Dear International Students to Brampton, ON:


This is a guest blog post by Jaskaran (Jazzy) Chahal, a proud Bramptonian, a high-school teacher, and blogger.

Before you read Jaskaran (Jazzy’s) insightful piece on the contentious issue of international students from Punjab who have gained notoriety for their disregard for Canadian laws and way of life, I want to direct y’all to the commenting guidelines of Toronto Desi Diaries. Happy reading.
This picture from 1989 is of Jazzy’s dad who came to Canada as an international student. Jazzy says, “He(dad) was 20 years old at the time and he never did any of the things that are mentioned below. Times have definitely changed.”

I want to start this off on a positive note and humbly welcome you to Canada! This is simply an incredible country to live in with plenty of opportunities to chase your dreams. I wish you all the best in your studies and careers. I praise your work ethic and I understand the sacrifices that you had to make for the pursuit of a better life. It’s not easy to pack your bags, leave your family behind, and begin a new life in a foreign country. I commend you for your determination, perseverance, and resilience. You have nothing but admiration and encouragement from me!

What follows is a special note for international students from Punjab, India, as well as other Sikh students who have chosen to come live in Brampton and its surrounding areas. I’ve been living in Brampton for over 20 years now and I have personally witnessed the influx of students within the past decade. I live in the neighbourhood right beside Sheridan College where a significant number of international students are admitted, and my family has provided accommodation to several international students over the years before they moved out and rented out their own place.

While this land welcomes you with open arms, it doesn’t give you the right to take advantage of its kindness, strut around like you own the place, and disturb its inhabitants. It is a privilege to be able to come here and be able to make a name for yourself, it is not a right. I’m probably going to sound like a grumpy old man to many of you, but my words are influenced by my genuine observations and experiences over the past few years. You don’t have to listen to me, but just know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many relatives, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens have expressed the same sentiments as I have. I just decided to make it a bit more permanent in writing so you can refer to it. Once again, I’m not prohibiting you from doing these things because I’m obviously in no position to do so. I’m simply reinforcing the possibility that you can choose not to do them anymore! Here’s a list of things that you don’t have to do anymore in the 2020s and beyond:

  • You don’t have to buy a car as soon as you arrive here. If you do, you don’t have to buy a Dodge Charger, a Dodge Challenger, a Ford Mustang, or a Jeep Wrangler. There are thousands of other cars to choose from that are less expensive and can help you get from point A to point B.
  • You don’t have to buy a custom license plate that costs $300 and spells something absurd, such as “blackia,” “dabbka,” “bandook,” or “jatt.” You are not a smuggler, you are in no position to scold anyone, you can’t legally own a gun unless you have a valid license, and you shouldn’t be promoting an obsolete caste system here.
  • You don’t have to display an enormous silver or gold Khanda hanging from your rear-view mirror inside of your car. A bigger symbol doesn’t mean it’s a bigger and better religion. I’ve seen so many of them that I’ve begun to think it’s the new Dodge logo.
  • You don’t have to blast Punjabi music on residential streets at 3am on weeknights. Most people are trying to get some sleep and they aren’t going outside to do the bhangra with you. There are a time and place for everything.
  • Speaking of Punjabi music, you don’t have to idolize singers who promote gangs, drugs, and violence. It’s not a lived experience for 99% of them and listening to gangster music doesn’t magically turn you into one. Just a small reminder that this isn’t Los Angeles or New York City, it’s Brampton. Our nickname is literally Flower City.
  • You don’t have to drive like a maniac and have road rage 24/7. One of you once drove your car into oncoming traffic on the left side at night just so you could surpass my car in the right lane. Somebody could’ve lost their life that night, but I guess you watched one too many Fast and Furious movies.
  • Speaking of movies, you don’t have to Snapchat the opening credits of one while sitting in a theatre. Nor do you have to text or literally take phone calls while the movie is playing. It’s extremely distracting for the viewers sitting around you and its one of the reasons why some people are opting out of going to the movie theatre altogether.
  • You don’t have to continuously stare at people while walking or driving. Some of you stare at people as if you’re about to snatch their soul straight out of their bodies. It doesn’t make you look tough; it just makes you look creepy.
  • You don’t have to buy expensive name brand clothes or accessories to try and be “western.” Just be yourselves and dress accordingly. Your $600 Gucci belt holding up your pants is doing the exact same job like any other belt.
  • On the other hand, you don’t have to purposely wear flip flops and slides outside in the winter, especially when it’s snowing. In this case, I recommend investing in a pair of shoes or winter boots so that you don’t get frostbite.
  • You don’t have to use or speak the Punjabi language in a derogatory manner. Sprinkling in profanity throughout your entire conversation doesn’t make you sound tough. It ruins the purity of the language and makes it seem like you have a very limited vocabulary.
  • You don’t have to disrespect the gym environment and its equipment. This includes slamming your dumbbells or barbells down on the ground, leaving them there without putting them back on the rack, screaming your lungs out while lifting, and taking a few hundred pictures of you flexing in the mirror. I know that the Punjabi rap music playing in your headphones has you feeling some type of way, but you don’t have to boost your ego by losing your sanity.
  • You don’t have to get into physical fights with other international students because of a senseless argument or disagreement. Among other incidents, you took humanity back to prehistoric times with that fight in the Sheridan College Plaza. It literally looked like a bunch of cavemen yelling, grunting, and fighting with sticks and stones.
  • You don’t have to keep promoting this show-off culture that seems to be engrained within our DNA. Much of this is transferred from our parents, like when they feel the need to throw their child an extravagant wedding reception and invite over a thousand guests to flaunt their status. You can be the one that changes this and puts an end to this mentality of showing off because it simply doesn’t make you look cool and it’s not impressive to anyone.
  • Last but not least, you don’t have to forget about the generous hospitality and accommodation that your relatives or family friends provided for you before you moved out. Whether they allowed you to stay in their home for 8 months or 8 weeks, you owe them a debt of gratitude. You owe them a simple text or phone call to show appreciation for what they did for you, even if its just once a month. These are the people who helped you set yourself up in a new country across the globe and supported you when no one else would. If you slept in their bed, ate at their dinner table, drove their car, borrowed their money, or used their internet, the least you could do is a check-in with them from time to time to see how they’re doing. We live in an age where smartphones and social media supposedly bring us closer together, yet we drift further apart.

