Evil Eyed Cherry


A pair of cherries from the same stalk. Prunus...
A pair of cherries from the same stalk. Prunus avium ‘Stella’. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day I bought some cherries. Sunday, it was, yes, I remember well. I bought the cherries home and washed them and ate them and they were good. I also had occasion to visit a Bengali sweet shop and The Good Lady bought some kaancha chena. Literally translated it means “raw cottage cheese”. With some sugar added it is a traditional Bengali sweet.

Now, you know, I live in Canada, right? Right. So cherries in summer is not unusual. The other thing is. Unusual, I mean. I like cherries. I wish someone would pit them for me, but until they invent unpitted cherries, I’ll have to make do with these. Unpitted cherries will probably be GMO labelled, anyway, so I guess I’d better just enjoy these. Not that these cherries are completely blameless. I mean, not the cherries, but the cherry growers. How can an inanimate object have the attribute of blame associated with it?

Ok, I think I hear the vegetarians clamouring that cherries are not inanimate objects. But then, if they’re not we can blame them, right? No? Hmm, well, anyway, moving on. I like blueberries too, and kiwi is ok, too. Strawberries, yes, bananas, too. Even raspberries are ok, but no blackberries for me. That gritty feeling is not very pleasant. A ripe papaya liberally sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice is pretty  good. Try not to judge! At least try it before you wrinkle your nose.. Of course, mangoes win hands down as the king of fruits. Unfortunately, I live in Canada, so the delicious mango varieties of my past life are but a fast receding memory.

What has all this to do with Evil Eyes, Cherries and an Angel’s Kiss in Spring? Nothing. First of all, it’s summer, full blown, not spring. Angels, winged or otherwise, I have never met, so they can’t possibly be handing out kisses to all and sundry. Ah, but you see, that sweet raw cottage cheese we talked about earlier? Yes, that thing, it enters the story at this point. We bought some and I reminded people that even though I lived where I did ( Canada, in case you missed it ), I still had access to kaancha chhena. Their reply was basically “pffttt!”. I reminded them also that I was eating lovely cherries. This, for some reason, gave rise to a cold and odd reception. Clearly, they must have had something on their mind, because their speech became odd and slurry. I prudently decided to leave them alone to get over their ailment.

You may further be aware that I work. Yes, I know, you find it hard to fathom, but apply your mind. Some people do have to earn a living. No, it does not matter what I actually do. Many people have asked me that and to explain what I do would not be very interesting to you, unless you had severe insomnia and wished to find a cure, dear God, give me a cure! Suffice it say that work consists of waking up at ungodly hours and donning a suit. Trains, commuter trains, are involved. Focus on the suit and tie. Yes, the tie. Next recall, that I did not tell you that on Monday mornings I have to attend a session at 8:15am. On a Monday. This Monday morning, I was running late, so I put on my jacket, forgot about the tie and left for work.

I was wearing a freshly laundered white shirt. I wear a freshly laundered shirt ever day. I’m quirky like that. So there we have it at long last, the scene is set.

Characters:

Me, dressed in pristine white dress shirt, no tie.

Cherries, in a ziplock bag.

Work. With a very important meeting in the afternoon, after lunch ( for which I had to walk in the glare of the hot sun for 15 minutes, one way. )

Sandwich dressed in aluminium foil.

As the sun blazes away outside, I am observed, chewing contentedly through the sandwich. I work at the laptop as I eat. Soon the sandwich is done and I pull the bag of cherries closer and with my left hand pick one cherrie and bite into it. Nibbling around the outside, I delicately put the pit in a bowl created by the aluminium foil. With two cherries left, the Evil Eye strikes.

Those people who had gone off surly at the thought of kaancha chhena and cherries, must have been busy lighting incense sticks and pushing red hot skewers into plastic models of cherries and I. For with one cherry left in the bag, I bit into the last but one and it exploded into a splatter of purple juice all over the front of my pristine white, freshly laundered white shirt. White, except for large splotches of purple covering an area of 5-6 inches in the middle of my chest.

I went for the meeting in the afternoon. I wore the purple splotches as a badge of honour.

I wonder what the people I met, for the first time in my life, thought about it.

We’ll never know.

I hope.

