When the airplane banked, I had my first glimpse of the CN Tower, rising like an upended middle-finger. I was immigrating to Canada, and the huge butterflies in my stomach were only growing bigger.
The aircraft swooped down, landing with a thud, and raced down the runway hell for leather. As though having thought better of it, the plane slowed down and eventually came to a stop. Soon afterwards some of the passengers shot up like jack-rabbits as usual and dashed to the exit, clogging the aisles. I waited for the crush to subside before I got up from my seat and pulled out my hand luggage from the overhead rack. Dragging the bag after me, and balancing a rather capacious coat on my arm, I sidled out of the plane. I clutched the coat—the thickest I could buy in India—as if it were some sort of talisman that would protect me from Canada’s notorious cold.
I shuffled along what seemed like an endless corridor towards the immigration check. Other passengers, with tired, bored expressions, sped past me, standing on a moving walkway. Being unused to a travelator, I gave it a wide berth not wanting to break a leg on my first day in Canada.
I waited in a cavernous hall with a planeload of landed immigrants—men, women and their cranky children. When my number was called I entered a small cell. The border official took my Indian passport and the snot-green landing paper, and checked every line in them, periodically looking up to examine my face. What with 9/11 and all, I was half-expecting him to whip out a pair of handcuffs and slap them onto my wrists. But he was more interested in the ‘proof of funds’ I had brought with me. Satisfied with the loot, he said: “Welcome to Canada!”
At baggage carousel, I was seized with a paroxysm of alarm when my suitcases refused to show up on conveyor belt. When I cased the area around the carousel, much to my relief, I saw my luggage stacked safely on one side. Not having Canadian change on me, I accepted a coin—reluctantly yet thankfully—from a fellow passenger to get myself a baggage trolley.
In the lobby of Pearson International Airport, standing like lighthouse, I swept my gaze in a semicircle over the multicultural collection of faces of people waiting for their near and dear to emerge. A few of them had surgical masks tied to their faces, I noticed with concern. Praful Patel, the owner of the guesthouse I’d be staying at, had promised to receive me—for a fee, of course. There was a fair sprinkling of south Asians, but I managed to lock on to his unsure, unmasked, half-smiling face. He looked older than in the JPEG image he had sent me by email.
A few days before leaving for Canada, I had surfed the Internet searching for some sort of accommodation that wouldn’t be too expensive. Checking into a hotel was out of question. As to friends and relatives in Canada, I had none. On the web I found a not so flattering review of the Patel guesthouse. It was a pension-like set up where immigrants could avail themselves of its frugal hospitality without getting gouged. I’m not the type to give much credence to all the reviews one encounters on the net, so I booked myself a spot—I was thankful to have an inexpensive place to go to, straight from the airport.
Praful extended his hand and said, “Welcome to Canada. Did you have a pleasant journey? ”
I nodded—though I wouldn’t have called travelling twenty thousand miles in 24 hours with two extended layovers and not much sleep, pleasant. I took his hand nervously. The newspapers in India were full of stories of a dreaded disease called SARS that was rampant in Canada.
Praful took control of the trolley and we walked to the parking lot. The spring evening was bright but it still had a nip to it—with a shiver running down my back, I draped my thick coat loosely over my shoulders and hugged it like a shawl. Praful who was dressed in a golf shirt and shorts, seemed impervious to the weather. Once the suitcases were stowed in the boot I went around and stood on what I thought was the passenger side. Praful too materialized on the same side.
“Sorry!” I said. “I forgot you drive on the wrong side in this country!”
“No Problem. There are many things in this country which are the exact opposite of what you find in India.” He added sagely: “You’ll get used to them.”
As Praful steered the car through the enormous parking lot that seemed to be deliberately laid out as a maze, I was struck by the multiplicity of roads and flyovers snaking out of the airport, and the sheer number of automobiles swarming over them. Even though it was only dusk then, all the cars had their lights turned on. Ahead, the procession of red tail lights moved steadily as if keeping time to an unseen metronome. Back home, I was used to seeing traffic, composed of cars, buses, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws and an occasional cow or two—rushing harum-scarum along the roads.