I don’t have any prejudice or bias against international students, nor am I trying to compromise their reputation or embarrass them. There are many of you who are amazing individuals and work extremely hard to make your families proud. Some of you work two to three different jobs in a week while still managing to attend class. I honestly look up to you and I admire your journey of establishing yourselves in this new environment. The list above is for the “bad apples” of the bunch, whose behaviour and attitude influenced me to write about what’s going on in my city. Hopefully, some of you read this and realize that you can do things a little differently and you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. For the rest of you, I wish you good fortune, success, and happiness in this beautiful country!


Jaskaran Chahal, A Citizen of Brampton

You can read Jazzy’s blog – Jazzy Writes here.

This desi Muslim comic from Toronto cannot be stopped or interrupted


Ali Hassan

Ali Hassan, a Muslim standup comic/actor/host, believes there are no sacred cows in the pursuit of laughter

Humour, we all know is, subjective.

But when you meet someone that believes there are no sacred cows when it comes to  comedy, it’s not hard to go (insert a deep bow here): “respect bro!”

Ali Hassan: standup comic, actor, host and a family guy, probably leads an uncomplicated life because he doesn’t obsess over offending people or conforming to stereotypes.

I think we make way too much fuss over religion when we should be chuckling over some of its idiosyncrasies.

The Etobicoke resident will be wrapping up his Muslim Interrupted show soon. The elements of the show are built on questions his six-year-old asked him when he got back from school, almost daily.

“My six-year-old’s questions ranged from, ‘Are we Muslims? Do we go to mosque?’ to more complex ones like why do I have Pepperoni in the fridge and how come he doesn’t get to eat that? The idea was to hid behind something cheeky,” Hassan explained. “You joke about what you know and that’s what I do.”

Born to a family of academics, the IT professional (he says he wasn’t a good one) turned, out to be the black sheep (enough with the animal analogy, already).

Pakistani-Canadian Ali was the lead comedy panellist on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. He was also the host CBC’s Laugh Out Loud. His acting credits include roles in CTV’s Cardinal and PBS’ Oddsquad. 

He says when he started doing shows with strong elements of religion; people came up to him afterwards and told him they learned something new.

“When I started doing this (Muslim Interrupted), I realized on pork alone, I have about 20 minutes of material,” Ali offers deadpan.

His one-man act has sold out across many venues.

But then there are always wet blankets.

“I was at the Edinburgh festival some years ago when I noticed a desi father (definitely Muslim) and his teenaged son watch me perform,” Ali recalled. “As I finished talking about my relationship to pork, they both got up and left and I thought, ‘I am challenging pre-conceived notions…if you can’t handle it, good, don’t be here.’”

