My Double Life

An excerpt

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“Oh Simrathy,” my grandfather says in his deep, gentle voice. “How is school? ”

I look up even though that isn’t my name. But years of answering to it have made it automatic.

“Good. Busy,” I answer mechanically. “Since it’s my last semester, I have to finish my final assignments and exams before I do my teaching placement.”

This answer satisfies him. Not only have I mentioned studying and working hard, but the reminder that I will soon follow in his footsteps as a teacher fills him with pride, and he smiles. There are few professions that satisfy my Sikh grandparents, and teaching happens to be one of them.

I glance across the room at my sister Natalie who is sitting next to my grandmother, scrolling through her Blackberry and trying to avoid scrutiny. She looks up at my answer and rolls her eyes, knowing their scorn for her marketing courses. Unless it’s law, medicine or education, it does not cut it in their eyes. I smirk and return to my cell phone as my grandparents launch into a lecture in Punjabi directed at my father. It’s funny to us that our father can sit by and listen to his parents reprimand us for our life choices, when he himself has made so many they disapprove of. My grandmother argues in her usual angry and hostile voice before changing her attention back to me, with it switching back to English.

“Simrathy, you are almost done school now, when will you learn cooking? ”

“I know how to cook.”

“Oh really, you know aloo gobi? Or saag? What about daal? You can’t even make a round roti.”

“Yeah, you always said when she rolled them, they look like Africa,” Natalie jokes. Across the room my other sister Jordan laughs, but says nothing.

I am reaching the end of my university education, a time that coincides with my grandparents beginning to think about arranging a marriage for me. Beneath this larger aim they are beginning to fret about my inability to cook their traditional food, which is a failure that will cause me to be undesirable to my mate, whom I will be expected to serve.

Only I don’t plan on serving any man the foods my grandmother worries I will never be able to cook—sabji, curry and roti. Yet I still can’t stand the manipulative way she is trying to imply my impending marriage and she can’t even bring herself to say the word husband.

My phone vibrates in my hand. Incoming text. It reminds me of what my grandparents don’t yet know: I may already know the man I will marry. His name is Kevin. And he isn’t a Sikh.

I look around the room, filled with the African violets that my grandmother has so tenderly cultivated, and a massive painting of their religious deity—Guru Nanak Dev—over the fireplace.

I sneak a glance at my phone: “Want to grab a beer? ” Kevin has texted.

I open my mouth to challenge her comments but my grandfather cuts me off. “What your Dadiji is trying to say Simrathy,” he says calmly, drawing out the final vowel sound in my name like he’s done since I was little. “Is that cooking is a valuable skill and you girls should learn. She can teach you.” I know he is just trying to keep the peace but I can’t help but resent his comments.

“Your mother wouldn’t let me teach her either,” my grandmother says, adding, “and see what happened with her.”

I glance over at my father, who is staying out of this argument, as he always does. Yet I’m suddenly enraged that he hasn’t done more to stop it—not just today while we sit in their living room, but in general. He should have ensured that their unreasonable expectations were not placed upon us, like they were on him. Maybe it’s just been his way of keeping the peace, as my grandfather always tries to do. But I simply smile at my grandmother.

“Actually, I have always wondered how to make your samosas,” I say. Meanwhile I respond to Kevin’s text, “I’m in, see you at 7.”

Just another day in my double life.

___________

I never thought I would marry an Indian man. No matter what traditional expectations my deeply religious Sikh grandparents placed upon me, I never doubted this fact—probably because I have always led a double life, having grown up in a community where doing so was perfectly normal.

I was born in 1987 into what can only be described as a mixed and subsequently turbulent family. My mother is mixed herself, born in India to a Goan mother and Portuguese father. My father was born in Uganda to Sikh parents. Both being Indian, one might assume that their relationship was blessed by both families, but this wasn’t the case. My mother was not chosen by my grandparents and furthermore she was not a Sikh who attended their temple.

My mother is the eldest of two girls, while my father is the middle child, with one older and one younger sister. As the only boy in his family he bore the sole responsibility of carrying on the family name. This led to disastrous consequences as he rejected the faith of his deeply religious parents, and in doing so abandoned any semblance of cultural tradition. This meant that he ignored his parents’ strongest wishes and refused to have his marriage arranged. Instead he married for love—a choice that would cause a divide in the family, one that would never be fully repaired.

Though my parents led quite different childhoods, their families shared a common thread—their parents, like all immigrants, came to Canada and struggled to give their children a chance at a better life. Upon completing high school, both of my parents chose to go directly to work instead of pursuing a university education. They both landed jobs working for the Government of Ontario; when they met, my father worked his way up from a lowly start in the mail room while my mother was a co-op student in the finance department.

My paternal grandparents were less than thrilled about my mother. They had high hopes for their only son and were not impressed that he had selected his mate in such a rebellious fashion. When my parents wed, there were numerous familial hurdles to clear. The wedding posed a particular problem. My mother, having been raised Catholic, wanted a traditional church wedding. My grandparents insisted on a traditional Sikh wedding for their son. The compromise was to have two weddings—one of a calibre my mother had always dreamed, and another to satisfy the religious and cultural expectations of my grandparents.

So began my troubled double life.

When I was born about a year after my parents’ wedding, there was turmoil in the family. My father disregarded tradition by cutting his hair for the first time since his birth and removed his turban. “I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they know me as a man with a turban,” he told my mother. The iron bracelet called kara—a symbol of his induction into the Sikh faith as a child—that he wore on his wrist was the only visible symbol of the Sikhism he retained. (Years later I would ask him why he kept the kara when he had removed himself from every other aspect of his parents’ religion. “I can’t get it off my wrist,” he told me simply.)

