Friday, March 28, 2008


The weather has improved somewhat. Apart from occasional snow flurries. The sun actually shines. Brightly. Coldly. Piercingly. Attacking the vision from diverse directions – the direct sunlight, the various reflections from the surrounding glass buildings, and most of all the glare from the snow that still covers much of the ground.

Temperatures are around -3 C but the weather report says “feels like -16 C” whatever that means. I guess it stands for wind-chill. The wind like a knife – Jack the Ripper’s, slicing through your guts, blowing your cap off your head, flapping against the overcoat. Pushing you down the road, if you are in the right direction.

I wrap myself up for the walk to office. Last week it used to take me 40 minutes. Now it takes max 20 because the snow has been removed from the sidewalks and I can walk faster, without the risk of landing on my derriere.

I still have to wrap up. The thermals, the sweater, the overcoat, the scarf, the cap. The hood of the overcoat keeps flying off so I’ve got this tight-fitting woolen cap. And the face freezes, so I’ve wrapped my scarf around much of my face, leaving only my nose for the fresh air. The icy fresh air. Then the goggles, to protect myself from the glare. But the icy wind still bothers my eyes and they sting. They begin to water. Arre bhai, someone will think I am weeping. I dab my eyes. The hands freeze, so I put them quickly back into my overcoat pocket and continue walking.

Four Points Hotel to my right – one of those high-rise 5 star ones. This is the very spot where I have slipped and fallen twice. There is no snow today but I am not taking a chance. I wait for the lights, cross over to the other side and continue walking.

I see my reflection in the show-window. Hey, I look as though I am in disguise! Muffled, coated,hooded, unrecognizable. I feel like a gangster in a Bollywood film. Or a gumshoe, a sleuth in disguise, going down those mean streets (hardly mean, Sherbrooke is wide and busy) in search of hoodlums. But, I wonder, do gumshoes and hoodlums have running noses? My nose, which sticks out above the muffler, is frozen and dripping. That is the only uncovered part of me now. Perhaps they have some kind of a nose-cap that would keep it warm. Accessories for Canadian weather. But I haven’t heard of anything like it.

I am seriously thinking of using a hanky to make myself a nose-bag. I have thread-n-needle in my flat. Will stitch it up, hand it around my nose, suspended on my goggles. That would take care of the drip. A nose-bag. This is urgent because if I neglect it the consequences may be dire.

I have spotted many window awnings with icicles hanging from the edges. Stalactites and stalagmites. No, those are forms of sedimentation. What I see now are drops of water – rain and ice – reluctant to let go of the ledge, hardening into icicles. Like wind-chimes, clear, transparent, they would probably riing a chime if I strike them!

But, let me come back to reality! If my nose continues to drip unchecked I am afraid there will soon be an icicle from my nose-tip, too. So, where’s my hanky. And my sewing kit. Let me make myself a nice, comfortable, ingenious nose-bag!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


My apartment is on the 22nd floor. I would have cribbed had there not been three elevators in the lobby. Elevators for which one need not wait too long.
From my window I get a bird’s-eye view of Montreal. Not so great, really, because what I see is mainly snow-covered roof-tops. Snow, snow and snow everywhere. Only the main street ahead, Rue Sherbrooke, has been cleared. The rest don’t seem to matter for they are still clogged with snow. The pavements are white, too, several feet higher than the streets. Apparently, the snow from the streets has been shoveled on to the sidewalks. (That’s what made me slip and fall yesterday.)
Way ahead, I can see the horizon. The snow merging into the sky – just as the land had merged into the sea yesterday, from the plane. Somewhere down there is a streak of blue. That must be St Laurence River, so Mapquest tells me. One day, when the snow on the sidewalk melts, I will walk down there. One fine day.

This flat is somewhat bigger than the one I first went into – on Rue St. Urbaine. It has a separate kitchen (but nothing in it, other than a few pots and pans). A queen-sized bed, an easy chair, small dining table with two chairs. Some linen in the cupboard. Enough space for luggage. Free internet access. Not bad!
What I like best is being way up here, on top of the world.
“Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year...”

What I also like is the fact that the building has a gym, a sauna, and a pool. So whenever I feel the need for physical activity I can go down and work out. Great! I can do this so long the snow keeps me house-bound!
I shall have my time to myself here.
“And I shall have some peace [h]ere, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.”
(W.B. Yeats “Lake Isle of Innisfree”)

Sunday, March 16, 2008


“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!