Ali will be at The Rose Theatre, 1 Theatre Ln. Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. Check him out. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 905-874-2800.


Documentary peels off the taboo surrounding sex and sexuality


Ask_the_Sexpert_PosterOne film featured in the 2017 Toronto Hot Docs Fest that caught my eye was Ask the Sexpert.

Produced by Mridu Chandra and directed by Vaishali Sinha, Ask the Sexpert, chronicles the life of the 93-year-old Dr. Mahinder Watsa, a gynecologist/advice columnist and sex expert for the Mumbai Mirror.

The blurb featured “India” and “sex” in the same sentence, so I decided to see for myself Vaishali’s treatment of the subject. As I watched the film, I was struck by Dr. Watsa’s inimitable and wry sense of humour and his honest diagnosis of the dilemmas posed to him.

Mind you, some questions were so outrageous I almost choked on the tea I was sipping. Then, it hit me: In India, sex and sex education are both relegated to tawdry corners of the Internet and sleazy magazines. Understandably there’s this vacuum. This chasm, to me, has unleashed several horrifying consequences such as rape, the objectification on women in Bollywood films and this whole taboo around sex.

Dr. Watsa’s role in de-mystifying the human sexuality should be applauded instead we are told there are at least half-a-dozen lawsuits filed against the good man and the daily he writes for.

In the nine years he has been doling advice, Dr. Watsa has tackled some 40,000 letters. He started his career as a columnist in the 60s as a medical columnist for several women’s magazines. He quit that when one of the editors insisted on censoring the questions.

Dr. Watsa_Couch

Dr. Mahinder Watsa, 93, a sex columnist for an English daily in India, was the subject of the documentary, Ask the Sexpert. The film featured in the 2017 Toronto Hot Docs festival. Supplied photo.


Toronto Desi Diaries (TDD) chatted with Vaishali Sinha, 37, director, Ask the Sexpert

TDD: Tell me about yourself?
VS: I’m Mumbai-born filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Filmmaking is what brought me to the U.S. This is where my independent show-making career flourished, simply, because in the U.S. there is more support for the arts than in India. The U.S. still has a ways to go in supporting the arts, especially in these times.

TDD: What drew you to the subject of Dr. Watsa?
VS: I was interested in exploring a film on sex and sexuality in urban India especially through the lens of therapist because talking about sex is such a taboo.

TDD: Once you became interested, how did you envision you would tackle the issue of sex considering India’s a prude?
VS: I wanted a character-driven story to be a lens into larger society tackling issues of sexuality. Dr. Wasta and his work went above and beyond my expectations.

TDD: Every film/story has one point/element that changes the trajectory of the narrative, what was yours with this project?
VS: I was fortunate that I ended up with finding characters I was hoping to find to be able to tell the story I was hoping to tell. To find so many people speak candidly and openly about these controversial issues was a pleasure.
What I did not prepare myself for was the enormous personality of Dr. Watsa. The depth and breadth of his work is astounding. Telling the story through his lens allowed me to bring in another element, another character.


Vaishali Sinha, director, Ask the Sexpert

TDD: What were some of the challenges?
VS: The topic of Sexuality is an ever-growing one in India and I want to make sure my film speaks to the timeless aspects of it. Finding a balance between topical and timeless elements was hard work.

TDD: Who funded the project and how long did it take you to make it?
VS: Funding trickled in over the course of three and a half years. Early funders include:  Catapult Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute and the iTVS (co-production partner).

TDD: Were you hoping to ruffle feathers with this film?
VS: Stylistically, character-driven stories are my forte.I wanted to make a film that would push sex education and sex positivity to the forefront of the conversation.
Dr. Watsa is such an iconic personality in India and this is the first ever film on him. I’m happy those two interests, of character and sexuality, were able to come together in Ask the Sexpert.

TDD: Anything else?
VS: Ask the Sexpert is an universal story even though it’s situated in India, I hope this opens a conversation in a positive manner not just in our community, but other communities too.

TDD: Is the film screening anywhere in India? Where can people watch, if they are interested? VS: Not yet, but keep your eyes and ears open.


Toronto artist with Down Syndrome thumbs her nose at naysayers



Gurvir Singh, 24, an artist/songwriter/fashionista founded Power of One, an initiative that through art teaches participants the impact of words when it comes to discrimination.

Sassy, artistic, brave, and a total diva.

Gurvir Singh, 24, is unlike any woman I have met.

