The New Canadians

Fiction

Rafiq Latif, handcuffed and his eyes glistening with tears, stood at the front door of his parents’ townhouse with Police Sergeant Robert Jennings. He turned to his mother, Ruksana, and muttered in muted anger, “Ammi, I did nothing wrong.”

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Ruksana couldn’t control her sobbing as her daughter, Ziram, tried to calm her. Rafiq’s father, Abdul, was distraught, too, although he managed to hold his composure.

“Beta, there is still time, tell the police everything you know,” Abdul urged, as his son-in-law Jameel held him by his shoulders.

Rafiq glared at him.

Together with their friends Kartar Garewal and his wife, Harminder, the Latif family were waiting outside for the police officers—inspectors Ravindar Singh and Howard Roff—to conclude their search of the house. It was early fall, the street was getting darker and the porch lights were on. The new bungalow was on a dimly lit, secluded stretch of Brandon Gate Drive, just off Goreway Road in Malton. The only traffic was people heading home from work. Most of the two-dozen families who lived in the recently developed neighbourhood barely knew each other.

Singh and Roff briskly came out and, nodding at Jennings, headed for the police cruiser parked in the driveway. Jennings quickly walked Rafiq to the car and they got in the back seat. Roff deftly manoeuvred the car out of the driveway and sped away. Kartar led the family into the house.

The living room was brightly lit, with three floor lamps and three more fixed to the ceiling fan. A large sofa, a loveseat and a chair upholstered in Indian design occupied most of the living room. Opposite the sofa set was a television and above it was a large photograph of the Kaaba in a golden frame. A faux Kashmiri carpet partly covered the floor, with a centre table of wood and glass exactly in the middle; it had a crystal vase full of plastic pebbles and flowers.

Moreover, when he wasn’t at his office, he was volunteering for a local Muslim youth organization.

Abdul crumpled into a chair. He was fifty-two years old, though his heavy-set jaws and large, elongated nose gave him the appearance of a wizened sage. His small eyes, behind large, black-framed spectacles, and the knitted brows also added years to his face. His hairline had receded and the hair was now more grey than black. “We shouldn’t have called the police,” Ruksana said through her tears. “Now they will frame him even if he has done nothing wrong.”

Abdul shared Ruksana’s despair. His decision to call Ravindar Singh was perhaps a mistake. Ravindar was Kartar’s nephew and a detective with Peel Region Police. “Maybe he’s not involved at all and the police will release him after asking routine questions,” Abdul said, without sounding convincing.

Earlier that evening, Abdul and Ziram had discovered a folder named “Brampton” on Rafiq’s computer, which Ziram had been teaching her father to use. The whole family used the computer in the study, which had been Ziram’s bedroom before her marriage. There was a still a bed in the room, which Rafiq occasionally used.

Much to his mother’s dismay, Rafiq was rarely home since he started working as a web designer for an event management company. Moreover, when he wasn’t at his office, he was volunteering for a local Muslim youth organization. Rafiq’s preoccupation with his work had made him even more reserved than usual. He would often be seen hunched over the desk, staring at the computer screen, with a half-eaten pizza slice or cheeseburger and a can of Coke.

It had only been a week since Abdul started his computer lessons with his daughter. That evening, before they discovered the Brampton folder, Ziram had begun to explain, “Abba, so far you’ve seen how to start the computer and how to open and close a file. Today, let’s see how we can create a new file.”

Ziram looked at the computer screen.

“Oh, look, Abba, here’s one of Rafiq’s folders on the desktop,” she said.

“What’s a folder?” Abdul asked, peering into the screen, his glasses on the tip of his nose.

“A folder is something that can hold many files,” Ziram answered. “Now look, when I click on this folder called Brampton, it’ll open and show all the files inside.”

She handed the mouse to her father and instructed him to click on one of the files. Abdul was naturally curious and enjoyed these sessions. He clicked on a document called “Oct 15.” It seemed to be an email message from someone named Ghani Haji, with “Sq 1 Plan” in the subject line. As Abdul began to read it, his pleasure began to desert him.

