Santosh (Tosh) Khera: Mother. Cook. Volunteer. Social Butterfly. Born Sept. 7, 1935, in Jhelum, India; died June 18, 2020, in Kingston, of organ failure; aged 84.
There were two cardinal rules for meals at Tosh Khera’s house. The first: Rotis must be fresh. Tosh often spent the first half of dinner frying away in the kitchen and laughed off her guests’ insistence that she join them at the table. The second: Everyone is welcome. Friends from the gurdwara. Her granddaughter’s dormmates. An Indigo salesperson. And family, the centre of her universe.
Tosh prepared daal, curry chicken, aloo gobi, mutter paneer, bhindi. No recipes, just her spices and the muscle memory of a self-taught cook. Recipes wouldn’t have been much help anyway, as macular degeneration left her legally blind for the last 10 years of her life.
She began her life with so little that to be able to give something – a meal – to others gave her immense joy and purpose.
Tosh was born in Jhelum, India. Following Partition, her family fled to Amritsar. Overnight, they were religious minorities in what is now Pakistan and her stories of that journey, and the violence she saw, were harrowing. Along the way, she lost two siblings.
Eventually, Tosh settled in Delhi and at 23, she married Yoginder Khera. They had two children, Nutan and Anil. Tosh’s brother lived in Canada and hearing his experience convinced her there were better days ahead overseas. On Nutan’s 10th birthday, they left India for Belleville, Ont., and eventually settled in Kingston.
She worked hard to support the family with a job in the Kingston General Hospital kitchen. There she not only cooked but also began to learn English.
Tosh embraced the more relaxed parenting style in Canada, encouraging Nutan and Anil to adopt the fashion, the language and even the later curfews of their new home country.
Even as she adapted to different societal norms, one thing that was unwavering was a lifelong pride in her appearance. From her days as a young mom until she reached her mid-80s, she took great care in her beauty regimen. Lipstick. Blush. Pink nail polish. Even when her eyes were failing her, she would do her best to get done up.
After several years in the hospital kitchen, she fell at work and injured her back, forcing her out of that job. Despite chronic pain, Tosh worked at seniors’ homes, and she and Yogi enrolled in a billeting program through Queen’s University. Following Yogi’s death in 1992, she continued to welcome foreign students with a roof, nightly CBC newscasts and her cooking. Tosh often attended the convocation of her student friends and stayed in touch with some for decades.
Her love of meeting new people gave her a sort of blind faith. She would invite people she hadn’t met to stay with her. Perhaps even more surprising was the number of people who accepted. The world was made a better place because of her inherent belief in the goodness of others.
After she stopped working, Tosh volunteered at care facilities and led a social hour, Tea with Tosh. She also worked with developmentally delayed adults.
Tosh lived an independent and full life until her final days, partly because she was energized doing things she loved and partly because she was stubborn. She wouldn’t move closer to family in Toronto but she expected visits, and the power of her guilt trip was strong. And don’t ask her to part with things long past their prime: a Filter Queen vacuum she bought 50 years ago from a door-to-door salesman, for example, or the first suitcase she used as an Avon saleslady. She was proud of the material goods that marked milestones in her life as a new Canadian.
While most people’s social circles shrink with age, Tosh’s seemed to grow. All the more mouths to feed, and Tosh couldn’t have been happier for it.
Alexis Brown is Tosh’s granddaughter.
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