She hasn’t let her disability (Down Syndrome) become her identity rather, with the support of her family this amazing artist is carving quite a niche for herself as a fashionista, songwriter and an advocate.

When I met her, Gurvir sported a black top and jacket, paired with a sapphire blue scarf and trendy accessories. She exuded confidence I wish I could borrow.

Each of the pieces of art she brought along, turns out was the result of a powerful creative stirring she experienced when she watched: Harry Potter series, the azure blue ocean she glimpsed when she visited her sister Sara in Halifax, the music of One Direction and so on.

Without art, Gurvir would have probably carried the hurt of the words her bullies hurled at her all through her school years. Even though she was bullied, she didn’t let the bullies win.

“Words can hurt,” said Gurvir. “I was called names all through my school and one day, during a hip-hop class, one of the boys called me fat.”

I have to interject here. Sahil Prashar, whom I wrote about earlier, too was bullied.

I can’t understand the mindset of families that nurture these bullies. Children learn aggression and behaviour from their parents and then expel their cruelty outside. If I had my way, I would parade the parents and shame them like the media does with impaired drivers during the annual RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere) program.

So, back to Gurvir.

gurvir2One day, after she went through yet another volley of taunts at school, Gurvir and her sisters Sara and Navprit, launched Power of One, an arts initiative that offers series of workshops to help participants understand the impact of words in bullying and discrimination. At the end of each session, folks create a tangible piece of art to take home.

I am amazed at Gurvir’s spunk. Even though it would have hurt horribly to go to school every day and be at the receiving end of her bullies’ cruelty, she did not give up her learning. She graduated and hoped to pursue a university degree in fashion, except there are none for students with disabilities.

The Singh Sisters, as I like to call them, have taken it upon themselves to advocate for educational opportunities for those with disabilities.

“Watching Gurvir and all the barriers she faces made my family want to become advocates of change,” said Sara Singh, Gurvir’s older sister explained adding her non-profit Broadening Horizons’ mandate is to help, educate, inspire and mobilze youth to use creative expression as a tool to address social issues. “We urge people to promote inclusion in their workings whether it’s through employment or artistic endeavours. Through inclusion we can educate not just ourselves but other people as well on what inclusion and exclusion is.”

Gurvir has no time to dwell in the past. She keeps busy creating t-shirts with personalized art, writing songs and painting. Her advise to those getting bullied?

“They should stand up for themselves and maybe talk to a teacher, principal or someone they trust,” said Gurvir. “As you grow up, things change and you become stronger and that helps too.”

Amen, sister, Amen.


Gurvir flanked by the “rocks” in her life, sisters Sara (right) and Navprit. The Singh Sisters are advocates for those with disabilities and run Broadening Horizons, a non-profit group. Photo by Bryon Johnson/Metroland Media Inc.



Non-verbal autistic teen from Toronto sings in three languages


The two subsequent blog entries belong to Sahil Prashar, 17, and Gurvir Singh, 24. Both have disabilities and both have experienced bullying. I was able to put my life in perspective after meeting them. I hope you will too, after you read about them.



Sahil Prashar, 17, is a non-verbal autistic teen and a savant who can sing in three languages. Supplied photo.

 The autistic teen with the voice of an angel

The 45-minute drive through the rural roads of Caledon and Orangeville took us into the bowels of inky darkness of a fall evening.
As the GPS announced our destination, all I could think of was: Why on earth would a desi family, with young children – Sahil and Jiya – choose to live in virtual isolation?

Minutes into my conversation, Anoop Prashar — Sahil and Jiya’s dad — as though reading my mind, answers my question.

Anoop and his wife Sudha Prashar chose to move away from the bright lights of city so they could escape the insensitive taunts families and children hurled at their non-verbal autistic son Sahil, 17.

In Hindi/Punjabi or for that matter in other Indian dialect, there’s a complete absence of language and word that has both sensitivity and compassion for individuals that don’t conform to a cookie-cutter mold.

So, people resort to the harsh and inappropriate “paagal” (or crazy). Imagine for a moment, how the reference may have made the Prashars wince. To toss the ubiquitous “Paagal” at anyone with autism, Down syndrome, learning disability or mental health, is cruel.

So, understandably when society gave them the cold shoulder, the Prashars tried spirituality.

“Those preaching/visiting temples and Gurudwaras are interested in chasing religion, not humanity,” observes Sudha who has had to watch her son being bullied at school. The adults too exhibited zero compassion.

Sahil, an extraordinary teen on the Autism spectrum, cannot speak, read or write, but he can sing. Boy, can he sing.

