||Vesta Publications Ltd
||Aug 1 1989
A story of the hopes and the fears and the struggle of a newcomer from India settling in Canada. It also gives an insight into the views immigrants hold of white people and vice versa.
Barnes & Noble.com
Reghu Nath, a newcomer from India, becomes a student at the University of Ottawa to get a Ph.D. degree. He finds that his faculty has no social gatherings. He feels ignored because no one seems to be interested in him. To him, the atmosphere around the university is like that of a large department store where people enter to transact business and leave quickly with superficial human contact. To make the matter worse, Reghu finds the structure, methodology and grading system of his courses new and confusing. It is because he is familiar with the system in which a professor lectures formally to students during the course, and they are graded only on a written examination at the end.
He leaves the university after three years to seek employment in Ottawa and Montreal. His money is almost exhausted. He tries hard to get any kind of job without success. After surviving on welfare for a while and sorting mail and doing odd clerical work for short periods, he draws unemployment benefits for a year. . He finds Ottawans in general to be aloof. He moves to Montreal for a while where he gets the work of a supply teacher that is difficult and insecure. On such assignments students almost ignore him and play noisily. It is because those students know that supply teachers have no power. Moreover, the students of those classes are not among the bright ones. He feels lonely. He wants the company of a woman to share his life. Escorting younger women around is a strain on his budget because they want to eat in restaurants and to ride in taxis. Those he meets at the off-campus gatherings of the International League are more than forty and possessive. Although he had spoken English for fifteen years in other countries, he has difficulty conducting a conversation with Canadians, mostly because of the unfamiliar Canadian colloquialism and slang.
The story focuses on the difficulties and discrimination which Reghu Nath and other Indian immigrants experience, largely the result of cultural difference between them and the whites. He finds a considerable disparity between his preconceived notions and the actuality of life in Canada. He gets no real fellowship or understanding from Canadians. Mrs. Clifford, an elderly woman who herself is lonely tells Reghu : “We’ve lost our feelings and sentiments and have become as cold as our snow. Socially, we’re dead. We no longer have blood in our veins.” (83). Reghu Nath becomes reflective.
*Stephen Gill, a multi-talented and sensitive gentleman, has created an informative and powerful portrait of Canadian immigrants' experiences in the 1970s (The Nugget Book Reviews); *IMMIGRANT does a fine job portraying a new Canadian's plight.(Christian Monitor, India); *Prospective immigrants can profit by reading this novel which one feels like finishing off in just one reading (The Hindu, daily);
*IMMIGRANT novel : an understanding of mankind (The Asian Tribune) *Gill authentically describes the education world of Canada with a focus on its lapses(The Tribune, a daily); * IMMIGRANT reads like a book that had to be written--one which most immigrants and native Canadians should read at some point or the other (The Asianadian)
Professor Dr. R.K. Singh
*Appeared in Language Forum, New Delhi, India,
Vol XX1V, No. 1-2, Jan-Dec. 1998. Also in Psychic
Knot : Search for Tolerance in Indian English Fiction.
Ed. R.K. Singh. Bahari Publications, New Delhi, 1998.
Stephen Gill, an Indian settled in Canada for the last two decades, writes Immigrant, his second novel, to picture the strife immigrants face in a new country. As he portrays a new Canadians plight-- language barriers, ethnic prejudices, cultural discrepancies, and a longing for the motherland-- he seems to offer a factual record of his own experiences in Canada (though the novel is not necessarily his autobiography). As an immigrant writer he, however, tells of the difficulties in making his voice heard. Like many others, (and his protagonist in Immigrant), Gill suffers a marginalized existence against "two solitudes"2, i.e. the Anglophone and the Francophone that are ever in tension but equally forceful in preventing "outsiders", i.e. members of ethnic minorities "from gaining access to power, privilege and prestige".3
As a poet and novelist, Stephen Gill, who strongly believes in promoting world peace, universal brotherhood and global understanding, thinks that through literature "we enrich our own culture by borrowing certain elements from other cultures. This makes society more rational, and more friendly, and it helps to promote brotherhood".4
He is ever in search for a literary space for himself, organizing his discourse of tolerance, inter-cultural communication, understanding, and respect for other people's ways of life. He raises issues of cultural identity and acculturation, discussing dichotomies such as modernism versus traditionalism, foreign or global cultural values versus indiginism, cross-cultural interaction versus marginalization of cultures. He points to several cases of oppression, exploitation, abuses, violence, and bestiality and yet echoes the possibilities of living together, reconstructing a Canadian reality to make people see and understand.
As a social researcher he applies his creative intuition to the condition of man to discover, what Niels Bohr calls, "the relations between the manifold aspects of our experience". From his own interior, Gill debates, evaluates and comments on immigrant condition: the novel is the analysis of man in his own environment, revealing aspects of reality one must ponder over for integration in a genuine human culture without straying into scepticism, cynicism or despair.
