The Punjabi Hindu
Family in Ontario:
A Study in Adaptation

By: Saroj Chawla

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp. 72-76
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

This study is an insider's look at the problems of adaptation and coping in two generations of Punjabi Hindu families in Ontario. The degree of Hindu culture retention and the extent of accommodation to Euro-Canadian ways, depends on the individual family's preferences, and the differences in attitudes between the first generation immigrant Punjabi Hindu families and their Indo-Canadian children.

As a result of the 1947 partition of India, virtually all of the Hindu and Sikh population in areas of the Punjab that became part of Pakistan migrated to India. The Punjabi Hindu trader, administrator, clerical worker, or professional settled in Indian Punjab and Delhi, but others also migrated to other parts of India in search of a livelihood. Some migrated to the African continent and others to even more distant shores like Canada.

This paper discusses the lives of the Punjabi-Hindus in Ontario in terms of their family life cycle. The material for this paper was collected through informal interviews, observations, and participation in religious and cultural activities. All informants have been given pseudonyms. The discussion of the Punjabi-Hindu family in Ontario revolves around the concept of adaptation manifested in two extremes: a high degree of cultural retention and a high degree of cultural accommodation. The following two examples will explain the differences in the two types of adaptation.

Mr. Kashi

Mr. Kashi came to Canada as a student in the late 1960s. In the mid-1970s his younger brother joined him as a high school student. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the two brothers tried to start a small business. In the early 1980s they sponsored their parents and a younger brother. By the mid-1980s their extended family could have been living in a small town in Punjab, India. The two brothers with their wives, four children, an unmarried brother, and their parents live in a six bedroom house north of Metro Toronto. The two brothers manage three stores, the father acts as a financier and coordinator of the business, and the younger brother attends a community college. The marriages of the two brothers were arranged with young women from a small town in Punjab, and the youngest brother is engaged to a young woman from the same town. The three women-mother-in-law and two daughters-in law-manage the house. The senior couple spends six months of the year in India and six months in Canada. Mr. Kashi, his brother, and his father are economically successful and well adapted to Canadian society, but culturally they retain traditional family norms, diet (vegetarianism), and religious observances; the three married women observe the annual fast (karva chauth) for the wellbeing of their husbands, and the three year-old son's birthday was celebrated with the performance of "havan" (fire sacrifice).

Mr. Amar

Mr. Amar immigrated to the Canadian prairies in 1963, and six months later his wife and two children joined him. In 1966 he moved to Ontario, where his two younger children were born. His wife remained at home and took care of the children. When the youngest went to school full-time, she joined the labour force as a clerical worker. As a family, the Amars made no conscious attempt to retain the Punjabi-Hindu culture they had brought with them. The husband and wife spoke Punjabi between themselves, but the wife adopted Euro-Canadian attire when she joined the work force. No conscious effort was made to persuade their children to speak Punjabi or to dress in Hindu-Punjabi style. In the last twenty-five years only one trip was made to India. The daughters joined health related professions after completing their university education. In the mid-1980s two older daughters married Euro-Canadian men.

In the mid-195Os only a very few Punjabi-Hindu families were living in Toronto. Usually these families were those of students who came to Toronto for postgraduate studies, such as medicine and engineering. According to one informant, in 1956 there were not more than eight Punjabi-Hindu families in Toronto. There were no places of worship, and these Punjabis, mostly professionals, met in each other's homes and participated in intellectual rather than religious meetings. By the late 1960s, after the change in immigration policy, a large number of young immigrants of Punjabi-Hindu background made Ontario their home. Most of these immigrants were single men who joined the labour force as accountants, teachers, or members of other white-collar occupations. Professionals like engineers and doctors went through the complicated process of getting their qualifications recognized. Married immigrants were either childless or, if they had children, they were in their pre-teens.
By the mid seventies most single men had made the journey back to India to get married; the marriages were through advertisements in Indian newspapers or with the help of friends and relatives in India. Many of these young men had dated Euro-Canadian women, but in most cases when the relationship had become serious and might have led to marriage, the parents living in India intervened. The young man abruptly left for India and returned accompanied by a bride. In one informant's estimate the percentage of mixed marriages (Euro-Canadian and Indian) was not more than three per cent. Upon their arrival in Canada, many young wives joined the labour force as white-collar workers.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, the Punjabi-Hindu population grew rapidly, though the families remained small. Most young Punjabi-Hindu men and women did not have more than three children, and many of them found one child enough responsibility.

By the mid-1980s two developments took place in the community. First, immigrant children who had been in their pre-teens at the time of immigration and who were now adolescents or adults joined the labour force, enrolled in universities, or married. In particular more young women than men married. The second development was that in many cases grandparents joined the immigrant family. More men than women sponsored their parents. These two developments created a strain upon family relationships.

As the children reached adolescence and adulthood, their parents became anxious about the scholastic performance and career choices of young men and Canadian society's emphasis upon dating, as well as the marriage prospects of young women. Dating was considered a more serious problem for young women then for young men. Parents exerted both overt and subtle pressure to channel their sons into careers like law, medicine, and engineering, whereas some parents did not encourage post-secondary education among their daughters. The daughters tended to complete grade thirteen, enter the labour force as secretaries, and have their marriages arranged in India, though sometimes the actual marriage ceremony took place in Ontario.

