Mangoes: a slice of immigrant life, South Asian style

Downtown Toronto.

Fresh snow on the ground.

A young man of about 20 on a sidewalk. He is dressed like any Canadian young man, except his tee with the word Pakistan written across, in all caps, is not too subtle.

Next, he tries to flag a city bus.

The driver doesn’t stop.

Just 10 yards ahead, the bus halts. It is the bus stop.

The young man doesn’t understand why the driver didn’t see him wave.

He tries to make a dash for the bus, shouting, “wait”. Dressed for the east-side winter, with a travel backpack, another travel bag in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, he struggles to reach the bus stop. And just then, the jiggling plastic bag bursts. He is torn between his belongings on the sidewalk and to make a last dash for the departing bus. He chooses to pick up his things and we come to know who he is.

A new Canadian. From Pakistan.

The scattered contents of his plastic bag reveal more. There are packages of ready-made South Asian food and a couple of cans with homemade food; the handwritten Persian script on the cans says it all – he is a pampered lad.

It is a scene from Mangoes – a new South Asian series in which situations bring together three young people – an Indian woman and two Pakistani men – to share one house in Toronto. Quite fascinating, except it is not a story of unpredictable India-Pakistan relations or boy-meets-girl (in this case, Pakistani boy meets Indian girl) but a story of dreams, aspirations and living the Canadian dream, told from the perspective of three youngsters, who just happen to be of two different nationalities, not any nationalities, but India and Pakistan.

The two nations, who at one time had a single identity, were born out of bloodshed of partition. Since their birth 65 years ago, they have fought, and made efforts for peace. Their bone of contention is primarily the Kashmir issue.

But in the Canadian landscape, the three lead characters, Asha, Sami and Rakay find their way to look beyond the political issues daunting their homelands and live with one another. As Asha, the female protagonist makes it clear to the lead character Sami, “anything but Kashmir”.

The name of the series, Mangoes is a take on common people. ‘Common’ is translated ‘aam’ in Hindi/Urdu and ‘aam’ is Hindi/Urdu for the fruit mango as well. Mangoes = aam = common people.

I can’t thank my friend, Vijay Vaibhav Saini enough for introducing the show to me. I just finished watching episode six – the season finale. (The series is available free on YouTube)

Simply put: I LOVED Mangoes.

Especially the scene I describe in the opening. The character of Rakay tries to flag a bus, because it is normal in South Asia. Not in metro cities or not even in some smaller cities where bus drivers halt at only scheduled bus stops, but everyone in between. The human factor plays a huge role.

I never flagged a bus in Canada or even in India for that matter, but I could relate to the scene and it made me laugh and feel nostalgic.

The series has filled a void for people like me, first-generation immigrants to the country – from educated, urban, western enclaves in South Asia who take a conscious decision to immigrate under the skilled worker category and make a life in the Canadian landscape.

Young people, who are used to the western lifestyle, speak fluent English in addition to their own national and regional languages. People who don’t have support of extended families in Canada, who know they have to work hard and make it work for themselves, as they have no one to fall back for support.

Young people who leave everything they have ever known behind, and move to an unfamiliar set-up where they are misunderstood, and judged for just being who they are. Not only by people from other cultures but also by people who belong to the same.

Mangoes touched this aspect very sensitively in one episode:

The character of Rakay is romantically drawn to his former neighbour in Pakistan, a young girl, Kiran. But the character of Kiran, who is shown to have emigrated from Pakistan as a young girl, years before Rakay did, looks down at him for being so un-Canadian like.

Even though she likes him, she is mortified to be associated with him in front of her Canadian friends, who make fun of him and call him a FOB – fresh off the boat, an expression used mostly by born and raised youngsters for their peers who have just arrived from “homelands” and are not well-versed with the Canadian lifestyle.

Khurram Suhrwardy, who plays Rakay and is also the director of the series, deserves accolades for playing Rakay brilliantly.

Rakay is gullible, struggling to find a foothold in a new society and lives by patriarchal standards. But he manages to exude innocence even when his behaviour is foolish. The scene where he takes a firm stand for his dignity when the woman he is trying to woo tramples on his self-respect is heartwarming. He walks away from her, a clear winner.

