I was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I’ve always loved those words. The sound, the rhythm, the physical feeling on my tongue, the way they shape the lips. Today I heard a story from my mother that has me thinking again about the magic of those words. Incantation.
And also, of decanting, and what happens when words are poured out, like wine poured from the bottle and allowed to breathe. What happens when words and places are let out to breathe?
We are in the car, mom is driving me to the train station. I’ve been in Ottawa just overnight, for dad’s seventieth birthday party. It was a surprise, thrown by their dear friends Simmy and Pardeep. Simmy spent the last three weeks cooking and planning and preparing a feast, a special treat for him: seven courses of Bombay street food. That is, the snacks and foods that you would get at little two wheeled carts on the side of the road in Bombay. In their day, and today, and long before.
I remember being in Bombay for a show, my grandmother’s sister’s husband was a well-known painter, Tyeb Mehta, and we’d gone for one of his shows, and afterwards we were walking down the crowded, brightly lit street. I held my dad’s hand. I was probably about eleven years old. There was so much bustle, so many smells. Light jutting in strange angles from small shops, incense and sweat, shouts, snatches of song, groups of women in clothes glittering with tiny mirrors, men leaning on each others shoulders smoking. My great uncle was talking to dad. Dad wasn’t yet a working artist, but I’m sure it was all seeping in. At a certain point dad bent down to a man crouched in a cloud of steam. The man had a hot plate of peanuts in the skin but not the shell. He was turning them over and over, the smell was earthy and the warmth carried up to me, softly mysterious. He twisted a piece of newspaper into a little cone and whisked up a scoop of piping peanuts. Dad looked at me and smiled. That’s the magic, he said. And it was. As I continued to walk, now carrying the hot little cone like a goblet, the street seemed to make sense from the inside out. I can’t explain it any other way, but that’s the feeling I had. Ingesting those little nuts and walking with my dad and great uncle it seemed like everything just made sense.
Anyway, yesterday was a night of memory. The elders were all there, plus a number of us about my age and two little ones, a thirteen year old gymnast who sat quietly and read by herself until she wowed us all with her origami balloons, and my little two year old nephew, who entertained me by being entertained by my turning the rug in the front hall into a magic carpet that we rode all the way to Mars to hunt aliens. (Stop! He shouted with his tiny hand outstretched. Alien! Stop biting me!)
In any case, the party, the food, and all the memories and talk of Indian politics, and the vocabulary becoming more and more peppered with old nicknames and phrases, and the ways the food tasted the same but different in the south, in Punjab, and as we all got filled up past full with fried, spicy, pungent goodness, and then Simmy Auntie brought out the cold milk sweet kulfi she’d made from scratch, in all of that I think some things might have bubbled up for mom that I am excited to relate to you here.
When mom was young my grandfather Edwin was a colonel in the Indian army, so they traveled a lot. They would spend summers in hill stations, that is, little colonial outposts in high, breezy hilly places where (probably mostly British?) people would escape from the heat, I guess. Each summer they’d go to a different spot, she said. And live in a big sprawling bungalow, with lots of green everywhere. I didn’t realize you spent so much of your childhood in nature, I said. Well, in a way, she said. She’s driving, so I can only see her profile but she is smiling. Her face is relaxed and her cheeks are pink. I can see her as a little girl, in all that healthy open green. It was Ernie who would take us out. Each year Uncle Ernie would come with us, she said. And Big Mum. Uncle Ernie was my grandmother’s brother, who I had met a number of times when I was young. A worldly, kind, open hearted, intelligent man. I hadn’t seen him since I was about sixteen, but I remember him very well. But who is Big Mum, I asked. That’s who we called the great grandmother you never met, she said, Maria Precisoa, my mom’s mom. The servants called your Grandma Vicky mom, and Grandma Maria was Big Mum. I didn’t know that, I say. I’m starting to get the little prickles I get in my forearms and face when I’m about to hear a family story I don’t yet know. But mom didn’t need any prompting. She was there. Outside, it’s an Ottawa winter, warm for Feb, but still snowy and sunny. But in the car it is breezy and green.
Ernie was our cool uncle, said mom. He would join us, never for the whole time, but he would come to where ever we were, and he always came ready! He had done his research, he knew where things were. He would take us on treks, to see bird sanctuaries. We had great adventures with him. And once, and now mom’s eyes, or the one eye that I can see from where I’m sitting beside her, is round and wide, he came to tell us where he’d been. He worked for the government of India and they had gone on a trip to Canada, where he went across the country on a train with Prince Philip, learning about the colony and how it functioned. And he brought us back gifts. Mom’s voice got low. From Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
What? Now it was my turn for my eyes to open. I felt both hot and cold at the same time. Uncle Ernie was in Saskatoon? In the fifties?
Well, mom said, he would have gone all the way across the country. He would have been in all kinds of places. But the gifts he brought us were from Saskatoon.
It felt sacred. I felt like whispering. What did he bring?
Little pencils and erasers. Colonial things. That showed native people, a man and a woman. He called them Indians. And he sent us clothes, little leather vests with fringes. We kept those things forever. We never sharpened those pencils. Those magical words, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was so special. Other people knew about Timbuktu, but we had Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And Uncle Ernie has actually been there. It was so wonderful.
So, is that how you ended up in Saskatoon, do you think? I asked. Is it because it was so magical, from when you were so little? Is that what it means, that intention reverses the direction of causality? Is it like, your life gets oriented that way because you’re thinking about it? Because you want it? In your little child’s imagination?