“Sahil has recorded more than 50 YouTube videos in three languages: English, Hindi and Punjabi,” Anoop shares. “Do you know any other 17 year-old with autism that can sing Marvin Gaye and other Motown hits, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga along with bhajans and ghazals?”

That’s a truly impressive feat, except the Prashars are not social media savvy or well connected, so they have not been able to share Sahil’s gift with the world.

No takers/no supporters

On a recent day, when Sahil’s voice began to hit the notes of a spiritual song about a mother pleading to the deity, it took every ounce of willpower not to break down and sob.

The innocence on Sahil’s face as he stared into space, twisted my heart. His voice was pure.

A dad – who’s the breadwinner – leaves for work and interacts with others as part of his work, but a stay-at-home Mom’s sole focus is her child. She makes several journeys to hell and back, protecting him from pain, discomfort and the world. Worse, she has to hide her tears, so her son can see the strength and hope.

There’s no doubt, this vulnerable youngster, who cannot take care of himself or defend himself from his bullies , is enveloped in a warm and solid fortress of love. But, the question, one that likely keeps parents of  children with disabilities awake at nights is: what will happen to our child after us?

“Till date, Sahil has not had anyone his age come over to the house to play video games, he has not been invited to any birthday parties,” Anoop said. “To society, he’s invisible because he’s disabled…”

When their child was three, Sahil’s parents noticed he did not talk and missed key milestones. To their amazement, he would sing along to songs on the car’s radio.

“When he was a child, Sahil had this toy piano that he would play with until it broke,” his father said. “When it broke, we would go get another one (same make).”

This song is from the heart

Anoop, who works in the trucking/construction industry, decided to share Sahil’s incredible talent with the world, some three years ago.

Each day, he would play a song whose lyrics and melody Sahil would instantly pick, thanks to a photographic memory. Hours of practice later, the duo would record the number. The sound system they use is primitive and out dated, a second-hand Karaoke system that doesn’t capture the acoustics or inflection of sounds well.

When they had recorded a fair number of songs, armed with links to the videos, Anoop and Sudha knocked on doors of media/bloggers/YouTube influencers urging them to share Sahil’s gift. No one bit.

The Prashars are completely at loss. Music makes Sahil happy and all they want is to give him a stage on which he can perform and share his love for music.

“I want Sahil to be a world-famous Canadian,” Anoop said adding they would welcome any band/studio that was willing to work with Sahil.

To check out Sahil’s talent, visit his Facebook page here.

These brown comics from Toronto have an agenda


Nav BMDB banner-01

What: Bollywood Monster Mashup (BMM) does Brampton, a comedy/music evening

Where/when: Saturday, July 16, Spot 1 Grill at 289 Rutherford Rd. S. Brampton at 9 p.m.

Who: Ben Mathai, Amish Patel, Ernie Vicente, Azfar Ali, Crystal Ferrier and Nitish Sakhuja. Music by: Movin’ Cool, Selena Dhillon and Daysdeaf



Laughter has a colour

“My child’s a stand-up comic and we are so proud of him/her,” bragged no South Asian parent ever to another or a relative back home.

When this motely group of South Asian comedians grab the mic at MonstrARTity’s comedy and music night in Brampton, you can bet your last loonie, their side-splitting accounts will be embellished with cultural references, parental snafus, arranged marriages and ethnic jokes.

Ben Mathai, a teacher and well-known stand-up comic and actor/writer/comic Amish Patel will lob laughter bombs made from cultural quandaries and quirks. Their mimicry of relatives or a friend’s mother/uncle will most likely take over narrative at some point and send you toppling over the edge of the seat.

BMM Comedy

Ben Mathai, a well-known comic and TV star, will headline a comedy and hip-hop night in Brampton, Saturday, July 16 at Spot 1 Grill, 289 Rutherford Rd. S. The event is by MonstrARTity Creative Community (MCC), a Mississauga-based arts organization.

Ernie Vicente, Azfar Ali, Crystal Ferrier and Nitish Sakhuja will boost the evening’s comedy repertoire.

A word of caution: somewhere between the mirth and madness, there’s a pretty strong chance a performer, may go into labour. Crystal, who has the distinction of being the first Indian woman to headline the prestigious Kenny Robinson’s Nubian Disciples Of Pryor Comedy Show in Toronto, is heavily pregnant, I am told.

Buckle up and enjoy a chuckle-filled evening.

Cost of tickets is $10/person in advance and can be purchased online or $15/person at the door.

