When I was a young girl, in the late 1970’s, the South Asian community in Toronto and the surrounding areas was quite different. Now, South Asian stores and restaurants are prevalent throughout the GTA with pockets appearing throughout. But in the late 1970s, that wasn’t the case. When we wanted exposure to all things South Asian, we had one place to go; Gerrard Street, Toronto; Little India.
I grew up in Mississauga in a predominantly white neighbourhood. We did not have any South Asian neighbours until the late 80’s. So, when I was growing up, and we needed Indian food, or Indian clothes, music or movies, we had to go to Gerrard Street.
Going to Gerrard Street was a big deal. It was a trek from the suburbs. You were usually going for the afternoon and evening on a week-end. You would get dressed up, because after all, it was Little India and it was an occasion!
The day would be full of food. I am half Bengali, so I have a sweet tooth. The sweets that were offered were amazing. Nothing like them and because it was special going to Little India, everyone was allowed to indulge. We always brought some treats home, but they tasted best there, consumed in Little India. The gold and silver leaf on the barfis made you feel like you were eating like royalty! Nothing like it!
My dad spent most of his time looking at music and getting a few cassette tapes. He would also look at the instruments; harmoniums, flutes, tablas, sitars and test them out. Even though he was never formally trained in music, he had a great ear and became self taught on many instruments. This passed down to my brother, who became self taught on the guitar and other instruments.
My mom loved browsing through all of the sari stores with their saris, bindis, bangles and jewelry. Our favourite was Milans, which was a higher end Sari store. It was huge and I loved the smell of the fabrics from India and the colours and patterns. It smelled like India to me, the same smell that would appear when we opened the blue post marked letters from India.
I would watch mom carefully choose a sari that she had in mind, for a function and watch the saleswoman drape the sari across the counter for inspection. Mom had great taste in fabrics and patterns and her collection of saris is gorgeous. Years later, when I got married, I knew I had high standards to meet when choosing a sari for my mom when I was wedding shopping in India. My years of observing paid off because I selected my mom a gorgeous sari for the reception and it remains one of my favourites.
After we had all wandered around Gerard Street, stopping for food mixed in with shopping and browsing, it was time for the finale of the evening; the movie.
Watching Hindi movies on the big screen was pretty awesome. I usually fell asleep and missed the end, but I loved those songs and the heroines were gorgeous. No one could dance like Hema Malini. No one could fight like Amitabh Bachan. My parents allowed me to watch whatever was playing – there was no viewer discretion being applied. My most memorable movies: Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Hare Krishna Hare Ram. Satyam Shivam Sundaram was about a girl who burned one side of her face with hot oil, but the other side of her face was intact. Her husband marries her only seeing the one side of her face, but when he sees the other side, recoils from her. Whenever I went close to a hot stove with oil, reference to this movie was made. It definitely left an impression. Both movies dealt with some pretty adult issues, but those went over my head and I just remembered being enthralled with the music. If you have a chance, listen to both. The music is timeless. The songs are timeless and bring me back to my days in Little India.
Afterwards, my dad would carry me to the car and we would journey back to the suburbs, replenished with all things South Asian, until our next journey….whenever that might be.
The sounds, the smells, the tastes made me feel like I was as close to India, without traveling there, and that was so super special to me. Those days were blissful and add colour to my childhood.
But that’s just one Diva’s view.