“Ziram, take a look at this,” Abdul said.

Ziram leaned forward .

“As salaam alaykum! Here’s the plan for Square One, Mississauga,” she read aloud. “The devices will be placed in the food court for maximum impact.”

“What does it mean?” Abdul asked, his voice quavering.

“It’s a short email Rafiq has copied into a file,” she explained, trying to keep her voice steady. “He got the email at 3:29 am, Wednesday, October 15, 2008, from Ghani Haji.”

“But what does it mean? Something’s wrong; read the next one,” Abdul said, with mounting anxiety.”

Most of them are plans to plant bombs in different parts of Toronto.

Her heart racing, Ziram opened the next document—“Oct 29”—in the folder and read the message. “This one’s about the Viva-YRT bus terminal at Finch and it says that the device should be left beneath the chairs in the terminal’s waiting lounge.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. She gaped at her father, unable to find words to articulate her fear.

“Read all of them,” Abdul impatiently ordered her.

Ziram began to read all the documents. By the last one, she was clutching at the desk for support.

In a tremulous voice she said, “These are email messages that Rafiq got over the last few months. He has copied them into a document. Most of them are plans to plant bombs in different parts of Toronto. All of them are from some guy called Ghani Haji and they end with the same lines—‘Avenge Canada’s massacre of Muslims in Afghanistan. Avenge the massacre of innocent Muslims in Palestine, Iraq and Kashmir’.”

Both of them sat in terrified silence. The message Ziram read was clear and unambiguous, and Abdul had instantly understood what it was about. His initial fear was replaced by anger and then a combination of guilt and remorse, finally settling into melancholy—all within a few seconds. He instinctively put his hand on Ziram’s shoulder, seemingly to calm her but primarily to steady his own nerves. She looked at him searchingly, her eyebrows furrowed, her face pale and her hand shaking as she nervously moved the mouse in her palm.

“Abba, who is this Ghani Haji?”

Abdul had no idea who Rafiq’s friends were. He thought Ruksana might know and called her upstairs to the bedroom. Ziram also summoned Jameel, who was watching the news on television in the living room,.

“Ammi, do you know if Rafiq has a friend called Ghani Haji?” Ziram asked, making an effort to control her rising hysteria.

“No,” Ruksana answered. She realized something was wrong when she looked at Abdul.

“Ammi, sit down.” Ziram got up from her chair. She then narrated what they had found on Rafiq’s computer. Ruksana looked confused.

Jameel printed out all the files and read them quickly.

“What’s all this?” he asked incredulously. “Call him home! Let’s talk to him.”

Until three months ago, Abdul had worked as an administrative assistant at Sloan Auto, an auto parts firm. He had worked there since he arrived in Canada in 1994, starting as a casual worker and working his way up. One day Elliot Steinberg called in Abdul and a few other long-time employees to tell them of his decision to sell the firm. He was moving to Florida.

“You don’t have to work anymore,” Rafiq had grandly announced, when Abdul informed the family that he had lost his job. “I make enough as a web designer to support all of us.”

Abdul had never felt more proud than at that moment. But he didn’t want to stay at home. He spoke to Kartar. Kartar and Abdul had worked together at Sloan for a few years before Kartar purchased an Indian grocery shop in Etobicoke. Their love for Urdu poetry had turned them into close friends. On weekends, they would recite poems and banter about the lives of the great Urdu poets Mirza Ghalib and Iqbal, or the Sufi poets Rumi and Amir Khusroo. While Kartar had prospered and Abdul hadn’t since they started life together in Canada, their bond had strong roots; each knew he could depend upon the other.

“Of course, Abdul, you can help me,” Kartar had said genially. He was a Sikh with a flowing grey beard; his long ears jutted out from under his turban. He suggested Abdul learn to use the computer because his business operations—from inventory control to retail billing—were computerized. “Nothing that is complicated and hard to learn, just the basics,” he assured his friend.