 Kem che? Maze ma, Patel Bhai?

Notice how brown comics/musicians/artists have impressive educational credentials?

If a white kid wanted to go to clown college, his parents likely wouldn’t bat and an eyelid. They would gift him a clown kit for Christmas. A desi kid’s life is just the opposite. It’s a rollercoaster ride fluctuating between emotional blackmail, followed by periods of stony silences by parents.

Brown kids suffer through years of medicine/engineering/MBA lessons, stifling their creative voices, just so their parents can get bragging rights with Mrs. Sharma.

Take Amish for instance. He’s an aerospace engineer, but he has moonlighted as an Uber driver and dabbled in other odd jobs just so he could pursue his comedic endeavour, much to the horror of his Gujju parents.

BMM Comedy

Amish Patel, well-known comic, will host a comedy and hip-hop night in Brampton, Saturday, July 16 at Spot 1 Grill, 289 Rutherford Rd. S. The event is by MonstrARTity Creative Community (MCC), a Mississauga-based arts organization.

“The thing with brown people is: we’re oppressed by our parents,” Amish says. “When I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t even answer the phone when if it was my mom on the line, especially if I was on a date or something because my Mom would insist on knowing everything…”

As the youngest of three and the only boy, his parents pinned all their hopes and dreams on their heir. They hoped, he would take over the family’s catering business and follow the herd with: a stable job, marriage and kids, preferably in that order.

“I have not fulfilled any of their expectations,” Brampton-raised Amish announces nonchalantly.”

Amish’s stand-up routines on arranged marriages, big fat desi weddings, parental pressures are a huge hit because his insights are spot on.

“Being a brown comic helps me,” he said. “My training wheels are finally off. Unlike white comedians who have to dig deeper into their lives to come up with stories of oppression, we (brown comics) have so much to tell.”

Amish, who’s in the mid 30s says he has developed a thick skin. And as he thumbs his nose at expectations and approval, this engineer/comic/entrepreneur has been leaving a trail of laughter in his wake.

That, hopefully, will be his legacy. Check out Amish’s sketches here.


Movin’ Cool, a local hip-hop group, consisting of emcees B Magic and Noyz, and producer/DJ Dusty, will amp up the music on July 16. Other artists that will elevate the event’s status include Selena Dhillon, a soul, jazz and hip hop musician and Daysdeaf, a music artist whose organic and electronic compositions are making people stop and listen. For tickets and information visit here.










How a gay Hindu wedding in Toronto changed the conversation


Rishi (left) and Dan married in 2011 in a traditional Hindu wedding. The couple are talking about their same-sex wedding and their individual journies in the hopes of creating awareness about LGBT issues. Supplied photo.

Rishi (left) and Dan married in 2011 in a traditional Hindu wedding. The couple are talking about their same-sex wedding and their individual journeys in the hopes of creating awareness about LGBT issues. Photo courtesy of Channa Photography.

Daniel Langdon and Rishi Agarwal’s love story is not a one-dimensional, linear relationship of two gay men falling in love and getting married.

Instead, when you analyze their relationship from the perspective of the society, cultural norms and religion, the central characters of this saga are not the two grooms, but, the Hindu priest that risked condemnation of his peers to perform all the rituals; Rishi’s parents – Vijay and Sushma – whose acceptance and unconditional love will hopefully help change the narrative of homosexuality within the Indian community here in North America and Daniel’s family who embraced Rishi and his culture.

These folks put aside their own pre-conceived ideas just so Rishi and Dan could experience the same happiness a heterosexual couple would have under similar circumstances.

RELIGION: Growing up in a Hindu home, Rishi learned the traditions by osmosis. As a kid, he was was bullied. He remembers coming home from school; heading straight to the mandir (temple) in his home and breaking down in front of the deity.

“Faith was very important for me,” Rishi said. “It helped me get through all of the struggles I went through as a child. My connection to that (force) we don’t fully understand is through Hindu rituals. So, for me to have a wedding and it not be a Hindu wedding was impossible.”

Daniel and Rishi were married in 2011, so why are we telling this now? This story is timeless because the couple realizes the enormous challenges gay people around the world face. The two accountants living in Toronto are aware that for individuals identifying themselves as gay within the desi community, the road is uphill.

Many choose to remain in the closet fearing the wrath of parents and the community. Rishi and Dan said they want to open a dialogue on homosexuality, religion and acceptance to prompt a social change.

