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T. Sher Singh Headshot

A Country Called Canada

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Close to the end of the 1960s, my parents had started to think it was time to move again.

Having lost their home and their homeland -- Punjab -- to the great man-made tragedy of the Partition in 1947, and having fled to and settled down in a distant and alien land, far from the conflagration, they viewed the approaching dark clouds on the horizon with trepidation.

All their children -- five of us -- had been born in their new, adopted home in the City of Patna, in Bihar, India. And through long and weary days and nights, they had established a decent business and a loving home amidst a comfortable middle-class life-style.

But religious chauvinism and fundamentalism had begun to rear its ugly head again. In a newly created India, Sikhs were still but a 2 percent minority in a country now peopled by an 80 percent Hindu majority.

A nation-wide movement had begun to remove all public usage of the English language, and replace it with a sanskritized version of Hindi.

The loyalties of non-Hindu minorities were being questioned; the new slogan was that they all needed to be 'Indianized'. Or else ...!

And regional parties had begun to ask for an ethnic cleansing of their regions. "Bihar," they said, "is for Biharis!" Similarly: "Bengal for Bengalis!" "Gujarat for Gujaratis!" "Maharashtra for Marathis ...!" And so on ...

Being Sikhs, we were automatically labelled Punjabis, even though my siblings and I had been born in Bihar and knew no other home.

Having been refugees once already, my parents dreaded the possibilities and began to scratch their heads, wondering if it was time to head north to the part of the Punjabi hinterland which was still left in India -- the prime area, since the Partition of Punjab, now lost to Pakistan.

While mulling over the idea, my parents decided to travel around the globe and check out the options. Over the course of seven months, they headed westwards and completed a full circle, visiting more than 40 countries, mostly in the northern hemisphere.

Soon after they returned, our extended family -- including close relatives such as my father's brothers and their families -- made a quick decision. It was time to move!

They chose Canada.

I had completed my two-year M.A. English program by now, but couldn't sink my teeth in to get my degree: the university exams were being postponed, over and over again, weeks and months at a time, due to street protests and mob rule.

Not a problem. My siblings and I could pick up on our education in our new homeland!

A number of countries had looked appealing and were initially considered.

Japan won the top grade amongst all the lands my parents had visited. But there were language issues. And it was not conducive to immigration.

The U.S. was equally appealing, but its crime-rate was bothersome.

They had even considered Australia and Brazil as possible options, but each lost out for one reason or the other.

Europe was attractive, but language and racial barriers were a turn-off.

Canada?

Everything about it was marveilleaux!

The scenic beauty. It was new and appeared poised to take off. It was immigrant friendly -- they were the Trudeau years! It was tolerant of diversity. Comfortable with a multi-faith, multi-cultural society.

Sure, it was bilingual -- English and French. We were already fluent in English, and having to learn another language -- even though we already knew three, and several dialects -- could only be a plus.

So, we pulled up our roots, and moved to Canada. In 1971.

Not a day has gone by since then that we haven't felt blessed that we not only had the good fortune -- which included the incredible foresight shown by my parents -- to leave India on time, before it sank dramatically into a mire of corruption, violence and fundamentalism, but also the gift of a new home in, of all places, Canada!

There hasn't been a moment of regret, ever, not once, or of doubt, not even when the going got tough ... each one of us will readily confess to you.

Both my father and mother originally hailed from an area that straddled both Punjab and Kashmir. Hence, Dad knew of, and often cited the famous line uttered by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir when he first saw Kashmir: "If there is a heaven on earth, it's here, it's here, it's here."

It didn't take us long for him to proclaim, and all of us agreed whole-heartedly, that the words were more aptly suited to Canada.

Kashmir had long since been turned into shambles, with India warring with Pakistan over it, the departing Brits having blotched the division of the Raj when they had left the subcontinent with unseemly haste.

Sure, Canada wasn't perfect. It had its fair share of challenges, and we had indeed felt the brunt of many of them as we struggled, particularly in the early years.

But not a day went by when we didn't feel, deep in our heart of hearts, that this was as close to heaven as you can get on earth.

"If" is the operative word, Dad would remind us, "IF there is a heaven on earth ... THEN, it is here ...!"

As Sikhs we don't believe in a physical 'heaven' in the hereafter. We are a pragmatic people with a faith embedded in the present. The faith celebrates the worldly while aspiring to spiritual heights. It strives for perfection in THIS life. ['Sikh' literally means 'learner'.]

Hence, Canada, with all its warts and all, but with its lode of gifts, fits the bill perfectly.

I remember when, two decades after we made Canada our home, Dad was diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was that he had but six months more to live. Gathered around his hospital bed, we asked him -- once the dust was settled -- what he'd like to do with the time he had left. We were eager to fulfill his wishes, no matter what he wanted.

Did he want to visit Patna again, back in India where all his children were born and where he had grown his wings?

Did he want to see his village called Begham (literally, 'a place without sorrow') where he was born and grew up, that he never saw again having fled it during Partition almost half a century earlier?

Would he want to visit his only surviving sibling who had shown better sense than the rest of the family by moving early on to warmer climes -- in Florida?

Was there any other place in the world he would rather be, or visit for the 'last time'?

It took him no more than a few seconds to reply.

"Here," he said, "here in Toronto. In Canada. This is home. Why would I want to be any where else, pray?"

Emperor Jehangir couldn't have said it better.

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Have a Happy Canada Day ... July the First!