Our Plymouth Rock: T. SHER SINGH
Canada, June 29, 1971
Sunday, July 1, 2012
It’s the early hours of the morning on June 29, 2011 as I write these words - 40 years to the very day and hour when my siblings and I first landed in Canada to make it our home.
The decades have flown by, but the twists and turns to reach every crossroad are charted in detail in the google map of my memory.
The human mind is an inimitable computer: the mouse in my brain guides the cursor over a latitude of maps - Toronto, Thunder Bay, London, Guelph, Saratoga, a hundred venues around the globe, family, school, work, the joy of parenthood, friends and lovers, highs and lows, successes and failures, celebrations and disappointments …
All I need to do is click at any juncture, and the cross-hairs magically magnify and bring alive the past - sometimes gilded by the fog of nostalgia, at other times, searing with the clarity of hindsight.
Those nascent hours of June 29, 1971, however, as it transformed into Tuesday, are crystal clear in my mind’s eye. The romance and excitement attached to the memory are not products of time and whimsy; they are exactly what I felt as our aircraft circled over the city of Toronto and prepared to land.
As we had boarded in New York for the last lap of our journey … which had begun two weeks earlier on a white-hot day in Patna (Bihar, India) … we had scrambled to our window seats, which only hours earlier we had begged and pleaded for at the airline counter.
6-year-old Sartaj Kaur (“Simmi“) sat next to me by the window. Artaj Singh (“Lucky“) who had turned 11 earlier in the month, sat at the window in front of us. Davinder Kaur (“Baby”), 19, and Sunder Kaur (the erstwhile “Guddo”), 16, were behind us, with the latter by the window.
As we buckled in and settled down, enveloped by the comforting hum of the idling aircraft, we eased into a sweet-flavoured silence. Even ever-garrulous Simmi had petered out.
This was it. We were flying into the dark and unknown yonder which, once pierced, would regurgitate us into a new land, a new life. The sheer enormity of it all weighed down on each of us, albeit in different ways.
Our parents had gone ahead to set the stage. Though our flight had left New Delhi before theirs, we had meandered through Europe … Paris, Amsterdam, London … and then New York, to do some sight-seeing en route before we ensconced ourselves in Toronto, not knowing when our new circumstances would allow us to travel to these places again.
It had been a hectic time. New places and new experiences had turned into high octane as adrenalin pumped incessantly into our systems. It was difficult going to sleep every night … and not just because of the strangely long daylight hours we were experiencing for the first time.
There was so much to do, so much to see in each place, and we knew exactly how little time we had allotted to each stop, with the next flight to the next wonderland looming not far ahead.
New York was meant to be a mere transit stop. But once we got to JFK, we realized we had 7 - 8 hours to kill before the flight to Toronto.
We negotiated with a cab-driver who agreed to take us for a whirlwind tour of New York and bring us back in time for our flight - all for the huge price of $120.
It was a lot to pay then, especially when our brains were programmed to automatically convert every currency into Rupees, our only reference point. But we talked it over … and concluded it was a cheap alternative to the cost of coming back later to catch the sights. And lord knew when we’d be able to do it!
So, off we went.
No visit to a Disneyland could ever match our next few hours.
I remember how he slowed down as we passed by the United Nations and our wonderful guide yelled: “On your left! The United Nations!” We gawked through the windows, recognizing the dome and the towers, and shushed Simmi and Lucky with their torrent of Why’s and What’s and Where’s and How’s.
“Can we stop, please?” one of us yelled back.
“Not if you want to see the Statue of Liberty and go up the Empire State and …!”
We nodded, but not very disappointed. It was merely being led from a bite of one candy to the next.
The Empire State took up the largest chunk of our precious time. Once back in the cab, the driver said: “That’s it, fellas! We got to head back to JFK, if you want to catch your flight!”
We nodded … but not sadly. We knew our parents were waiting in Toronto and there was so-o much to tell them.
Suddenly, I remembered. “Wait!” I screamed. “I haven’t had a hot-dog. Can we stop somewhere where we can get one.”
The cab swung around the next corner and halfway down the block, still next to the Empire State, the cab came to a screeching halt.
Everyone was staring at me.
Simmi: “What’s that?”
Lucky: “A dog? Ye-cch-h!”
Sunder: “Can I have one too?”
Baby just rolled her eyes. She was vegetarian; therefore, it just didn’t matter what animal it was.
Sunder and I went in. It was a strange place. There was a long counter. No tables or chairs. Above the couple standing behind the counter was a huge long board with words and numbers.
Not a mention of a “Hot dog”. And nothing made sense.
Sunder and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and walked back to the car.
“They don’t have hot dogs,” I complained to the cabbie.
He looked at us in disbelief. “Of course they do.” He stormed out, signalling us to follow.
He pointed at the board and said ”Look! That’s all they have!”
I looked but it didn’t make sense.
“But it says ’F-R-A-N-K-F-U-R-T-E-R,“ I whispered.
“Yeah? So order one!”
I remained quite. Sunder nudged me and said she wouldn’t have one after all.
“How do I order?”
So, the cabbie ordered one.
He helped me count the coins and hand them to the cashier. He then helped me with the condiments … though nothing looked familiar. I simply said yes to every thing.
Back in the car, Davinder said, “Please don’t bring that thing in here!”
So I sat on the steps and gorged it down. The four looked at me through the window with various degrees of disgust. The cabbie just laughed and shook his head.
Not sure if I liked it or not. Reserved judgement.
* * * * *
As the plane began to descend, I couldn’t help exclaiming: “Look! Look!”
There was silence all around me. Strange. I looked at each of them, and they were fast asleep.
I shook them awake, one by one.
Groggily, they looked out of their windows.
“Where are we?” someone asked.
“Are we there?” said another.
I could hear them stirring and then fidgetting and stretching, to catch a better view.
There was one gasp after another, in quick succession, from Simmi.
And then she swung around and hissed in an exaggerated whisper:
“Is it Diwali?”
HAPPY CANADA DAY!
Re-published on July 1, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Gehna Kaur Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 29, 2011, 10:48 AM.
Great article, Dad.
2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 29, 2011, 5:33 PM.
"Nak nath khasam hath kirt dhakay day/ jahaa daanay tahaan khaanay naankaa such hay" [GGS:653.12] - "Your nose-ring is in the hands of Waheguru; your own actions direct you/ Wherever your meal is, to eat. O Nanak, this is the Truth.". Sher Singh ji, you have opened a floodgate of memories, and makes me look back to what destiny had in store for us. In our case, the Partition of Punjab had uprooted us into a nomadic sort of existence. In my case, a quirk of fate had landed me in Singapore in August 1954 with the equivalent of (Singapore) $10.00 in my pocket. The only precious thing I carried with me was a small 'safri bir' of Guru Granth Sahib that came in a primitive wooden box that could serve to provide a semblance of 'prakash'. Looks like I will have to write my own story of how the moving finger wrote my destiny. Thank you, Sher ji, for instigating those precious memories.
3: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), July 01, 2011, 12:22 PM.
What an adventurous story and equally well written. Sangat Singh ji: Would love to read your migration story. Please publish it soon!
4: Taranjit Singh (India), July 08, 2011, 5:06 AM.
Taaya ji, Sat Sri Akal. I am Sardar Mangat Singh ji's grandson from Paonta Sahib. You just made me recall what all Biji used to tell me ... hope you all are doing well there.
5: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.), July 01, 2012, 2:37 PM.
What a wonderful story and so skillful to capture the wide-eyed wondrous voice of a child, even witten in hindsight! Many thanks for these small gems via the Daily Fix -- they make us all the richer for having read them.