The willow trees rustled, the cattails rippled and the prairie tallgrasses buckled in the breeze. This was a few years ago. I was walking in High Park with my partner, Daniel, a born-and-bred Ontarian whom I had met in my hometown, Kathmandu. I had just moved from Nepal to be with him.
He knew Toronto so well, as he introduced me to his hometown he knew exactly where to stand on each subway platform to catch the train. We would take the subway somewhere, take in a sight or two, and take the subway back. And so I got to the downtown core, the ravines, the waterfront and a few parks and trendy neighbourhoods. We didn’t bother with what lay in between. I never learned how they were connected above-ground.
Most days, we were too busy to see any sights. When we did have free time, we would head out to the undulating Ontario countryside, where Daniel’s parents, and his heart, resided.
And so, years in, I still carry a map with me, and reach for it when strangers ask for directions, apologizing: “I’m just visiting, you see.”
This, because I moved here but also didn’t.
Soon after we set up here, a new job took Daniel back to my part of the world. As a writer of fiction and non-fiction I can, and do, work anywhere. Because my profession allowed more flexibility than his, I followed him.
We kept an apartment in Toronto, though, and came here as often as possible, sometimes for months-long stretches. But I never came alone. Daniel was my link to Toronto.
Last year, I decided to change this. I was working on a novel about Nepal, and in need of solitude to submerse myself in my fictional world. Only if my characters lived and breathed in my imagination would they come to life on the page. I figured I could spend a few months writing in Toronto – and in my free time, I could forge a relationship of my own to the city.
I did, but the relationship remains an odd, off-kilter one.
Fiction writing isolates the writer. To write a novel, I need enough money to live on, a computer and a quiet room with a bit of a view. I was fortunate to have these in Toronto. But unlike in Kathmandu, when I stopped writing, I had nothing else to do here.
Neither did I have the time to find anything to do. Every day, I wrote from early morning on, lost in the depths of a made-up world, and by the time I stopped it would be too late to get up to much in the real world.
So my days passed, one after another, in something rather more unpleasant than solitude: loneliness. To me, this was unfamiliar. I come from an exceedingly sociable background. No one is ever alone in Kathmandu, and Nepalis love to always talk – about anything, everything. In Toronto, I suddenly had to develop the kind of craggy, existential loneliness of the soul that I had only read about in literature.
After a few months, I came to see that for this, too, I was fortunate.
With nothing else to do in my free time, I began to take long walks. I trod the city streets and parks, shops and markets, and neighbourhoods both trendy and dishevelled. I entered dreamy states of mind; I looked and observed, ruminated, took mental notes, mulled over ideas and had fresh insight into my novel. Why did this character buckle under pressure? From where did the other one draw strength? My thoughts deepened and my emotions clarified as I walked.
I also began to see how the sights Daniel had shown me three years ago were connected on street level. What lay in between was often more interesting than the sights themselves.
I never did learn – and expect I never will – exactly where to stand on each subway platform. But in my walks I did develop an attachment to Toronto.
As the summer wore on, I even grew fond of my solitude. And when I tired of it, I learned to turn to my compatriots for company.
When I first moved here, I had found out that an old friend from Kathmandu was at the University of Toronto. He had introduced me to his Nepali-Canadian friends, who had introduced me to their Nepali-Canadian friends; and then I had discovered other friends from Kathmandu who now called this city their home.
There are, they told me, more than 5,000 Nepali immigrants in Toronto. The city’s Nepali-Canadian community is so large, in fact, that I often hear Nepali spoken on the streets. Sometimes I think there’s really no reason to miss Kathmandu here.
Nepali-Canadians get together often, and are welcoming to new arrivals. Every summer, the community organizes a fair called the Himalayan Mela at Nathan Phillips Square. At last summer’s fair, I reconnected with a family friend, met colleagues from 15 years back and made new friends. Together we ate momos – Nepali dumplings – and talked about our lives, old and new.
Later, at a pub, a group of us chatted over beer about everything from Canadian politics to the latest news from Nepal. The beer was chilled, the talk was heated and the evening was fine.
At one point I looked around me and thought: This is my Toronto. A Kathmandu-away-from-Kathmandu where I can write a novel about Nepal.
Certainly, my relationship with the city would deepen in the future. But at that point, this was all I needed Toronto to be. This was good.
I felt right at home – even though I had to consult a map to get back to my apartment at evening’s end.
Manjushree Thapa lives in Toronto.
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