& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 3

September 2008 - Che begins school
What is home? What makes a house a home? 

Home to me is a space that gives me the luxury to be myself, without any restrictions. Home is being with my family, enjoying their closeness in an unaffected, unpretentious way; the liberty to be quiet while being together. 

Home is the aroma of cooking, home is that little corner that is mine, where I can sit and read, write, or surf the net. Home is where Mahrukh and Che are. 

Over the last 56 years, I’ve lived in six homes. The fifth in my life and the first in Canada – 1117-1440 Lawrence Avenue West – is the one that we remember with great affection.

Our minds have an incredible and infinite ability to remember and recall places and people we love. We effortlessly edit unsavoury episodes and focus on the more pleasant experiences. Our first home in Toronto was apartment # 11 on the 11th floor of 1440 Lawrence Avenue West – at the intersection of Keele Street and Lawrence Avenue West.

It was the first time we were living in a skyscraper, with a view that was stunning, breathtaking and one that we just fell in love with. We’d stand in the postage stamp sized balcony for hours, and took hundreds of photographs on the ever-changing colours of the skyline at different times during the day and during the year. (This post has photographs of Lawrence Avenue West taken from our balcony at different times in a day and across four seasons). 

The home itself wasn’t much to talk about. It was functional at best. The saving grace was the large windows in both the living and the bedroom. The kitchen was small but separate. The washroom had a bathtub (the first bathtub we had in our home), and another first was the wooden flooring.

When we moved in, we had no furniture. On the first day, after moving in our luggage, we’d to go look for mattresses and took the route 41 TTC bus to Stockyards from Keele Street and got off at West Toronto Street where we saw a sign advertising ‘Cheap Mattresses’.

A Pakistani origin woman helped us get the right sized mattresses at the right price. We bought two mattresses and looked for a taxi to get them home, but being new to Toronto, we didn’t know what number to call.

Finally, an Indian Punjabi cabbie drove up to us and brought us back home. When he learnt that it was our first day in Toronto, he refused to charge us the cab fare. He told us that he worked in a factory and made good money but had been laid off and had since turned a cab driver.

This help from strangers became the theme of our lives for the next few years. In fact, it’d begun when we were in Mississauga. A Brampton Transit bus driver (a turbaned Sikh) took a detour just to drop us off near the place we wanted to go. The place wasn’t on the route, but neither he nor other passengers seemed to mind that he took a detour.

Soon after moving in, Maggie, who I introduced in the previous post, and who brought us to the new apartment, also introduced us to some families who lived in these two buildings. Mahindra and Nisha and their daughter; Mahesh and Sunita and their children; Royce and Reena and their children included us in their group and have remained Mahrukh’s friends over the last decade. Other families who came subsequently to 1440 or 1442 (Sati and Kamalnandalan, and their daughters; and Selvi and Ishwar) also became Mahrukh’s friends. 

Unbeknown to us, our new home turned out to be in a South Asian ghetto, albeit a vertical one and not a horizontal one that we'd seen (and lived) in India. I first realised it when I saw a sign in Gujarati script inside the elevators requesting residents not to spit. Each of the 13 floors (although for superstitious reasons the buildings didn’t have a 13th floor) had over 25 apartments ranging from one bedroom to two bedrooms.

A majority of the families living there were from South Gujarat (south of Ankleshwar up to Vapi) and spoke a dialect of Gujarati that my grandmother spoke. Surprisingly, the families were both Hindus and Muslims and in 1440 the Muslim families had even turned an apartment into a prayer room.

In the summer months, nearly every senior person who lived in these twin buildings came down to enjoy the temperate weather and gossip. There’d be a few hundred people on the green lawns between the two buildings. It was community interaction like I’d never seen before, and it made me uneasy. I never mingled with my neighbours. I hadn’t flown a few thousand kilometres for this, or so I thought, little realizing that there really was no escaping them.

In cold Canada, where living spaces have to be kept airtight, the aroma of Indian cooking remained trapped forever on all the floors and permeated everywhere. Our clothes and bodies reeked of spicy Indian food.

Initially, I was unaware of it, and then when I did realize it, was briefly embarrassed, and then turned defiant. Food was part of my culture. I didn’t have to be defensive or apologetic about my culture; that was the whole point of being in Canada, wasn’t it?

Living in Canada also meant sharing responsibilities at home for all the unending chores. Mahrukh took charge of cooking, and I took charge of doing the dishes and the laundry. For laundry, I’d have to take our clothes every Sunday morning to the building’s basement to giant washers and dryers. It was an unpleasant task because the laundry room was always crowded.
Che's first day at school
Towards the end of August 2008, the three of us walked to the Amesbury Middle School to inquire about Che’s admission. Unlike in India, where you’d find someone at a public institution (such as a school) even when it’s closed, there was nobody at the Amesbury Middle School. I called and left a message seeking information about the admission process. The residents in our building had misled us into believing that Che would have to repeat a year in Canada.

When the school began after Labour Day in September 2008, the three of us went again to complete the admission procedure. He was placed in Grade 6. He looked smart in his new school uniform and confident to face new challenges in a new land. Slowly and gradually, we were settling into a new home, and Che was the first one to hit the ground running. His parents had yet to find jobs, but he was already in school. In many ways, he became a better integrated Canadian sooner than his parents. 

Thank you: Yoko Morgenstern, Debra Black, Farzana Doctor, Yogesh Sharma, Haresh (Mike) Mehta, Anita Shiwnath

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