personal narrative

Where a line is a circle: Toronto
- Bhaswati Ghosh

Flags. 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.

The prospect of living in such a city excited me. What worried me was the idea of dealing with Canadian winters. Having lived in Delhi, the Indian capital in the heart of north India for more than three decades of my life, I knew what extreme hot weather was like. California, thus, had been a welcome change – with plenty of sun on its balmy beaches minus the scorch of Delhi. The idea of extreme cold weather seemed completely alien to me, more so because of all the warnings we had received from friends already living in Canada.

Luckily, we made our move in June, one of the warmest months Toronto could offer. As a jobless couple, our best option was to rent a basement apartment. Living in the house of Mrs. C our first landlady in Canada, indicated the first cardinal shift I had made – not so much from west to east (in terms of the North American coastline), as from north to north – from north India to well, north India in Canada. Our Punjabi landlady, now a widow for some years, lived alone in her big suburban detached house and desperately sought company. She would often bring us her deliciously-cooked Punjabi specialities – sarson ka saag (mustard greens), gol gappe and chaat (spicy snack items), and samosas, the potato-filled pastries that are now as Canadian as Poutine, hoping to extend the length of our stay with her delectable bribes.

Soon I would see in her a microcosm of the strong Punjabi sub-culture immigrants from that community had created in some Toronto suburbs. We would be led to Brampton – our neighbouring city – for everything north Indian (mainly Punjabi), from chhole bhature (spicy chickpeas served with deep fried Indian bread) to utensils meant for Indian cooking (pressure cookers, idly makers) to even a subzi mandi – a replica of wholesale vegetable markets, common to South Asian countries.

Already aware of the significant Punjabi diaspora in Canada, it was only while living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) that I learned, not so much by reading statistics, as by walking around the neighbourhoods, that a major chunk of that diaspora lived in the Toronto area. From the time they started coming to Canada in big numbers in the 1970s, Punjabis, particularly Sikhs, have made a conscious effort to assert their identity in this country. That meant building Gurdwaras, Sikh temples that also act as community hubs, bringing together male and female volunteers, many of whom don't know English.

Visits to gurdwaras in the GTA, whilst satiating my taste buds, thanks to delicious langars – free communal meals, also proved edifying, humbling and at times, shocking. The temple walls in most gurdwaras exhibit paintings depicting the valiant struggles of the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh and his followers. But some gurdwaras also flaunted banners in the prayer halls – glorifying Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as well as the secessionist movement of the 1980s for a separate state of Khalistan. Given the bloody history that marked the demand for Khalistan, these banners made me uneasy.

Only later would I begin to understand why that movement and its aftermath remains alive for ordinary Sikhs caught in the crossfire between the militants and the government of India. The year 1984 saw one of the bloodiest pogroms against Sikhs in India, mainly in the capital, New Delhi. The actions against Sikhs were supposedly in response to the assassination of India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguard.

I was nine then, growing up in Delhi. Although not politically mature by any estimation, I was old enough to feel the terror that had gripped our neighbours – many of them Punjabis – in the government colony where we lived. Those days of curfews and news of Sikhs being butchered, women widowed and children orphaned – all allegedly at the behest of members of the ruling Congress party – remain vivid in my memory. And whereas for me, those days are but frozen capsules of injected anxiety, for those directly affected, it's an open wound, continuing to fester and torture their souls as justice eludes them.

Ten months after landing in the city, we attended our first ever Khalsa Day parade – held to mark the establishment of the Sikh fraternity by Gobind Singh – in Toronto. Wading through the sea of orange – the colour of valour, we jostled with a crowd that reportedly swelled up to a hundred thousand. Feelings of pride and honour seemed to suffuse the air. The free lunch was not only free, but free-flowing. Rows and rows of food stalls served multi-course and delectably unavoidable Punjabi delicacies.

Post lunch, my husband and I climbed up to the terrace of a nearby building to get ourselves to a vantage point. Shortly, the concluding act of the parade-speeches by political, religious and social leaders on a dais set up at Queen's Park – the office of the Ontario government – began. The government faction comprised a few Sikh leaders, and one of them, a woman, after extolling the glories of the Sikh tradition and the many accomplishments of the community in Canada, turned to that gaping wound. As she called for justice and closure, her voice rose in pitch, and the audience clapped louder. Much as I had been uncomfortable inside the gurdwara on seeing those pro-Khalistan banners, I now felt ambivalent.

Known for their resilience, Sikhs have made their presence felt in every walk of Canadian life. And in cities like Brampton, they are visibly the majority, leaving the official ethnic qualifier 'visible minority,' redundant. Brampton's Punjabi ethos is probably more Punjabi than one can experience even in Punjab – if Moga Pizza (Moga being a small/lesser known town in Punjab) and Ludhiana Chicken on the menu of a Chinese restaurant are anything to go by.

Unfortunately, this transplanting of their traditional culture has also proved a curse for Sikhs in Canada. Along with their special masalas, recipes handed down by family elders, pride for their heritage, folk dances and boisterous music, they also carry some not-so-glorious baggage. In my nine months as a journalist in a local South Asian weekly, I had to report at least two instances of Sikh honour killings. Then came the disconcerting but expected results of an investigation on female feticide involving South Asians – Punjabis taking the lead.

