Thursday, October 14, 2021

A Year in Bharat

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.

Monday, October 11, 2021

This Old House

Big Bras d’Or’s greater metropolitan area features two dwellings near and dear to me. One is the cabin I built a half-century ago, relying on resources largely limited to a few hand tools and a strong back. The other is an old house I long ago dubbed Wuthering Heights, presumably because it stands imperiously by itself on a hill with a view to kill for. From the early 1980s, it was the place where my Boston friend Bob Nagel liked to spend his summers and hold court for his legion of friends. 

The history of the old house predated Bob by several decades. It was built some time about 1890. In 1938 a catastrophe befell a local family, one reflected on the face of a grave marker in a corner of the Big Bras d’Or cemetery. The headstone lists the names of five children of Archie and Amelia Dunlap who perished in a house fire. The children ranged in age from a five-year-old namesake daughter, Amelia, to Daniel, 14. The Big Bras d’Or community rose to the occasion, providing a new home for the Dunlap parents and their surviving children—the same house that in forty years or so would become the place where mirth and merriment would be routine adornments of a Bob Nagel summer.

The lost children’s mother had been one among the tens of thousands of English “home children” exported to Canada from 1869 to 1932, children who had the bad luck to be orphans or to have parents who lacked the means to look after them. On June 17, 1899, Amelia Thompson was one of 98 children who arrived in Halifax aboard SS Siberian. Amelia was seven years old that late spring day. She was given a new home by a Boularderie Island family.

In the fullness of time Amelia would marry Archie Dunlap and begin her career as wife and mother. There are other names on the Dunlap headstone, including that of Henry, who was born in 1914—when Amelia was 23—and lived only to age 6. Yes, there was great misfortune in the Dunlap home, but there were joys too. My friend Shirley, Amelia’s granddaughter, has fond memories of her grandparents and the happy hours she spent with them in the old house. She has a picture of Amelia taken in 1959 on the front veranda. In the image Amelia is sitting in her rocking chair, smiling.

In 2002 I took the lead role in building a new screened porch for Bob at the front of his house, just where Amelia had sat in her rocker years before. The porch supplies marvelous views of Kelly’s Mountain, the Great Bras d’Or and the Bird Islands, and it became the venue for countless festivities in the years from that time right through to 2015. Shirley was among the celebrants in many of them.

When Bob left us in 2016, his many Cape Breton friends grieved not just for their lost friend but also for the happy times they had shared with him on the porch. There are steel ships and wooden ships, he liked to say, but no ship like friendship. Passing from the dining room into the porch, friends walked under a sign: THESE are the good old days.

People come and go, and so do old houses. Eventually Wuthering Heights and the 147 acres in which it stands went up for sale. At age 130 or so, the building was showing its age: a crumbling foundation, floor joists in some parts of the main floor a fella was disinclined to trust. My bet was that Amelia’s place had only a slim chance of surviving. The new owner would almost certainly raze it and replace it with something new.

But I was wrong. Rather that demolishing the historical house, Dinao, the new owner, decided to save it. A good thing, I say: the house is not only shot through with history, it has ‘good bones’ too. Under Dinao's stewardship, crumbled bits of the foundation are now repaired, new windows are in place, and just this past while, a shiny new metal roof will emancipate Dinao and her friends from having to worry about rainy days.

On Saturday Jan and I led Lynn and Louise on a tour of the excellent trail Dinao and her friends have built from the woods behind her house all the way to the provincial park at Dalem Lake. The trail is a thing of beauty and a joy for outdoorsy folks who like birds, wildflowers and the great variety of mushrooms that flourish in the forest. Savouring myriad memories at the old house, we all rejoiced at what has become of Wuthering Heights.

Bob is not available to see Dinao’s work but I have no doubt that he would rejoice in the knowledge that the old place will continue to be rich in laughter and delight for years to come.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Black Point Plenitude

Not all infections are toxic. I typically have no issue with infectious joy. The most naturally joyful people I have had the good fortune to know are Lynn and Louise, my identical-twin cousins. When opportunity arises to spend a whole day outdoors with them, Jan and I do not hesitate to seize it. Let’s go to Grand River, they suggested, and ramble the barrier beach at the river’ estuary. Will we see shorebirds, I inquired. Oh yes, we will see shorebirds. They also promised that we would surely agree that the landscape we’d see would be ‘byootiful’.

Louise led us on a meandering route to Richmond County by way of vista points people who limit a Cape Breton journey to the Cabot Trail do not see: East Bay, Irish Cove, Red Islands, Loch Lomond. From Hay Cove we turned east to follow the gravel-road route through Mount Auburn and Lochside to a body of water that reminded the old Scots settlers of one they had left behind in the old country, Loch Lomond. With no other vehicle traffic to worry about, we could brake for chipmunks, stop to photo late summer asters at the side of the road, and pause to admire a rough grouse enjoying the sun in the middle of the road. Unfamiliar cemeteries are always a lure. We paused at the hillside cemetery overlooking the loch and found that many of gravestones marked the final resting place of people named MacLeod, a lovely Scottish name, I maintain. It is a moniker I have been reliably informed means ‘Son of Ugly’ in Gaelic, a secret I share with others at every opportunity.

At the Grand River estuary we had options: turn west toward aptly named Red Head or east to Black Point. By the look of the map, the latter looked to be the more promising option for those keen to see early-October shorebird migrants. We turned east.

The barrier beach skirting the south side of Black Point Lake has sandy sections. Footprints at the lake margin enabled us to know who the local travelers might be. Birds both big and small had left their mark, but no footprints were as numerous as those left by coyotes. I am drawn to places that are favoured by coyotes and largely ignored by people. We saw no other humans this day, just the way we each like it. There were birds on and about the lake: a dozen common mergansers, a bald eagle or two, a marauding merlin intent on making a meal out of one of the shorebirds assembled further ahead.

Nearing the narrow spike of land that juts into the Atlantic, we saw the first evidence we’d made the right choice, semipalmated plovers, ruddy turnstones, a couple of yellowlegs. But it was in the leeward side of the point that the shorebird show really took flight: literally hundreds of sandpipers exploiting the feeding riches among the beached kelp arrayed along the shore. We settled on a viewing strategy. Rather than taking a slow amble to see what birds might permit a close approach we decided on a ‘big sit’: let’s park ourselves in a sheltered spot out of the wind to see what might unfold. It was a serendipitous choice. In spades.

After a while it seemed the birds had forgotten that we were there—or no longer cared. Drawn to the feeding opportunities just beyond our feet, ‘peeps’—diminutive least and semipalmated sandpipers—came close enough that we imagined we must have become virtually invisible to them—just part of the foliage. There were others: black-bellied and golden plovers, both greater and lesser yellowlegs, two pectoral sandpipers and a single red knot. Others were present in their hundreds: the peeps, and especially, mostly-white sanderlings feeding along the beach. These frequently took flight to inspect whether feeding opportunities might be better a a bit further on the strand.                     

I have been a birder for much of a half-century but never before had I experienced close approaches by shorebirds anything like those we relished at Black Point. By the end of our big sit we had identified a dozen species of shorebird and I managed to get worthy photos of almost all of them.

My well-established habit is to rate events on a 10-point scale of delight. Rarely am I so overboard about a day in the great outdoors as to award a mark as high as 9, but at Black Point I couldn’t help it: given the landscape, the birds, the weather—and of course the joyful companionship—I had no reason to award anything but a 10.