It has been three years since their Big Fat Gay Hindu Wedding, but theirs may have been the only gay Hindu wedding to incorporate all elements of tradition, culture and the whole nine yards. There have been no others since then. Even though religion was not a huge factor in Dan’s coming out, he knew as soon as he connected with Rishi that Hinduism would be an integral part of their wedding and life afterwards as a married couple.

It takes a family to make a wedding memorable. From L to R: Vijay, Rishi, Dan and Sushma at the same-sex Hindu wedding of their son, Rishi with Dan. Supplied photo.

It takes a family to make a wedding memorable. From L to R: Vijay, Rishi, Dan and Sushma at the same-sex Hindu wedding of their son, Rishi with Dan. Photo courtesy, Channa Photography.

“I really like Hinduism,” Dan said. “It has a very open-minded approach to practicing it and it’s inwardly reflective. What I like is that the rituals are prescribed, but the actual thinking –at least from my experience –isn’t. So, it’s up to the individual to make that connection…”

WEDDING: Rishi remembers the day he came out to his parents. At first, they were speechless and sat in stunned silence. Then, they spent the next 72 hours researching and reading about homosexuality and trying to educate themselves. So, when a nervous Rishi, tentatively asked his parents if they expected him to move out of the house, his father told him, “Absolutely not. You’re still our son and we love you…”

His parents’ acceptance made Rishi’s journey that much easier, unlike so many others. In high school, Rishi knew of a gay Sikh boy who committed suicide when his parents refused to accept his homosexuality. Rishi and Dan’s wedding was a magical affair with all the bells and whistles. The Sangeet took place at the Agarwal house and Dan’s family put together a musical along the lines of 12 Days of Christmas.

The grooms had matching henna motifs of the other person’s initials. During the planning of the wedding, several Hindu priests turned down the Agarwals, finally, a maharaj ji, agreed to perform the rituals. It was poignant, memorable and a path-breaking affair. The garlands were sewn with red and white roses accented with blue and green orchids. The grooms looked resplendent in Sherwanis. Dan opted for a pale blue one with silver sequins while Rishi chose gold and crimson attire.

JAI AND VEERU: In 2013, the couple made a trip to India, and rather than explain their relationship to tour guides and hotel concierges, Rishi told everyone he and Dan were like Jai and Veeru of Sholay. That description was so apt and universally well received that it made a mystic journey to a land where homosexuality is frowned upon smooth and hassle free.

HUMOUR: I knew Rish and Dan were made-for-each other when 10 minutes into our conversation, Dan delivered a “baniya” joke with a straight face. It was when I asked them their plans for Valentine’s Day and Dan replied, “We don’t believe in Valentine’s Day, but since we are baniyas, we will probably celebrate it the next day!” FYI (In India, the Baniya community, which the Agarwals belong to are made fun of for their tight-fistedness).

In 2011, Dan and Rishi, had a gay Hindu wedding that succeeded in breaking stereotypes. Today, the couple are telling their story in the hopes of creating awareness. Supplied photo

In 2011, Dan and Rishi, had a gay Hindu wedding that succeeded in breaking stereotypes. Today, the couple are telling their story in the hopes of creating awareness. Photo courtesy of Channa Photography.

And so, when the talk of cuisine came up, Rishi gleefully narrated the story of how an unsuspecting Dan ended up taking a big bite of the spicy Indian jalapeno peppers (known as green chillies) that his Mom had garnished the yoghurt dip with. He assumed they were string beans and quite literally turned a deep shade of crimson.

Mirth aside, the two Torontonians, who met online and fell in love, know they are fortunate.

“I am happy and proud to be Canadian because we are in the forefront when it comes to gay rights,” Rishi said. “Also, I am proud to be living in Toronto because we have such a large Indian community that we were able to arrange for everything (for a wedding). To have a gay Hindu wedding is not something that can be done in any city in the world…”

“There’s also a big unspoken part that people don’t speak about and that is the limited understanding and acceptance about gay issues. I think in Toronto and the rest of the world, there still needs to be a greater awareness about LGBT issues. We need a lot more education,” he said. “A lot of couples will do a court marriage, the difference in our case was: we had our parents’ support. You cannot do a Hindu wedding without family and friends…”

When art meets life, so much of it is lost in translation


Dr. Balvinder Singh, an pediatrician from India has come to the realization that in real life, unlike the reel one, courage and strength of character are the real currency for an immigrant. Photo by Bryon Johnson

Dr. Balvinder Singh, a pediatrician from India, now settled in Canada, has come to the realization that in real life, unlike the reel one, courage and strength of character are the real currency for an immigrant.
Photo by Bryon Johnson

Meet Toronto’s the Dr. Cabbie.