On the positive side…. I wasn’t wearing a tie. 🙂

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Immigrant Tales – Arrival


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Ok – This was taken in Niagara about 8 months after Arrival, but it is still represented of my handsome self. My hairstyle has changed, as has my waistline since then…

This was my second ( or third, if you include the Nepal adventure ) foreign trip and I had much on my mind. This was my second trip to North America and the first hadn’t exactly been a carefree and joyous one, if you remember. I don’t think it is easy to describe the wealth of feeling and emotion an immigrant carries with him ( or her, if faux feminist). While the earlier trips were temporary excursions, this one had the element of finality about it. This was it. I was burning some of my bridges. I was forsaking the land of my birth, the friends I had made over the years, the memories of a thousand little events would fade, I thought. I was leaving my wife and two young kids behind me. I had no idea when I would see them again, if ever. I do remember, the chest clenching feeling of pain as the A310 opened up its engines and started its run down the runway on its way to Bombay. I hadn’t been expecting it. I hadn’t anticipated the lurch of emotion as we raced down.

And so The Great Immigration commenced. The A310 took me only to Mumbai, where, after some initial confusion, I boarded Air India Konarak to Delhi and on to London’s Heathrow airport. I sat in the aisle seat of three on the left hand side of the plane, or port side. Beside me sat an elderly Indian couple, a very polite and slightly sheepish looking couple. They seemed embarrassed by the whole business of flying to a foreign land. I got talking with them, polite conversation to satisfy my natural curiosity.

They were flying to Toronto to spend the summer with their son, an IT engineer, who had paid for his parents to visit him. They were painfully shy with the flight attendants, not knowing what to say, or how to respond to the queries about tea, coffee, lunch and dinner options. I helped where I could, but at one point during meal service all communication completely broke down. Most Indians believe that ice cold water is a terrible idea and seriously detrimental to good health. Most North American’s drink five drops of water with their ice to lie at the other end of the scale. During the previous meal service the attendant had done the usual scooping of ice cubes into the glass before pouring a few drops of water. This was in reply to the horrified response to the query about wine or pre-dinner drink. My poor neighbours knew not what to do with their glasses of ice cubes and thus drank no water after their first meal on the plane. The second meal service came around and the gentleman next me spoke up in his hesitant English.

“No cold water.”, he pleaded, accompanied by the Indian sideways head nod, “hot water. Hot water.”

The flight attendant nodded and continued with serving meals. She then disappeared back to her galley and came back a few minutes later with two steaming glasses of gently boiling water, which she handed out to the non-plussed travellers. It took a few minutes of confused conversation between the now very embarrassed gentleman, the irritated attendant and the immigrant interpreter in the aisle seat. Finally, the couple got what they really wanted; room temperature water with no ice.

I don’t recall the meals otherwise, but I think they were basic Indian meals, rice daal, some curry, maybe there was some chicken too… all those details I keep giving you are mostly useless bits of trivia that don’t do anything for this absolutely riveting story, other than enhance the flavour of boredom. I knew you’d see it my way! Soon, we were landing at Heathrow, where I had been before. We were all offloaded and herded out into a lounge, so crews could get in there and clean up the mess made by us. I also think, they must have refuelled and generally taken a look at the plane in preparation for the hop across the Atlantic. I’m guessing here, I’m not an aviation expert, even though I do know what ETOPS means and can tell a wing from an engine pod.

And then we were on the long boring Great Circle path south of Greenland and on to landfall over Newfoundland and Labrador before sweeping down on the north bank of the St Lawrence into the Greater Toronto Area. As we started our descent, a disembodied voice came over the PA system.

“As some of you may have noticed, we have started our descent into the Toronto area. The approach at this airport usually has some swirling winds, so expect a bit of a bumpy path in. Buckle in and thanks for flying with us.”

Around 2:30pm on the 2nd of June, 1997 I finally received service for the Right To Land Fee I had paid Her Majesty’s Canadian Government over a year ago as Air-India Konarak, VT-ESM Boeing 747-400 put its wheels gently on the runway at Lester B Pearson International Airport. The Immigrant was home, his New Home. I had traded in my old home for this new home. What would the new home bring? In future instalments we shall explore such topics as Jobs, Life, Food and other mundane details of the Immigrant Tales

Oh, yes, also we shall chat about the Great Canadian Okra Crisis! We don’t lightly forget!

Immigrant Tales – Departure


International Driving Permit photo. ( A waste of time getting that.. )
International Driving Permit photo. ( A waste of time getting that.. )

Actually, the notes are not early. They’re late. Late by about 19 years now, will be exactly 19 years late on the 2nd of June 2016. Yes, you are very correct in your maths. I arrived in the great country of Canada on the 2nd of June, 1997. ( Sorry. I wrote this when the post was titled “Early Notes”. I forgot to edit this. I saw it later and felt obliged to offer some explanation and not leave you mystified.. How nice of me, no?) 

Before I left Calcutta, I inquired about taking some foreign exchange with me. The Reserve Bank of India was stingy about people taking foreign exchange with them. I was directed to the American Express office, where the clerk looked at my requisition and asked “How much do you need?”

