My mom spent her days helping with house work, entertaining family and friends and looking after my sister. There were many days that she got a little down for not having my father around but my Biji was very good to her and tried her best to make sure she didn’t feel the absence too much. Biji was one of the more sociable people in the neighborhood so there were guests every single day. Some stayed for hours and the relatives that visited from out of town sometimes stayed for a few days but it was great for everyone to have so many people around all the time. There was conversations and food and of course tea almost all the time too. When my father would send a letter, there was conversations about what he had written for days.
The latest letter was that he had sent a ticket to another one of his friends inviting him to come to Canada and would my Biji kindly send him some supplies he was needing. My grandfather didn’t seemed too pleased about this at all. He thought the first ticket should have been coming to my mother and said so in every conversation with everyone he spoke to.
My dad’s friend, Santosh Singh and his wife came over a few evenings before he was leaving for Canada to pick up those few things my dad had requested. They stayed for dinner of course. My mom took my dad’s friend’s wife into her bedroom after dinner and I followed along. All of sudden this aunty started crying. “I don’t know how you are so strong and are able to keep so calm without your husband.” She sobbed, “I don’t think I can live without him! What if he finds someone else in Canada? What will I do here with my kids? What if he doesn’t come back like your husband. You have only two kids but I have four!!” My mom took my arm and ushered me out of the room before she replied to this aunt. So I went back out to the livingroom where my Biji was holding my sister and explaining what was in her packages for my dad.
“He wrote to me that Canada does not have any Indian stores – can you imagine! So he can not buy any masalas or achaars. There are some paapars and namkeens in this package and he has never been much for sweets so I only packed a pound of barfi. He has also said there is no fixo available so this is the largest bottle I could find. He asked for some pajamas and kangas so altogether it is not more than 5-6 pounds. I hope it will not be too much.”
“Massi ji, I am not taking much at all. This is only a fact finding mission for me, a holiday for a few weeks. You just do me the favor of looking in on my young ones once or twice and make sure they’re alright.” he said and took the package. “Minder wrote to me when he sent the ticket that he has lots of room and has insisting that I stay awhile but Massi ji you know I am set here with my business and it will be difficult for me to dismantle everything to leave like he did.”
“Well you just remind him when you’re there that he has a good wife and kids here and that he should hurry up and get back as soon as he can.” She said angrily. “Tell him, he has responsibilities and enough with his adventures! Tell him he has to come home – in fact bring him back with you!” I could tell that my Biji was starting to get a little irritated that my dad had not invited my mom first. Or perhaps it was that she had heard my grandfather say it so often it was starting to ring true to her too.
When I got home that afternoon I told my Biji what had happened as she examined my hand. “Well, you have to do your homework – the teacher was quite right to hit you.” she said in her kindest matter-of-fact voice. “But you sit down and I’ll make you something that’ll have you forgetting about your day in no time.”
She took out a mixture of cauliflower she had diced up from the fridge and added some diced onions, fresh coriander, salt, black pepper, red chilli, ambchoor powder, and a dash of garam masala and mixed it all up. Then she took out her atta from the fridge and sat down on her stool and began making me my favorite paratha. She rolled out two small roti and put the cauliflower mixture on one and covered it with the other added some dry flour on both sides and began to roll out the stuffed paratha. The hot thaavi was ready as she laid the paratha on it. I watched her turn it over and lather it with ghee on one side and when she turned it over, the ghee spoke gleefully as it sizzled under the weight of paratha. She lathered the other side and turned it over again. Millions of tiny bubbles were made by the ghee as it fried my paratha to golden perfection. She placed it on a plate added more ghee on top and scooped freshly made yogurt into a small bowl.
My Biji broke off the first piece, dipped it into the yogurt and gently put it in my mouth. She had been right – I temporary forgot everything that had happened earlier that day as my focus was entirely on the amazing flavors in my mouth. She then grabbed some fresh mango she had cut earlier from the fridge and placed it beside my plate. “Now have this in between your bites if it’s still too spicy for you.” I took a bite of a piece of mango that sent a glow throughout my body – it was ever so perfect – I think I was the happiest child on the face of the earth at that moment.
