Once I imagined I would return to Toronto, a bilingual citizen. I took French lessons at the Alliance Francaise in Chandigarh. I did three levels of the language lessons but soon was overwhelmed by the suspicion of young women who thought I was a dirty old codger there to enjoy their delightful company. Alas my dreams of going back to Canada are on ice. I do keep reading French lessons. I read and understand but do not speak because my French accent is soaked in Punjabi. I have tried it on tourists, they’ve fallen on their knees and begged for mercy.
Punjabi is a guttural language of the German kind. It is as manly as you can get. You can say like was it Charles V? Holy Roman Emperor that ‘I use German to talk to my horses.’ I have no horses to talk to but I do throw an occasional phrase at the walls. My wife told me it sounds like someone breaking bricks with a hammer.
My daughter was coming from Toronto and I told her to get some French book so I could improve my vocabulary. I meant something simple. She brought Angels and Demons in French. I then had to buy the original English version. The words did not seem to match. I paid a visit again to Alliance Francaise and there I found Asterix comics in French. I read about the Gauls in French now and am forever in fear of having my comics stolen. I have the French words translated in the margins in my horrible scribble.
Right now the comics are lost in transit after we shifted to a new house. I am now reading Angels and Demons in English so that later I will be able to read the French version with some clarity. I am becoming an expert thus on CERN, Rome and The Vatican. If there are any people struggling in DLF Phase I please contact me and we will suffer each other’s French with some sympathy.
The young girls suspicious of my motives in the French classes always used to ask ‘uncle why are you learning French?’(One more thing no one calls you uncle or aunty in Canada, you are a young man even at eighty) I told them the language would improve my job chances back in Canada. They did not believe me. I look too Punjabi, the Canadian polish has worn off after traipsing the dusty streets of Gurgaon and Panchkula. Someday I shall be back in Toronto with my perfect French and floor my erstwhile compatriots. Talking about Canadian polish the first time I went to Canada I had my hair shortened to the extreme? I had heard a haircut was very expensive in Maple land.
Big mistake, I began to look like someone from an Interpol ‘WANTED’ notice . I remember the airline crew treated me pretty badly because of that and add to this the fact of my Punjabi English there was a lot of confusion with the British air hostesses. So that when I asked for water the air hostess brought me vodka. It did not help the situation though the shot of alcohol did boost up my morale.
My English was not understood by the natives of Mississauga either. A simple word pronounced by me as Tow yo ta had to be corrected by my landlady to Toy –o- ta. I am forever in dread of the word Toyota since then. Eventually my Tow-ron-tow became the native trrawnto. Exeunt Punjabi English and enter rolling r’s. I even learned to say ‘eh?’ Remarkably eh is eh in French too.
French and Punjabi do not mix. They are like oil and water. Toronto will be like a refinery for me. I might even shift to Quebec for some time. It will take out the sting of Punjabi from my French or at least my English. Oh, Canada!
The Toronto Stories—the Cemetery
Toronto was a huge movie set for me when I arrived as an immigrant in the early 21st Century. It was not real life for me. If I was living like a poor man I was not sad because actually I was just an actor in a Hollywood movie about Toronto. I would soon wake up and be rich and famous. I was a dreamer as you can see.
I did many jobs and one of them was passing out flyers advertising a psychic reader and healer. She gave me a thousand flyers and paid me by the hour. She depended on my being honest. My honesty was constantly checked by her adult son who would track me in his car in the appointed region of my operations for the day.
Those were very cold days. I had arrived in October and the winter progressed mercilessly around me as I distributed flyers for various people. The psychic healer was most generous. Her business improved with my flyer hanging in letter boxes. It was tedious work. Some northern colonies in new areas like Mississauga were deserted during day time. New immigrant grandfathers and grandmothers hid like war criminals behind closed doors. They were barred by their lack of the English language. That incarceration was more hurtful than any physical jail.
I could see shadowy figure behind curtains hurrying to peep at who I was. When they saw it was only me sticking flyers in their mail boxes, they gave a sigh or relief and disappeared to tend to grandchildren or the pot in the kitchen. We were bound by this string of hope. We were trying out a new country. We had a silent pact. We would stay here till we succeeded. We were all getting intensively home sick as time passed.
Some were running away from political oppression, some from their own crimes and some from economic depredation. I was running because I did not know what I wanted. I think the answer to my unhappiness with my home country lay elsewhere. I had the white man syndrome. I had been brought up in a school with white Irish Catholic Brothers. I thought they were Gods from a distant land called Ireland.
I was also misguided by the movies. I wanted to explore the West like a John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster or a Gary Cooper. I wanted to be that tough and manly. I wanted to write and explore.