Abdul had not earned a lot of money in Canada. Bringing up children in Canada was not easy and Ruksana’s frugality made it possible for the family to make ends meet. She worked at the supermarket at Westwood Mall, not far from home; both husband and wife had toiled hard to give the best possible life to their children.

Growing up in Canada had turned Ziram and Rafiq into different individuals. Ziram was nine when the family had immigrated. Now a young woman of twenty-three, she had inherited her father’s grace and her mother’s looks but not her mother’s tender frailty or gentle innocence. She was a hardnosed social worker who worked with newly arrived women from India facing family abuse. Ziram had met Jameel at Sheridan College and after they had got their certificates both had started work at the Malton Neighbourhood Centre. Jameel’s parents had come to Canada from Bangladesh, but the Latifs had welcomed Jameel into their family when their daughter announced her decision to marry him.

Rafiq, seven years old when the family came to Canada, was the opposite of his sociable sister—a recluse at school and at home. Unlike his parents and sister, Rafiq grew up to be tall. He also had a quiet confidence that his parents and sister didn’t have. They termed it arrogance. His parents always worried about him. As both Abdul and Ruksana worked and Ziram was too young to take care of her younger sibling, they sent Rafiq to an after-school program for Muslim children run by Nagma Khan, an immigrant from Hyderabad. Over the years, Rafiq became attached to his Nagma Chachi. Ruksana would grumble that her son was more attached to Nagma than to his family. Rafiq continued his association withher even after he had grown up. At her suggestion, he started volunteering for the community and earned the distinction of becoming the biggest fundraiser for the victims of the 2005 earthquake that devastated Kashmir; he had just turned eighteen. He became a regular at the evening meetings that Nagma conducted for Muslim youth to discuss various aspects of their lives in Canada.

Three years ago, the Latifs had moved into their Mississauga townhouse. Abdul and Ruksana called it Manzil—their destination; Ziram and Rafiq just called it number eighty Brandon Gate Drive. “By Allah’s grace, we’re well settled,” Abdul and Ruksana would describe their life in Canada whenever they spoke to anyone in India, taking care not to reveal the struggle and the hardship of all those years.

Abdul and Ruksana were from Bombay. Neither wanted to remember the devastation of the city in the communal violence of 1993, when everything they could call their own was destroyed and they were forced to flee India. But they were the lucky ones. Hundreds were killed. Abdul and Ruksana had worked with Dhinmant Desai, a prominent trade union leader who controlled a textile union in Bombay. Ruksana worked in the office of an NGO that created awareness about health care and hygiene, and Abdul managed gate meetings and arranged for crowds at union demonstrations.

They lived in Bombay’s Teli Gali, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood with a Muslim majority, in suburban Andheri where they owned a small building. They also owned the shed next door that was Dhinmant’s office. Both were inherited from Abdul’s father. The municipality had renamed it Rajshri Shahu Maharaj Marg, but everyone still called it Teli Gali—so named because it had a predominant population belong-ing to the Muslim Teli community who had come to Bombay generations ago as vegetable oil dealers—teli—from the Konkan coast.

Most of the houses in Teli Gali were old and dilapidated one-storey structures. A hotel at the northern end and a flyover at the southern end served as the borders of this self-contained world, where poverty-induced camaraderie prevailed and tolerance was a necessity.

Dhinmant’s secular convictions had influenced Abdul and Ruksana, and they believed that progress and prosperity were possible only if people put aside their differences. This idealism knit the community together in Teli Gali. But competitive street politics had turned for the worse by the 1980s. Both regional and religious chauvinism were on the rise.

The Hindu fundamentalist groups led by the right-wing, ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party continued to raise the bogey of Muslims being politically favoured by the ruling Congress Party. It sought to raise its political clout by focusing Hindu public opinion on a dispute over a mosque built by the Mughal king Babar in medieval times in Ayodhya, a temple-town in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh. The Hindus believe that Ayodhya is the birthplace of the god Rama. Over the years, Hindu fundamentalists whipped up a controversy over this mosque and agitated to reclaim it as a temple. The agitation culminated in the destruction of the medieval mosque by fanatics on December 6, 1992.

