Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gerrad Bazaar

Executive summary by darmansjah

The colors of India along an ever evolving street

Far from the cool of Queen West, a few miles to the northeast, is the Gerrad Bazaar, sometimes called Little India. This six-block stretch along Gerrad Bazaar, in an otherwise quiet, working-class neighborhood, sparkles at night with saris swinging from the awnings and gold bangles twinkling in the window of the jewelry stores. Incense tickles the throat. “This street was our umbilical cord to India in the eighties,” says Lisa Ray.

Ray grew up with her Polish mother and Indian father in a sleepy suburb of the city but became a supermodel in Mumbai when she was still in her teens. In 2005, she starred in the Academy Ward nominated film Water (in which she played an ostracized widow), and she has spent most of her adult life in Mumbai, New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Los Angeles. “The Toronto of my youth was wound tight-very conservative, very insecure. There was no hunger for greatness,” she says.

Her return was dramatic: In 2009, Ray developed a rare from of cancer called multiple myeloma and found herself settling into Toronto more permanently. She’s in good health now, but she has stuck around. “I’m not thinking I want to be anywhere else anymore.” And anyway, she says, “It’s a very Canadian thing to make your name somewhere else and then come back home.”

As we walk down Gerrad late one morning, the sari stores are yet to open, and the mannequins are wrapped in black sheaths, eerily resembling Bendecitine monks in the sunlight. Ray points to a group of people in a jewelry store, the older women in saris, the younger in jeans. “That’s definitely a bride getting bling for her wedding,” she says.

Ray stops in front of a clothing store where a faded old sign reads “House of 220.” “People would buy toasters and ghetto blasters with Indian wiring to send to family back home as gifts,” she says, remembering crowds lining up out the door during the holidays. While her dad was buying small appliances, young Lisa would pore over glossy bollywood magazines and scour the stores for Indian products like coconut oil and herbal remedies.

Now, of course, the South Asian diaspora – much of it settled in the suburbs – can get its information about the homeland from the Internet and order a toaster online. But Gerrad Street remains a fine example of what Richard Florida calls an “ethnic enclave,” an immigrant community built around cultural identity, where the streets mirror the inhabitants’ country of origin. “For Indians who come here, the neighborhood is a kind of nostalgia for nostalgia,” says Ray.

Though still bustling, the strip has a slightly shabby mien beneath the superficial glitz, with more abandoned storefronts than there used to be. The neighborhood’s “Little India” nickname isn’t even entirely accurate anymore; these days, merchants are Pakistani a well as Indian. An Islamic bookstore and an Indian sweetshop sit on the same block.

But the restaurant are still hopping, and that’s why people travel to Gerrad from across the city. We pass Motimahal, with its fast food seats, and stop at the Lahore Tikka House, with psychedelic colored tuk-tuks outside and walls draped in mirrored fabrics inside. It’s like a Russian nesting doll: rooms within rooms and a seemingly endless basement.

Our waiter, whose hair is dyed the color of an orange Popsicle, serves our biryani on Styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery. “Always get the chicken tikka,” says Ray, sipping Limca, an Indian soda.

Ray talks about her friends in Toronto, many of whom she made since returning. I tell her Richard Florida calls Toronto “messy urbanism” in action” imperfect coexistences all round, man and nature, bikes and cars, religion and cultures atop one another-but always livable. Ray rolls her eyes at the word.

“There should be something more romantic and fanciful and passionate to describe Toronto than ‘livable,’”she says. “Can’t we call Toronto sexy yet?”

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