As a novelist, keenly aware of Asian life and experiences, and cultural differences between Canada and India, he faithfully portrays Reghu Nath, an Indian student's difficulties in adapting to a foreign socio-political scene: He highlights the plights of the Indian settler-- culture shock, ethnic and racial prejudices, inequality, discriminations and biases in a culturally pluralistic society (which Canada appears to be from a distance), not necessarily to criticize, but to seek a change a la a culturally tolerant society, accommodating diverse people and practices. He affirms the need for reculturation of both the individual immigrants and the host society with a sense of mutual `give and take', fulfilment and enrichment, justice, equality, access, and participation.
Gill's Immigrant is an exploration in immigrant's aspirations for economic livelihood, social well-being and intercultural understanding vis-a vis the dimensions of the centrality of communication and politics in the affairs of the people. The novel voices the need for openness, for dialogue, for expression of differences and cultural pluralism to minimize misunderstandings, conflicts, exclusiveness, and manipulations. The novelist seeks to preserve our common humanity alongside the differences and diversities to promote mutual understanding, maybe, through trial and error, and a perception of goodwill.
Gill creates a text and context to cope with the politics of sharing and survival, the communication problems5 and socioeconomic and political contradictions, ambiguities and racist and ethnic prejudices that cause disillusionment and distrust in an immigrant in everyday life. We see a tolerant and humane critical reason in action, presenting the predicament of Reghu Nath, who is young and seeking a better future in a new land: In the opening pages, we meet him flying over the Atlantic in the VC 10, worried about "the problems which normally harass a foreigner".6 The flight is seven hours late and he lands in Montreal at the height of Canada’s centennial celebration, Expo '67. There is no accommodation possible there and he must reach Ottawa "at least three days before" to be able to register himself for admission to the university. Without sleep and rest, he is already disturbed, and there is no one to help him..
Gill traces Reghu's trials and tribulation as he suffers culture shock, manipulations for dole, demanding professors, difficult women, Canadian bureaucracy and haunting memories of his native India.
"It was an awesome feeling to know he had been in so many different countries within such a short span of time. Life stretched before him now like the never-ending street on which he was travelling, and the world emerged as an enormous village of people with diverse tastes, yet basically very much alike."7
The novelist examines Reghu's mental aberrations and sufferings caused by displacement (to the so-called "land of opportunities"). He is at war with himself vis-a-vis the reaction of the native Canadians as also the established immigrants:
"He mustered all his courage to say politely `I love you'. The girl glanced to one side, then the other, before finishing her whisky in a gulp."8
"While shopping, when he held the hand of a compatriot whom he had met within a few days of his arrival in Canada, he quickly found out that it was a sign of perversion in the West. His friend severed his hand at once, saying, "This is not India".9
"Reghu went up to the apartment when the musician invited him. Unexpectedly, Reghu met with an unusual welcome. The man pulled out an empty beer bottle from under the bed and asked Reghu to return it and buy a beer for him."10
"For me, friendship is one thing, but marriage is another. Marriage is more than a mere friendship between two souls."
"Don't you think a common background, outlook and tastes are important for a successful marriage?"
"At this point Reghu became emotional. Looking into her eyes he said, 'Not at all ...'".11
Reghu discovers there is no taker for his "eastern wisdom" in Canada. He is unable to form a lasting or meaningful relationship with any girl.12
He finds the situation in the university, too, intolerable: he suffers hostile professors who force him to take extra courses that affect his regular studies and w ho harm his interests, academically and financially. The "mockery of education" forces him to "quit university without obtaining his degree."13
He is harassed for payment of loan by Mrs. Butler; he is denied help for getting a job by the Canada Manpower Office; he would not be accepted even for a job no Canadian will agree to accept; he felt humiliated by the way the Welfare Office worked; and even after obtaining Canadian citizenship the situation does not improve for him.14
Reghu, who has a sense of dislocation, alienation and loneliness vis-a-vis his effort to negotiate a space for himself between two worlds, two cultures and more than two languages-- he appears nearly pragmatic trying to learn to adjust against the "French and English cultures mingled with African and Asian ways of life"15 -- suffers anxieties about homelessness, and near impossibility of returning to his own country, India : "Why don't you go back to your country?"