Sami played by Adeel Suhrwardy calls for a special mention. He plays a range of emotions – from his desire to prove himself to his family back in Pakistan and his struggle to find his identity in Canada’s multicultural society. He is a fine actor and you easily journey with him. When his prospective White employer continuously mistakes him for an Indian, he expresses frustration, but in a subtle manner, not stereotypically melodramatic. He doesn’t always play by the rules, making him more real and not reel-like.

Maha Warsi, who plays the Indian character of Asha, is a feminist and is quite at ease playing an Indian woman living with two Pakistani men – Sami with a mature mindset and the naïve Rakay. My only contention is Asha does not sound Indian. I have no nationalistic problems of a Pakistani playing an Indian character and I do understand that an actor plays a character that he or she is not in real life.

The show’s language is reflective of the characters – urban youngsters, recent South Asian immigrants, who speak both English and Hindi/Urdu fluently. (Indian-origin youngsters speak Hindi and Pakistani-origin, Urdu). Hindi and Urdu are very similar, but the tones, and some words are unique to both languages.

Naturally, I missed the Indian urban lingo in Asha. So I looked for answer. I wrote to Adeel Suhrwardy, one of the series’ creators asking if Asha’s accent sounded Pakistani only to my ears.

Mr. Suhrwardy was very forthcoming and he wrote back explaining that Ms. Warsi’s heritage is in fact Pakistani and she grew up in the UAE before moving to Canada. The makers picked her because her audition was one of the best among the Indian and Pakistani-origin girls who showed interest in the role.

I do understand Mr. Suhrwardy’s frustration around this issue. He said “it is hard to find talent, of Indian origin, and to get them interested to work for a South Asian production house in Canada, whose body of work is only known to Pakistani audience”.

The main reason that led to her hiring, Mr. Suhrwardy wrote, was she had more command over the language as compared to the other women who auditioned, irrespective of their backgrounds.

I completely agree with Mr. Suhrwardy. She sounds good, but not very Indian urbanite. I am sure it can be easily resolved; after all we are in Canada. Maybe more research on Indian urban lingo or a writer/expert to help them out. With Ms. Warsi’s capabilities, I am sure she will be up to the challenge. If she can do that, a lot of people of Indian heritage will relate to her and to the series.

Mr. Suhrwardy, you and your brother have done a commendable job. I wish you all the luck to produce season two that will, I hope, reach over to audiences from other cultures.

And finally, a special thanks for showing Canada the way it is – South Asians with White neighbours, Jew friends, and interacting with people from different ethnicities – something the mainstream TV shows conveniently miss out.

I strongly recommend Mangoes, even to non-South Asians (the show is subtitled in English). The multicultural highlight of the show: Canadian singer of Hong Kong descent, Kristie Yung has sung the title track in Urdu (Hindi to my ears) with Pakistani pop legend, Alamgir. If not the show, do watch the uplifting track, Keh Dena.

To Suhrwardy brothers: I can’t wait for season two.

Categories: Canadian Identity

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13 replies

  1. Reading your post has further elaborated my perspective on the sensitive nerves touched by Mangoes. A great review! As for introducing this series to you, I was just spreading the word about a job well done. Thank you for taking the time to watch it. And keeping in line with the habit of spreading the word about a job well done, I am sharing this post on my fb wall 🙂

  2. I love mangoes too!! But I love the ida of intercultural friendship even more. Definitely a worthwhile cause that should be vigorously pursued!

  3. A very well written review Sandhu 🙂 I watched the drama and felt rakay in me as I am kinda same in so many aspects may be a bit more annoying. I am heading to Toronto for the first time in September to pursue my masters from waterloo and the show was spot on.

  4. I liked your analysis about Mangoes……i am also looking forward for season 2……!

  5. you write good i am frm pakistan and i go every year to visit india ,, bt i think the tone of indian and pakistan girls have no major accent is so different she actually very good i like here very much…. may i know more about you sandhu bharma are you proffesional blogger or do something else !!!!!

  6. Thanks for introducing me, so eloquently, to Mangoes. The image of the man torn between public bus (transportation for common “Canadian” people and food from home is poignant. I will watch it on YouTube with my kids.

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