“You mean to say people actually live there? Down there, under the snow?”
I am aghast. I have heard of the cold, inhospitable conditions but nothing has prepared me for this.
The entire countryside, as far as the eye could see, is one huge sheet of white. Not a uniform, wrinkle-free white but an uneven, lumpy, blanketed white. Like a bed left unmade. Or rather like a bedcover hastily pulled over a huge mess on the bed. The way it is in the children’s room once they hear my car honking round the corner.
So this is Canada. My first glimpse of Canada. It still looks virginal. Unexplored. Untouched. Thou still unravished bride of silence. Foster child of silence and slow time.
The smoother portions of the white sheet below tell me that a lot of it is water. Apart from this distinction it is hard to tell where the land ends and the water begins. It is all white, white, and white.
And yet, under the uneven blanket there are all those millions who breathe, live, work, jostle for space. All those who engage in affairs of the state, engage in the daily rat-race for food-clothing-shelter, aspire towards goals, personal or otherwise. There are some straight black lines below that indicate roads which have been cleared. But these are few. As the plane hovers over the city I note that traffic flows over just a few major streets. The rest, apparently, have not been cleared. What do those prople do? Those whose houses have been effectively sealed by the snow? I wonder.
Once I am outside the airport I pull out my diary to look at the instructions. Take shuttle to Downtown terminus – Beri Uquaam – then cab to Rue St. Famille. Hang on to cab. Pick up apartment keys at the realtors, proceed to Rue St. Urbaine.
There are mounds of snow on the roadside. At least three or four feet on either side. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow....” I have never seen so much of it.
The cab stops outside the realtors.
“Hang on, young man,” I tell the dark, smiling cabbie as I step out, look up and down for an entry point into the building. He comes out too and says – “From here ma’am.”
His finger points at the three-feet high barricade along the road.
“Huh?” I do not understand. Am I supposed to plough through the barrier?
Or perhaps dive into it with a Shammi Kapoor style “Yahoo” and swim across?
No, I do not feel so adventurous. It is my first day – no, my first few moments – in Canada and I would rather play safe.
“Here, ma’am,” he points to a faint track of footprints in the snow. So someone has walked across before. I feel somewhat reassured and make my way forwards, one cautious step at a time. The snow looks so delicious. I scoop up a handful of the powdery stuff and drop it again. It is dry. Like the grains of sand. Sybil, Sybil, what do you want? A long life, my lord, long years of mortal existence, as many as the grains of sand in my palm. They don’t say grains of snow. What then? Flakes, perhaps. But these in my palm are not flakey. They are more grainy. And yet not like sand. More like... what should I say? Cottony, perhaps.
I see the smile on the cabbie’s face, smile back at him, and move ahead towards the doorbell. A tall – O, my god! How tall she is! – efficient-looking woman called Jacqueline hands me the key and I make my way back to the cab, my shoes sinking deeper into the snow.
I don’t like Rue St. Urbaine. There’s something not nice about the building. It reminds me of the character-less, humdrum buildings meant primarily for refugees or asylum seekers. Come on, I tell myself as I tip the cabbie and take the elevator to the fourth floor, give it a chance. Let me not be prejudiced.
I take the elevator to the fourth floor. An old toothless man rides the elevator with me. He is bent and holds a sick-looking dog on a leash. Actually the dog looks healthier than his master!
Mine is a one-room apartment and the room is small. There is sufficient space for me to navigate to the other end, put down my heavy bags on the floor, laptop on the little table meant for the kitchen, and handbag on the bed. I survey the scene. Not bad, I guess. Small, but tastefully done up. The kitchen is stocked with rice, sugar, tea bags, cereal. The fridge has some eggs and bread.
I make myself some tea. The cup I reach out for is cracked from top to bottom. I don’t like it. Bad omen. Let me put it away, in a far corner.
While the tea brews I head for the loo which is only slightly bigger than an oversized cupboard. As I turn to shut the door, I collide into the shelf jutting out.
The face that stares at me over the washbasin is red-eyed and flabby. The mouth droopy, the skin dry and fatigued after more than twenty hours of flying. I splash some cold water on my face, dab it dry, peer again at the mirror, and try and mend the ravages. Meanwhile the washbasin has overflowed on to my shoe. There’s a puddle on the floor that I now have to avoid.
This will not do. I really don’t like it here, I tell myself as I sip my tea. One month in this hole will be impossible. Must find another way out.
Let me first go and report at the institute. Sure, I will walk. Don’t I have a map?
Map, yes. And it is just 1.6 miles away. It will take me at the most fifteen minutes to get there. Oh yes, it will be a nice walk. Cool and refreshing. With the pure driven snow on either side of the road. Welcome to Canada, it seems to say.
With a spring in my step I start for Concordia. One springy step and then another. And then another.
And then I slam on my breaks for I have felt the ground beneath my feet move a bit. It is the snow, hardened into ice that makes me skid. Oops, I’d better be careful. I walk with measured steps down St. Urbaine, towards Rue Sherbrooke. Once on Sherbrooke, I realize that I am on one of the main streets of Montreal. Wider, busier, more activity. More commercial complexes. I walk along the side-walk, choosing my steps one at a time. It is cold and I do not have gloves. So I thrust my hands into my pockets, button up my coat with the hood up, muffler tight around my throat, and move on.
It all happens in less than the twinkling of an eye. My right foot slips on ice and I find squatting on the snowy pavement. Bewildered, uncomprehending, unsure whether I should get up and dust the snow off my clothes or first take stock of the situations, check that I haven’t broken any bones. The rump hurts and my right elbow has taken the impact of the fall. But I can move my feet, my knees, my arms, so – thank god – no damage!
A passerby helps me up with a smile. I smile back, noting the dimples in his cheeks and rub my back ruefully, complaining: “Your country ain’t all that kind. I’ve just landed here a couple of hours ago!”
“Welcome to Canada,” he says as he picks up my bag and hands it back to me.
Girte hain shah-sawar hi maidan-i-jang main. Who tifl kya gire jo ghutne ke bal chale!
This is not for me. Give me back my bright sunshine and the hot winds. The dust and the grime. Give me back the heat that slaps me in the face when I walk down the road, the sweat that trickles down my spine. The mosquitoes that sing nightly in my ear. The power-cuts and the shortages. The walks in the Santi Kunj and Nirjhar Vatika where I don’t have to mind each step I take.
I miss my Chandigarh.
I realize that I love my India.
But this is just the first day. Canada might get better, so I guess I shouldn’t lose heart!