The South Asian Community

By: M.H.K. Qureshi

From: Polyphony Spring/Summer 1984
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

People from the Indian subcontinent started coming to Canada in the late sixties. In the beginning they did not come directly from India or Pakistan but, instead, were redirected from either the United States or Great Britain. Basically, this group was comprised of the professional class. The lure to come here was, of course, economic-better opportunities for professional growth, a better standard of living, better educational facilities for children and more material comforts. Furthermore, North American life was found to be culturally vibrant and socially free and independent, not visibly riddled with bureaucratic corruption, political lethargy, bribery, chronic lack of food, unemployment, religious riots, class struggle, caste creed and linguistic animosities as were commonplace in the subcontinent.

So Indians and Pakistanis made their way to Canada. For many it was a risky adventure, and for a few it proved to be a total disappointment. But even those who clenched their teeth in the face of the inhospitable winter conditions and dug in their heels to face the uncertainties soon learned that most of their energies were being spent in just settling down. Worse still, there was a realization that they were not part and parcel of the mainstream, and they were too few and too heterogeneous a group to come together and be heard by the majority. With the coming of Asians from Uganda, numbers and visibility increased as did a traditional hostility from the white majority groups. It soon developed into racial strife and general illwill. Psychologically, it was very unsettling. The talk of the day was nothing but the fear of the Paki-bashing phenomenon. It made many newcomers depressed and schizophrenic. The big question was how could one become Canadian when the hosts were not ready to accept them as Canadians. Indians and Pakistanis, generally a diversified and divided group, agreed on one point; that all Canadians, not just a lunatic fringe as politicians, do-gooders and government bureaucrats preferred to think, one and all, were racists.

Since most South Asian immigrants were professionals or white-collar workers, and because of their occupational preferences back home, they thronged to join the civil service cadres. There they believe they have met with a hostile bureaucracy at all three levels of government, and they have grudgingly come to terms with the reality of the situation. If there were disappointments, there were also reasons to build hope. If they themselves did not receive recognition and could not achieve parity, their children had no such difficulty. Going through the same school system and being brought up here, the children were quite at home. They spoke Canadian English and showed no preference for Indo-Pakistani food or dress. Canadian society has apparently accepted them, and they appear to be acculturating rapidly.

For the first generation of immigrants, problems of adjustment included not just the encounters with prejudice, but their own emotional responses to a new land, its climate and culture, as well as its moral and social systems. Above all there was the issue of how immigrants felt about the retention of their religious and cultural identity, their heritage and their language. Since those from the subcontinent and East Africa had little religious and ethnocultural homogeneity, it was natural that the issue of cultural retention would be vexed and complicated in Toronto.

So what aspects of identity should one retain from the subcontinent mosaic and yet become an integral part of a new mosaic? A New Delhi Muslim most probably would opt for his religious Islamic faith and perhaps his language. His options would have no meaning for a Maharashtrian, a Tamil-speaking Hindu, or even a Bangladeshi. It is likely that, while language and faith may particularize South Asian immigrant life, active co-operation in areas of economic matters and broad cultural activities can be achieved. Divisive factors remain and result in factionalism. Those Pakistanis and Indians who evoke the homeland too much also bring to Canada some of its religious, sectional and ethnic strife. In short, as a poet once said, "Home is the final trap / That lurks for you in many a wily shape."

During the last twenty years more than 100,000 people of East Indian origin came to Canada. They are not all professionals as was the case in the beginning. Now you will find men and women who run businesses, manage restaurants offering Indian and Pakistani cuisine, operate movie theatres and radio shows.

Indians do not congregate in any particular residential areas, neither do they cluster in one trade, profession, nor business. However, in any uncertain situation, fate often plays strange tricks. The immigrant community provides innumerable examples of the disruption caused by migration. Engineers, successful in their land of origin, have been forced to work as watchmen in Toronto. Barbers have become radio personalities. Circumstances have forced some highly educated people to accept humble jobs. The interesting result of this human tragedy was that people had to adjust to new roles and status, and that has lessened the significance of previous station in the social structure or caste among the groups.

The Indian/Pakistani mind seeks entertainment in culture and even through religious institutions. The emphasis on entertainment has several causes. First it attracts and draws people otherwise lost to the group. Second, it teaches culture and religion, especially to the Canadian-born. Third, it provides opportunity for people of different Indian backgrounds to come together in this new environment. Cultural and religious entertainment has immensely benefited these newcomers. It has reincarnated what had died among their Canadian-born offspring. For the older generation, living on memories, developing guilty consciences about their relatively easy life here compared to that of their compatriots at home and their inability to serve their old, dying parents, the revival of the Indian cultural scene provides a welcome relief. Instead of sitting alone, or in the company of like-minded friends, grumbling, complaining and cursing, they were able to get out and participate.

The Indian and Pakistani community would have felt more comfortable in Canada if severe immigration restrictions had not come into effect, cruelly keeping brothers, sisters and other family members from joining their immediate families in Canada. Even with such a small community, people of the Indian subcontinent have been able to revive and create their own respective sub-cultures, religious denominations and congregations. Many societies sprang up to cater to the cultural needs of the people. Culture to an average Indian, especially housewives, includes going to movies, visiting Chandni Chowk and the East Indian shopping area on Gerrard Street to chew on "paan", or to taste the Indian sweets and relishes.

Indian films and actors have traditionally enjoyed a mass following. Singers too have many followers. Most of them have visited North America and have performed here. In fact, it has become an annual summer event to have such performances in North American cities. There are also people who take their religion very seriously, and many Indians and Pakistanis, enthused with an evangelical spirit, seek religious experts of every variety and form to keep religion alive among the immigrants. Many religious schools have been organised to impart sacred teachings to the children ; they follow the Canadian tradition of Sunday schools.

Many immigrants are Urdu speaking and heirs to a 250-year-old tradition of arranging sessions for poetry recitations. This is a phenomenon which is really unique. It is a literary, cultural event which is also exceedingly entertaining. If a proper rapport is established between the audience and the poets, a very satisfying and intellectually invigorating session takes place. Urdu-speaking people come from India, Pakistan, England, the Middle East and Africa. Great enthusiasm is found among them for such poetry reading. In Toronto an Urdu society is being formed which has been doing exemplary work in bringing poets to such gatherings from India , Pakistan and the United Kingdom, as well as from the United States and elsewhere in Canada. Presently, Urdu poetry, following the trend of the time, deals with modern-day problems, issues and their effects on the individual in social and psychological terms. Of course, perennial themes of love and courtship are also favourite subjects. Such poetry reading sessions are musical concerts, evangelical sermons, cultural shows and a serious literary exercise all rolled into one emotionally charged performance.

As things stand now, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent feel that they have made a niche for themselves and have no reservation about being Canadians. They are satisfied in many ways, but are also a bit apprehensive. The feeling of being so few, of being cut off from blood relatives, still imparts a sense of isolation. This is not conductive to the growth and natural blooming of their social and cultural heritage. If the children born and raised here do not encounter the same difficulties and prejudice that the first generation did, then it can easily be predicted that, except for their brownish skin, they will become North American in every way. Their acceptance of Canada as a homeland is already a fact.

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