Praful played Bollywood songs for my benefit during the twenty minute drive to his semi-detached house in Mississauga, a suburb to the west of Toronto. The Patels ran their guesthouse out of this property.
“Every Sunday, they show a Hindi film on TV,” he said. “But if you have a satellite dish, there’s no limit to how many Indian films you can see! Do you like Hindi films? ”
“No,” I said. I didn’t mean to offend him. In India, I had watched Hollywood films in regular theatres, and enjoyed old French cinema shown at special screenings even more.
“Oh!” said Praful, and added hurriedly: “Should I switch off the music? ”
“No, don’t!” I said. “I do like Hindi film music, however.”
The houses on the street he lived had a uniform appearance with chocolate brown facades and lawns the size of living room carpets. Praful taxied the car close to the front door. Between the two of us, we managed to move the oversized suitcases into the lobby. When I pushed open the front door which was left unlocked, I was at once assailed by the fug of Indian cooking. I had not experienced such a powerful bouquet even in India where a billion mouths had to be fed daily.
A plump middle-aged woman, with close-cropped hair and dressed in shirt and pants, came forward and said: “I’m Mrs. Patel. Welcome to Canada.”
All the Mrs. Patels I had met hitherto had worn saris, even if wrong way round, Gujju style. Mrs Patel unwittingly delivered the first jolt of culture shock to an immigrant from India. Maybe, reading the astonishment on my face, and perhaps wanting to calm me, she said hurriedly: “I’ll make some chai for you. Sit down and relax.”
No sooner she went into the kitchen than a man came down the large wooden staircase that seemed to dominate the living room area. He was of medium height and light-skinned.
Praful introduced us: “Gahlot meet our new guest. He’s from Hyderabad.”
“Welcome to Canada,” Gahlot said without enthusiasm, and added: “I want to speak to Falguni.”
The man went into the kitchen and at once started remonstrating with Mrs. Patel. I could hear the argument over the timpani of the kitchen utensils.
“Falguni, why should I pay for the lock? ”
“Because you’ve lost the key!”
“I only lost the key, not the lock!”
“Yeah, but . . . ”
Praful said: “Come on, I’ll take you to your room.”
As we climbed up the stairs, lugging my suitcases, Praful cautioned me, using only gestures, to tread quietly. I noticed then that unlike back home, staircases and floors in Canadian homes were made of wood which made a lot of noise as you walked over them.
The room upstairs was little more than a box, and had two cots set at right angles. I could make out the spoor of the other occupant: a shirt hanging on the back of a chair, a used coffee mug on a table, the odour of unwashed socks.
It was getting dark, so I reached out my hand and tried to switch on the light. I found the toggle switch already at the ‘on’ position.
“Aren’t the lights working? ” I asked.
Switching on the light, Praful said, “You must push it up to put on the light.”
In India the electrical switches operated in the opposite way. It was at this moment, standing awash in the yellow light of low wattage, that it dawned on me that I had left my own country for good and immigrated to a land about which I knew so very little. Within the last two hours, I had been welcomed to Canada on four occasions with varying degrees of warmth. Yet I felt a wave of homesickness rising in my innards, bitter as bile.
“Dinner will be served until 9 o’clock,” Praful said, as he handed me a stapled sheaf of paper—an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts for guests.
After a quick bath, I lay down on the cot with the virgin bedcover and began to read the house rules—it was a kind of community manifesto authored by Praful himself.
It included such helpful hints as ‘do not pass urine in standing position,’ a practice I decided to embrace the next time I went to the loo. As I was wending though the list item by item I fell asleep, overcome by jetlag.