This event immediately sparked riots across India. Bombay wasn’t spared. The bloodletting reached Teli Gali one evening in January 1993. Abdul was with Dhinmant at the union office and Ruksana was with the kids at home, watching television. When they heard that a riotous mob was approaching, Dhinmant advised Abdul to go home and take Ruksana and the kids to the police station.

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“Don’t worry, take my car, go fetch Sandeep Waghmare,” Dhinmant said, convinced that the presence of a police vehicle would deter the mob and it would not enter their street. Sandeep was a Teli Gali local and a police inspector.

Bombay was already burning. Mobs had taken over and were indulging in unspeakable savagery. Muslims were targeted and killed across the city. Without wasting time Abdul rushed home, and within moments, the family had reached the police station. Abdul asked Sandeep to come to Teli Gali. Ruksana and the kids stayed at the police station.

When Abdul and Sandeep returned to their street, they were met with horror. Abdul’s world was destroyed—his home and the union office were ablaze. A crowd had gathered near the hotel; someone told them that Dhinmant had been beaten up by the mob and taken to Cooper Hospital. Sandeep and Abdul rushed to the hospital, but it was a journey through hell. Shops and vehicles were on fire, and Sandeep had to manoeuvre the jeep around charred and burning bodies. At the hospital, Abdul called the police station and, his voice choking, told Ruksana that he would come to get them as soon as he learned about Dhinmant’s condition.

Dhinmant was in intensive care; he had severe head injuries and had lost a lot of blood. He would not live to see the morning.

Dhinmant was not the only victim, although he was the only non-Muslim. Nine other Muslims were killed in the attack on Teli Gali.

Abdul wanted to fight, but Ruksana managed to persuade him it would be futile. She didn’t want Ziram and Rafiq to grow up in an atmosphere of fear. Abdul finally agreed to leave India. He looked at the options they had—most Muslims preferred the Middle East, but that would mean living in an orthodox and closed atmosphere. Instead, he sold his ancestral property in Gorakhpur and hired the services of an immigration consultant who suggested they travel to Canada on ordinary tourist visas and claim refugee status. The consultant’s lawyers in Toronto would represent their case to help them get the permanent resident status on humanitarian grounds. They arrived in Toronto in July 1994.

In the study, Ziram and Abdul looked at Jameel, expecting him to explain the contents of Rafiq’s file as innocuous and harmless. Instead, he shrugged.

“Obviously, this is important information,” he said. “Otherwise Rafiq wouldn’t have saved it.” He didn’t really know enough to say anything meaningful. “I don’t want us to reach hasty conclusions till we speak to him.”

Ruksana was finding the tension in the room oppressive. She picked up the printouts Jameel had left on the table. She took a deep breath. “Saabji,” she asked her husband plaintively, “what is the meaning of all this?”

Abdul said nothing. He was trying to call Rafiq’s cell phone.

Ruksana looked at Ziram and Jameel and asked unsteadily, “He’s in big trouble, isn’t it?”

“Ammi, we can’t say,” Jameel said. Ziram looked at her mother forlornly.

“Ruksana, there must be another answer,” Abdul said irritated. But neither he nor the others could provide any satisfactory explanation.

When Rafiq answered the phone, he assumed his father was calling to check what time he’d be home. He told Abdul to go to sleep, he would be returning home late. Instead, trying to stay calm, Abdul asked his son to come home right away.

Ziram grabbed the telephone and shouted, “Rafiq, we’ve seen Ghani Haji’s messages on your computer!”

There was a moment of silence, and then Rafiq spoke. “Give the phone to Abba,” he said, in a measured, deliberate tone. Then, to his father, he said, “Abba, I am coming home.”

Ruksana could no longer control herself. “Allah!,” she exclaimed. “Is this my reward for praying five times a day? What will happen to him now?”