“You know,” she began a little story, “When your father was your age, he used to love parathas too. He used to have so much energy and my goodness he was so much naughtier than you are,” she giggled. “He would rush in from playing with his friends and tell me – Ma I’m hungry, I need a paratha – he couldn’t stand still for even a few minutes – he would dance around while I made it for him and then would take a few bites, and would run out with it to share with his friends. Your father is an extraordinary person and one day you will know just how extraordinary. Imagine the courage he must have to leave you little ones. He was earning here, it’s not like we were not eating, but no, he wants more. He has always wanted more for himself and everyone around him. He has his father’s passion.” I thought of my grandfather but didn’t see the connection but continued eating. “When he was seven years old I had to leave him with your great grandparents so your grandfather and I could focus on starting a home here in Delhi. Your grandfather had just got accepted into a government job and we didn’t have enough money to bring him along. For a mother it is the toughest thing – let me tell you! – to leave her child with someone else – even if it was with family – but I had to do it. I guess your father, in a not so different way, had to go to Canada to do the same thing. Progress…progress.” She repeated shaking her head.
Every few minutes hot rotis kept coming in as everyone began eating. My grandfather started telling Binder what had been happening in India while he had been away so Binder could eat and carry on with his tale once my mom and Biji could join in again. My grandfather could talk about his work and politics for hours and hours which was far too boring for me. I left part of my dinner in my plate and left the room to search out my mother. I told my mom I was ready for bed.
“Could you tell me what uncle Binder says tomorrow?” I asked not being able to keep my eyes open. “I really want to know mom but I just cant listen to grandfather go on and on about his work.” My mother nodded as she helped me change my clothes and I climbed into bed. She kissed me goodnight and took my sister with her to the other room.
“Your uncle Binder had lots to tell us,” my mom began the next morning as she tried to wake me up. “He told us that everything in Canada is clean and new and that your dad is saving up his money to send tickets for us to come visit him there.” She sounded more excited than I had ever seen her. She helped me get ready for school. “He said that even the women over there drive cars and go to work…and the schools are free. They have no shortage of food even in the winter time because they have very good trucks that deliver the food from warm countries. He said the people are nice and friendly, mostly, so we will make lots of friends…” she carried on about Canada right up until I left for school.
At school did I ever have THE top news to tell at show and tell. Every morning the teacher would select a few students to come up to the front of the class to talk about something significant that happened – in English, of course. My hand was the fastest in the air that morning as I caught the teacher’s attention and immediately rushed up. “I am going to CANADA!” I blurted out. “It is a place with few but nice people, lots of snow and lots of trees and bushes.” I said. “We will go on a plane and have lots to eat. I will see my father again soon.” The teacher clapped and the rest of the class joined in.
“Very good my dear, and when will you be going?” I looked at her and then at the class and then at her again. “We do not know yet.” I said as the class broke out laughing. “Maybe it was a dream!” said one of the kids and they all laughed louder.
“It’s true I tell you. My uncle Binder came to my house last night from Canada.” I switched to Hindi. “He told my family that my father would be sending us tickets soon. I tell you I am going!”
“Alright, alright children,” the teacher tried to quiet the room down. “I am sure it is true dear. Please have a seat and lets get to yesterday’s homework.” Homework! I had totally forgotten to do mine when my uncle had come to visit and was one of four kids that got the ruler! Here I thought it was going to be a great day and it turned out totally the opposite. Not only did I get laughed at by the entire class but got a flogging too!
My mother brought out some tea and the family sat around in the sitting room to listen to Binder’s version of Canada. “They have a wonderful transportation system with new buses but only in the city, the smaller towns dont have much service. Here we have a great railway system but over there they only have buses and cars. There is some rail but the country is so big it would probably take many days to get from one end to the other and the cost to run trains would maybe be too much. We only stayed in Oshawa and Toronto but just like India there are many cities and towns. I dont think I ever heard anyone say anything about villages but they have farms. Nothing like here though I heard they have machines that run the farms if you can believe it!” Everyone was nodding to everything Binder was saying and drinking their tea.
“Most of the people there are white but there are some black people too. There are not many Indians though. They call their native Canadian people Indian too but they dont look anything like us. In fact, we met one native who told us that the white people keep them separated from the rest of the Canadians. They live on reserves far away from the cities. Most of the white men we met had long hair like us but they just wear it down not in turbans and some even have long beards. The women wear their hair open too but wear ribbons and curl their hair too. They mostly wear dresses – and of every colour you can imagine and some wear pant suits. I dont think I saw a single sari worn by any of the women, not even the Indian ones.”
While everyone was was listening to Binder, my mother started opening the little parcels my dad had sent. There were some Canadian clothes for me and my sister and wrapped inside the clothes were some earrings for her and a ring with a white stone in it. She had a big smile on her face as she tried the ring on. Everyone else was smiling with her.
