the true stories
The first time I came to Canada, it hit me like a rogue wave. The circumstances were unusual as was our route. Within a day or so of first learning of the impending relocation and giving away all my stuff I was looking at Baton Rouge in the rear-view mirror of a four-door sedan as we crossed the Mississippi River. My two sisters and a chow-chow accompanied me in the back seat. We proceeded West to Texas and when we backed out of my Grandma's driveway, I left a piece of me behind in the pines. I took my wife and two sons down in 2007 and got it back.
My Mom phoned my Grandma from a gas-station around Oklahoma later that day and was told that the law had been asking around and that she had told them she didn't know where we were headed. I knew my Dad was running but I was never told what from. Up in Oregon, my baby sister and I met a talking crow at a gas station and that lightened my mood a little bit temporarily.
We rented an apartment in Lynn Valley and the snow was about a foot and a half deep. In a few months we moved to an upper-floor rental suite off Marine Drive near Mosquito Creek. I remember two songs in particular from those six months. One was Galveston and the other was Alone Again Naturally. The former was like a cruel joke and made me awful lonesome for my Grandpa's beach cabin on the Gulf of Mexico only a few miles away from Galveston. I remember that a local North Vancouver AM radio station set up a booth at a strip-mall that first Spring and played the second song till the platter melted.
Gilbert O'Sullivan's song was like a balm to me because misery loves company. I enjoyed it no matter how many times they plugged it per day. In our suite, I found human company for my blues. Our landlord, I had heard was an Indian. I had glanced him once or twice through the window and I was mighty curious as to what tribe he was from. I hoped it was Cherokee but that was a long-shot even to an eleven year old boy.
I decided to find out one Saturday. His door was open to the garage and I knocked at the open frame. There was no answer so I tip-toed inside a few steps to where I could see him. He was slumped in a broken chair at a small scratched-up round wooden table. There was a bottle, nearly empty, of Seagram's Whiskey, a small portable red and tan leather bound record player just like the one I had left in Baton Rouge, an ashtray, a deck of Player's and an empty glass. On the wall was a calendar with a likeness of Guru Gobindsingh and a picture of Ganesh.
He roused slightly as I approached the table and offered me a chair. He asked if I'd come to visit and I replied in the affirmative. He smiled like people do when a waiter plonks down their favorite dish after a long wait. Then he winced and began to rub his forehead. He smoothed his oiled hair back into place with a comb produced from the front his white linen shirt. He banged the back of his head with a mahogany-colored fist and began to adjust his trousers, his socks, his shirt, his belt and even re-rolled his sleeves until the folds were perfect, just like my Dad always did.
He regarded the bottle, clucked his tongue and polished it off in one quaff. Then he spoke.
“Mikalala, do you bant tea?”
I stared, not understanding his dialect.
He smiled broadly and tried again, “Mikalala, do you like drink chai? British tea? Red Rose?
He mimed taking a sip of tea with his little finger protruding. Although we only drank iced-tea down South, I instantly knew what he meant and I answered yes.
“Mikalala. Du bil hav to gut it for us two. Go to cubbort for cups and for tea. Kettle is on stove. Sugar is by sink and also spoons. Milik is in fridge. I bil take four. OK?”
I stared again. I asked if he really wanted four cups.
“Mikalala, no,no,no. Not four cups. Du bil put four baks tea in my cup. OK. Du understan bat I mean?”
“Yes Sir. Four tea bags.”
“Good boy. Berry good boy. I bil put sugar and I bil put milik. Bring to table, OK?”
I did so and soon as the water had boiled we were busy fixing up our respective mugs. He took milk and more sugar than I would have believed possible and I had mine with sugar only. After he had squeezed out the last drop of caffeine out of the four bags and set them in the ashtray, we began to chat.
I told him about Louisiana and Texas and he told me about India. It was then I realized that he was a different kind of Indian. I had a good grasp of geography but had never encountered an East Indian person in my whole life and when my Dad had told me our landlord was an Indian man, I figured he looked a bit like an Apache.
He told me he was from the Northern part of his country and his language was called Punjabi. The province bore the same name and it meant “Five Rivers”. It was those five rivers that made that place such a good agricultural land. He told me his last name was Singh which meant “lion” and that he was of the Sikh Faith. He said he was supposed to wear an iron bracelet, never cut his hair, carry a knife and comb and wrap his head in a turban. He smiled and said that did none of those things however.
He said he had a son, a daughter, a wife and a mother in North Vancouver. They all lived in another house he had bought for them from money he had earned working at a nearby lumber mill on the Fraser River. He added that he had also bought them yet another house which was rented out and the money from the rents helped to feed and educate his brood.
I asked him why he stayed alone in the small basement. He smiled and pointed to the empty bottle.