“Ruksana, control yourself,” Abdul said, exasperated with her hysterical outbursts. “I’ll call Kartar; he’ll be able to guide us.”

Kartar came quickly. When Abdul told him about their discovery on Rafiq’s computer, he wondered whether Kartar’s nephew Ravindar should come over. Ruksana was apprehensive: if the police got involved in all this, her son would definitely be arrested. After much deliberation, the family decided that Ravindar would be able to help them understand the situation, and even talk to Rafiq.

Ravindar arrived before Rafiq did, and the family told him about the emails. He calmly asked whether anyone in the family knew Ghani Haji. He asked them if there were any other names mentioned in the messages. Jameel sensed that Ravindar was probably seeking to link the information to something that he already seemed to know.

“Do you think Rafiq is involved with terrorists?” Jameel softly asked Ravindar.

“I can’t say. I’ll have to speak to my superiors and call them over,” Ravindar said thoughtfully.

“Will you arrest my son?” Ruksana asked, making a strong effort to keep her voice toneless, but not quite succeeding.

“We’ll speak to him before we take any action,” Ravindar reassured her, as he called Peel Regional Police headquarters.

“Sergeant Robert Jennings and Inspector Harvey Roff will come over,” he informed the family after he hung up.

They all moved from the study to the living room to wait for Rafiq. Finally, he arrived. Everyone looked at him, expectantly. Abdul and Ruksana had hoped that their son would explain everything and dispel their fears. Ziram harboured a hope that her brother would still have a plausible explanation. Jameel and Kartar stood by the front door with Ravindar and waited for Rafiq to settle down.

Rafiq darted quick, nervous glances around the room, taking in Ravindar’s presence. Ruksana asked him to sit down and got him a glass of water. Everyone in the living room could sense his unease because they were uneasy themselves. All except Ravindar.

Ziram took charge of the situation. “Rafiq,” she said, gently, “we asked Ravindar to come over to help us understand what’s going on.”

“You call the police before you talk to me?” he responded angrily.

Rafiq, where is Ghani Haji? Is December 31 the D-Day?

Ruksana was overcome with remorse. She had agreed to calling Ravindar only because the others had insisted.

“What did you expect us to do?” she asked.

“Ammi, you wouldn’t understand,” Rafiq rasped.

“If you think we’ve misunderstood the whole thing, we’ll tell Ravindar to leave,” Abdul intervened.

Rafiq looked at him sullenly and then looked down.

“You tell us what we don’t understand, or what we should understand,” Abdul said.

Ruksana, too, joined in. “Rafiq, we lost everything that was ours in India. But Saabji never speaks about it . . .”

“That’s because he’s used to being treated as a second-class citizen,” Rafiq said.

“So, what should I do? Kill people?” Abdul asked.

Rafiq kept quiet.

“Rafiq, where is Ghani Haji? Is December 31 the D-Day?” Ravindar asked. He had kept quiet in the hope that Rafiq would talk.

Rafiq didn’t respond.

From the living room window, they saw a police car drive up to the house. Ziram went to open the door. Two officers walked in. Ravindar introduced Sergeant Robert Jennings and Inspector Harvey Roff to the family. Then the three officers stepped aside and spoke in hushed tones.

Jennings returned to speak to Rafiq and asked, “Are you willing to answer our questions?” Rafiq remained quiet. Jennings turned to Abdul and said, “We will have to take your son into custody for questioning.” He walked over to Rafiq and put handcuffs around his wrists.

Ruksana began to sob and pleaded with Rafiq to explain. Abdul asked the officer, “What has he done?”

Jennings said, “Your son may be part of a larger group planning terrorist strikes across Toronto.”

“Where are you taking him?” Abdul asked.

“First, to the Peel Police Headquarters in Brampton and later to a detention centre in Toronto,” Jennings replied flatly. “The family will have to come to the police headquarters tomorrow.”


M.G. Vassanji read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Mayank Bhatt’s author profile.
Toronto Star
TopArt by Gilbert Li and Lauren Wickware