“There are no scooters over there and very few bicycles.” Binder continued. “The wealthy people own their own automobiles which are bigger than anything we have here. The not so wealthy take the public transit buses and streetcars which run on electricity. There is such an over abundance of electricity in Canada. Not like here. They dont have blackouts or even brownouts. There is electricity any time you want and cheap too…And food is cheap there. We sometimes found it hard to find Indian foods and spices but they have everything else. They have fruits and vegetables some that I have never seen and such an abundance of dairy products – my goodness – and no rations – you can eat and drink as much as you can afford.”
“Well speaking of food,” my Biji interrupted, “Why dont you all get washed up to eat while Kailash and I put dinner on the table and we can continue listening while we eat. Everyone got up and one by one we got washed up for dinner and returned to the dinning table to find food waiting for us. It all smelled amazing. There was bindi with aloo, black dhaal, turnips subzi, yogurt with grated cucumbers all served with rice and hot roti that my mother was whipping out every few minutes. “If we knew you were coming today I would have got Arvinder to get some meat that I could prepare for you.” my Biji said apologetically.
“Meat is not necessary Masiji. All this is more than I have had in 10 months!” Just as we all sat down my sister woke up in the other room and started crying for my mom. We heard my mom go running from the kitchen to the bedroom. My Biji excused herself to take over from my mom to make the rotis in the kitchen.
“He says the weather is too cold over there.” said my grandfather. “So why is he not coming home?” my Biji pipped up. “He says he has learned how to make many different kinds of food from his landlady.” continued my grandfather. “He’s opened a savings account and is trying to save enough to get an apartment with his friends closer to the big city. He says that they are in a very small city and the scope is also small for good work. I dont know what he expected of course small cities need less skilled workers. He says he has bought a few things to get started in a new place but only the essentials…” my grandfather must have read the letter over and over again to my grandmother who just couldn’t get enough of it. It was almost as if my dad was reaching out and touching her with his words.
My dad read and wrote five languages but my Biji didn’t try to read or write a single one. She relied entirely on my grandfather to read her anything of importance and received all other news and gossips from her neighbourhood friends. She complained that it was because she got married too early and was taken out of school by her parents. She was barely 13 when she was promised and married off by the time she turned 15. She had my dad a year later at 16 and life just got in the way after that. But still she was a smart little lady. She had natural street smarts and common sense. No one ever got anything by her easily. She knew exactly how much money she had at all times and was a master at bartering and beating down prices at the markets. She could read a little by sounding out the letters if she really wanted but most of the time she really didn’t want to. It was too much work. My mother was similar in a way. She went to school and studied how to become a seamstress. Her classes were not focused on reading and writing. So when letters did come, they were read out by my grandfather.
In the summer of 1970, we received a short letter from my dad that one of the four friends had decided to come back to India. He would be arriving with a few packages and was instructed to deliver them. My dad’s friend, Binder, was at our doorstep two weeks later with a very large box and some packages. My Biji was thrilled to see him and immediately asked him to stay for dinner and tell them all about Canada. My grandfather and uncle lifted the big box and carried it inside the house. I watched as they pulled out a large wooden box with a screen in it. It was the first time I had seen a television. They turned it on and we all stared at the black and white specks filling the screen. “We’ll have to wait till the news comes on” said my uncle. “I think the “Sumachar” comes on at nine” said my grandfather. India in the early seventies had a limited number of channels with even more limited number of shows.
“Binder, acha, tell me about Canada.” said my Biji leading him on to the couch.
“Oh Masi ji – it is so very hard to describe. It is like a dream world in some ways. The opposite of what we have here. There is so much open space and land and so few buildings. There are hardly any people there except in the city centre. The weather is so cold that fingers and toes freeze and take forever to thaw out. But when it’s not winter, it is beautiful like heaven on earth. There are so many trees and bushes everywhere naturally…” began his story.
Work didn’t come by quickly. The four friends had made a pact not to cut their hair and keep religion at the forefront of all else so they experienced a lot of prejudice from the majority of people they came across. But eventually one by one the four found work and kept their promise to their Hungarian landlady by paying what she had asked for.
My dad found work as a tool and die apprentice and made $2.49 an hour. He managed to clear $300 a month. He sent $100 back home to India for many months and lived off the rest including a savings account. Every month my grandfather would get the money he sent which helped to pay for most of the house expenses, my schooling and anything else my mother or grandmother would need.
My dad told me much later that he didn’t really know the business that he applied for but learned it on the job and became very good at it. He said it was his conscience intention to become as indispensable as he could to his employer because his biggest fear was that he would not have enough money to get back home. So every month he would put a little aside for his return ticket.