Young men were able to assert themselves more than young women. They resorted to such strategies as stalling their parents' marriage proposals, or marrying a young woman of Indian origin who was in North America. In one case the young man married a young woman of similar sub-caste from Edmonton, Alberta. The bride's family came to Toronto to solemnize the marriage, which was celebrated according to the contemporary New Delhi pattern of holding "Ladies' Sangeet" (a gathering of women to sing marriage songs) a day before the wedding. The marriage ceremony was followed by a reception in a hotel. In the second case, the young man met the young woman from Bombay in Toronto. She was visiting her father's sister in Toronto, and had advertised for a groom in "India Abroad", an Indo-Canadian newspaper. The two young people met over dinner in a restaurant, and the young woman's Toronto aunt made arrangements for the marriage ceremony.

Marriages arranged with grooms from India carry the danger of role reversal and role conflict. The wife has grown up in Canada, may have a job, and knows more about Canada. The groom has yet to become knowledgeable about this country and may have to struggle to find a suitable job. At least two such marriages have ended in separation. According to a social worker, Punjabi-Hindu parents with adolescent or unmarried children find this phase of their family cycle strenuous. This is the period when the husband may start blaming his wife for bringing up the children the wrong way.

The Punjabi-Hindu family were faced with a second pressure when the grandparents immigrated. The effect of this development was felt most by the women and children of the family. The woman of the family had lived a relatively autonomous life in her nuclear family's own apartment or house, and in the absence of grandparents, the children had not learned to be deferential to older people. The grandparents, however, brought with them the traditional expectations of behaviour between parents-in-law and children and grandchildren and grandparents. Family relations became tense over issues such as the failure of the daughter-in-law to wear the traditional "saree" or "salwar-kameez" at home, or to observe religious or quasi-religious injunctions-for example, observing vegetarian Tuesday or any other day of the week considered holy by the grandparents. Grandparents accused their grandchildren of being rude and outspoken and criticized them for not speaking Hindi or Punjabi at home, and not using the respectful form of "you" when addressing their parents and grandparents. The grandparents were offended by their grandchildrens' habit of translating English expressions into Punjabi or Hindi. An innocuous expression such as "Don't bug me," when translated literally into Hindi or Punjabi sounded very rude. The mothers-in-law felt insulted if their daughters-in-law attended dinner parties and their hosts specified that seniors were not welcome. Where daughters-in-law were in the labour force, their mothers-in-law were frustrated by being reduced to the position of babysitters.

The satisfaction or dissatisfaction about life in Ontario among the third generation depended upon their lives in India, their economic and personal autonomy in Ontario, and their willingness to adjust to Canadian society. For example, the Kashi grandparents were satisfied with their role because grandfather Kashi exerted considerable economic influence. Since the two daughters-in-law were not in the labour force, there was less external influence in the home. Neither did grandmother Kashi feel she was reduced to a babysitter. Since these grandparents spent half of the year in India, the Kashi parents and children got some relief from tensions that sometimes resulted from the presence of the grandparents.

In another case, the grandfather was satisfied with his life in Canada but the grandmother was lonely and homesick. Mr. Vani, a retired army officer, spent his time playing bridge, fishing, painting the Canadian outdoors, and instructing his grandchildren in swimming and outdoor and indoor games. The grandfather and grandchildren conversed in English, and thus tensions over deferential modes of speech and address were minimal. However, Mrs. Vani felt isolated. In her late fifties and in ill health, she missed the easy familiarity of her social and extended family life in India. Mrs. Bura, on the other hand, who lived with her married daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, felt quite comfortable in Toronto. While her daughter was at work, she took public transport to different parts of the city for shopping and sightseeing.

Though the Punjabi-Hindu community is young, deaths have had an impact on families. Mr. D. lost his son in an accident, and Mr. K.'s son, a bright young lawyer, committed suicide. Mrs. S. suffered from cancer, and in its advanced stage she insisted upon visiting India. Her husband and daughter accompanied her; she died within six weeks of her arrival. Two years later, Mr. S. married his deceased wife's cousin. Mrs. M.'s mother died in a Toronto hospital within two months of her arrival in Canada. On these sad occasions cremations were arranged, and a priest from one of the temples conducted the funeral rites. On the tenth or thirteenth day after the death, family and friends gathered in the bereaved family's house for the performing of the fire sacrifice, "havan." The mourning for the deceased was, however, brief and more subdued in Ontario than it would have been in India.

Punjabi-Hindu families have brought a cultural blueprint with them, but the pressures of earning a livelihood in Ontario and the cultural influences of Canadian society have caused them to adapt to the new environment. At the same time, however, some families have made a conscious effort to retain part of their culture. The patterns that the individual families have followed vary from a high degree of cultural retention, as exhibited by the Kashis to a high degree of cultural accommodation, as shown in the case of the Amar family. The choices which families have made were affected by the presence or absence of grandparents in the family and the participation of women in the labour force. The desire to retain traditional ways is clearly accentuated when the children marry. In this case, however, young men have been more successful than young women at evading some of their parents' pressures for cultural retention.

Saroj Chawla is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at York University.

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