By Ela Dutt
India Abroad Online
TORONTO, Oct 24 –
When he is not working for the Arthritis Community Research and Evaluation Unit or doing population research, Raywat Deonandan is doing something else that he loves – writing.
An epidemiologist by profession, Deonandan has written extensively on population, rehabilitation and other scientific issues. But he has also written intensively on his experience as the child of an immigrant family from Guyana, a West Indian who yearns to see India, sees it and develops the love-hate relationship so many have with that country, about growing up with racial discrimination in Canada, and reconciling his Canadian identity.
His parents were rice farmers from rural Guyana when they brought their two-year old son to this country. “We lived in a very small village called "Windsor Forest", a name I always found somewhat amusing and ironic,” Deonandan reminisced about Guyana. “I always got the impression that my parents felt that a job was what you did to feed your family; it wasn't necessarily part of your identity. Instead, your values, actions, beliefs and compatriots determine your identity,” he told eStart.
For most of their lives, his parents worked in a variety of blue-collar, mostly factory, jobs. Both are retired now. And Deonandan is waiting to get his Ph.D. degree after defending his thesis on in-vitro fertilization this January.
“Without question, one of the most lasting impressions is that of growing up brown-skinned in the Toronto of the early-to-mid 1970's,” recalls Deonandan. “Back then, it wasn't the embracing multicultural city that it is today.” Racial insults were a daily thing till he turned 10 or 11.
Imagine being dropped into a foreign land with no obvious sources of emotional support Deonandan recounts about the life of his parents and his own. “You speak with an accent, your cultural references are completely off, you don't eat the same food, you're much poorer than your friends, and your value system is much different from everyone else's,” says Deonandan, whose novel Sweet as Saltwater, was published last year.
“Add to that the palpable hostility shown by those around you, and you start to understand the desperate claustrophobia felt by many immigrants of that time.” Not just that, Canadians were largely ignorant of Caribbean culture let alone Indo-Caribbean culture. “There were simply no common references for finding some foothold in the mainstream culture.”
Some might have withdrawn into their shell, but not Deonandan. He took it as a challenge and tried to excel where he was offered a level playing field. “I think that's why so many immigrant children do so well in school --it's the one area where we can compete fairly, so we make the best of it. ‘
Writing the book, Sweet Like Saltwater, was he says, “the last therapeutic gasp in exorcizing those childhood memories of inadequacy.” With a Bachelors degree in science and mathematics and a Masters in physiology, Deonandan is most intense when musing over his life and times.
For Indo-Caribbean children, he said, adjustment is even more complicated. “We're asked to live between three worlds: the nation of our parents' birth, our new home, and an idealized construct of "Mother India", our ancestral home,” Deonandan maintains.
He seems now to have reconciled the contradictory emotions within himself. What he likes most about being Canadian he says is embodied in the life of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who recently passed away. “It's supposed to be a place where one is free to think what one wants, and free to express those thoughts.”
While one could say the same for the United States, Deonandan concedes, “we're different in that we temper that freedom with an ethic of compassion. Or at least many of us try to.”
He realizes that despite the problems he faced as a child, he would not have had the opportunities he got in Canada. “I cannot stress enough the glories of a good education; freedom of the mind is an unparalleled joy. There is also no better way of raising your social status, if that's what you want. Monetary wealth gets you so far, but a fluency with the facts, terms and issues of the world lets you float freely across social strata.”
Deonandan went on a fellowship from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, to study economics for a few months. “However, I truly went because the "return to India" is a dream held by most Indo-Caribbeans,” something like an ancestral pilgrimage.
“I think I was able to feel things more potently there, see things more vividly and feel things more tangibly,” he recalls about his trip. Quipping that some of this may have been the effect of the anti-malaria drugs he took, Deonandan also saw the reality of poverty and the frustrating layers of bureaucracy. But he’ll take his chances and visit again given the opportunity.
Meanwhile, he bides his time awaiting his Ph.D. degree and working full-time at Princess Margaret Hospital as an epidemiologist involved in arthritis research. “Essentially, I crunch large datasets and write reports about patterns of chronic disease in Ontario,” just as judiciously as he crunches out his other writings. His goal is to be able to write books --fiction and non-fiction-- on a full-time basis. He thinks it highly unlikely that he could support myself doing that alone, but then like his parents, he doesn’t believe he needs to define himself by one career or activity. “We are all complicated people with wide skills sets and varied interests.”
But there are several South Asian authors in Canada who have made their mark and their living by writing, including Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, and Anita Rau Badami of late. There seems no reason why Deonandan could not join the set.