Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Finding Ganga in the Assiniboine

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Immigrants who arrive in a new country are also emigrants who have made a decision to leave their native country. The decision to leave could stem from a combination of various and varied factors. Some come to seek better financial opportunities, others to join families or husbands who came here earlier, still others fleeing a war-torn country.

For some, like me, and thousands of others who are young and optimistic, the decision was made out of a sense of adventure, that the world was there for the taking.

The world had started contracting even then -- 45 years ago -- and the Prairies, of which I had heard only in geography school texts as the "wheat granary of the world" were next door to the United States, which I knew well, having studied there for two years. I had gone back to India thinking I would live there happily ever after. But the larger world beckoned, and the regional and caste politics in the environment where my husband and I were employed played a part in our decision to emigrate.

Trying to move away from workplace conflicts and knowing of the racial conflicts in the U.S., we chose Canada.

Why Winnipeg? A story I love to narrate is that my husband had job offers from Edmonton and Winnipeg, and that we took a quick look at the map, decided that since Winnipeg is farther south than Edmonton it would be warmer, and so chose Winnipeg. Irony works in strange ways.

At the time, we thought we would be here for a few years and then go someplace else, for we were young and the world was there for the taking. We bought a house, that had a few features we did not like but, again, we thought it was just our first house, we would move into another soon enough. Here we are, more than 40 years later, still in Winnipeg, still in the same house.

That is my story, but it is also the story of many in my generation, professionals with a high level of education, who immigrated to Canada between 1965 and 1980. We belong to the first generation of the second wave of immigration from India, the first wave being between 1890 and 1915, when about 5,000 Indians landed in Canada, mainly on the west coast. The long gap between the two generations was due to Canada's doors being closed to immigrants, named the yellow plague and the brown peril, from Asia.

There were fewer than 100 people from India in Winnipeg in the mid-1960s, including students. When we arrived, if there was any latent racism we were too naïve to be aware of it. We, the women, wore Indian costumes at all times, and experienced a certain level of exoticisation that was both annoying and flattering.

Immigrants do not, and do not need to, let go of one country when they immigrate to another. They need to make positive connections between the two homelands, what I call finding Ganga in the Assiniboine.

In 1978, I initiated the first organized dance courses in Bharata Natyam and we staged a dance drama in 1981. I wrote the script for it around the dance repertoire the 20 girls, at three levels of training, had mastered. Titled Sita's Promise, it has Rama, Sita and Lakshmana of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, find a wounded arctic tern in their hermitage and bring it back to its home in Canada. Here Sita dances with native children and promises to come again, "I through my people will surely come again and we shall (sing and dance) with all the children of the world that make this their home."

Things were to change for the next generation of Indo-Canadians to arrive in the 1980s and 1990s. They had to jump through more hoops than we had to. Accreditation became a serious problem. The type of immigrants also changed as more came to fill other kinds of jobs than the ones we had. Family reunification policies brought many seniors as sponsored immigrants.

Early in our stay, our landlord took us to a campground for a weekend, where there were many Manitobans of German origin, and many of the seniors were barely fluent in English because they didn't need to be -- they could get along fine knowing only German. Elderly Indo-Canadians who immigrated and stay with their adult children also have found they don't need to speak either of the official languages of Canada. One tends not to tackle challenges that are not essential for survival. I know. After learning just enough French to pass my Ph.D. requirements, I have forgotten all my French. Merci beaucoup. But I did send my daughter to a French school!

A third of my generation still lives in Winnipeg. Others have left Manitoba for other cities for other jobs, or to spend their senior years living closer to their children who are elsewhere, and many have passed on. The children of my generation, now in their 40s, are generally doing extremely well in their chosen fields.

Today, the Indo-Canadian community in Winnipeg is thriving, with its fair share of temples, gurudwaras and mosques, while Christians go to mainstream churches. We have professionals, politicians, entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers. There are spice stores and restaurants all over the city; convenience stores, driving schools and gas bars run by us.

And we have our fair share of law-breakers too I am sure. We are Canadians, eh!


Uma Parameswaran is a retired professor of English and a writer. Her two most recent books are: C.V. Raman: A Biography and A Cycle of the Moon: A Novel. She has a blogsite

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J6

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