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Saturday, January 20, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 2

Mahrukh and Che in the Bombay-Vienna flight 
The journey from Bombay on July 11, 2008, was fraught with excitement and uncertainty. Mahrukh and I had decided that we’d be in Canada for a couple of years to see if we were able to adjust – mentally, but more importantly, financially, and we were prepared to return to Bombay if things didn’t work out. The possibility of returning is a tantalizing one, which we often consider even after a decade in Toronto, Mahrukh more than me.

We landed on July 12, 2008, and breezed through the Canadian customs and immigration, with the immigration officer welcoming us with a broad smile. With nearly a dozen bags we had to hire a luggage operator, with a luggage trolley. He was an Indian-origin man, who said he’d charge $20. I immediately began to convert that amount into Indian currency, and reading my mind, he cautioned me. “If you want to live in Canada, stop converting dollars into rupees, otherwise you’ll go crazy,” – a sound advice that took a long time to sink in.

Che at the Pearson Airport
At the airport by our agent’s representative Manpreet Singh, a young affable Sikh, and his mother, came to pick us up. But there wasn’t enough room for us and our bags. Fortunately, at that moment, a Muslim (he’d a grey beard) South Asian (he spoke in an Indian accent) person dropped off a family member at the airport and offered to give me a ride to the guest house in Malton.

Within an hour of landing in Canada, we were experiencing firsthand the famed Canadian hospitality from a complete stranger. We never met this person ever again. But he left a great impression on us about our new home.

The guest house in Malton was a regular suburban townhouse, with four bedrooms on the upper level, a large living room and a kitchen on the ground level and a basement. Not surprisingly, all the bedrooms were occupied by new immigrants from South Asia.

Our last day at the Malton guest house
A group of Sri Lankans occupied the basement; one of the bedrooms had a Marathi couple, and a young couple from Punjab with a toddler was in another bedroom. We occupied the third bedroom. There was a small backyard, which in mid-July was being used to dry clothes. There was a work desk in the living room with a desktop computer. “It’s for you to apply for a job, work on your resumes,” Manpreet said. A television set, a couch and a dining table made up the rest of the furniture. A fair-sized kitchen had a refrigerator that everyone shared.  

We decided to take a walk and go for our first grocery shopping at the Food Basics store at the strip mall near the Malton bus terminal. That walk helped us make up our mind – that we wouldn’t be living in Malton for long, and that we’d be moving to Toronto as soon as possible. We’d paid a month’s rent for the room at the guest house, but Malton didn’t seem like Canada at all. It appeared like it was in some deep part of rural Punjab.

Che at the Food Basics hypermarket at Malton's strip mall

We didn’t feel like we belonged in Malton. This decision proved to be somewhat hasty and myopic; at least in my case because nearly everyone who gave me a helping hand in the next decade, and assisted me to establish myself in this new place turned out to be a Punjabi, and a resident of Mississauga or Brampton. In the last decade, had it not been for the Punjabis, I’d probably be still working as a security guard in some downtown condo.

The first month passed by swiftly. Manpreet helped us open a bank account with TD Bank, he also helped us with applying for our SIN cards, and our PR cards. We went to the Malton Community Centre to participate in its settlement program, where the Anita Shiwnath, a person with great warmth and empathy, introduced us to Canadian work culture, and put us through the writing of our resumes, speaking in public, and all the other pertinent things that’d make us job ready. We used the Malton library to restructure our resumes, creating profiles on job portals and preparing cover letters. From the Malton strip mall, we got our Rogers cellphones.

1440 Lawrence Avenue West
I applied to Summitt Energy and was immediately selected. Little did I know then that everyone who applied for such jobs was selected because the employer didn’t have to pay anything until you were able to sell a package to a consumer. Summitt Energy’s office was at 1280 Finch West, and being new to Toronto, I took the longest possible route to reach there – a bus from Malton to Islington, then a subway to St. George, then a subway to Downsview and then a bus to Keele and Finch. It took nearly three hours to reach the workplace. This was extreme commute even by Bombay standards.

In those days, Russian-Canadians dominated the managerial positions at Summitt’s office. I was asked to accompany a group of new immigrants to different parts of the GTA and then to knock on the doors to sell the Summitt Energy’s tariff packages, which would fix the tariff to a specified amount irrespective of the price changes by the hydro company (it took me a while to understand that hydro in Canada meant electricity).

I was singularly unsuccessful in selling even a single package to any home, and some of those who were part of my team suggested to the Russian-Canadian supervisors that the reason for my utter failure was my beard. Women in homes in Hamilton, Burlington and other suburban cities where we were trying to sell these tariff packages were afraid to talk to a brown person with a beard. We knocked on their doors in the afternoon, when they were alone and generally suspicious of brown men with beards. The supervisor suggested that I consider shaving my beard. I quit the job.

View from our new home - 1117-1440 Lawrence Ave W
By then, it was time to move out of the guest house and Mahrukh and I decided to take the route 58 TTC bus that began from Malton and went to Lawrence station in Toronto. We decided that we’d get off at some point along the route in Toronto and look for a rented apartment. So, in the second week of August, we got into the bus, and after what seemed like a long ride, we got off at a bus stop near a building that displayed a ‘For Rent’ sign. Unfortunately, the door to the building was locked and nobody was at hand to address our queries, so we took a bus in the opposite direction and got off at a stop where we saw another ‘For Rent’ sign.

And then, serendipity did its work and out of nowhere, we met Maheshwari Sivappa (better known as Maggie), walking purposefully on the pavement outside the skyscraper at the intersection of Keele Street and Lawrence Avenue West. Hesitatingly, haltingly, I asked her (in Hindi) if she knew whether we could rent a place in the building.

View from our new home - 1117-1440 Lawrence Ave W
She responded with alacrity and led us to the office of the apartment building. In a matter of minutes, we’d agreed to rent an apartment in 1440 Lawrence Avenue West, because I insisted on a south-facing apartment so that we’d have a view of the CN Tower and downtown Toronto.

A week later, with the help of Manpreet, we moved our luggage to the new apartment. We had our first home in Toronto, and our address was 1117-1440 Lawrence Avenue West Toronto M6L 1B4.

A new home, a new beginning

Thank you to: Maheshwari Sivappa, Naem (Nick) Noorani, Margaret Jetelina, Dawn Promislow, Fraser Sutherland, Pankaj Mehra, Harjit S. Kalsi

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