"Where? The whole world is my country. I am a world citizen."16
In fact, there are others like him, for example, the Queen of Sheba from Trinidad and Mrs. Wallace who find Canada a police state17 and living there a waste of talent.18. He was himself driven to wonder why the government disgraced welfare recipients.19. Though it does not take much time for him to control his Indian mannerisms and he readily rejects what had become virtually a part of him to adapt to the values of the new land, Canada ("... I am managing to get by."20), he is chagrined to discover he is neither fully acceptable in Canada nor can he go back to his native Asian roots for fear of being ridiculed as failure by both his family and friends.21
The novelist structures the complex view of the double vision of the immigrant-- both a looking forward and a yearning backward, the conflicting tendencies of regression and progression, the desire to settle down in a new country and the external pressures to return to the motherland. His protagonist at times evinces symptoms of psychoneurosis: Like characters in Anita Desai's Bye Blackbird, Kamala Markandeya's The Nowhere Man, Ruth Prawar Jhabwala's A Backward Place, B. Rajan's The Dark Dancer, Bharati Mukherjee's Wife, or Arun Joshi's The Foreigner, Gill's central character in Immigrant appears an "ailing alien" in the oppressive socio-psychological dimensions of other characters' behaviour and situation. He is in the look out for friends who could help him "overcome the sharp pangs of life."22 Writing from the margins, Gill, like other immigrant Indian authors such as Rohinton Mistry, Uma Parameshwaran, etc., articulates an Indian voice in a foreign setting, recreating moments of crisis, anguish and anger as against the struggles for existence and identity, shocks of racism and bigotry, and various prejudices and adjustment pangs "in the land of my dreams".
He depicts the frustration of unemployed youths from the Indian sub-continent at Asian Brotherhood Centre and worries about loss of communal values and conviviality and rise of selfish, self-centred neurotics23 in the so-called democratic set up, where MPs unaware of the anxieties of their electorates, waste "time and money on futile, long and weary debates.24 . But the "idealist" Reghu's views are dismissed as a poet's just as his expectation to involve white Canadians at the Centre is rejected by his apparently friendly white colleagues. Reghu himself perseveres in his efforts to find "a suitable job of any sort, to be free from the financial clutches of welfare" but is continually a victim of racial/color discrimination (cf.ch.12). The novelist seems convinced that existence of ethnic or racial barriers in a population is potentially dangerous to democratic state.
"He felt that the country did not need scholars, or people who specialized in one branch or field. Canada had a handful of openings, usually filled by the persons born here or by British and American immigrants, who encountered no prejudice because they were not a visible minority like the Africans and Asians, who spoke differently and looked differently. The situation grew worse with the increasing number of American professors at various university departments, who loved to hire their compatriots."25
Their discriminatory policy is so horrible that Prabha, an M.A. in Library Science, "tolerated as a cancer in their main body"26, is forced to do a cataloguer's job, and driven to commit suicide. Dr. Hafeez cannot get a position in the area of his specialization despite his established reputation in the U.K.27
He can derive consolation from people like Dr. Menard and his assistant professor in Ottawa, who hoped the situation would improve one day (though they eventually leave the university in protest)28 and Mrs. Clifford, who wails about industrial and economic prosperity and material comforts of scientific progress that have rendered us, the westerners, lonelier, without love, and "robbed us of our peace of mind".29 Reghu Nath, with the stigma of a foreigner (or from a different region of Canada), himself discovers: "No matter whatever company he was in, he felt alone, at a distance. The more he tried to come close, the wider grew the gap".30
He is, however, aware of the political and economic climate, contributing to white Canadians' dislike for Asian immigrants31, particularly from the Indian sub-continent, who become the scapegoat for all kinds of slander, harassment and violence, possibly because they (Indians) are not united, or are jealous of each other? He is equally convinced that it is not the average Canadian but the privileged class, "the people with power", who carry the venom of racist discrimination: "Obviously, it was a tactic of the ruling power to divert the citizens' attention from the country's growing economic unrest".32
Possibly, Aggarwal, too, is part of the same complexes of the elite class when he generalizes prejudices of the white Canadians against immigrants because they are Christians. But Reghu is not ready to yield to any misconceived notion, irrational belief, malicious reaction, vindictive attitude, or egoistic superiority.
Gill does not seek to condemn Canadian culture: Reghu Nath understands human beings are basically alike everywhere. "Every nation has its own problems. No country was a paradise"33 and "I don't see any difference. Men and women all over the world are the same basically. These so-called cultures are man-made and cause confusion and anarchy".34
Gill's message, therefore, is clear: The problems that we face are best resolved through mutual knowledge; we should wipe out ignorance,35 the root of all prejudices, for better understanding of humankind.
1. Gill, Stephen. 1982. Immigrant. Ontario : Vesta Publications Ltd.
2. MacLennan, Hugh. 1991. Two Solitudes. Toronto : General Paperbacks.
3. Hughes, David and Kallen, Evelyn. 1996. The Anatomy of Racism : Canadian Dimensions. Montreal : Harvest House, p. 109.
4. Gamble, Rick. "Stephen Gill Builds Bridges with Books," The Expositor, September 8, 1976.
6.---------------. Ibid. p.5
7.---------------. Ibid. p.8
8.---------------. Ibid. p.11
9.---------------. Ibid. p.20
10.-------------- .Ibid. p.40
22.---------------.Ibid. p.69 & 91
33.---------------.Ibid. p.63 & p. 126
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!