How Exotic We Are

Shimla view of Bharari and surroundings © Nilambri Ghai

Mount Everest: She was a mother hen and the other

mountains were chicks under her wings.

Tenzing Norgay

Shimla was where I wanted to be, like nowhere else in the northwest Himalayas where the houses stood on precipices, with terraced slopes hundreds of feet high and indeed, where the former Viceroy had lived. Then everything had the tenor of the air people breathed, the British with Tudorbethan and neo-gothic architecture. How much more colonial?

The British would leave Delhi’s summer heat to be in the more agreeable climate of the place called the “Queen of the Hills”: all in my mind’s eye and constant reverie. Mahatma Gandhi, frail-looking but resolute, trudging up a precipitous slope, his mountain-climbing experience put to the test as he demanded India’s freedom. More images I drummed up: Gandhi, unlike a youthful Nehru in his jaunts uphill, then downhill, in Kashmir. Maybe what my grandparents vaguely, or subliminally, thought about.

The Himalayan mountains loomed higher, and I imagined the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, humming a mantra at the top of Everest, Chomolungma – “Mother goddess of the universe” – as he heaved in the cold air, then put chocolate in the snow as a tribute to the gods. Edmund Hillary, his climbing partner, simply buried a crucifix given to him by an English priest, and after paying his respects emptied his bladder before heading back down. Odd, I also imagined going on the Franklin Expedition to find a Northwest Passage. “How long?” asked an affable local.

“How long?”  

“You… living in Canada?”

The province-state of Himachal Pradesh being distinctive, and Her Excellency Rama Devi, the Governor on her dais at the head table at this special event, looking askance at me: she, almost like the goddess Shyamala Devi, incarnation of Kali, I conjured. Now rumour began to spread about a Canadian member of Parliament who would soon visit Shimla as a special guest, and you see, the locals – more than just tribals – were eager to meet her. Not meet me? Yes, here where the mountains are older than time itself. Go on, tell everyone. Hillary and Tenzing looking down at me!  

The Canadian member of Parliament arrived and the locals, not unexpectedly, quickly gathered around her; they listened as she gave advice on rural development. Looking from her dais, Governor Rama Devi yawned, seeming bored. But now everyone wanted to learn about Canada, if not Ottawa… where I also lived. Mrs. V., as I called her – the Canadian member of Parliament – was a little impatient, but a busybody, ah. Governor Rama Devi frowned. Now really, at me?  

I grew more inward or introspective, thinking of Ottawa’s Sandy Hill district where I lived for years – a place with embassies, high commissions and consulates close to the Rideau and Ottawa rivers at the juncture of Range Road – not far from the stately Parliament Hill. Yes, geography as destiny was ingrained in me; but now I was here in Shimla, and maybe I wanted to be an insider.

Mrs. V. looked at me intently, her questions almost audible. Who are you? Now going back to where you came from?

She with porcelain skin seemed effortlessly elegant in a blue dress. She nattered on about “development” to the locals, and I was in the audience, almost in disguise because of my ethnic self, do you know? Mountains, slopes, terraces all around, and the Kali-Bari and Hanuman temples amidst bridges and tunnels with monkeys ubiquitous. Mrs. V. berated or hectored her audience about India’s “developmental problems.” Titters. Others fawned. Canadian immigration… somewhere in the making with new possibilities. Indians being peripatetic, or just opportunists. Mrs. V. was undeterred. What could India’s teeming millions learn from her? About India taking advantage of Canadian nuclear technology three decades earlier?   

She waxed on about Canada’s open immigration policy and about “our” vaunted multiculturalism policy. It was an enviable place to live, the cold North… No other nation in the world was so generous in welcoming immigrants. Mrs. V.’s audience applauded.