The four friends had never experienced a cold winter in their lives, in fact they had no idea what cold meant until the winter of 1969. They all wanted to leave Canada and return back home at one point or another but each convinced the other to hang in there. They had taken warm clothing with them from India but my dad said the Indian clothing was like wearing paper in the harsh cold winds of Canada. The wind just seemed to blow right through. He told me that walking from their house to the bus stop would chill them to the bone. They also had never experienced snow like they had seen in the winter of 1969 in Canada. One of the friends bought a camera and took photos of them in front of snow banks and we received copies of these photos in a Christmas card. The Christmas card was had a scene of snow covered trees which was the prettiest thing I had ever seen.
My grandfather handed my mother the photos of my dad in front of the snow banks and shook his head. “He’s gone native.” was all he said. I looked over my mother’s shoulder and saw my dad standing proudly in front of the snowbank with his hands in a new winter coat. He looked more or less the same except he was not wearing a turban. His hair was still very long but it was brushed straight down tied neatly in the back. My grandmother looked at the photos too and wanted to immediately write to him to ask him if he had left his religion. “I can not believe he is not wearing a turban!” she said horrified. My mom closed the door and turned to me and said she thought he looked handsome and I agreed.
Two months after Christmas of 1969, the family received a package from my dad with Christmas gifts. We had never received a parcel before and everyone was excited. My dad had sent a white music box for my mom with a dancing ballerina in it, a Fisher Price toy radio for my sister which everyone thought was broken because no one could figure out how to turn it on, and a toy mini-bus for me with little people sitting in it and a wire attached to drag it along. I played with that minibus for so many hours! I was the only one in the neighbourhood that had a foreign toy and the kids would come from far away to see it. It made me feel very important at such a young age. My dad also sent a couple of letters. One seemed to be for my grandfather and the other was a family letter telling us just how he was doing.
The plane was moving so slowly that I wondered how it would ever get up into the sky. It didn’t seem like it was in any hurry as it made its way gingerly towards a runway. It stopped at the end of the runway and just sat there for another long period. I wondered if maybe it was just too heavy but then all of a sudden it was like a dragon had woken up. It’s engines roared as it started to tremble sitting there and then it began to move faster and faster, quickly picking up speed and within seconds it was off the ground. Airborne!
“Chaallo, Neil Armstrong number 2 has left,” said my grandfather gathering up the group with his arms spread out like herding sheep. “Let’s see if he reaches the moon too.” He laughed and others joined in. I didn’t understand, I thought he was going to Toronto where did the moon fit in? One by one all the relatives got back on to the bus but there was no more wailing just a few tears from both the men and the women every once in a while. Everyone seemed to be talking about my dad in the past tense and yet he had just left for the adventure of his lifetime. Grown ups! Who could understand them? Certainly not me.
Some of the relatives lingered for a few days but most went back home from where they came and things got back to normal for me: getting up early, getting ready for school, catching my school taxi, attending school and then coming home, sitting with my grandmother and playing outside before it was bedtime. The only difference in my routine was that I did not get to see my dad every few days. His scent started to fade after a few weeks in his bedroom and it seemed that after a few months I didn’t think of him at all.
We had received a telegram from him a couple of weeks after he had arrived to Canada but then there was no word from him for a few months. Many, many, years later he told me about his first few months in Canada. He had said that they had been the toughest and yet the most fun he had had in his life. He and his friends had arrived in Munich, Germany first and met a friend who housed them for a week and showed them around and even tried to convince them that they should settle in Germany but they were all anxious to get back on board the airplane to get to Canada. My dad said they all felt like bachelors out to explore the possibilities that the world held for them with not a care in the world.
My dad and his friends touched down in Canada on September 7th, 1969. They met my uncle who had been waiting for them when they landed. My uncle took the four friends to his tiny one bedroom flat and within days they realized it was not a set up that was sustainable. The friends pooled their money and found a couple of rooms to rent in Oshawa, in a house run by an old Hungarian widow, Adrian Horst. She took pity on the four and included meals for $25 a month per room until they could find work. Then she said the rent would go up to $40 per room. My dad had said she was a very tough, strong woman who taught them a lot. Every morning they would get ready and go look for work and when they got home they were all assigned house chores. They cleaned up after themselves and helped her clean the house, they learned how to do laundry, they learned how to cook with Adrian teaching them and she would even get them to read the newspapers with her because she said a well informed person was a smart person. Something that stayed with my dad for the rest of his life.