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Heritage Indian Traditions Play Crucial Role For Immigrant Families

Chaan Pardesi

Oct 4, 2008
London & Kuala Lumpur
Indian traditions play crucial role for immigrant families

Published On Sat Oct 2 2010

Eight people and three generations live together in the Grewal home. The family unit flourished in India in large part due to the absence of a social system for children or elders. In the front row, Jasmeen Kaur Grewal, Gurneet Kaur Grewal and Gurpreet Kaur. Back row, Karman Singh Grewal with dad Avtar Singh Grewal and mom Paramjit Kaur Grewal, and grandparents Naranjan Kaur Grewal and Balwant Singh Grewal.

Tara Walton/Toronto Star
Raveena Aulakh Staff Reporter

In a perfect world, Balwant Grewal’s four children and nine grandchildren would live in one big house. Or in the same city. At the very least, in one country.

When a granddaughter came to Toronto to study at Humber College, there was no question where she would live. The Grewals in India assumed she would stay with the Grewals in Brampton, where Balwant lives with his wife, his son and daughter-in-law and their three children.

“It was understood,” says Balwant. “She is family and this is her home.”

The close-knit extended family, which is rare in North America, has not only survived in India but thrived through hundreds of years of war and colonialism. Amid destitution, it provides a backbone to life in rural parts of the country. For those who left seeking better lives, it sustains their sense of belonging in far-flung lands. Its traditions — sharing, caring and respect for elders — play crucial roles in a country where there are no social services, few daycares or old-age homes.

“Young couples need their parents to help raise their kids,” explains Mehrunnisa Ali, a professor with the department of Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University. When parents get older, they live with their grown children.

“It’s a cycle that has worked for centuries.”

It works in India, and for the Indian diaspora. Though the distance between Canada and India is vast, new technologies provide voice and video connections that allow family members to provide the emotional, psychological and practical support as if they lived in the same village.

It began in the 1940s and the 1950s, when Indian families began immigrating to Canada. In the past 20 years alone, almost 500,000 immigrants from India have settled in Canada. In the Greater Toronto Area, the South Asian community is one of the largest immigrant groups, with about 589,850 people, according to Statistics Canada.

The Grewals left Punjab in 1995 after their son Avtar, 47, and his wife Paramjit, 45, persuaded them to come to Brampton. It was a wrenching decision, but his other three children, who stayed behind, had each other to lean on.

“But Avtar’s argument, that he has no one here . . . you couldn’t really argue against that one,” he says in Punjabi.

Avtar bought the four-bedroom, red-brick detached house near Sandalwood Pkwy. and Highway 410 in 1999. But before he bought, his siblings in India checked out the photos online and gave their opinion.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Grewal family seated themselves on three red velvet couches in the family room in front of a 40-inch flat TV mounted on the wall. Loud laughter filled the air as they drank pop, ate popcorn and watched Three Idiots, a Bollywood film about two friends who embark on a quest to find their lost buddy.

Balwant’s bearded face, mostly stern, crinkles into a smile as the children giggle during the film’s comic moments.

It wasn’t like this when Balwant was growing up. He was born in February 1937 near Ludhiana, then a farming community but now a sprawling industrial city in northern India. His father, a foot soldier with the British army, was killed during war in Myanmar in 1942. He was 5. His brother Harnek was 9. Their mother, in her 20s, never remarried and raised the two boys on her own.

It was a strong family but never complete, says Balwant, his eyes filling with tears.

When Balwant and Naranjan lived in Punjab, they were a 30-minute drive from their three sons and their daughter. For Balwant, that was as good as it gets.

Every evening — early morning in India — the family gathers around a laptop and one of the grandkids logs onto Skype.

In India, their cousins do the same. For the next 30 minutes, there’s excited chatter as both sides exchange news.

It’s not easy, Balwant says. It takes patience and effort.

But it is worth the effort “because there is nothing more important than a family.”

Balwant and Naranjan visit India every two years and stay for at least a few months at a time. Avtar, a truck-driver, and Paramjit, who works at a factory, visit with their family every few years too, but it’s mostly Skype that keeps them up to date about promotions, school tests, even about what’s cooking in kitchens.

That was why, when Gurpreet Grewal arrived from India, she wasn’t a stranger.

A week before the 22-year-old cousin landed at Pearson International, tired and nervous and lugging two suitcases, 17-year-old Jasmeen had already made space for her in the closet.

“Nobody told me that I would share my room with her,” says Jasmeen, a Grade 12 student at Harold M. Brathwaite Secondary School in Brampton. “I just knew that.”

There are three major events that most Indian families wouldn’t miss, even if it means buying expensive plane tickets for the whole family: Births, marriages and particularly deaths.

When Avtar’s brother-in-law died of a brain tumour in 2001, he and his parents immediately flew to India.

And when Avtar and Paramjit celebrated their son’s first Lohri — a Punjabi winter festival — in 2005, all the Grewals reunited in India and festivities continued for days.

Respect for elders, sharing and obedience is the foundation the Indian family is built upon.

“It’s like a language you hear all the time and you automatically pick it up,” explains Ryerson’s Ali.

Sometimes closeness also brings conflict, especially when there is push and pull between old family values and a new society. Pressure to conform can lead to violence and abuse.

Domestic violence occurs in every community, but immigrants from cultures where family is paramount face added pressure, says Baldev Mutta of Punjabi Community Health Services in the Peel Region.

“Family structure is a boon . . . sometimes it can be a curse,” says Mutta, whose organization has helped hundreds of battered women in the past few years.

Avtar has heard and read stories.

Of Amandeep Dhillon, the young Indo-Canadian mother who was stabbed to death by her father-in-law in 2009 because he feared she was leaving the family.

Or of Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Pakistani-Canadian whose father and brother believed they were losing control of her and so strangled her in 2007.

Avtar nods quietly.

“Everyone knows it happens . . . but what kind of a family would that be,” he says, wondering aloud. “Sometimes I hear these stories and it makes my blood boil because, you know, I have daughters, too.”

In his house, he says the women rule — not because they outnumber the men but because that’s the way it is.

There are frequent arguments with his teenaged daughters, but they are usually resolved in a few hours. About a year ago, though, Jasmeen trimmed her waist-long hair. The family is Sikh and adherents are required to not cut their hair.

There was friction and the hurt still lingers.

Avtar doesn’t say much, but Paramjit is more candid.

“It wasn’t easy . . . there are some things you have to live by in a family.”

She understands it is a multicultural society and there is immense peer pressure, but adds: “It was a sad day for us still.”

And what if one of the girls has a boyfriend or wants to marry outside the community? Will the Grewal family remain close? Will the Indian family endure?

There’s an uncomfortable smile on Avtar’s face.

“We’ll go there when it happens,” says Avtar. “We’ll see.”



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Jun 12, 2010
Real blessed home from Waheguru what you need more?...........(atleast I don't).A Family that has grandparents, parents, kids and happiness. You have everything.



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