This week I met in the coffee shop a young woman who hails from Karnataka state in the south of India, and who has come here briefly with her son of 18 to help settle him into enrolment in political science courses as a student at McGill University. A couple of days later I met the son, who seemed like a very nice lad, with an air of some confidence, and it got me to thinking back on when I left home in the year 1948, which happens to be almost exactly 70 years ago. I had been living with my family until I was 20, my family consisting of my parents and the three our six siblings, our eldest three having already married and moved into their own homes.
Immediately I look up Karnataka: 61 million people; twice the size of New Brunswick, so, crowded, rather; GDP per capita just over $2400 US equivalent (Quebec’s 20 times larger); moderate winters, highest ever summer temperature 45.6 C; Bangalore, the major city, 9 million pop., in recent years renowned for its hospital and as a hi-tech centre; a state with, apparently, a rich history and mythology. How any of this may have affected an 18-year-old is hard to say, but that his family can have him study abroad suggests they live far above the per capita average income levels. While the winter will be the lad’s overwhelming challenge, he might be impressed that while his state has 10 more or less officially recognized languages, Quebec has been tearing itself apart for years over just two. He has promised to get in touch with me if ever he feels he needs someone to talk to (although I can hear my readers asking what can a 90-year-old dodderer possibly have to say that could interest an 18-year-old youth? Good question).
My move at roughly his age was only about 130 miles north to the city of Dunedin, a move that certainly cannot compare with the one = our young friend is making from the heat of southern India to the deadly winter cold of Montreal, something he can scarcely even have imagined.
For myself, I am almost embarrassed to recall how gauche and unprepared I was to take on the world at the age of 20 when I left home. The first day I got into a room in a miserable boarding house shared with a working man who came home late at night in a slightly inebriated condition, arousing in me feelings of trepidation which quickly became a painful homesickness. I quit that room almost immediately, moved into a friendly working-class home where I began to be more at ease, until I was suddenly kicked out on the grounds I was showing too much interest in one of the two rather appalling unmarried daughters. But this place had cured me of my homesickness, a disease that disappeared within a week or so of leaving home, never again to re-appear.
Then I took a room in the home of a nasty, conservative widow whose hatred of the Labour Party, which I supported wholeheartedly, took the form of holding up newspaper pages and jeering and cackling at the latest statements of the Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, a self-educated Scottish working man. She would have been better off cleaning her house occasionally, but I cultivated the posture of being above it all, keeping myself to myself, lying for hours on my bed when not working, reading and writing letters to my future wife, who lived at the other end of the country, and whom I had recently met briefly when she was visiting Dunedin.
Only one of my four children has ever shown much interest in my early days, and then only recently; but he confesses himself puzzled by the fact that I left my family at an early age --- in fact, I left the country entirely two years later --- and never bothered to return until 25 years later, and then only briefly, moving back to Canada within 18 months.
We married when I was 22, she 25, soon after she returned to Dunedin to be with me. We married because when we decided to go to Australia, the shipping company would not allow us to travel in the same cabin while unmarried. So we gathered the parents, had a truncated church wedding to please our mothers, and took off.
Life was quite different when we took a small, ground-floor apartment in the small North Queensland town of Mackay, a centre of the sugar cane industry. In this hot climate people were accustomed to having snakes in their rafters, and slithering around their streets, along with every other awful creature under the sun, crocodiles being a regular presence in the tidal river estuary. All food had to be in cupboards whose legs sat on cups full of poison, to keep the ants away. If we trod on a cockroach while obeying a bathroom call overnight by the morning the carcass was gone, cleared away by lines of these tiny Argentinian ants.
I found the people in Australia almost as strange as the animals. It was still the era of White Australia, the official Aussie immigration policy, then only slowly giving way to allow non-white Asians to study at centres of higher learning, but otherwise kept intact by the prohibition of the native Australians from living in the cities.