I casually reminisced about maundering along Ottawa’s Strathcona Park and observing new or old immigrants – some in their traditional garb, like the hijab – or burqa-wearing women and those with the shalwar, looking elegant. Yes, here where new Canadians from Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia) thrived; and others with their noticeable Russian accents, moving about in desultory ease, or with hurriedness, you see. In the mix was the sound of Jamaican patois. A tabla drum beat rhythmically amongst the poplar and maple trees. 

But I was now here observing Mrs. V. in Shimla holding her audience in thrall, it seemed. Governor Rama Devi again made eye contact… with me. Dozens lining up before the Canadian High Commission office in Delhi, turbaned Sikhs mostly, whom I’d earlier noted in my own roundabout. Indeed, Sikhs were now visibly present in Canadian cities like Brampton and Toronto in Central Canada, and Surrey and Burnaby on the West Coast. Ever heard of the Komagata Maru incident?

Instinctively I blinked because Mrs. V. focused her gaze on me.

Maybe I denied being a local – but not a tribal. “Tell us more about Canada,” urged someone from her audience, in a voice like my own, but demurring. See, Mrs. V. had travelled from Chandigarh to Shimla, but did not take the picturesque Kalka-Shimla Railway line.  

“Our new immigrants are proud to become Canadians,” she proclaimed with pride, not off-putting but welcoming. “Like we’re proud to be Indians here?” someone rattled back.

“With Nehru and Gandhi’s Congress Party and Vande mataram, and our country being the largest democracy in the world,” snorted another.

“We’re a special people with our spirituality,” boasted yet another. 

“We’re not like the Chinese chafing under godless Communism. Ask the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala,” cried someone else with Indian prowess. And laughter followed. Mrs. V. looked askance at this speaker, a smallish man with a large moustache overtaking his face.

“Is India still non-aligned?” she shot back.

But came a quick retort: “Indians love the United States of America, ha-ha.”

Mrs. V. went on about hemispheric North America. Another questioner seemed undismayed: “What is your background, Mrs. V.? Were you born in Britain, which is why you live in British Columbia?”

Mrs. V. talked about the importance of the Queen and the monarchy as an enduring institution. Governor Rama Devi discreetly whispered to her liveried attendants, including the one whom I’d earlier asked, too innocently, “Have you ever been to the Himalayas?” Irritably he’d shot back: “We are in the Himalayas.” Norgay and Hillary, watch out!

Mrs. V. talked about Canada’s Arctic weather, like regular winter fare. Maybe she now wanted to intimidate the potential new immigrants, Canada needing only a hardy stock, not mystics or ascetics. An image of Canadians joyfully skating in winter along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the longest skating rink in the world, came back to me. 

Another questioner hurled: “Is not seal-hunting a regular past-time in Canada?” And “Why are Eskimo people meat-eaters, not veg people like Hindus?”

Mrs. V. flicked her eyes… at me. Maybe I was setting up each new questioner. And Governor Rama Devi’s press release I’d glossed over: about India having more than 60 million tribespeople, Dalits among them, like the once-popular Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen.

Mrs. V. kept an unwavering gaze on me, yes. “Who are you?”  

Really, me?

“Yes, you.”

Governor Rama Devi sighed. Indian forebears I had come to meet, make no mistake about it. Shimla’s precipices, slopes, terraces and Tudorbethan and neo-gothic architecture in my line of vision. I conjured up more. Earlier I’d looked at a large sign posted at a derelict-looking train-station, with the words Life is not worth living. Immediately I recreated my forebears being brought to sugar plantations in faraway Guyana and Trinidad, like escape points. History’s recurring imagery – which Mrs. V. inspired me to think more about. Governor Rama Devi once more cast her eyes around.

Mrs. V. grew sullen as she self-consciously shifted her gaze to everyone, but to no one really. My mind went back to Ottawa – my own “hometown” I started believing. Here I come. Welcome new immigrants, the newcomers gathering at the park benches in Sandy Hill and boasting about their ethnic pride. Somalis in groups of five or ten, splendid in their native garb I often looked at. Proud immigrants all. Where was I actually?

