Reflections of a Transplanted Indian

I still remember the cold day in September when I arrived in this part of the world. As the plane (it was my first time on an airplane) slowly approached Saskatoon airport, I looked out the window with timidity and diffidence. It was well past the twilight hours. The descending nocturnal darkness had begun to embrace the earth below, and tiny dim dots of lights were sprouting all over the sprawling city like thousands of scattered fireflies. The view was like a scene straight out of a picture postcard. I felt as if I was about to land in a fairyland. To the pristine mind of a curious young man, just edged out of teens and set out in search of a western sheepskin and a bright future, this was definitely another world, far removed from the pervasive clutter and chaos he had just left behind. On that cold September evening, with a half empty suitcase in my right hand and US$8 in foreign exchange securely tucked away in the inside pocket of my jacket, I limped gingerly out of the airport into a world that I would soon find truly alien.

In the seemingly ordered monochromatic world of my new home, life did not just slide into perfectly etched grooves. It twisted and turned and wiggled long and hard before it could insinuate itself into a manageable alcove. The Promised Land of my dreams was far from being visible through the wilderness of recurrent despair and emotional ravages. This was 1968 when most people from the third world countries went to Europe, mainly the U.K. and Germany. North America didn’t see too many of us. To the local denizens, ensconced cozily in their sheltered cocoons, I was a novelty, a surprise arrival from another world. Their glaring and glowering eyes made me recoil with unease and discomfort, and an overwhelming homesickness became a new battle on hand. I longed to see Indian faces, but they were as rare as daffodils in a barren land. I pined to talk in my mother tongue, but the only ones I could talk to were the four walls of the poky little rooming house I lived in.

Back then, I would often awaken in the middle of the night sniffing whiffs of aroma of curries, biriyanis, samosas and sweets in my dreams, but alas my palate would have to remain unsatiated. There were no Indian restaurants anywhere around those days, and the Indian groceries were veritable dream finds for those of us in need to gratify culinary cravings.

Over the last forty years or so, Indian food, music, arts and the whole gamut of sundry other cultural pursuits have penetrated the American scene and have, in turn, morphed what once was an alien world into something that is not only not alien anymore but delightfully hospitable. Suffice it to say that we have changed, both America and I, in a way that was inconceivable on the day I emerged out of the Saskatoon airport into the sharp prairie winter.

The clatter of coins and the rustle of crisp greenbacks serve as no panacea for the emotional tug from friends and family stationed in the back of beyond across the seas. On days when gathering black clouds in the skies of Hill Country Texas slowly extinguish the diurnal light, and the leaves in the willows in my backyard dance in the gentle westerly wind heralding the imminent advent of rain, I still hunger for khichuri and bhajas as I hear the pitter-patter of the first rain drops on the roof of the pergola. On weekend mornings, an agonizing nostalgia overpowers me as I fondly remember the luchis, aloo bhajas and suji my mother used to make for her children’s breakfast eons ago. On those rare occasions when we are regaled with fabulous concerts by the eminent exponents of Indian music who travel thousands of miles to satiate our musical thirst, I remain unfulfilled as I hear the quiet refrains of Piloo, Shivaranjani, and Jayjayanti welling up in the deepest recesses of my subconscious long after the curtains have dropped for another protracted hiatus.

In the meantime, images from that fateful September evening forty years ago keep flashing by in my mind’s eye like the crawls on a silver screen. Now that my chase after wealth and fame is virtually over, I hear a quiet scream welling up inside me to tell the story of how it all began, how it has unfolded and how it has changed my life. I feel impelled to record for posterity a watershed in human history when we ceased to exist in our own little silos, and the national boundaries started to slowly melt away to facilitate the free flow of humanity across this little planet of ours we call home. As I sit alone in my solitary sanctuary a world away, my morning cup of coffee in my right hand and the chrysanthemums and lilacs in the backyard garden in full view through the living room windows, I cannot help but marvel at the uncoiling tale of a young man who, manipulated by some unseen magic, blundered almost penniless on a wondrous journey years ago and flirted with a kaleidoscope of experiences the unseen magic had hardly prepared him for.

Music Stilled

It was early 1985 in Toronto. My wife and I were late getting to the concert. We had to sit at the very back of an audience of 600 people. The faces on the stage were barely recognizable from where we were seated, but we managed to recognize all except one, and when he started to sing, I found myself in a trance and so did the rest of the audience. I had never seen him before. He was a new arrival in town.

I attended many of his house concerts shortly thereafter. He had a deep, resonant, and incredibly mellifluous voice. His renditions mesmerized me. I had never heard anything quite like it before. He rekindled my fading interest in music, and accepted me as one of his students. He taught me once a week. Each of his classes lasted until he thought he had given me enough for a day – typically two hours, sometimes three. He didn’t teach for money; he did this purely for the love of music. Over the years we became close friends.

After a few years, our professional lives separated us, and we lost contact with each other. In July of last year, we met again in Toronto after 15 years. In the meantime, his life had taken a whirlwind turn. Against the stark reality of a bald head, and a mechanical contraption in his throat that feebly attempted to help him communicate, his face adorned the same winsome smiles I had seen so many times in the years gone by. His wife told me he had recently undergone laryngectomy which led to the complete removal of his voice box. Chemo had usurped him of his luxuriant hair.

His music, the love of his life and his lifelong passion, was stilled forever.

The day after Christmas last year, in the dim light of a quiet North Carolina morning, he passed away, surrounded by family and friends. But he lives on with me in spirit through many of his rare recordings in my personal collections. Not long after I heard the news, I played his songs once again like so many times in the past, and I remembered in gratitude his generous gifts to me during the many hours he had spent with me sharing his precious and unusual talent.