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The day I mistook a neighbour for househelp

Growing up in India, I didn’t live in a palace – or even a haveli (mansion) – nor did I travel by horse carriage. I come from a family of modest means. And yet, we had a luxury most desis are familiar with – a retinue of househelp.

There’s the bai that came to do the jhadu-patta (sweep and swab) and do the dishes; the bai who came to wash the clothes; the building watchman (security guard) who doubled as the general odd jobs man and could be relied upon to run errands. Then there was the dabbawalah who ferried tiffin boxes full of hot lunch to all members of the family that were employed in offices; the dhobi who picked up wash loads that were not to be washed at home (saris that needed starching, for instance, or bedsheets, etc., that were difficult to dry at home, specially during monsoon months), and the istriwalah who picked up clothes that needed to be ironed.

Thus, you will see that I was unfit to do even the most basic chores that everyone that has grown up here does automatically, as a matter of course. I mean who will do your dishes if not you? Who will cut the grass or shovel the snow, if not you? Well, how about that neighbour down the street?

You will see where this is headed in a minute.

We’d just moved into our new home in London, Ontario, when the biggest snowstorm of the decade hit.

It was our first snow and we were all delighted. The kids ran about in it, shrieking with joy and built mis-shapen snowmen while my wife, convinced that they would get pneumonia, begged then to come inside.
After everyone was finally in, it struck us that something needed to be done about the knee-high snow on the driveway. As we surveyed the mounds of snow piled against the garage door and wondered how to get the car out, I saw a man coming down the walkway with a snowblower. Dressed in a scruffy jacket and with a toque pulled low over his forehead, he raised a hand in greeting as he passed us.

He went to the end of our street, clearing snow in front of every home, turned back, cleared what he had missed, and then turned into the driveway two homes down from us and began doing the driveway.
Newbie that I was, I took him to be the househelp, out to clear the snow for the family he worked for.

I walked up to him and over the din of the snowblower, gestured for him to stop. He did and looked at me inquiringly.

“Could you do our driveway after you’ve finished here?” I requested.
He looked at me like he hadn’t heard right. Then he smiled and said, “Of course”.

Pleased at having found a solution, I came back in and then stood at the window, all cozy and warm, while he cleared the snow from our driveway.

When he was done, I went out to ask him how much we owed him.
“Oh, nothing!” he said with a laugh. “It’s a welcome to Canada present to you from me!” and introduced himself.

The man was our neighbour, Charles.

We’ve now lived on the street for more than a dozen years and are good friends. He still clears the snow from the walkway and also can be counted upon to help out in any area – from showing me how to fix a washer in the tap to how to trim the hedge without losing a thumb.
But even now, sometimes, Charles will get that gleam in his eye and recount the story of how his Indian neighbour took him to be the househelp.

What’s your story?
Every newcomer, no matter how savvy or where he or she comes from, has a Fresh Off the Plane (FOP) story to share about their early days in Canada. Do you want to share your story? E-mail it to us at canada-boundimmigrant@rogers.com.

Posted: Mar 4, 2011

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