name of the Queen of England, the royal head of the Commonwealth to which Canada belongs. The idea of singing praises for the crown, although a token ritual, is fraught with a degree of discomfiture for an Indian immigrant. India remained a colony under British domination for more than 200 years. We wouldn’t be the first ones to deal with and then overlook this technicality as we passed the test and became a part of the Canadian citizenry.
At the citizenship ceremony — a happy confluence of people with different skin tones, tongues, and costumes — a Somali woman rose up to receive her medal in brilliant forest green finery (a lot of new citizens mark their presence in their traditional best) and a huge box of traditional sweets. Back in the office after the ceremony I found my spot brightened with congratulatory signs and Canadian edible delights — maple cookies and chocolates — from my co-workers. Their gesture, kind and sincere, helped assuage some of the sting I had felt a year earlier on hearing about a friend’s experience of becoming a citizen. As he shared his appreciation of the diverse ethnicities he saw represented in the ceremony, one of his co-workers snipped, “Yes, they let in anyone and everyone these days!”
Two years later, we were eligible to vote for the first time since coming to Canada. After ten years of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper’s leadership, the Liberal Party came to power. The newly-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, became an international star overnight, apparently due more to his looks but also the composition of his cabinet. With a 50-50 ratio of women to men, four Sikhs, an aboriginal woman as the minister of justice and a doctor as the health minister, Trudeau received widespread appreciation. My Facebook feed flushed with friends from India clamouring for their own version of Justin Trudeau.
When asked about the rationale behind the equal male-female ratio, Trudeau simply remarked, “Because it is 2015,” words that would become the catch line of the liberal-progressive brigade.
A year later, the Liberal government delivered on one of its major election promises and launched an inquiry into the disturbing phenomenon of thousands of aboriginal women being murdered or disappeared over nearly four decades. I remember the sense of injustice I had felt when I first came to know about this, not through any newspaper or television report but from a colleague at work whose daughter had done doctoral research on the subject.
And yet, the same Liberal government would also approve new oil pipelines in Alberta, a move opposed by First Nations communities affected by the move. This came close on the heels of a high-voltage, nine-month long pipeline protest in North Dakota by Native Indian communities. There, the pipeline company had brought in guard dogs and pepper spray to contain the protest even as the police watched protesters getting bitten and hospitalized.
Ironically, too, a year after Trudeau’s election, few people could be heard saying, “Because it is 2016,” as the world watched and grappled with Britain’s exit from the European Union and, later in the year, Donald Trump’s election as the US president.
The morning after the US election results were declared, my workplace was an exhibition of faces plastered with sadness and horror. My team leader, a young woman whose father served as a Canadian diplomat, offered free hugs to everyone. There were a lot of takers. Other employees the building, many complete strangers, were extra nice to the brown-skinned me that morning. All through the day, we lifted each other’s morale in hallways, at our desks, in the washroom. A group of us huddled in a meeting room to watch the live telecast of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. Tears flowed.
Back home in India, the Prime Minister appeared on a live telecast, too. He had just announced the demonetization of high-currency notes, rendering them invalid. Chaos gripped the country. Over our phone conversation that evening, my 76-year-old mother sounded tense and hassled — she had a bunch of the demonetized notes for regular household expenses and was worried about having the bills exchanged on time. A furious debate raged on Facebook and across Indian television channels. A few more months, and the political situation in my home country would turn so violently polarized—involving brutal physical assault on a dear academic friend—that I would find it hard to recognize it as a place I once knew intimately.
In our Canadian home, winter — my least favourite time of the year in the adopted country — had set in. That November evening, I stopped complaining about the weather and wondered how it felt to live in Canada and not India or the US at this point in time. Almost Utopian, in perspective.
As Utopian as a polar bear cooling down my Indian summers. And almost as comforting.
Almost Utopian, in perspective..”
Photo Header credit Bhaswati Ghosh