*****

Although born and raised in north India and later married to a Punjabi, I trace my own roots in the eastern part of India, specifically, Bengal. That is, simply put. What makes the 'east' in this case a bit more complex is the cleaving of India into India and Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan had parts of north and west India as well as the eastern part of Bengal. My ancestry lies in the latter.

Throughout childhood and right into my teens, I have visited that partitioned part of Bengal—now Bangladesh – only through my grandmother's memories. As she reminisced about her childhood in that riverine landscape, my impression of it became storybook-like – an abundantly green land, where neighbours shared their produce, mothers caught fish fresh from a pond just before cooking lunch, and children jumped into rivers for swims on hot summer afternoons. The desire to visit this land of tropical lushness has grown stronger for me over the years.

I visited Bangladesh. Minus the rivers and banana trees, though. This was a journey from East to East – from my grandmother's time-capsuled landscape to Little Bangladesh in Danforth Avenue in Toronto. My first visit to this recreated corner of the East happened on a grey April morning. The occasion was the Bengali New Year's Day, and through Facebook I had learned of the first ever Noboborsho (Bengali for New Year) rally to be held in Toronto. The starting point for the rally was a small Bengali restaurant called Ghoroa (homely in Bengali). Having arrived ahead of time, I decided to have a cup of tea in Ghoroa. Two women, apparently, sisters-in-law, ran the show, one cooking in the kitchen, the other managing the cash counter. I could tell they were from Bangladesh from their dialect of Bengali – the same I had heard my grandmother speak.

At the rally, traditional colourful banners hand-painted on cotton cloth as well as hand-crafted puppets and face masks defied the cloudy day. A walk around the blocks took me to a couple of Bangladeshi grocery stores – shelves filled with vegetables native to that country, freezers stocked with fresh-water fish from Bangladesh – hilsa, tangra, koi – for the nostalgia-prone Bengali.

Later I would learn of 'vertical villages' on Danforth Avenue — apartment blocks peopled by Bangladeshis, with beauty salons, tuition classes, convenience stores, all within the building or steps away from it. Neighbours looked after each other's children if the parents were away and doctors counselled patients without the help of an interpreter. It sounded like an extension of my grandmother's village, only a modified version, suited to the demands of time and place.

In February this year, members from the Bengali community beat the frosty winter chill to gather once more in Danforth Avenue. Slogans of 'Phanshi chaai, phaanshi chhai, rajakarer phanshi chaai,' (We demand the hanging of Razakars) and 'Tomaar amaar thhikana – Padma, Meghna, Jamuna,' (Our common address is Padma, Meghna, Jamuna) rang through the air. They were expressing their solidarity with the movement in Shahbag Square in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands had gathered to demand the death penalty of Abdul Quader Mollah, who had been convicted of war crimes committed in 1971 during the Liberation War in Bangladesh. This was the war that made Bangladesh a sovereign country, separating it from Pakistan, the country it was a part of at the time of the Partition of India in 1947. During the 1971 war, the Pakistan army organized a paramilitary force called The Razakar. The Razakars would arrest Bengali nationalist suspects, who were allegedly tortured by the Pakistani military.

For me, the parallel with the Sikh sentiment was hard to miss. Just as Sikhs the world over want the perpetrators of the 1984 pogrom to be brought to book, so do Canadian Bangladeshis want those accused of 1971 war crimes to be dealt with the toughest form of justice, even if it be capital punishment. Especially as several Bangladeshis had to flee to Canada to avoid persecution by the Pakistan army and the band of Razakars.

The second slogan referred to Padma, Meghna and Jamuna – all rivers in Bangladesh – bringing to me an echo of my grandma's persistent references to the rivers of her childhood and youth.

*****

Little Bangladesh is but one example of the many 'little' worlds Toronto holds in its bosom. From Little Italy to Little Portugal Little Korea and Chinatown, downtown Toronto is a bustling fudge of eclecticism. Never in my life had I expected to see restaurants selling Korean, Ethiopian, Burmese and Nicaraguan food in the same vicinity. Nor did I expect to be at a local fair an immigrant from Rwanda sold baskets weaved by Rwandan refugee women. I hadn't expected to interview a politician who could talk about crises in Congo as well as Sri Lanka in the same breath, taking care to point out the differences between the Sinhalese and Tamil points of view. Living in Toronto, however, made these improbabilities a quotidian experience.

The challenges of immigrants are many and can consume volumes in exposition, but for an immigrant, Toronto is, in many ways, 'The best of all possible worlds.' Here, a movement in any direction, instead of being linear (like east to west), often completes a circle, bringing one home.

*****

At the end of last year's Euro Cup, as Spain lifted the trophy, a Facebook contact wrote on his wall — 'Spain is the new East Bengal.' East Bengal is the name of a soccer team from India that has the same colours as Spain – red and yellow – on its flag.

As outlandish as that may sound, my life in Toronto tells me it's not that far-fetched at all.

Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English, My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, has been published by Delhi-based Niyogi Books. This work also won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation. Her stories have appeared in Letters to My Mother and My Teacher is My Hero – anthologies of true stories published by Adams Media.
Bhaswati has a background in journalism and has contributed to several websites (including Humanities Underground, Global Graffiti,The Four Quarters Magazine, Parabaas, Asia Writes) and print magazines (Stealing Time, Teenage Buzz, ByLine, Cause and Effect). She has also written for major Indian dailies such as The Times of India, The Statesman and The Pioneer. Bhaswati currently lives in Ontario, Canada.