I got a rude cold shoulder from Canada. Perhaps I was shy but most probably no one was interested. Also I was getting to be old. People love to know young people. I was educated but I hesitated in going into stores and handing out my resume. Anyway I was told by everyone that I needed Canadian experience. How was I to get it without my first job?
I was working at getting my Canadian driving license. It was going to be expensive for me. Over the months my money had dwindled. I was living in a cold basement. I had to earn to gather money for my driving lessons to get used to the driving on the right side transition. I would work towards being a taxi driver. Yes I had had a business in my home country but I wanted independence from taxes, bureaucracy, bribery and red tape. I wanted to be a part of a free society which respected human beings. I did not want to live in a sham democracy. I would drive a taxi, clean bathrooms anything to be a part of a good society that did not force you to be corrupt and criminal.
Ideals began to fall by the wayside as the winter progressed. I got my 8 dollars shoes changed from Wal-Mart because they had developed cracks treading snow and ice. The lady at the replacement counter gave me an unbelieving look and told me she would not change the shoe again. I winked at her. She gave me an angry look back. My Hollywood ploy had failed again.
In my new shoes I braved the winter. I used the Greater Toroto Transit Card to the maximum. Soon I was working for a courier company delivering letters using the vast Toronto transit system. I soon learned to walk, ride the subway, the buses and the trams to deliver letters quickly. I was beginning to earn serious money.
Sadly I had ignored my feet. They were becoming frost bitten walking in the snow and ice. My walking capacity was waning with the progress of the winter. One day I got lost and found myself in an apartment building complex. Trudging through I took a foot path hoping to reach a bus stop across the field of snow. The footpath led to a cemetery. Again a Hollywood set. It was deathly quiet but neat. I entered the open gates of the cemetery and marveled at the small niches in the walls near the gate. They looked like tiny graves one upon another with fancy marble plaques announcing dates of birth and death.
Sepulchral quiet. Not a leaf moved. I trudged on eager to have a complete view of this movie set of a cemetery. Not a soul. I walked on the endless path and finally came to a fence. I saw a big drainage pipe hanging over a large ditch. Whatever it had been spilling was frozen like an ice water fall. I could not progress that way. It was getting dark. I really needed help.
There was a sudden sound. A hoary ‘Cawk.” It was a raven on a tree bough flowering with strange purple blossoms in winter. It sent a shiver up the freezing sweat on my spine.
I was scared. I could not afford a cell phone other wise I would have called for help. There were no public phones. I expected one in the cemetery but there was none. I sat down reluctantly on an iced down bench. I listened. I heard something. It was someone digging. I got up quickly. Another human being would be welcome.
I went through the neat rows of graves and finally arrived at the spot from where the digging sounds were emanating. A short man about five feet tall was scraping the ice away from a grave. The name on the grave was Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese. I bowed to the man and said, ‘excuse me.’
He did not turn. He remained silent. He fell on his knees and started cleaning the grave with his hands. I noticed a plastic bag by his side. He picked up the bag and pulled out some bright flowers. Very carefully he laid them on the grave. He was ignoring me. He was in a world of his own. The man was about fifty years old. I tried once more to ask him for help. He did look up disturbed by my words, then looked away spreading the petals on the grave.
I was ashamed. I could not intrude any further. I was an insensitive alien. This guy must have lived his life in Canada with his wife for twenty years, now she was dead and he was all alone shedding silent tears over her grave.
I was indeed heartless. I slinked away feeling guilty at my coarse behavior. I walked out of the gate and looked at the vast expanse in front of me. Canada is truly full of empty spaces. Buildings are huge and the empty landscape can be scary sometimes. You do not see pedestrians. Cars and Buses just whiz past you. You have to be a car owner to belong in this immense land.
I saw a Toyota parked near the gate. I would wait. It must belong to the Chinese man. Maybe I could talk to him about Amy Tan. Perhaps he was a great book lover. I was impractical in my conversational openings as usual. It was getting dark. Surely if this man did not help me I would get lost and die in the cold. He was my only chance. I waited for him with fatal equanimity. If death was inevitable I would lie down on the snow and enjoy it.
Half an hour later, the man came walking very slowly with his empty plastic bag and unseeing eyes. A very frail and sad man. He passed by me, I said, ‘excuse me.’ He again ignored me. He took out a key and opened his car. He sat down behind the wheel and waited. Ten minutes passed. He did not start the car. Then he rolled down the window and asked, ‘Well, are you coming in or not, eh?’ Canadian to the core. Yan Sung was my first friend in Canada.