& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 5

Clippings of journalistic work in 2008-09
One evening in November, when I was at the concierge desk at the Heath Street condo, I got a call from Nick Noorani, the publisher of the Canadian Immigrant. Gavin had introduced us and I’d written to him. Nick invited me to write for his magazine. But it wasn’t just that – he chatted for nearly an hour, and though he was speaking to me for the first time, it felt like I’d known him all my life.

He wanted to know everything there was to know about me. He told me about his life – in Bombay, in the Middle East and then in Canada. He told me to be in contact with the magazine’s editor Margaret Jetelina, which I did and she responded immediately asking me to do a feature story on new immigrants working as security guards. 

Prior to immigrating to Canada, I’d been a journalist for many years and then had worked as a media relations and trade promotions person at the US Consulate. In Toronto, my instinct was to try to return to journalism because, in all the years since I’d been out of the vocation, I’d sorely missed writing. I wanted to write regularly, and journalism offered the best avenue to write.

But journalism as a profession is being transformed, and it appears that it’s undergoing an irreversible process of mutation both in terms of its character and composition. Over the last two decades, and especially at present, the vocation seemingly is hurtling into oblivion. To re-enter the vocation with a view to building a career seemed ill-conceived and foolhardy; it wasn’t on my list of priorities. However, my utter inability to get a regular, steady job in any field that’d pay me more than minimum wages was proving to be impossible. So, I was not totally averse to journalism.

Sunil Rao, who was then the editor of the South Asian Focus, had offered to publish my news reports and I’d already published a piece on the high auto insurance premium rates in Ontario. I enjoyed the thrill of working on a news story after many years and did a fairly good job; Sunil carried it as the lead story in December 2008. But he couldn’t pay me. Nick, on the other hand, was willing to pay – abysmally low by any standards but I reckoned, the payment could buy me my monthly metro pass.

The security guard duty at the Heath Street condo was proving to be fairly exhausting, even after my shift timing changed. So, while Margaret’s offer to me to write was still open, I just couldn’t find time to work on it. My first feature on security guards would only be published in May 2009, and that started my association with the Canadian Immigrant magazine that grew into a strong bond.

I did a few features and then Margret offered me a column which she imaginatively called Mayank’s Immigrant Adventures. I wrote the column every month till I became a citizen in 2014. I’ve posted all the columns on a blog. 

If you’re interested in reading some, please click here: Mayank’s Immigrant Adventures.

Even the Canadian Immigrant website (http://www.canadianimmigrant.ca) has retained some of my columns. 

We needed a computer at home but couldn’t afford one. Then, I saw a flyer for a shop in Mississauga that sold used laptops. We took the TTC bus route 32 A on Eglinton Avenue, which in those days went all the way into Mississauga to reach the shop. It was October and already cold; suddenly it began to rain and turned into freezing rain in a matter of minutes. The three of us – Mahrukh, Che and me – walked along Eglinton Avenue for nearly half-an-hour in the freezing rain to reach the shop. At the end of that harrowing trudge, we had a second-hand IBM laptop for which we’d paid $350. It served us for many years.

Living in Toronto on one person’s survival wages quickly introduces you to frugality. It was a great lesson to learn; one that cannot ever be forgotten.

Barack Obama became the President of the United States, and I heard the news on a radio. We still didn’t have a television at home.

While I was on duty at the condo one evening in November 2008, a resident of the condo – Howard Karel – came rushing from the gym and told me that my hometown was under a terrorist attack. He told me CNN was covering it live and I could go to the gym to see the coverage. I rushed to see the news and at once realized the enormity of the attack. Bombay was a regular target of attacks, but this was comparable to the March 1993 serial bomb blasts.

The attack continued for two days and nearly everyone in the condo came to meet me and talk to me; everyone was concerned for my family. The support for me from the people of the condo was so overwhelming that I teared up on more than one occasion. My emotional weakness surprised me, and I realized that four months away from my home and the mountain of uncertainty about our future had made be vulnerable.

Although Mahrukh continued to look for work, we were made aware that we couldn’t leave Che at home alone because he wasn’t yet 12-years-old. So, for all practical purposes, Mahrukh would have to stay at home. The pressure on me to find a better job was mounting every day. Later that month, I attended another job fair but couldn’t find any jobs. But I met two individuals who contributed immensely to the process of our settlement in Toronto.

The first was Aaron Uretsky, who represented Heritage Funds, and who sold me the idea of saving for Che’s education. I immediately signed up. The other person was Fayyaz Walana, who represented the Sheridan College. Fayyaz sold me the idea of doing a program in journalism for internationally trained writers at the Sheridan College. He informed me that I’d get a student loan from the provincial government that would not only pay the program fees but also provide me with subsistence.

I agreed immediately, and applied for the program, took a written test for English language and applied for a student loan. By December 2008, I was again a student – I’d be returning to a campus after over 25 years. 

The attack on Bombay and my own situation combined with my ardent desire to write again made me attempt writing a short story. I’d never ever imagined I’d write fiction. But journalism required time and contacts, and I didn’t have either. Writing fiction was both a challenge and something that I could do with my limited resources. I attempted to personalise the issue of terrorism and situate it in a family environment. I wanted to explore what’d happen to a family if they discovered that their son was involved in terrorism.

I wrote the short story and showed it to Susan Crangle, a communications professional and a resident of the condo. She edited the story and advised that I should submit it for publication. I wasn’t sure but did send it – half-heartedly – to the Toronto Star short story competition. Of course, I didn’t win, but in 2009 I sent a reworked draft to the Diaspora Dialogues and was selected for its short form mentoring program.

I also started this blog by posting test posts in December and planning a post each week from January 2009.

Although we’d been in Toronto for five months, the first year – 2008 – was coming to an end. We continued to remain uncertain about our future, about whether we’d be able to make it, or whether we’d have to return to India, but we were starting the new year on a new hope. 

The onset of winter had taken us by surprise. Having lived all our lives in tropics, the first winter proved to be severely cold. And when it began to snow, we rushed to Walmart to buy snowshoes for Che. A few days earlier, we’d gone to both Walmart and Sears to buy winter clothes but had forgotten shoes.

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