BWS 09.11.2016: Pratap Reddy

pratap

Pratap Reddy moved to Canada from India in 2002. An underwriter by day and a writer by night, he writes short fiction about the agonies and the angst (on occasion the ecstasies) of new immigrants. He has completed a creative writing program from the Humber School for Writers. Pratap was awarded the Best Emerging Literary Artist prize from the Mississauga Arts Council, and has received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. His short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines in Canada, the USA and India. His collection Weather Permitting and Other Stories (Guernica Editions) was published in June 2016. He is currently working on a novel, and another collection.

Ahead of his November 9 visit to BWS, Pratap shares an excerpt from “Going West”, a story in Weather Permitting, and the book’s trailer, too!

“Going West” (excerpt)

When the airplane banked, I had my first glimpse of the CN Tower, rising like an upended middle-finger. I was immigrating to Canada, and the huge butterflies in my stomach were only growing bigger.

The aircraft swooped down, and landing with a thud, raced down the runway hell for leather. As though having thought better of it, the plane slowed down and eventually came to a stop. Soon afterwards some of the passengers shot up like jack-rabbits as usual and dashed to the exit, clogging the aisles. I waited for the crush to subside before I got up from my seat and pulled out my hand luggage from the overhead rack. Dragging the bag after me, and balancing a rather capacious coat on my arm, I sidled out of the plane. I clutched the coat – the thickest I could buy in India – as if it were some sort of talisman that would protect me from Canada’s notorious cold.

I shuffled along what seemed like an endless corridor towards the immigration check. Other passengers, with tired, bored expressions, sped past me, standing on a moving walkway. Being unused to a travelator, I gave it a wide berth not wanting to break a leg on my first day in Canada.

I waited in a cavernous hall with a planeload of landed immigrants – men, women and their cranky children. When my number was called I entered a small cell. The border official took my Indian passport and the snot-green landing paper, and checked every line in them, periodically looking up to examine my face. What with 9/11 and all, I was half-expecting him to whip out a pair of handcuffs and slap them onto my wrists. But he was more interested in the ‘proof of funds’ I had brought with me. Satisfied with the loot, he said: “Welcome to Canada!”

At baggage carousel, I was seized with a paroxysm of alarm when my suitcases refused to show up on conveyor belt. When I cased the area around the carousel, much to my relief, I saw my luggage stacked safely on one side. Not having Canadian change on me, I accepted a coin – reluctantly yet thankfully – from a fellow passenger to get myself a baggage trolley.

In the lobby of Pearson International Airport, standing like lighthouse, I swept my gaze in a semicircle over the multicultural collection of faces of people waiting for their near and dear to emerge. A few of them had surgical masks tied to their faces, I noticed with concern. Praful Patel, the owner of the guesthouse I’d be staying at, had promised to receive me – for a fee, of course. There was a fair sprinkling of south Asians, but I managed to lock on to his unsure, unmasked, half-smiling face. He looked older than in the JPEG image he had sent me by email.

A few days before leaving for Canada, I had surfed the Internet searching for some sort of accommodation that wouldn’t be too expensive. Checking into a hotel was out of question. As to friends and relatives in Canada, I had none. On the web I found a not so flattering review of the Patel guesthouse. It was a pension-like set up where immigrants could avail themselves of its frugal hospitality without getting gouged. I’m not the type to give much credence to all the reviews one encounters on the net, so I booked myself a spot – I was thankful to have an inexpensive place to go to, straight from the airport.

Praful extended his hand and said, “Welcome to Canada. Did you have a pleasant journey?”

I nodded – though I wouldn’t have called travelling twenty thousand miles in 24 hours with two extended layovers and not much sleep, pleasant. I took his hand nervously. The newspapers in India were full of stories of a dreaded disease called SARS that was rampant in Canada.

Praful took control of the trolley and we walked to the parking lot. The spring evening was bright but it still had a nip to it – with a shiver running down my back, I draped my thick coat loosely over my shoulders and hugged it like a shawl. Praful who was dressed in a golf shirt and shorts, seemed impervious to the weather. Once the suitcases were stowed in the boot I went around and stood on what I thought was the passenger side. Praful too materialized on the same side.

