July, 2020

Indian Men on Benches

It’s a cold and dreary day.  The weather has definitely shifted, and it’s time to pack up the summer clothes and bring out the winter wear.  The long summer days are behind us, and these darker days have brought out a pensive mood.  After picking up my coffee, I notice a group of elderly Punjabi men gathered on the benches outside the mall parking lot.  With Christmas almost here I wonder where they go in the winter.  And what about the women…where are they?

Feeling curious, and wary of what their reaction will be to a female entering their midst, I approach one of the men, and comment that seeing gatherings like this is reminiscent of a commonplace social occurrence in India.  Back East, men and women sit under trees, enjoying the shade with friends, watching the comings and goings of the village, catching up on the latest news and gossip.  I ask what message he would give people outside our community who wonder why they gather the way they do.  He tells me, these are my friends, we gather for friendship, and to catch up on news.  I notice out of the corner of my eye some of the other men stepping in closer to hear what we’re saying.

Before you became friends, how did you find these meeting places?  Lots of laughter and energy from the group as they each contribute to the response telling me they just know where to go, and which places have seating for them.  They tell newcomers about these places and in some cases discover them through their kids.

And when the weather gets colder, where do you go then?  The first gentleman replies that those who have library cards go to the library, and some go to recreation centres.  Because they know these places well, they already know how much seating is available for them.

One man who has been standing on the periphery steps forward and requests that I not write anything bad about them and what they are doing.  He’s speaking to me in heavily accented English.  My conversation with the group has been in Punjabi thus far, and I feel he wants to make a point.  Another gentleman continues by telling me that many of them are well-educated.  Some were teachers and instructors in India, and when they moved here…., his voice trails off. I understand.  Their credentials are not recognized.  Many take farm labor jobs.

The educated and uneducated, employed and unemployed take solace in each other’s company.  Once in a while they take up a collection for coffee, and for alcohol, to share with everyone in the group, regardless of ability to pay.  I want to delve into the alcohol issue, and ask if they also consume it in the park which is illegal, but feel they would not be receptive to any suggestion of finding a private residence to drink at.  In some way, these men in their retirement years are like young teenagers who loiter and drink with their buddies in parks and schools because it’s not accepted behaviour at home.

indian men bench 2As for the women, they have their own gathering places.  One of the men nods over his shoulder and tells me they are in the park over there. I look, but don’t see anyone.  Unlike the men, they are less visible.  Had I seen them, I would have liked to ask if they gather for the same reasons as the men.

A few weeks prior, I had come across an elderly Punjabi woman with a cane standing beside the sidewalk, on the street.  When I stopped my car, and asked if she was okay, her response was that she was headed to the temple.  She had taken less than 2 steps since I’d first spotted her, and so I asked again if she was okay, wondering if I needed to call 911 or her family.  She again answered that she was going to the temple, and told me to take her there.  Now normally I don’t pick up strangers, but I was really concerned about her ability to make it to her destination.  She put her cane in the car, and got in.  During the short car ride, she shared that her daughter works nights, and sleeps during the day.  Without any family member to drive her to the temple, she gets antsy sitting at home.  With nothing to do, and no one to interact with, she feels she is wasting away, and craves social stimulation.  I asked how she would have made it to the prayer service if I hadn’t given her a ride.  Her reply was that someone always stops.  There is always someone heading in her direction.

So what does all this have to do with the Indian men and women we see sitting on benches outside of stores, and at parks and recreations centres?  For some reason here in Canada it is frowned upon, mostly by members of our own community, especially the women.  Possibly because younger ladies don’t appreciate being on the receiving end of these men’s looks and stares.  The men’s dress code is criticized as sloppy, and their hygiene as being poor.  The elderly women are less visible, and receive less of this criticism.

Outside of our community I came across more curiosity about these men, and less judgement.  One friend told me it’s great how these elderly men are an active part of their grandchildren’s lives.  When she drops her grandchild off at school, she sees a lot of Indian grandparents doing the same.  Growing up, her recollection of grandparents is ‘people you see once in a while’, who give you a pat on the head, but otherwise have little to do with you.  No connection.  No real relationship.  She’s curious about the elderly Indian grandfathers she sees gathered in parks.  She wants to know more about them, and their backgrounds.

indian men bench 1These differing opinions are not culture specific.  It is not about a ‘brown versus white mentality’, but rather personal perception and experience.  Only a few summers ago, at a picnic for friends & family, the kids were having a great time, playing on the swings, and in the sprinklers.  The parents were too, until one of the little ones went missing.  We helped look for the 1 1/2 year old, but with so many people, and so much movement, we couldn’t find him.  His mother was frantic.  It felt like 20 minutes before I saw the wide-eyed mother come back to the party clutching her son tightly.  What happened?  Where was he?  Apparently he’d wandered off, past the tree-line that separated the park from the parking lot.  An Indian man sitting on the bench with his buddies saw this little guy wander over, and brought him over to the park area where he reunited the toddler with his scared parents. In that moment, I was confronted by my own prejudice against this group.  I had thought of them as, pardon my saying this, perverts…staring at me, and other women walking by (not noticing they also looked at the men).  But had it not been for them, this little boy could have wandered into traffic in the parking lot or the nearby street.

We, and I say “we” because on more than one occasion I’ve also done this…we leave our homes in a dishevelled state.  We’re only going into the store to pick up one item, and then going back home, so why dress up and run a comb through our hair?  Yes, I skipped a shower this morning, but I’m not going there to impress anyone…not these strangers.  In my current pensive state, I wonder if the body odor of some seniors is only partly due to laziness.  Perhaps fewer baths are the result of fear of slipping and falling in the tub, or even the inability to step into one in the first place.

It’s fair to say that I wish they dressed more…respectfully.  But the same can be said of me
It’s fair to say that I don’t want to be stared at.  And the same has been said to me.

Perhaps our seniors will read this, or their loved ones will share with them that better hygiene and an awareness of respectful observation would go a long way in improving the image they inadvertently project.  What is the alternative to the seniors in our community gathering together in parks, recreation centres and mall parking lots?  Being bored and depressed at home?  That doesn’t serve anyone.

After the conversation with the group of men on that cold and dreary day, I get back in my car, and sit for a few moments, observing people walk by.  Most ignore these men.  One shopper comes out of the store, sits on the empty bench facing these men, and lights a cigarette.  He doesn’t give the men dirty looks.  They also do not give him frowns for smoking in their midst.  Not interacting with each other, they peacefully co-exist.

As for what brought them out in the first place…there are as many stories, as there are Indian men on benches.

By Manjit Bains

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