“How much can I get?”

“Show me your passport and visa.”

I did. He opened up the folded Immigration Visa. Folded it back.

“500 bucks in USD. That’s all you are entitled to take with you.”

“You kidding me? It’s my money! Why can’t I take my own money with me?”

“RBI rules. Sorry bud.”

“Oh! OK, give me what you can.”

Appropriate forms were filled out. Rubber stamps went on my passport and 30 minutes later I had USD 500 in my pocket. All the money I was allowed to take with me to start my new life in a strange, cold land. A rather cold start to my immigration story.

At the airport, I found out I was eligible for a further USD 50, so I changed my INR for USD 50, bringing the total amount of cash I was carrying to a whopping USD550. I was booked on an Air India flight to Toronto; a barnstorming flight, as we shall see. An Airbus A310 left Calcutta on the 1st of June, at 8:30 in the evening with me on board. It landed in Mumbai about 2.5 hours later. I was off loaded into a transit lounge in prep for the plane that would take me to London, UK and onwards to Toronto, ON. I took the time to visit the washroom, receive my boarding pass for the onward flight and headed down to the exit to the gates. This is where the uniformed, gun carrying dudes at the gate stopped me and asked me to show my boarding pass. I did so. They stiffened up and became alert.

“How did you get here?”, they asked.

“On a plane from Calcutta. I’m on my way…”, he cut me off.

“Answer my question! How did you reach this gate?”, he was inistent.

“I told you. I came on the flight from Calcutta and they offloaded me into this lounge.”

“Ok. So you came from Calcutta?”

“Yes.”

“But how did you get into this lounge?”

“I told you.”

“Who let you into this lounge?”

“The airline folks did. There was no other way to go except into this lounge.”

“Wait here. Do NOT wander off. I need to talk to my supervisor.”

He nodded at his companion, who took up a position of alertness. An intense conversation ensued over his walkie talkie and 2 minutes later, the supervisor showed up. My friend showed him my boarding pass. Supe looked at, flipped it over looked at the other side. Flipped it over. Held it up to the light. Peered at it again. Then he looked me in the eye and asked his first question.

“How did you get here?”

I took a deep breath; repeated my story.. flight from Calcutta.. on to London, Toronto..

He was unimpressed.

“You cannot have this boarding pass and claim that you came from Calcutta and are enroute to London and Toronto. It is impossible. So how did you get in here?”

I felt like a gold fish in a bowl. “Hey look! A security guard!”

He saw my bemused expression.

“Look,”, he said, “your boarding pass is not a normal boarding pass. If you were a genuine transit passenger it would have a big bold T printed here.”

I looked at it. He was right. The T was missing.

“Where did you get this boarding pass?”

“At the Air India counter. Over there. I pointed behind me.”

“Come with me.”

I walked over with him to the Air India counter, where the lovely lady in the Air India sari was reaching for the phone. She replaced it as we came up to her.

The supe showed her my boarding pass.

“Oh, good,” she said, “I was just going to page you, Mr Sharma! We gave you the wrong boarding pass.”

She took my pass, tore it up, reached under her desk and gave me a new one. This one had a nice bold T printed on it.

Just past midnight, I was on the plane, foreign bound.

Sort of. For the plane headed off to New Delhi, where we were not allowed to get off. Some more passengers entered. Finally, around 5:30am we took off for London on an Air India 747-400. Around 8am, about 12 hours after I had left Calcutta, I left Indian airspace for the first time as an immigrant.

Immigrant Tales will continue. Same batty blog, same batty writer. Come back and read as I recount every hour of the journey to London, the off and on trek through the lounge there and the landing in Toronto.

Immigrant Tales – Alien food


Toronto skyline with CN Tower (c) Ajesh Sharma
Toronto skyline with CN Tower (c) Ajesh Sharma

I think you all know by now, or should, that I moved countries. In fact, I moved continents. Not physically, no. No, not literally! That’s impossible! I moved myself from one continent to the other nearly 2 decades ago. Whew! I’m glad we got that sorted out. Well, I had a request to write about that experience. Specifically, the issues faced by immigrants in a foreign land. Food wise. For immigrants, read ‘aliens’. Never one to miss an opportunity to write about something, anything, no matter how weird, I jumped at this one. About 5 days ago. I’m currently suspended in mid-air…

Anyway, back in the summer of 1997 I left Calcutta ( modern day Kolkata ) bound for Toronto’s Pearson Airport. I came via Bombay ( present day, Mumbai ), then Delhi ( modern day Delhi ) and finally Toronto ( modern day Chandigarh-Shanghai ). I came with 2 suitcases, a passport with a fold out permit and US$ 550 in my pocket. I shall chat about that some other time.  As a penniless immigrant, I took up a room in a high school on Hurontario Street in the city of Mississauga. The school lay behind a funeral parlor and abutted Trillium Hospital, which figures in another couple of stories, to be told later.

