WINNER, BEST NON-FICTION STORY
Story: OLD CREATION
It was always the summer. At least, that’s how I remember it. On that street, all I can recall is the heat, the green leaves overhead, and the whirring of the streetcar as it blurred everything outside on its path to the bazaar. I hated it. The heat notwithstanding, I was being dragged by my mother on a Saturday afternoon to go Shalwar Kameez shopping, something I had no interest in. However, my father had insisted that my brother and I join my mother on Gerrard. He was working the night shift and would not be able to sleep if my brother and I were left at home with him.
I stuck my head outside the window of the streetcar and as it slowed to a stop, a cloud of dust filled my lungs, making me cough in the midday heat. I was not ten yet, still too young to find anything cooler than sticking my head out of a moving streetcar’s window. I felt fingers pinch my knee hard. I yelped and yanked my head in, banging it against the window sill. My mother shot me a glare and that was all I needed. Her reprimands were quiet and discreet in public, but that’s all they had to be. I never mistook a quiet pinch for weakness. If I didn’t behave, I knew what awaited me at home, despite my best efforts to hide the damn stick again and again.
We followed the people off the streetcar; my mother held my younger brother’s hand while I trailed closely behind. I hated this place. My parents would always loiter here too long and stand in shops buying nothing while time passed. They would enter countless stores with unfamiliar script out front, walk around, argue and repeat the process for the entire length of the bazaar. I had no idea how long the street was, but that younger me felt years older at the end of each procession.
There was music playing on that day. The sidewalk was crowded. Even then I could appreciate that the people here looked like me. There was no fear here. I’d had no idea there were this many South Asians in my city; I’d never seen such a large congregation of us anywhere else. In those intermittent trips away from my East York neighborhood, the number of people like me surprised me each time. The sounds of Hindi pop songs assailed my ears as we walked by the video stores; they cared little for my preference. When my mom slowed her pace across the man selling Tandoori, I urged her to go faster. Even that treasured food couldn’t thin my disdain for that street.
Pop songs fought with other pop songs as people walked by each other in both directions. Here they were not in a hurry as the music and yells of chai sellers jockeyed for attention. We walked into Sonu Sari Palace and I groaned as I followed my mom into the air conditioned store. Though the cool air was a welcome respite when it touched my skin, my nose instead wrinkled at the smell. The incense hung heavy in the air, projecting off of every pink, red, blue and green hue, filling my nostrils and hanging heavy on my shoulders as I lagged behind my mother. I performed a fake gag, doubling over on my knees in front of my brother who followed suit, doing the same thing but much louder. My mother shot me another withering glare, knowing exactly where my brother had picked up the mischief, though she hadn’t witnessed my performance herself.
She was busy leafing through the rack of colors with deft fingers, eyes on price tags instead of colors. I understood none of it. The desire for flashy colors with foreign smells instead of muted earths and muted flavors. At the very least, I wanted my mother to feel the cloth, to consider the colors and material, instead of thumb the price tags and trace a print over the inked number like she could change it. A sales associate soon approached. A woman in a green Shalwar Kameez approached my mother, speaking in Hindi. My mom pointed at a tag and asked the woman a question. The woman smiled softly and shook her head. Even in the air conditioned store, I could feel the heat rising on my face. I looked away with shame, hoping I wasn’t turning red. I understood the gist of what transpired.
We walked out of the store and back onto the street. We passed by a man selling roasted corn. In front of him were two white people in a crowd of brown, holding white and green cups. They had wide smiles plastered on their faces, hands extended for the ears of corn, the red spice conspicuously absent only from theirs. I didn’t care. I couldn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t just buy a damn Shalwar Kameez without obsessing over the price. I understood her slow pace was born out of comfort here, as she looked out of place everywhere else. But as I followed my mother into Nucreation, I wondered why she had to milk the comfort for every breathless moment, not understanding that every moment recalled a faraway midday sun that suffocated you with heat.
These stores appeared to trick my mother, giving her an unhealthy reminder of how weak and out of place she was in this country, their familiar façade soon betraying their unyielding customs indoors. This idea was quickly put to rest in Nucreation. I felt the magic of Gerrard on that day. We walked in once again to the breath of cool air. I dragged my feet behind my mother, not daring to make a sound lest it be the last sound I ever made. My mother leafed through a rack of Shalwar Kameez while my younger brother dutifully hung on her leg. I turned to my mother, too bored and tired and frustrated to give a damn.
“Ammu, why don’t you just pay the price it says on the tag?”
My mom didn’t say anything. Instead, she looked at me like I was stupid, disbelief and incomprehension were clear on her lifted brows. When the sales associate approached, the woman once again engaged my mother in conversation.
“Bhabi, these must be suggested prices right?” My mom inquired.
“No madam. We are fixed prices here.” The woman replied with a soft smile.
“Oh I understand. But you wouldn’t charge these sort of prices on purpose would you?” My mother had a blue Shalwar Kameez in hand she was referring to. The associate took a glance at the tag quickly.
“It’s a fair price!” The woman said in indignation.
“No, no. If I return home with this and my husband sees the receipt…you know how our men are. Doesn’t matter what country they’re in, they think they know where their money should be going.”
The woman laughed. “Okay, today I can’t do more than ten, fifteen percent off.” She said shaking her head.
“Nonsense! Bhabi – we came to this country to escape the robbers and crooks, not to find them here in a Sari shop! Listen, I’ll buy a few things here and you can meet me at the cash register with a better number.” My mother replied. The sales associate walked away chuckling while my mother returned to another rack.
I was in awe. I had no idea that my mom’s tactics could work. My face must have been frozen in a dumb expression because I remember my mother pausing in the middle of the next rack to look at me. She had a smile forming on one corner of her pink lips. The other corner remained controlled and restrained, as we were in public.
She gave me a look to unfreeze me; it was her turn to be ashamed. She thought I’d know better than to be surprised. My mother shook her head softly. This was her domain. Where things made sense and every subtle sound and movement was recognized. Nothing was a surprise. Here, I learned, she was still all-powerful.
by Sadi Muktadir
About Sadi Muktadir
Sadi is a writer in his late twenties, born and raised in Toronto. His upbringing was a powerful blend of South Asian and Western values. However, this upbringing was not altogether unique, as many other South Asians growing up in the West went through similar experiences. When he’s not writing, he can be found eating his way across the city, running 6ixspots.com with a friend, helping to celebrate some of the lesser known restaurants in the city.