Growing Up In Gentler Times

Photo by P. Maitra
I grew up in Tangra, a suburb of Calcutta now called Kolkata. Throughout my childhood, I don’t think I received more than one toy a year—and that’s likely overstating it. Yet, I’ve never felt like I had a deprived childhood. We entertained ourselves playing with other kids and got creative with anything we could lay our hands on, turning them into make-believe toys. Like the times we pretended to fly with towels tied around the neck in lieu of capes, or sailing paper boats made from newspapers and notebooks—often to my mom’s chagrin.

In those days, my mom always took an afternoon nap. Much like “siesta” time in Spain and Italy, midday during the Calcutta summer is hot and humid, and induced the same heat related inertia in adults, but produced the opposite effect on the kids. During those lazy afternoons, our craziest adventures were to goad each other to perform stupid and risky feats like jumping from the rooftop—albeit a low roof—to a pile of leather shavings on the ground. Of course, we made sure that our parents never found out. Yes, there was hell to pay if we were ever caught.

Those were also gentler times. The community was close-knit. As kids we wandered off from our house everyday in search of playmates. If that bothered my mom, she certainly didn’t force us to stay put. If we didn’t show up at meal times—the whole family always dined together three times daily—she’d walk over to the neighbours’ houses and enquire. Everyone, and I mean everyone, directly or indirectly knew each other. Someone inevitably would have seen us playing somewhere and pass the word on.

If I had allowed my kids to run around the way I did as a child, I would have been considered negligent. Yet my mother was not negligent. We were safe because the entire community took care of us. Now isn’t that saying something about the world we live in today?

On Being Hakka

Why do we Hakka people have this need to have a conference? I don’t know of any other ethnic group that does this type of naval gazing.

A week ago, I attended the Toronto Hakka Conference. 270 people of Hakka origin were at York University for two days of sharing and exploring.

Most of our ancestors left China about a hundred years ago, and scattered all over the world. Now many have converged in Canada and have adopted this country as home. Hakka from India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mauritius, etc. swapped stories about growing up in our respective countries, and how we continue to pass on our culture and traditions to the next generation. 

But why get in touch with my Hakka Chinese roots now? These last couple of years, as I focus on my writing, I find myself digging deep into my roots. Doing this has forced me to examine my identity and what being Hakka means to me. I’m bursting with stories—the challenge is how to get them out.

So naval gazing or not, the conference certainly reinforced my Hakka pride and reminded me how fortunate we are to be living in this wonderful country where multiculturalism is in the air we breathe.