I stood my ground. Mrs. V. grew incorrigible in her style. As Governor Rama Devi forced a smile… maybe at me. Imagining, believing, with more to come and expectancy in the air.   


“Why are you really here?” she asked. My quick answer: “I’m here because I belong” – the words forced their way out. Then, almost haughtily, Mrs. V. came back at me: “Are you really Indian?”

“I am.” 

Yes, she was a determined British Columbian who’d traipsed round Delhi’s streets wearing a mask because of the pollution. But Mrs. V. was bent on getting to Shimla, like her appointed or destined place. Harder she inhaled, as she suffered from asthma.  Another questioner’s hand shot up: “Why can’t Canada help us?”

“To do what really?” Mrs. V. replied testily.

The autorickshaws – phutt-phutt – emitting diesel fumes every minute and hour of the day, were images that I harboured or internalized. Mrs. V.’s ecological sense affronted. Go on, tell them!  Another local said that during the Raj, the British had never made plans for a subway system. “No proper long-term planning was done to deal with India’s growing millions… and now the traffic jams.” Gridlock was everywhere, yes.

Mrs. V. instinctively twisted her lips, and maybe she really came to India to explore her inner consciousness – same as the Beatles did in Rishikesh years earlier. Now she looked at me suspiciously because of self-awareness. I made a face, awkward or unwary… as I was struggling with my internal doubt. “Does India make things groovy for you?” rasped someone else.

Mrs. V. forced a laugh, then explained how things were done in Canada – always with a spirit of compromise between the two founding peoples, the English and French. And it was how it must be done between Hindus and Muslims in India. Now India would allow Mrs. V. to have a real out-of-body experience after she bathed in the Ganges River in Varanasi, right? The Kumbh Mela, with naked nagas walking around, as she looked back at them in a droll way… and she might have also figured they had the devil in them, in a moment of whimsy. Now, devilry expunged, because she offered help from Canada. With my own fantasy I jostled among the crowds, hoping to immerse myself in the holy rivers – the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati. Watch me!

Mrs. V. went on to emphasize Peace, Order and Good Government – like Canada’s holy grail. “Now let India aim for stability, better health care and social security,” she exhorted. Immediately I moved closer to her. Governor Rama Devi’s liveried attendants looked at me askance. Really, you?

Yes, me!

Shimla’s cool air I again inhaled, but now with discomfort. Mrs. V. was assisting me to come to grips with myself. Canadian, yes. Nothing else, no other ancestry in my own individuality, I thought. I sighed hard. Stragglers or others maundering along Ottawa’s Strathcona Park came back to me, people truly proud of themselves, some wishing to be seen as chic in their self-styled Canadian mannerisms. More nostalgia gripped me. I breathed in hard, taking in one long breath. What else is to come? What new territory in the making? Mrs. V. now grew distant, or aloof. Stasis, I felt. Yes!

Shimla view © Nilambri Ghai


I contrived sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery in Parliament in Ottawa where I’d watched Mrs. V. in her familiar style and manner during “Question Period.” Imagine the Shimla crowd now with her, like her special fan base. New immigrants all! “We’re really in the Himalayas,” I hissed back, imitating the liveried attendant I’d earlier encountered.  Governor Rama Devi twisted her lips.   

“We mustn’t lose sight of the issues,” Mrs. V. remarked to her Parliamentary colleagues, insisting on international cooperation and climate change to protect our eco-system.  Then she went on about how she’d longed to come to India as a young girl – to Rudyard Kipling’s India, really, for she’d always carried Kipling’s iconic poem “If” in her bosom ever since she was a young schoolgirl. Did I know?

And Mrs. V. never really liked living in Ottawa because of the summer’s humidity – never like how I felt in July and August, for I would regularly go to the Sandy Hill Park to watch ducks, seagulls and the occasional blue heron on a slab of stone in the Rideau River. Yes, a New Democratic Party member Mrs. V. was, but she never liked being in Parliament, though admittedly she enjoyed the heckling during “Question Period.” Peace, Order and Good Government, sure. 