My parents insisted on naming me themselves, something that upset my already enraged grandparents. According to Sikh culture when a child is born, the Sikh holy book—called the Guru Granth Sahib—is opened to a random page and the first letter of the first word at the top of the left page is used to create the child’s name. My parents had refused to partake in the ceremony while my grandparents, refusing to give up tradition, ignored my parent’s wishes and chose a name for me in this traditional manner. It is for this reason that my grandparents do not refer to me by my legal name, Celia, and instead refer to me by the name they chose, Simrath. In years to come, the same events would unfold surrounding the naming of my two sisters; they too are referred to by their Sikh names, Natalie is Sandeep and Jordan is Nimrath or Nemu for short.

Today, when I explain my family situation to other people their advice is always the same: rebel. That the scorn of and disapproval from my grandparents would eventually subside and lead to acceptance. But what these people don’t understand is the stubbornness of my grandparents or their ability to hold a grudge. Never has this been exhibited more clearly than in my first year of life. My grandparents were so hurt that my father had not only rejected their faith but had also refused to let them name his child—a girl who would obviously not carry on the family name—that they refused to see or speak to my parents at all during my infancy. They lived mere blocks from our home in Markham, but the distance between us was enormous.

My parents eventually worked things out with my grandparents over the name issue but our lives were still fraught with constant clashes between the cultures. There were arguments over the way we spent money or the fact that we ate meat. Their frugality (more of a cultural than a religious characteristic) led them to believe that the weekly pizza our parents ordered while we watched TGIF was an obscene waste of money. The fact that we ate meat—which is forbidden religiously –infuriated my hot-headed grandmother. She took my picky eating habits as a sign that her strictly vegetarian fare was not good enough for me. She would frequently scoff at me during meals exclaiming outrageous statements such as, “You don’t want to eat my roti but you will go home and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, fine!” Over the years, I followed my parents’ cues and developed a thick skin for her denigrating remarks, letting them slide off my back instead of allowing them to provoke me.

My grandparents also hated the fact that as a result of my mother’s Catholic upbringing we celebrated Easter, Thanksgiving and, to their horror, Christmas. I remember one year over Christmas vacation my grandmother asked why we didn’t come to see her on Christmas day. “You don’t celebrate Christmas,” I offered, puzzled. “Uh huh,” she nodded, “I see.” I never understood her problem with us celebrating both holidays, but later realized that it must have been her way of accusing us of favouring Catholic tradition over her own.

As we got older they began disapproving the way we dressed. Summer attire was particularly problematic around their house as my grandmother could not understand why we wore shorts and tank tops as opposed to the cotton Punjabi suits that she wore. “Why are your shorts so small? ” She asked Jordan once, “Are your legs hot? ” Over the years we learned that it was easier to hide these controversial details from them than to argue. Concealing things became one of the tasks of our everyday lives. My father would insist that we hide liquor bottles when my grandparents came over, as if he was an under-aged teenager, since Sikhism strictly prohibits alcohol. He also began to insist that we change our clothes before we went to visit if our shirts were something that might be considered too low cut, too tight or plain inappropriate by my ultra-conservative elders. We did these things to appease them, not upset them, and to make our lives easier.

The façade we had constructed seemed quite normal to me throughout my childhood. I grew up in a neighbourhood in Markham where most of my friends were first generation Canadians, if not immigrants themselves. We were all accustomed to hiding the “Canadianized” aspects of our lives from our more traditional relatives. Most of my family (as did I) attended religious ceremonies at their various places of worship with their pious relatives and not understanding a word that was spoken, since unlike their parents, their first language was English. Many of my friends could not speak to their elders for lack of comprehension of their mother tongue. I was all too familiar with this reality; although my grandparents spoke fluent English they preferred to speak Punjabi and frequently my mother, sisters and I would find ourselves staring blankly into space as a raucous group of my father’s relatives chattered incomprehensively around us. Not being able to speak Punjabi was normal to me, the same way concealing Westernized aspects of my life from relatives was.

When I was 13-years-old my family moved to Whitby and there my double life exploded. Unlike my peers in Markham, the kids in Whitby were quite often 5th and 6th generation Canadians. A shocking number of kids had ancestors who had always lived in the Durham Region. This was a stark contrast to the diversity I had experienced growing up. In Markham I had been surrounded by people living lives exactly like mine; in Whitby I considered myself to be a freak. Though I am fair-skinned due to my mixed heritage, I didn’t exactly blend in to the predominantly white population in Whitby. My peers in high school were mainly blonde-haired and blue-eyed so it is not an exaggeration to say that I stuck out. I quickly developed an inferiority complex that would last through to university.

My status as the “new girl” was exacerbated by my confusing heritage. I recall a time where I thought I had made a friend in one of my 9th grade classes. I was getting to know the guy who sat next to me, when he bluntly asked: “So, are you, like, black? ” The shock of his ignorantly racist question turned my stomach. I realized that I was coming of age in a community with so little diversity that the distinctions between cultures were actually as simple as black and white. Here the problems were so much different than mine had been previously. In Whitby, kids didn’t hide things from their families and worry about if their friends would see them wearing Indian clothes to the temple on the weekend; here, they worried about how they would finish their homework between hockey practice, soccer practice and school and whether they would spend Christmas with mom or dad this year. In Markham, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced and after school was spent doing extra practice in “maths” as our Asian families would insist if our homework was done, certainly not playing sports. I longed to fit in with these Whitby kids but I spent most of my high school career believing that I was an outsider looking in.