My first clue to the contrary was when I tried to get into the driver’s seat – ambitious, considering I can’t drive even back at home – and Smita gently showed me around to the other side. Still, it took a long while of staring at the maple tree outside my window before I could coax out that “Oh wow, I am actually here in Canada!” feeling.
Canada, eclipsed as it is by a bossy neighbour, tends to have an unglamorous branding. And with those supposedly never-ending winters, who in their right mind would go? I myself was only visiting a beloved friend, something we had wanted to do for so long that when it finally happened, it didn’t matter even remotely which country it was.
Years ago I’d read Margaret Atwood’s description in Cat’s Eye, of Toronto as “a world-class city” and I remember thinking, “how wannabe is that!” So when Toronto began to unfold before me, I felt like Columbus discovering a new land.
Toronto is a multi-cultural city and the diversity is such that on a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum we saw children of every imaginable skin colour. Of twenty-five, only about two were white. Canada has welcomed immigrants over centuries, the biggest wave of which arrived in the late 1840s from Ireland, fleeing the Irish Potato Famine and numbering twice the Toronto population of the time.
Over the years, settlers from different European, Asian, African and South American countries carved out sections of the city for themselves. You can browse in the ubiquitous China Town, but also eat spanakopita in cafés next to Greek street signs just as easily as crisp fresh dosais in restaurants with large nameboards in Tamil. With so many different ethnic groups mingling easily, racism is really just interpersonal friction. There are infinite varieties of the English accent, with an Indian who grew up in Kampala speaking a quite different idiom from one who grew up in Trinidad. The immigrants I met were proudly, passionately Canadian, grateful to the country that had given them lives of comfort, opportunity and pleasant stimulation.
It was only in the early years of the Twentieth Century that citizens began to work actively towards the creation of a strong Canadian national identity. One of these was a community of landscape painters that came to be known as The Group of Seven, and Smita introduced me to their work at the National Gallery, later driving me into the country to visit the McMichael Collection, located in the woodland setting that inspired them, and even buying me a beautiful art book representing their work.
Toronto’s vibrant cultural life made me feel that under-hyped Toronto is surely one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Friends took me to the National Ballet of Toronto and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where the high-quality infrastructure and appreciative audience added to my experience of the performances.
Smita and I had always shared our books, right from the days when we both lived in Bandra and she would drop in to visit on her way back from college nearly every day. I now enjoyed discovering her favourite Canadian authors. Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright is told through letters and narrative and depicts the dramatic lives of two sisters who grew up in small-town Canada. One, a schoolteacher, remains a spinster, while the other becomes a radio star in New York. The Divine Ryans by Wayne Johnston is told by a young boy whose father has recently died and has the mixture of humour and tragedy characteristic of the Irish writers. No New Land by M.G. Vassanji is a hard-core immigrant story filled with struggle, humiliation, misunderstanding, alienation from offspring, and crisply told.
I knew I was in Toronto when, at the shortlist readings of the Griffin Poetry Prize at the MacMillan Theatre, Margaret Atwood was right behind Smita in the queue for the toilet.
Our weekend visit to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, happened to be on Doors Open, a day on which public buildings welcome visitors. So we dropped by at the Supreme Court, Houses of Parliament, and even the Governor General’s home. Security arrangements were in place but there was no trace of paranoia or hatred. This complete lack of fear was for me the most refreshing aspect of this country, and doubtless a consequence of the thanks-to-big-brother-you-can’t-see-me syndrome. The streets of Ottawa are wide and clean. Coming from a land of teeming millions, there arose within me a very loud question, namely: “Where IS everybody?” which made Smita laugh. Toronto by contrast can get crowded – but I found it a relaxed place with the screaming inner-city adrenalin absent.
On our last day we drove out to Niagara Falls where we enjoyed looking across the gorge and gloating at those standing on the American side, peering over but unable quite to see all that we could. As we headed home, Smita’s formidable, internationally-acknowledged organizational ability had two rainbows arranging themselves over the falls, and we rode into a magnificent pink-and-purple Toronto sunset, Lake Ontario rolling alongside, and the deep-throated Canadian genius Leonard Cohen belting out his soulful ballads all the way home.
parts of this first appeared as Steeped in a maple world in Sunday Mid-day on 6 Sep 2009