Indeed, she much preferred travelling the world to see how the “other” half lived. You see, she hoped to become a genuine travel writer one day, and no doubt wanted to write the most authentic book about India. Imagine Governor Rama Devi reading such a book after it had been reviewed in The Hindu newspaper – then soon after, the book becoming a bestseller and being read by thousands of Sikhs all eager to know more from Mrs. V. about the Komagata Maru incident that occurred in British Columbia a century ago. Eyes lit up once more!

“Do you want to become Prime Minister of Canada, a female as you are – like our Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India?” asked another questioner. Never mind the State of Emergency under Mrs. Gandhi’s rule. Again, Governor Rama Devi lifted her head. I simply wrestled with the image of goddess Shyamala Devi and longed for my own spiritual ease. The Himalayan mountains around loomed higher, as if I were now on another planet.

Odd, I also wanted the mountains to be close to the northern Canadian capital city I called home. Not really born in South America, are you? See, I contemplated Mrs. V. asking me to come back with her to the Canadian Parliament… to be with her new immigrant supporters who now listened intensely to the raucous voices expressing political outrage – about a proposed new Canadian immigration policy that was not NDP-progressive enough.

Mrs. V. would make her last-ditch effort, urging Canadians to overcome ethnic and religious bigotry. Black and brown lives mattered. But some Opposition members in Parliament hooted. Then came Mrs. V.’s trump card about how many new immigrants were becoming successful and even outsmarting native-born Canadians in their drive to really succeed. India soon being a land empty of people!

Parliamentarians of all stripes applauded Mrs. V. Canada’s open-door immigration policy that was beneficial to all! Shimla’s Governor Rama Devi looked at me with a jaundiced eye. Mrs. V. shifted her gaze to the mountains: images she now stored up for her travel book that would capture more than familiar or exotic imagery. Governor Rama Devi‘s liveried attendants would now be jolted, ah.

Now, let Canada welcome more new immigrants who proudly declare themselves Canadian without too much ethnic finesse. Indeed, here now in Shimla, the former favourite summer haunt during the British Raj, where Mrs. V. grandly declared Canada open to all. I gravitated closer. Governor Rama Devi instantly looked away.

The Himalayan mountains loomed higher. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, watch out. I was also perplexed because of not knowing where I actually belonged, it seemed, even as I yearned to once more observe Mrs. V. from my spot in the Parliamentary gallery. I took her in more fully, not knowing where I wanted to actually be… in my going or coming, but yearning to be my Canadian self, like no other.  

Like how I never felt before. Let Parliamentarians keep their eyes on me with Peace, Order and Good Government – as mountains rose higher, more than once in a lifetime!  

The potato seller in Shimla © Nilambri Ghai

For more on Cyril Dabydeen’s work, please see Ars Notoria, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Peepal Tree Press.

His books include:

Jogging in Havana

Black Jesus and Other Stories

My Brahmin Days

North of the Equator

Imaginary Origins: Selected Poems

and Drums of My Flesh (which was nominated for an IMPAC/Dublin Prize and won the Guyana Prize for best novel).

Nominated for the Pushcart Prize via Prairie Schooner (USA), Cyril Dabydeen won the Okanagan Fiction Prize (twice) and the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for fiction. Cyril’s work has appeared in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Caribbean Verse and Fiction. Over 60 literary magazines have featured his work, including Poetry (Chicago), The Critical Quarterly (UK), The Fiddlehead, Prism International, and Canadian Literature.

Cyril Dabydeen is a noted Canadian poet, short story writer, novelist and anthologist. His recent books include My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic Press), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press, UK), and My Multi-Ethnic Friends (Guernica Editions). Ottawa poet laureate emeritus, Cyril has won various prizes for fiction including the Guyana Prize for best novel. He taught writing for many years at the University of Ottawa.