Living in the school was a very strange experience. The entire 2nd floor was rented out to an odd collection of immigrants and refugees. The incumbents included young immigrant couples, married but temporarily single men like me, elderly refugees, a very odd single woman 3 doors from me and a crusty old man who had the room next to mine on the other side of the corner common room. The rooms were tiny, with space for a single bed, a built in desk, a cupboard and a sink. I also paid extra for a tiny refrigerator and a phone. It was a very interesting few months in there……A detailed article about the suicide, the murder, the crazy lady, the fire alarms, my crusty neighbour on the other side of the common room etc. is out of scope of this article.

The bathroom, shared with the other residents, was across the corridor to my right. The large common kitchen was half a floor down. I bought myself a small plastic crate to carry my oils, spices, pots down to the kitchen. I would cook simple meals for myself. In the early days, I didn’t venture into cooking any meats at all. Just stuck to simple daals, okra ( of course 🙂 !! ). I learned to make cauliflower, broccoli, basic potato curries and rice. I would take a book down with me, start up the cooking, then sit legs up on the window sill and read while the food simmered. Not too bad as times go.

Grocery shopping was done on weekends and consisted of basic elements. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bread, milk, coffee. There were two grocery stores about 500 metres from me. One took credit cards and the other didn’t. I don’t know how to make rotis. I know all about the geometry of rotis – I wrote an article on that once, remember? The art of kneading the dough, the rolling out and the actual making though, is still not one of my few skills.

The choice, therefore , was rice, or a roti substitute. At the time, the closest thing I could find to rotis was tortillas. Not quite the same thing, but not very different either. Then finding fresh okra was difficult. Frozen okra was a challenge and it took a few tries to get it right,so the ice off the okra didn’t make the curry into a sticky coagulated mash. Fresh okra was the gumbo variety not the Indian okra I was used to. Again, close, but not quite there. I had brought with me a round stainless steel container with 7 round bowls inside. I had also brought with me basic spices. Coriander powder, Cumin powder, red chilly powder and turmeric. Salt I could find easily at the grocery, the others were hard to find.

As I got to know the residents of the school, I found a couple of Indians who had been around longer than me. They pointed me to an Indian grocery store just a bit further on, at the corner of Hurontario and Dundas. That store has since expanded and taken over most of the strip mall now. At the time, it was much smaller, carried a few odd Indian vegetables but the main attraction of the store was the Indian spices and lentils which I could not get in the regular grocery stores.

I bought only limited quantities. First, I had no storage in my room. Then, cooking for one person was hard to do at first. Cooking for 2 or 3 people is easier than cooking for one. Many a day, after a long day, spent in public transport and on foot, dressed in a suit, I would come home totally exhausted and barely be able to throw a curry together. When tortillas were not available, I had the curry with slices of bread.

On the beat, looking for a job, I had to make do with cheap sandwiches. I started with McDonalds McFish and McChicken and often ate at small delis in Toronto or tinier convenience stores that carried shrinkwrapped sandwiches with indeterminate deli meat labelled “turkey” or “ham and cheese”. Some days, I was so hot from the walking around that I would stop and grab a small bottle of orange or apple juice. I can happily report that in nearly 2 decades of life in North America, I have not eaten a Big Mac, or a Whopper. Good, no?

It was a far cry from the world I’d left behind. Sandwiches in Calcutta were not the norm. Fruit juices were not available freely, other than Mohun’s Apple Juice, which my mother served to us when we were convalescing from the usual kiddie maladies. Food, especially after marriage, was varied and included raw papaya curry, encho curry, fish, chicken curries, usual daals, rice and fresh rotis. Of all the things, I missed the rotis the most. Tortillas just didn’t cut it. Once I found the Indian grocery store, though, I was able to get packs of naans and kulchas. A step up from tortillas! I learned how to heat up the kulchas / naans on a griddle from my sister-in-law; soak under tap, place on hot griddle, apply butter, flip apply butter, wait 20 seconds and off. Comes out soft.

As the summer wore on, I was violently sick, carted off to Trillium hospital next door in an ambulance, had my first taste of grapefruit juice and then moved out of the city. First for a 4 week stint in Amherst, NY and Williamsville, NY and finally, Niagara Falls, ON. And the Indian food scenario became even more dire.  More on that in the next instalment.

Damn, I miss fresh rotis! Still!