Diaspora Diary

Finding opportunities in obstacles

Jamuna Devi Advani 31 Aug 2016

Leaving India

I left India in November 1994 for Canada to start a new life with mixed feelings. Leaving behind my near and dear ones was not easy but at the same time, the prospect of settling down near our children was a dream come true. My husband, Rup, decided to join me later while my son had left for Ireland earlier to see his friend. We planned to meet at Heathrow International Airport on our way to Toronto but my son missed his flight and I had to face the immigration officers at Pearson International Airport all alone. I was nervous and started blaming my husband for allowing our son to go ahead and miss his flight. Waiting in the immigration room for about two hours for clearance as some papers were needed from Canadian Embassy at New Delhi was the longest wait. When the ordeal was over and I came out of the immigration, seeing my eldest daughter Lata waiting for me with her husband outside the airport terminal was the most joyous moment of my life. Thankfully, by then, my son had also arrived by the next flight.
It was with this rough episode that my journey – and life – in Toronto began. It continued with ups and downs like surging waves in the ship in the sea. I was, however, determined and not one to get scared of challenges.

I had not worked for over three decades in India but in Toronto, I made plans to take up a job. This wasn’t easy but determined to be financially independent, I chose to revive my nursing career. I applied for a license to work as a nurse through the Board of Canadian Nurses’ Association. After verifying my documents, I was instructed to take a course in psychiatric nursing for three months. During our training in the 1950s, under the aegis of University of Delhi, we didn’t have psychiatric nursing programme. As I waited eagerly for the training to start, I took up a job as a caretaker in a nursing home for seniors. It was a 24-hour duty, I was allotted an apartment, and I could not go out anywhere except on weekends.

Changing track

Though I was committed to the profession, I kept wondering if I could take up nursing in my 60s. This made me turn to the profession of a beautician, a dream I had harboured since my younger days. I didn’t seek advice from anyone, I didn’t consult my fellow nurses who were working in Toronto. I simply trusted my gut instinct and decided to go with the flow and enrolled myself at the local community college in the city of Etobicoke for a two-semester course in cosmetology.

Just when I started planning my professional future, something unexpected happened and there was a complete turn of events. When I completed my first semester of the cosmetology course, my daughter (also in the US) sought my help to look after her three kids as she wanted to complete her teaching course/ credential. Understanding my own desire to study and work, she was prepared to enroll me for a cosmetology course at the Beauty College in California. After consulting my husband – he was still in India to complete his pending work before moving to the US – I finally decided to move to California. In February 1996 I arrived in the US with one big suitcase. My daughter submitted legal papers to the authority for my green card. In the meantime I got my work permit.

Heady with excitement, nervous but confident, I enjoyed being a student again at the Beauty College. It didn’t matter if I was 60 years old, the learning and the potential to grow was immense. My association with the younger generations was an uplifting one and my hours of experience from Toronto and Indian School of Cosmetology helped me tremendously, even facilitating in the completion of my course earlier than scheduled. I took exams and tests for the California license in cosmetology and once I got my license, job offers started pouring in.

I couldn’t have asked for more – I had experience in a field that I enjoyed and I had financial security. Now I was waiting for my husband, my life’s companion to join me in California. I dreamed of our new future, the new chapter that we would write together in a brand new land. But two months before he was to join me, my husband passed away due to sudden stroke while he was in Shillong. His sudden death was a heavy blow to my life, it left me stunned, unable to cope and as a lonely widow in a new land. From being the person waiting with dreams in her eyes, full of ambition, prospects of new opportunities, and my companion, I felt lonely, lost and vulnerable.

Rediscovering myself

I don’t know how – and when – I picked remnants of my lonely life but with time, and through the support of my daughter and her husband, I managed to find myself healing. Around this time, the owner of Fantastic Sam’s salon offered me a job at her salon. The owner was Indian, I felt an immediate kinship and accepted the offer. Though I loved my work, I couldn’t continue for too long – we had to move to Northern California as my son-in-law had got a very good job offer in the Bay area. The shift wasn’t easy for me because I was leaving behind my friends, my professional life all over again to make a fresh start. I looked around in the Bay Area for a job for over two months – I came across JC Penney Salon and put in my application and got hired immediately – if only I had seen this salon earlier! Though it was a grueling schedule, I enjoyed my job and looked forward to my retirement after working tremendously hard. By the end of 2006, I was ready for my social security and I took my retirement.

Another turning point for me was to get spiritual guidance through NichirenDaishonin Buddhism’s philosophy. One of my clients, an American lady, over 80 years-old, had talked to me about this philosophy and though I didn’t take it seriously then, ten years later I found myself in her living room, listening to the sonorous chanting ofNamyo ho rengekyowhen I gifted her my poetry book,Land of the Dancing Deer. I found myself drawn to the tenets of the philosophy and became a member, drawn to its rich views and life-altering results.

While the particular Buddhist philosophy allowed me to find peace and calm within, I also found myself drawn to playing golf. Through a friend I got introduced to this sport at the Pleasanton golf club. I persevered and continued and I’m now a member of the Fore Women’s Golf Association and Pleasanton Ladies’ Fairways group. I don’t play it so often because of my knee aches even though I love the sport.

The Writer Emerges

My relationship with my father wasn’t easy and I remember writing my journal for the longest time, penning down thoughts and my dreams and aspirations along the way. I always loved reading and writing and much of my childhood and growing years saw me reading poetry and novels. Decades later, a chance meeting with memoir writer Linda Joy Myres made me understand that penning one’s own thoughts was a journey towards healing. I took an introductory class with her and I continued writing – I experienced a sense of overwhelming joy and calm. I got my book published and through my journey as a writer, I realised that I owed a debt of gratitude to my father – our volatile relationship allowed me to explore writing as a medium to heal. Harbouring no grudge or resentment, I found myself healing completely. I have, since my first book, published my poetry books, including Land of the Dancing DeerandSymphony of Heart Songs. My memoir, The Letter, an ode tothe Northeast, the area of India where I grew up, has been received so well, particularly from the Manipur community. To hone my skills further, I am a member of Trivalley Writers’ Club and Story Circle Network.

I’m now working on a book in our local script and dialect, Meiteilol. I am treading a difficult path as the original Meitei Mayek script is replacing the Bengali script.Still trying to master the original script, I plan to write in both scripts so that the old and new generations of Manipur can read it.


Jamuna Devi Advani is based in California. She is a keen golfer and a writer.

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