As we prepare to celebrate 150 years of Canada’s existence, Canadians are opening up to state “What Canada Means to Me.” Today I am exploring what India means to me and will address what Canada means to me in next week’s blog.
It is not possible to detach oneself from one’s roots. We remain a composite of all our life’s experiences and merely react to internal/external stimuli at any point in time. All my formative years and almost half my life was spent in India. Those experiences are embedded in my very being and continue to shape who I am today.
As a child, I recall waking up each morning to the lilting sound of All India Radio’s Signature Tune, followed by the singing of Vandematram (ode to the motherland). Unlike these days, Vandematram was then not a Nationalist clarion call. (I have also only recently discovered that the signature tune was composed by a Jewish refugee Walter Kaufmann in 1936; he was the Director of All India Radio). My father would then switch to the BBC World News. The newspaper vendor would deliver the morning papers and the milkman would bring in fresh milk, still warm and frothy from the udders of a buffalo! Standard breakfast fare was “bhurji” (scrambled eggs) and “parathas” (leavened Indian bread) with fresh, hot milk in winter, or a glass of ice cold sweet lassi with “Rooh Afza” in summer. The family retainer of many years enforced rules around the dining table and not just the kids but our parents also respectfully acknowledged his authority.
Summer vacations in Simla or the hills of Kulu-Manali, fishing for trout and mahseer, plucking fresh apples and apricots in Kashmir or mangoes in the plains of Uttar Pradesh, enjoying freshly made “dal bhati” in Gorakhpur and biryani in Lucknow; life was a veritable food festival. We welcomed everyone and accepted everything. All festivals were celebrated together with fervour.
At school, we would clamour for a “rainy day special” during monsoons, urging our teachers to conduct classes outdoors under an overcast sky to enjoy the moisture laden cool breeze, after a hot summer. In winter, we would all sit basking in the sun, trying to concentrate on “sandhi aur samas” (Hindi grammar terms) or attempting to decipher Kabir’s “dohas” (lyrical verse). Many an hour were spent solving algebra equations or making sense of the incomprehensible organic chemistry nomenclature. As soon as the school bell “went” (colloquial expression translated from “ghanti baj gayee”), we would hop on to our bicycles and go racing mindlessly. We would take discarded cigarette packets and stick them to the side of the cycle’s back wheel so that the spokes turning and hitting it would make a sputtering sound; these were our motorbikes!
Later, college life in Delhi was spent enjoying all that the big, vibrant city had to offer while trying to submit tutorial assignments and pass tests, counting on last minute tutelage by the more scholarly classmates. The girls’ colleges nearby and in the University campus offered a constant distraction. It was always a thrill to ride a motorbike across town and be able to afford the occasional treat at Oberoi Hotel’s coffee shop. It was very “hip” to be seen at Sensations and The Cellar discotheques.
Good mentors and teachers introduced us to literature from both India and the West and I am fortunate to enjoy the sonnets of Shakespeare and poetry of Ghalib with equal facility, get entranced by the works of Ayn Rand or Graham Greene and Munshi Premchand or Sadat Hassan Manto. East and West clashed sometimes in terms of expected behavioural norms, but largely co-existed thanks to liberal minded parents and grandparents and our predominantly open and accepting social circles. Both my grandmothers had simplified their own beliefs and readily forsake all religious rituals that they had blindly accepted for most of their early lives, encouraging us instead to be just and compassionate.
A person looking to migrate has to wrestle with the most intimidating fear – that of the unknown. In addition to preparing for what lies ahead, one must also confront all that we prepare ourselves to leave behind – parents, family, friends, social circles, employment and professional networks. It is almost like being reborn in a world that has little or no semblance to the one left behind with the added trauma, allegorically speaking, of no maternal, loving hands to nurture or offer support as one starts with baby steps, again.
Just before leaving for Canada, I remember a conversation with my mother, who while sipping hot tea in bed on a freezing night in Delhi had inquired, “You are going to a new country, family and baggage in tow. What are you going to do there? You have no job, contacts or any local resources to help you.” Almost dismissively, I had responded, “I have worked enough. For a year, I will explore options and we’ll then see what life has to offer.” Little did I know how I would be tested! Arriving in Canada in March 1996 and still jobless at the end of the year, she sensed my despondency when I called her on December 31, 1996. When I blurted out that I had no job or savings, she laughed and reminded me, “You had decided to relax for a year before working again. It’s only been 9 months, so why are you worried?” I got my first job in Canada in February, 1997.
This song from the classic movie Kabuliwallah, based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore evokes all the nostalgic love for the homeland, represented by the little daughter who has been left behind:
“Ae mere pyare watan, ae mere bichhade chaman
Tujh pe dil qurbaan”
[O my lovely homeland, O the lovely garden that I am separated from
My heart belongs (is sacrificed) to you]