“Sorry!” I said. “I forgot you drive on the wrong side in this country!”

“No problem. There are many things in this country which are the exact opposite of what you find in India.” He added sagely: “You’ll get used to them.”

As Praful steered the car through the enormous parking lot that seemed to be deliberately laid out as a maze, I was struck by the multiplicity of roads and flyovers snaking out of the airport, and the sheer number of automobiles swarming over them. Even though it was only dusk then, all the cars had their lights turned on. Ahead, the procession of red tail lights moved steadily as if keeping time to an unseen metronome. Back home, I was used to seeing traffic, composed of cars, buses, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws and an occasional cow or two – rushing harum-scarum along the roads.

Praful played Bollywood songs for my benefit during the twenty minute drive to his semi- detached house in Mississauga, a suburb to the west of Toronto. The Patels ran their guesthouse out of this property.

“Every Sunday they show a Hindi film on TV,” he said. “But if you have a satellite dish, there’s no limit to how many Indian films you can see! Do you like Hindi films?”

“No,” I said. I didn’t mean to offend him. In India I had watched Hollywood films in regular theatres, and enjoyed old French cinema shown at special screenings even more.

“Oh!” said Praful, and added hurriedly: “Should I switch off the music?”

“No, don’t!” I said. “I do like Hindi film music however.”

The houses on the street he lived had a uniform appearance with chocolate brown facades and lawns the size of living room carpets. Praful taxied the car close to the front door. Between the two of us, we managed to move the oversized suitcases into the lobby. When I pushed open the front door which was left unlocked, I was at once assailed by the fug of Indian cooking. I had not experienced such a powerful bouquet even in India where a billion mouths had to be fed daily.

A plump middle-aged woman, with close-cropped hair and dressed in shirt and pants, came forward and said: “I’m Mrs. Patel. Welcome to Canada.”

All the Mrs. Patels I had met hitherto had worn saris, even if wrong way round, Gujju style. Mrs Patel unwittingly delivered the first jolt of culture shock to an immigrant from India. Maybe, reading the astonishment on my face, and perhaps wanting to calm me, she said hurriedly: “I’ll make some chai for you. Sit down and relax.”

No sooner she went into the kitchen than a man came down the large wooden staircase that seemed to dominate the living room area. He was of medium height and light-skinned.

Praful introduced us: “Gahlot meet our new guest. He’s from Hyderabad.”

“Welcome to Canada,” Gahlot said without enthusiasm, and added: “I want to speak to Falguni.”

The man went into the kitchen and at once started remonstrating with Mrs. Patel. I could hear the argument over the timpani of the kitchen utensils.

“Falguni, why should I pay for the lock?”

“Because you’ve lost the key!”

“I only lost the key, not the lock!”

“Yeah, but…”

Praful said: “Come on, I’ll take you to your room.”

As we climbed up the stairs, lugging my suitcases, Praful cautioned me, using only gestures, to tread quietly. I noticed then that unlike back home, staircases and floors in Canadian homes were made of wood which made a lot of noise as you walked over them.

The room upstairs was little more than a box, and had two cots set at right angles. I could make out the spoor of the other occupant: a shirt hanging on the back of chair, a used coffee mug on a table, the odour of unwashed socks.

It was getting dark, so I reached out my hand and tried to switch on the light. I found the toggle switch already at ‘on’ position.

“Aren’t the lights working?” I asked.

Switching on the light, Praful said, “You must push it up to put on the light.”

In India the electrical switches operated in the opposite way. It was at this moment, standing awash in the yellow light of low wattage, that it dawned on me that I had left my own country for good and immigrated to a land about which I knew so very little. Within the last two hours I had been welcomed to Canada on four occasions, with varying degrees of warmth. Yet I felt a wave of homesickness rising in my innards, bitter as bile.

Pratap Reddy visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Louise Bak, Olive Senior, Bänoo Zan and a special guest talk, “Getting Past Page One: How to Make Sure a Publisher Will Read Your Manuscript”, by HarperCollins Canada Children’s and Young Adult Editor Suzanne Sutherland.

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