Not all peregrinations need proceed by land or in the air in present time. Heritage House has just published my latest book, Capitals, Aristocrats, and Cougars. The new book is a journey into the past—to the period 1911-1926 when major league pro hockey flourished in Victoria. The ‘time machine’ I relied upon to research the book was principally the pages of Victoria’s morning newspaper of the time, the Daily Colonist. The research was a fascinating, often surprising expedition revealing much I did not know and could never have predicted. Hockey will be the lure for most readers of the new book, but Cougars also dives into the cultural, social, and political backdrop against which the city’s hockey heroes thrilled their fans a century and more ago.
Now I have embarked on another peregrination into the past. Fifty-two years ago, as a callow 22-year-old, I managed to persuade CUSO—the Canadian University Service Overseas—to have me appointed as a teacher of English literature at a college affiliated with the University of Punjab. The campus of little Baring College is tucked away on the outskirts of Batala, Punjab, in northwest India. I spent a year in India, doubtless the most momentous, unforgettable year of my life.
Now I have completed an initial draft of another book, my fifth, A Year in Bharat. It describes my adventures in the classroom, my travels throughout the country, my close encounter with the Dalai Lama, the friendships I formed with a cast of unforgettable, remarkable people. A good number of friends and others have read the manuscript and have had complimentary things to say about it. Once the launch of Cougars has been taken care of, I will look to expand Bharat in line with useful suggestions my readers have offered.
Mine is a normal, fallible, forgetful human memory. I could never have produced the new manuscript absent my dear, departed mother. Over the course of my eventful year in India, I wrote more than a hundred single-spaced typed letters to my family on the other side of the world in Halifax. Doris kept them all and returned them to me years ago. I stowed them away and mostly forget about them. Then, earlier this year, I disinterred the old letters and read them all. I decided the letters could enable me to produce a memoir of my long-ago year, one rich in stories readers might like to see. Working virtually every day over the span of several weeks from January through early March, I completed the manuscript. And felt happy with the result. Bharat ends with a contemplation of the people who loomed large in 1969-70, both those who are now gone and “those who may carry on somewhere in India, somewhere beyond my reach.”
But of course, ours is the age of the Internet and I decided
to ask Dr Google to help me find important people from my India past who might not
be beyond my reach. There was an early success: one of my faculty colleagues at
Baring, Prem Kumar, was a young poet who had already published two volumes of
Punjabi verse. I found Prem, not in India, but just across the Strait of Juan
de Fuca and Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington. We exchanged a flurry of emails
and looked forward to a crossing of paths as and when pandemic protocols permit.
Among the important people who take their turn on the stage of A Year in Bharat is one of my MA students at Baring, a young woman named Rita Bhalla, whom the book describes as the most distracting of my students. More than once I refer to her as Lovely Rita Bhalla. Imagine my surprise one day in early April to open the Gmail inbox and find a message from Rita. She had learned about me and the manuscript from Prem Kumar. The emails have flown back and forth across the globe throughout the intervening months. Rita lives in Mumbai, has two daughters and has been generous in her efforts to discover the whereabouts of people we both knew a half-century ago.
The India of 2021 is very different from the country to which
I was introduced in 1969. I have myriad questions about her country—the prevailing
tensions between factions, the impact of the pandemic, the difficulties faced
by women. Et al. What I learn from Rita will surely enhance the next draft of A
Year in Bharat.
I never know when I complete another book manuscript whether
I will be able to persuade a publisher to take it, whether it will be a success,
whether people will want to read it. I have the same doubts this time. But I
already feel richly rewarded in the effort to produce Bharat, the
memories the effort has stirred and—of course—by having in Lovely Rita the most
prolific pen pal an old duffer could ever hope for.