Well, that’s the thing, she said. It wasn’t. It was just where daddy ended up getting a tenure track after Minnesota. I remember telling Ernie, and he laughed. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he said, what a special place.
But isn’t it strange that you work for First Nations here?
Wow, she said. I guess it is. But I didn’t intend to. It was a temp position. I just took it. It was what came.
So, that’s so strange, I said.
Isn’t it? She said.
It’s not just that because it was there in the past it’s there in the future. It’s more complicated than that.
Or more elegant, she said.
It’s not just synchronicity. It’s not a coincidence. Is it?
No, she said.
Do you think it’s like destiny? She didn’t answer.
I think it has to do with the nature of time. Like maybe there is a special force in time that is non-linear, and has to do with its wide ellipses and cycles, and how they overlap. Imagine, maybe, that the “reason” that the only place that Ernie Soares told his little nieces about, the only souvenirs he brought, even bringing home the (albeit stereotypical and colonial) costume and animal leather from that place, what if the reason that he did this was that it was going to have happened that mom lived there, and worked in the colonial government within the department that served (debatable, but that’s a bit of another story, one I hope to get into at length in these essays) them, and that he was also in that same government, the empire. And that these parallels were sufficient force to align his instinct to what was/would be.
I’m not just curious about how this works. Though I am intensely curious. But I also sense that it has something important to do with the ways that our minds are controlled; that the ways that the world is governed (and its natural forces are subverted) is somehow connected to this knowing about Time. In the Vedas time is cyclical, and has many different cycles. There are the big eras, yugas, of which there are four, but there are also other cycles. I need to learn about this. I need to learn about cosmic time, and insect time, like how a fruit fly has its whole life in a day. What is the sun, if your life is a day, compared to the sun in my life, which marks the days, and is interrupted by this timelessness called dreams?
I have a feeling that there is a dreaming function of time that allows things like this to happen. Here’s another Saskatoon/ Nature of Time story for you.
Last year, three precious elders in my life died. (Deepened? Into the dark matter of their Selves?) One of them was a dear, cranky, brilliant, sophisticated woman in her late eighties named Helen Morres. Mom and dad met Helen at a party in Ottawa about twenty years ago. Maybe an Indian embassy thing, or something. It wasn’t a terribly interesting party, so they were wandering around the big house looking at the art. A small British sounding woman joined them, being quite funny and charming. It turned out she wasn’t just British, she was actually Anglo Indian, that is, a British person born in India. And she worked for CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency). How interesting. To have travelled all over the world as an unmarried woman. Mom must have found her fascinating. In fact, I think I can tell you without ruining the story, that she was always quite a bit like my mom’s mother, Victoria, Queenie she was called, Grandma Vicky to us. Stern but kind, intelligent, funny and extraordinarily generous. She must have asked where they were from in India, and when mom told her she was from Goa, she told them a story of being in Goa.
Helen had fallen ill, some kind of food poisoning, in India. She was on a bus and a very kind woman saw that she wasn’t well, and took her home. She rested there for some days, and they nursed her to health and told them about their daughter who was living in Canada.
Yes, my mom probably said. Goans are so kind.
They really are, I imagine Helen saying. And then she began to describe the house. The red mud road, the red clay steps, the front porch with the yellow glass shutters, the small front room with the dentist’s chair.
Wait. A what?
Yes, the man was a dentist. An army dentist. A colonel.
Yes. And he played the violin, too. Quite lovely. And she had been a teacher.
By now my mother may have been feeling a little wobbly. It sounds like my parents, she would have whispered.
And Helen would have frozen, and my dad would have snapped his attention back from whatever sculpture he was examining. No, Helen would have said.
But very early that morning the phone rang at my parents’ house. I looked in my journals, she said. I had to know. And there it was. My mother’s name and our old address, 327 Frobisher Court, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Helen became a close and valued family member. How could she not? The universe brings you your people, doesn’t it? Through the womb, through the miracle of adoption like our dear little Saheli and Annika, or like this, on the wings of the cycles of time.
When I first started doing my work, in the early years of the camps, I had, as I often did then, a sudden idea. Peggy had asked me to lead a group name game. Boring, I thought for a split second and then, not boring! Okay, I grinned. Here’s how it goes, I said to the group. (It would have been forty teens and twenty youngish artists, on that magical Island, Cortes.) (Frobisher, Cortes, the empire, the colonies…I don’t know. How far can I take this? How far does it go?) I said, okay, you go up to someone and shake their hand. And in that shake there will be a magical transfer. Like this, I grabbed my (then) young friend Cosmo. I say, Hi! I’m Nadia from Saskatoon. And you say? Cosmo from London, England, he said. And, in the transfer, I pumped his hand vigorously, you switch! I become Cosmo from London and you become Nadia from Saskatoon. Now, find someone else and switch again! I glimpsed Peggy’s head shaking, but this was too hilarious to stop. Okay? And, I said, my arms open with glee, you keep going like that, until you meet yourself! At that point, you’re so surprised and delighted to have met yourself at last that you sit down. Enlightened, Cosmo offered with his impossibly wide smile (you’d have to see it, to believe the horizontal dimension of that smile). You’d be beyond shocked. When you meet yourself, you are Enlightened. Transformed, I agreed.
What ensued was complete chaos. But then, after some time, people started to sit, their faces beaming with the silliness and non-functional worst-name-game-ever wicked fun of it all. We loved it. Nadia from Saskatoon, we dubbed the game. The only thing so far, and likely ever, to be named in my sake.