Six months was enough: our next abode was a tiny adobe house in a newly-created Indian village in the Punjab, 85 miles north of Delhi, to which we had been attracted when, against all the odds, I received a reply to a letter I wrote (oh, the follies of youth!) to Pandit Nehru, the remarkable man whose books I had read and admired. I have written about this experience in an earlier Chronicle, so will not weary the reader with repetition. Suffice to say, the searing pre-monsoon heat, combined with the insanitary conditions --- the butcher would cut off a piece of meat by holding it with his toes, and the milkman always poured our milk through his dirty old dhoti that looked like it had never been washed --- these all did for our health, so that after a few months, with great regret for ourselves and the many friends we had made among our Indian neighbours, whom we were supposed in theory at least to be helping build the New India, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and escaped the likelihood of approaching debility by retreating to Kashmir, a gorgeous valley in the midst of a political crisis from which it has never to this day recovered, so that we were almost the only tourists at the time, and could hire a houseboat complete with servants, cooks, and food, for a minimal sum, which allowed our health to recover in good order.
Our next permanent place of residence was London, in north Kensington, the slummy part, not far from Wormwood Scrubs prison. We lived upstairs from a young doctor who entertained us with a recital of burps, belches and other noises as he washed himself each morning in our communal bathroom before he went off to minister to his patients. I don’t remember much about this apartment, but I do remember that by taking the No.11 Ladbrooke Grove bus southwards you could travel from the slums into the poshest part of London, along one street. This was so offensive to my egalitarian instincts that it immediately produced in me a distaste for English life, a distaste that, in spite of my intense admiration for many aspects of it, I was never able completely to overcome after living among the English, on two separate occasions, for eleven years. It is that class-based structure that has always grated on me.
Eventually we moved into a Scottish castle that had been given to the nation by Lord Lothian, a pre-war British ambassador to the United States, for use as an adult education college. My wife and I lived there for almost nine months, me as a student, she as a teacher in a nearby mining village, Newtongrange, which I helped her to reach every day by taking her to the bus, and picking her up again, on our tandem bicycle, on which we had just made a tour right around France. These months in Newbattle Abbey College when I was one of only 16 students attended to by four tutors, I still number among the golden months of my life, an interlude of pure pleasure in which we enjoyed intimate contact with our fellows of a type that, for the first time since leaving home three years before, took us back to the way we were brought up, as part of a community whose members were known to all of us and with whose lives we were closely intertwined.
We went from the beauty of the Scottish countryside to a crowded house in Coventry which had been turned into 16 one-room apartments, with a common bathroom, and each with one small electric stove for cooking. This was going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Most of our neighbours in this overcrowded building remained unknown to us: for the first time, we were rubbing up against the anomie of modern urban living. We got to know only one young couple, Tandon and Prabha, from India, en route to Sweden, where Tandon was going to work for Ericcson, the electronics company in Sweden. Prabha, though essentially idle and slightly overweight from lack of exercise was incredibly beautiful. We seemed to be attracted to each other, and on my afternoons off, I would go upstairs and spend time playing mahjong with her. Of course, I ached to touch her, but was far too proper, nervous, timid, use whichever adjective seems appropriate to the case to do anything, not even touching her hand. But it didn’t go unnoticed by my wife, and she never forgave me for it, even recalling it during a disagreement we had fifty years later, bitterly commenting, “Oh, yes, I remember how you used to look at Prabha.” It came right out of left field, that one, but I really couldn’t deny it. We never saw them again after we left Coventry to emigrate to Canada, and I have often wondered how they made out.
And so here I am, taking my coffee downstairs every morning, meeting this mother and son from India one day, another day a Chinese engineer working in Houston, Texas, and visiting his wife and family who are living in Montreal for six months until he can come back and work here.
The four people who run the coffee shop make it like a minor United Nations: the owner and a charming young waitress, are from China; a second waitress from Korea; and a late-30ish Peruvian is working part=time in the coffee shop while upgrading his skills in graphic design in an effort to fit himself for work in his chosen profession.
The world is present there and it is a way to overcome the dramatic anomie that comes from my living on the fifteenth floor of a high-rise apartment building in which I never meet even one of the many people who live on the same floor.
Such is life I guess.