Where is here?

In the course of familiarizing myself with Canadian literature, I discovered essays by literary critic, university professor and editor Northrop Frye.  He had explored the “garrison mentality” theme common in Canadian literature, assumed to arise from part of Canada’s cold climate, northern wilderness and colonial mentality and fears of the emptiness of the Canadian landscape and the oppressiveness of other nations, especially the US.  Says Frye, “It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question “Who am I?” than by some such riddle as “Where is here?”

In this context, Frye had quoted an engaging anecdote of an Englishman and an Inuit, snow-bound on an Arctic trail. The Englishman bewails that they are lost. His Aboriginal companion replies, “We are not lost. We are here.”

Considered central to the evolution of the Canadian literary imagination through the early waves of people settling in this country, this expression is relevant now more than ever as people are arriving in larger numbers to settle in Canada.  At the same time, as global distances – physical and cerebral – continue to shrink, there is greater interaction and influence on social thinking and public discourse.  Canadians originating from countries around the world are contributing increasingly to enrich Canadian literature and culture.

According to Frye, “A snowflake is probably quite unconscious of forming a crystal, but what it does may be worth study even if we are willing to leave its inner mental processes alone.”

So, on this cold winter day comfortably seated on my favorite “napping” chair I stare out the window at the blowing snow and think of the time I experienced my very first first snowfall.  In February 1979, my wife and I traveled to Srinagar, Kashmir for our honeymoon.  As it was the “off season” there were very few tourists and we had the Oberoi Palace Hotel pretty much to ourselves.  After checking in late that afternoon, we were in our room enjoying tea when my wife suddenly screamed excitedly, “Oh look! Snow!”  We stared, fascinated by the view outside the large French doors.  Little wisps of snow were starting to drift gently down, sticking to the stark branches of dark trees, causing them to glisten in the fading sunlight before fading away.  Both of us sprang up and thrusting open the doors, ran outside.  Spreading our arms out, face upturned we tried to catch the ticklish snow flakes in our eager outstretched fingers while simultaneously opening our mouth to entrap the pristine crystals and savor them on our tongue.  We were like little kids, rushing around in circles screaming joyously.  Just as suddenly, we experienced painful numbness and realized we were sloshing around barefooted on the lawn that was now covered by wet snow.  Loath to go back in, we ran to put on shoes and jackets, re-emerging to continue enjoying our novel experience.  At the time, we had no idea that the pretty snow would eventually turn into a blizzard that would block off the roads, delaying our onward journey to Gulmarg by a few days, until the authorities could clear the route.  But, at that moment it was as if we were in a snow globe and a part of that fairytale landscape.

The travel delay accorded us a pleasant benefit.  Bollywood star Rishi Kapoor was in Srinagar with co-actors Tina Munim and Rakesh Roshan for a movie (I am not sure, but assisted by Auntie Google believe it may have been Aap Ke Deewane.)  These megastars of that era were also staying at the Oberoi Palace and as we were the only other guests in the snowed-under establishment, a “needs based” camaraderie developed.  My newly married companion was ever ready to drive off with Rishi and his troupe to a different location for the film shooting each day!  In the evenings, we would all gather in the hotel discotheque reserved for their exclusive use to eat, drink and dance until the wee hours of the morning.  The Iraqi Ambassador to India at the time was also a guest and together with his “companion” would join us every night, regaling us with fascinating geopolitical anecdotes and amusing tales of his travels around the world.  The Iraqi Ambassador and his attractive companion later joined my wife and me in Gulmarg, where another snowfall caused drifts up to five feet high, that completely blocked the windows of the cottages we were staying in, encouraging guests to gather around the fireside in the library each afternoon and stay on late into the night, enjoying delightful conversation over unending rounds of assorted kababs and excellent cognac.

Those were the “Aha!” moments of our experience with snow.  Today, we have the “Oh no!  Not again!” reaction to the news that the “white stuff” is on its way.  Although, I must confess that I still love the snow, especially when it starts to fall quietly. The silence is complete as slowly, the landscape gets transformed by a pristine carpet of fresh snow, with the refractive lighting illuminating the unfolding scene.

It is such a meditative experience!  A line from the famed Urdu poet Qateel Shifai’s ghazal comes to mind each time I sit as a silent spectator:

“… sukoot-e-marg taari hai, sitaaron tum to so jaao…”

[… death-like silence has spread, stars you too go to sleep …]

I agree with the Aboriginal quoted in Frye’s anecdote.  There is No Where, but right Here.

5 Replies to “Where is here?”

  1. I agree so much with what you say. But paragraph 3 provoked me a bit. Without getting into a discussion about how much the Innu were aware of the larger world, those of us who have come recently cannot simply cut off our pasts or the larger world and bury our heads in the snow and say, I am here! Of course we are here, but we have brought the world with us. Canada has changed, and much of what Northrop Frye said is passe now, not to mention Atwood’s Survival. The world is smaller and connected. MGV


    1. Thanks, M. Growing up in India, it was relatively easy for me to bifurcate books, music or other pursuits primarily into the “Western” or “Indian” categories. So, in trying to discover “Canadian” literature, as a novice I found it uncomplicated to accept the analogy of a bouquet made up of many biological species of flowers. Each retains its own colour and smell, yet produces a striking visual display and a heady aroma that is appealing and attractive. The cognoscenti may, if they choose to do so, parse each flower of the posy to identify individual characteristics.

      As you point out, Canada continues to change. Life generally, including our literature is enriched because of book shelves now able to hold works by the likes of Mistry, Martel, Richler, Vassanji and Ondaatje alongside Atwood, Munro, Toews, Montgomery and so many others. I choose to believe in being HERE in this moment, perhaps just like my Inuit friend from the anecdote.


  2. Kamaal hai Pankajji. With so ease you walked us through you stay with celebrities. Many of us get engrossed in those memorable moments forever!


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