The Patels, who occupied the master bedroom, were sixtyish and their two married daughters lived in the USA. My roomie Naveen, in his mid-20s like me, was another new immigrant. An engineer and an expert on ball bearings, he was indefatigably seeking a job appropriate to his education and work experience, like a knight searching for the Holy Grail (and with as little success). The third bedroom was occupied by Gahlot who appeared to do nothing other than wallow in idleness. Naveen called him ‘the Prince,’ not so much because his first name was Yuvraj, but more for his lordly ways and an unconcern with the fears that usually beset a new immigrant.
The next morning, I lounged in the solarium after a breakfast of cold toast with No Name margarine and jam. I would soon discover that the breakfast was the same every day, only the flavor of the jam changing. If it’s Tuesday, it must be strawberry, if it’s Wednesday it must be raspberry, so on and so forth.
The Prince was in the solarium too, enthroned on a chair, twiddling his thumbs. I picked up the Mississauga News to see if there were any job postings.
If a sculptor were commissioned to create the image of an archetypal immigrant, he’d be better advised to avoid the carpet-bagger kind of figure, and fashion something like Rodin’s Thinker but with the classified section of a newspaper open on his lap. Not finding employment is the immigrant’s greatest worry.
“Gahlot,” said Falguni, bustling into the room. “Let’s go.”
Only a moment ago, while slapping a swathe of jam (blueberry as it was a Saturday) onto his toast, the Prince had volunteered to accompany her to buy the weekly groceries.
“I’m not coming. I’ve to call a hiring agency.”
“Fine,” said Falguni, accustomed to his habit of flip-flopping. “Just so you know, the hiring agency will be closed today.” Without waiting to hear his incoherent reply, she left.
Naveen entered the room, wiping the crumbs of toast from his mouth. The Prince said with a touch of sarcasm: “Found a suitable job, Naveen? ”
“I know of many engineers,” said the Prince, “who have years of experience working for multinationals, but haven’t been able to get a decent job in Canada. They’re working as labourers, poor fellers.”
Naveen’s face darkened—I could sense the chill that entered his heart as palpably as the cold you feel when you open a freezer door. He had forsaken a secure, well-paid job to immigrate to Canada.
“Get yourself a Canadian degree,” said the Prince, “then you’ll find something in your line.”
“Isn’t university education expensive? ”
“Not very,” said the Prince with his typical nonchalance. “It’s only a matter of twenty thousand dollars a year or so.”
“Twenty K!” exclaimed Naveen. “How can I raise such a sum? ”
“What about OSAP? ” I suggested—I had done my homework before leaving India.
“OSAP!” said the Prince, looking outraged. “You can apply for the student loan only after you have spent a year in Ontario.”
Having seen me combing through the situation vacant column, the Prince turned on me.
“Don’t waste your time on newspaper ads,” he said. “Nobody’s going to call you for an interview. Here, the employers want Canadian experience.”
“I don’t understand why,” chipped in Naveen. “A dynamo in India is no different from a dynamo in Canada.”
“You should approach an employment agency like Pro Temps,” the Prince counselled, addressing me. “They pay about 12 dollars an hour for factory jobs.”
Did he think I came halfway across the globe to work as general labour? Talking to the Prince was so dispiriting, especially if you are a newcomer to the country. He was not the best buddy to have in a cold, lonely land. The Prince could have unraveled even Penelope’s fabled resolve in a blink.
The Prince pressed on: “All the new jobs are in Alberta. They have a severe shortage of labour, and the salaries there are astronomical. A counter help in Tim Horton’s gets 18 dollar an hour. You should think of moving to Calgary or Edmonton.”
All the young émigrés from India had moved to the western hemisphere seeking new pastures, as if belatedly responding to Horace Greely’s exhortation, “Go West, young man!” You’d think Toronto was far enough to the west of India, but no, the Prince was goading us to move to a province over two thousand kilometres farther away. I was content to remain in Mississauga, a satellite city to the west of Toronto. This was as far west as I would go.
I got up to leave the room.
“Where are you going? ” the Prince asked.
I was tempted to say, “To Fort McMurray,” a booming town in Alberta. But I merely said, “I have a call to make.”
I didn’t tell him it was nature’s call.