My grandmother told me something strange about white people. As a schoolgirl in pre-Partition India, she learned that white skin was hardened by cold climates, which is why white people were so industrious. Adversity had made their flesh firm. Teachers and older relatives agreed: white people weren’t afraid of hard work. White ambition built great civilizations, solved problems, birthed heroes. It fattened bank accounts and expanded properties. White resolve did not melt in the hot sun; it did not succumb to noon-hour naps. Brown laziness had bought our crummy reputations in politics and finances. The sun crisped our ambitions over time until there was nothing left but vice and survival.
In 1975, a formidable majority Muslim population was tightening its grip on public life in Pakistan, making it difficult for Christians to live comfortably. My grandmother scanned the globe for a place where her faith wouldn’t hinder her three children. When her son was admitted to the University of Toronto, zarda was delivered to every neighbor’s home in celebration. Everyone in the neighborhood ate their weight in the sugary, canary-hued rice sprinkled with almond shavings. Long-grained, slightly sticky, seasoned with saffron and peppered with raisins, zarda is happiness in a saucepan; it commemorates everything from new cars to new babies. The perfume of zarda hung in the air for hours, an exhilarating mixture of sugar and spice and beginnings.
The family arranged to stay in a suburban outpost of Toronto called Brampton, and in idle moments their thoughts drifted across seas and nations into Canada: the wondrously wide streets, the quiet dignity of its national flag, the purifying chill of winter air.
In the tenth grade, my mother’s peers threw chalkboard erasers at her head from the back of class
In Canada, a dashing Quebecois politician named Pierre Trudeau had transfixed the nation. He championed relaxed immigration policies and inserted multiculturalism into the Canadian national identity. Trudeaumania was altering the country’s cultural landscape; the left was mesmerized, the right rolled its eyes. The young politician was often swarmed by throngs of youths. Canada—land of lumberjacks, farmers, and fishermen—was changing.
Still, when my mother enrolled in the tenth grade, her peers threw chalkboard erasers at her head from the back of class. Her long black hair, a dark needle in a blonde haystack, elicited sneers from girls in Jordache jeans and cowl-neck sweaters. She doused herself in Avon perfume to drown out the smell of tarka—the aromatic blend of onions and spices that anchors most Pakistani dishes. A cursory scan of the 1975 graduating class reveals many mullets and moustaches, but only a handful of colored faces scattered throughout the glossy pages.