Before reading this story, you need to know that I grew up with the belief that I can’t defend myself in a physical fight. Some of it has to do with the way I was brought up but more comes from my few experiences with physical violence in my youth where I did not hit back, and so was easily overpowered by the offending party in an all-girls school yard. It was un-settling, so I tried to figure it out and discovered that there was no desire in me to have an eye for an eye, one was enough, even when mine; if at all. As well, I realized that Gandhi, another skinny South Asian, had the answers for me in this area: the tactics of nonviolence. To stand your ground without hitting back, and to continue to speak your mind. This, as we know, is the backbone of any protest movement across the globe.
So now, the story. The first week I was in Toronto, it was summer of 1986. Me and my ex partner Saloo Khan Durrani had had some tense few months while packing up and leaving Pakistan with our two children and to start living in Canada as Convention Refugees. We had a rental apartment in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto much like Surrey is to Vancouver; both stigmatized and frowned upon for their dense South Asian and other colored-immigrant populations. We were out with our children Mariam 10 and Yermiah 6, to do groceries and we decided to go to the mall through a park.
It was nice, but it rapidly became exciting as we went further in. Away from flowerbeds and green patches and paths, there were wild flowers on a slope, loads of them, the likes I had never seen before. We all have something or the other that we are drawn to. My friend Nefertiti SheLa is drawn to traumatized bub rats and she writes stories about them, Janene White is transfixed by all small animals and she goes onto write poems for them, Janet Kvaman can’t get enough of the dragonflies, Deborah Kelly coo-es over cats, and my long time friend Broyni Baxter is crazy over dogs. For me it’s flowers, and fruits, and any vegetation. Now, having lived in England for a couple of years, and from knowing gardens of Lahore, I was aware that in a city even if flowers appear to be wild, they probably are not. But I was a new refugee, there was no question for me to buy any kind of flowers, but I still had a heart. So, I went in, and began to touch and smell them.
Saloo saw that, and he hurried ahead with the kids, encouraging me to follow. I did feel that pressure but could not leave the flowers, and then after asking their permission, I began to softly pick them. I chose and took a few, long-stemmed, one each of a kind. As I was admiring them right at the scene of the crime, a young white woman passed by on a bike. I held up the flowers, and with a big smile, shared their beauty with her. She did not smile back, and continued on. Never mind, I thought, she must be in a hurry. I got up, and began to walk to the path. Just then, I saw her come back. Something in her manner made me stop.
‘Do you know that picking flowers is against the law in Canada?’ She asked, disembarking from her bike.
My mind shouted NO but ‘Yes’ came out because it’s hard to tender lies to sudden direct questions.
‘So, you broke the law on purpose?’
‘Look at the abundance! They won’t mind if I took a few’, I said.
‘Who won’t mind?’ She asked
‘The plants’, I said.
‘You broke our law and you think its a joke? Fucking Bitch! I am making a Citizen’s arrest’, she gave a quick look around for a place to rest her bike.
‘Do what you like but please don’t use abusive language’, I said.
At this, she dropped the bike, and began to shout and froth about dirty brown immigrants, criminals, lawbreakers, welfare bums, and illiterates; a barrage of filth that I don’t remember.
A small crowd was gathering around us, and I felt as if I was being enclosed into a rapidly forming, and moving, boxing ring with a crazed individual who was about to pounce at me.
‘Are you trying to assault me?’ I asked her to make sure.
And she did.
She pounced, I ducked; but what actually saved me was Saloo who had wedged himself between me and the blow just in time. With that, my situation changed as I could now take cover, even when human. Meanwhile, the young woman’s tongue was getting the best of her.
‘You are a racist, violent and abusive individual’, I said, raising my head over Saloo’s shoulder.
She hit again. Saloo stopped the blow.
‘This is assault!’ I said.
Some people in the crowd also began to challenge her, and because Saloo was non-violent but firm in his defensive moves, she finally left, still hurling insults at me and my brown-ness, paki-ness, refugee-ness; my visible-minority-ness. Most of all, at my insistence on my right to have a bunch of wild flowers even when I was a newly-arrived, unemployed, paki brown, refugee woman, living in Scarberia.
During all this strife that took about 10-15 minutes, where the ring of violence was moved from a narrow pathway to open area; ducking, retreating and standing my ground; after taking a load of verbal abuse and close encounters with violence, i still had the flowers in my hand; beautiful, fresh and smiling.
The interesting thing is, that this somewhat is the story of my life. At the end of each unpleasant experience, I find myself standing with a few beloved people and some very supportive strangers while holding in my hand an equivalent of a bouquet of fresh cut, undamaged, wild-looking, bright-colored flowers.
Perhaps because i’m not, for example, a Black man in America, an Indigenous woman in Canada, or a member of a minority in Pakistan.
Photo: mehi.me, Inset: Saloo Durrani