I arrived in Canada as a landed immigrant in 1975. I was six years old and all I recall from that day is the image of my grandfather, slightly stooped, dressed in a white shirt and carrying an orange vinyl flight bag that looked as though it might slip off his shoulder.
He was 71, a recent widower and had just single-handedly shepherded three grandchildren under 9 from Nairobi to London to Montreal to Toronto.
My parents were to join us later once they had settled their affairs. Our suitcases disappeared somewhere en route. And so there was my grandfather, walking a few feet ahead, leading me and my brothers toward our new life and away from our old, with that orange bag slung loosely over his shoulder.
Three years earlier, in August, 1972, dictator Idi Amin had announced that God had told him in a dream to expel South Asians from Uganda. Ninety days later, about 80,000 people, including my family, had been forcibly removed from the country. Bank accounts were frozen; keys to businesses, homes and cars were handed over to Idi Amin’s army.
While the majority of those expelled went to Britain, about 6,000 were granted visas to Canada. Their story has never been told in its entirety, has never been extracted from terse headlines, which is why I wrote a novel – not about the people who make history but those forced to accept it. People like my grandfather.
Tall, broad and possessed of a deep bellow
Bapa, as all his children and grandchildren addressed him, was tall and broad and possessed a deep bellow that could make his grown sons cower.
He had come, alone, to Uganda from the Indian state of Gujarat in 1923 when he was 20. Over the next few decades, he pushed into the countryside, opening a small shop, watching it struggle, moving to another village, starting another business.
Between businesses, he taught children to read and write in makeshift schools. He eked out a living and, with my grandmother, raised nine children. Wherever they went, he built a house, first with mud and then with corrugated iron sheeting and finally – as an automobile business took off in the 1960s – with bricks and mortar.
He was meticulous and exacting. Even as he aged and his sons took over more of the family business, they continued to answer to him. In his home, each meal was prepared at a particular time in a particular manner that he determined.
Once, when Bapa was travelling, and without his knowledge, my parents hired workers to come to the house to tile the kitchen walls. My grandfather, not a man wont to indulge in such frivolities, happened to return home from his trip early and threw the workers out, thundering that no one was to touch his walls again.
It was his house, his business, his life. And then it wasn’t.
When our visas were granted and the houses and family business handed over, my grandfather travelled wherever he was taken with whomever could take him.
First he went to Britain to live with a son in Grantham, then he moved in with a grandson and his wife in a cramped London apartment. Later he came to Canada to live with another son here in Kitchener.
When my parents, my brothers and I settled in Nairobi a year after the expulsion, my father still determined to return to his beloved Uganda, my grandfather joined us.
When my father could no longer deny that Uganda was a shell of the country he had once known, he handed my grandfather plane tickets and his three young children and told him to go back to Kitchener.
A few days after we arrived, our luggage appeared. A few months later, my parents appeared as well.
Life became ordinary. My mother found a factory job while my father slowly built a business repairing automobiles. My grandfather made our breakfasts, saw us off to school, his tone now soft, his words gentle, his patience endless.
Two years after arriving in Canada, he died of an aggressive cancer in his lungs, and we buried him under an unremarkable stone marker. By the time I received my certificate of Canadian citizenship in 1980, my grandfather had become indistinguishable from the soil, the grass, the flowers, the air I breathed.
Before he died, before he became too ill to do so, Bapa used to go for walks near our house. Sometimes he would ask me to keep him company.
One evening as we walked, the words “Paki, go home!” hurled in our direction shattered the crisp air. I felt myself crumble under their weight. But when I looked up at Bapa, he appeared unmoved, immovable, like a magnificent, ancient tree. If he had heard the words, they had nothing to do with him.
I wish I could say that I continued to walk with him, that I reacted, like him, with indifference to racial slurs. But I didn’t. I never again walked with him. I couldn’t bear it.
Instead, I adopted these refrains as truths by which I would come to live my life: If they don’t see me, they won’t attack me. If I am invisible, I cannot be hurt.
But every day Bapa opened the front door, stepped outside.
No bag is big enough to contain a lifetime
Until I found the courage to stop hiding and tell my family’s story, that image of my grandfather arriving in this country carrying nothing but one small shoulder bag saddened me.
Until I let myself imagine his experiences and feel what he might have felt, this image came to symbolize incomprehensible loss. As though any bag, any suitcase could be big enough, expansive enough to carry the wealth of lifetimes.
With my focus on what we had left behind, I failed to notice what we were walking toward: a country that was offering us – if we were willing to accept it – a new history.
What I failed to see was the freedom that Bapa had gained from letting go, and the strength he had acquired by allowing life to bend him to its will.
Tasneem Jamal is a writer living in Kitchener, Ont., and the author of Where The Air Is Sweet (HarperCollins, 2014).
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