”My bife beri angry obry time before. I am bad boy. Abry day I go Abalon Hotel and drink beri much busky. My son and my dotter beri angry. My mum beri angry. My bife hut me wit bottle ban I sleep table. Bloody no good. I am safe here but Mikalala I am bloody bad boy. Du understan bat I mean? Abry day abry day I go Abalon Hotel drink bloody bad boy busky until I can sleep.”
He lit a smoke and turned on the record player. It was the first time I had heard Lata Mangeshkar and something magical happened. I closed my eyes within a few seconds and did not open them until the record had played through one whole side. Mr. Singh had done the same. The look on his face when I opened my eyes was the same as the look on my face. We both noticed it. A sixth-grade bayou boy and a forty-something alcoholic from the foothills of the Hindu Kush.
I discovered the real reason and power behind the universal human need for music and the ability of certain of us to fill this noblest of tasks for our stricken fellows. I understood not a word of what I'd heard but I did understand with perfect clarity every note and the pictures they described. I saw the landscape, the animals, the costumes of the people, felt the weather and tasted the food. That was in the instruments.
The really important thing I learned that day was that the universal spirit can heal, encourage, soothe, challenge, tease, educate and entertain. It is the pure yielding nature which draws what ever potential there be inherent in a person to the fore. I believe this power to be feminine in aspect whether it is radiating from a male or a female. She calls a boy into the adventure of unknown woods like the Xtabay and when he is older she sings that he may forget his wounds and rest without vigilance like the bird song which tells the sleeper in the forest that no harm approaches. They both know he'll never get out of the woods.
I visited Mr. Singh every chance I got and he just left the door open most days. We drank tea and listened to Lata records until I could practically sing some of them myself. I learned how to count to ten and some common phrases. I learned how to make a drink from tamarinds that tasted like a bottle of Coca Cola married a glass of iced tea and they both got drunk on lemonade. It was so good it made your teeth hurt. He talked about growing okra which he called bindi and I told him about how we turned that bindi into gumbo.
One rainy night there was a big commotion downstairs. My father called me to accompany him and we went down to Mr. Singh's suite.
“Mr. Mike! Mr. Mike! Mikalala! God dammut helup me please, Sir! My bloody bife bil kull me bun hunded pertant!”
We rushed into the room. A big young man in a turquoise turban, a young woman in a saree and and an elderly woman in a saree were huddled together by the kitchen counter watching a middle-aged woman repeatedly striking Mr. Singh about the head and neck with a quarter-full fifth of whiskey. There was a massive goose-egg above his left temple. I believe it was the hair oil that saved him from a torn scalp. As the woman yelled and screamed in Punjabi she neglected to aim her blows properly and they all glanced off the slick surface.
My father walked between the victim and the attacker and raised his arms to the sides with palms out. The woman dropped the bottle and like a broken steam hose, the bitter venom of her personal anguish poured forth in an ever weakening stream and she staggered back to her family group after spitting in her husband's direction. They left the scene and my father checked Mr. Singh's noggin and then went upstairs. I stayed and got an ice-bag going and brewed some tea.
Mr. Singh asked for the bottle his wife had dropped on the floor and I gave it to him. He unscrewed the cap and poured it down in one luxurious draught. He wiped his mouth with a hankie and adjusted all his clothes. As I brought the tea, he put on a Lata record and lit a cigarette. Within minutes we were on a jungle road walking behind some bullocks carrying the harvest to a market town. Water drums and flutes put purpose in our gait and a lovely girl riding on one of the carts began to sing. We both knew we were going to a wonderful place and that we wouldn't be coming back down the hazardous road we had traveled. To have the distilled starlight of a maiden's voice like audible incense along the way although we might not posses her, was enough. To a reasoning man, it was even fair.
Within six months, life jerked me away from North Vancouver suddenly and unforeseen. I found myself in Beaumont, Texas and then in Houston. I remember a song called Doctor My Eyes from that time in my life that really matched how I felt. I was likely singing it when I moved with my family back to North Vancouver about two years after arriving in Texas. I hunted up some friends I had started to make from the time before and although we attended the same high school, it was never the same and the bonds were weak.
Mr. Singh had sold his house and moved away. I found his son and he told me that the old man said I could come to stay in India on his farm any time I wanted. I never made that trip. I had made a cassette recording from Mr. Singh's record albums of Lata's songs and many was the night she helped me to sleep. I eventually played the tape until it wore out and stretched beyond repair. I stayed in Canada, lived as I thought best and took my medicine.
When I was in my forties, I made friends with a janitor at one of the Post Office Depots I worked as a letter-carrier at. He traded me two Lata cassettes in return for an astrological birth-chart which I computed and drew up for his newest daughter. Some time later, I met another man, a supervisor, who had a small music store in Vancouver's little India as a sideline. He sold me two cassettes of Lata Mangeshkar singing duets of ancient ghazzals with Jagjit Singh, who well may be her male equal. Now, approximately the same age as the man who introduced me to this music, I once again listened to the maiden sing me a bit further down my road. And like an old Irish song says, I still haven't found what I'm looking for.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.