Three years ago, an Indian pediatrician and newly arrived immigrant to Canada found himself thrust in the glare of media.

Unlike a Bollywood film where his heroism would have seen him riding happily into the sunset, reality was something of a bitter medicine.

Here’s what happened: Dr. Balvinder Singh, 42, was on a Delhi –Toronto Air India flight when a woman went into labour. The Punjab native used scotch to sterilize the scissors. A sewing kit went towards clamping the umbilical chord of the newborn and the microwave was put to use to heat the blanket to swaddle the baby.

Akash Leen Kaur weighed seven pounds and made a somewhat dramatic entry into the world, some 11,000 metres above the skies of Kazakhstan.

In the days that followed, as reports of Balvinder’s deed spread, media from every corner of the world clamoured to interview him. Interestingly, he gave phone interviews to the press while plying his route as a trucker. The media had a field-of-a-day reporting the paradox of a fully qualified and experienced doctor driving an 18-wheeler in Canada.

Balvinder soon became the poster child for “Canada’s broken immigration policy,” except as with everything, this story too has many layers.

So, recently when the buzz around Dr. Cabbie intensified. I sought Balvinder out to see how his life had panned out since his 15-minutes of fame.

For those unaware, Dr. Cabbie’s plot revolves around how an Indian doctor turns his taxi into a mobile clinic when faced with rejection by the Canadian accreditation system. In the celluloid version, everything works out well for the hero. Our real life Dr. Cabbie has an entirely different story to report.

Few months into his new life in Canada, Balvinder became resigned to the fact that his life as a physician was over. So, he enrolled in a trucking course and cleared it with flying colours.

Most people would have been bitter about having to drive a truck when they ideally should be handling a stethoscope. But not Balvinder.

He told me he was fully aware when filing his papers that he would face an uphill battle finding a job as a physician. Like most newcomers, he immigrated to the country to provide better opportunities for his children.

A few weeks into his trucking job, Balvinder quit. Disheartened, but not discouraged, he applied for jobs in the clinical research area and worked briefly in the field, but his contract was not renewed because of lack of funding. So once again he found himself at the crossroads.

“I was a misfit as a trucker,” he said. “I was physically not fit for it and the hours were difficult for my family as my wife was working two jobs and there was no one to take care of my children. Last year, I applied for 70 jobs, but I did not get a single interview. Since my priority has always been my family, I don’t regret or feel disappointed about working as a security guard or a trucker.”

He then trained to become a security guard.

“The worst thing in life is staying at home doing nothing. I couldn’t do that,” he told Toronto Desi Diaries.

He was briefly dejected when he did not receive a single response from prospective employers, but he did not give up. He continued to work as a security guard. Then six months ago, he and a friend started a foot-clinic. He still continues to work as a security personnel, occasionally.

Big Bang Theory actor Kunal Nayyar arrives in a cab at the music launch of his first film, Dr. Cabbie. Photo by Claudio Cugiliari.

Big Bang Theory actor Kunal Nayyar arrives in a cab at the music launch of his first film, Dr. Cabbie.
Photo by Claudio Cugiliari.

Balvinder has been knocked-down several times in life, but he retains his sense of humour and positive attitude. He’s an inspiration.

“I have enjoyed fame, success and money,” he said. “All I can tell you is that it’s lonely at the top…”

Getting accredited as a physician in Canada can be frustrating because even though most foreign-trained professionals clear the exams, they are up against the wall when it comes to finding residency. There aren’t enough spots and the ones that are available are offered to Canadian students who undergo their MD training abroad. According to a new study, only half of international medical graduates in Canada are currently working as doctors. The rest are languishing in survival jobs.

In the study conducted at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, researchers found in 2011, 1,800 applicants competed for 191 residency spots designated for foreign-trained physicians in Ontario, but only 55 per cent of these graduates ended up working as physicians.

Balvinder admitted to being curious about Dr. Cabbie and vowed to check it out.

“When you see it (film) from the perspective of past, it’s easy to chuckle,” he said, “But while you are going through it, you will literally feel the pain. I will still say, challenges are part of life and I can’t blame Canada for my life because we opted for the greener pastures… Canada is a land of opportunities, but you need time to cash in on those opportunities.”


Pineapple !


This is the second of our two-part blog series on Prashant Tiwari. RIP, kiddo.

20-year-old Prashant Tiwari was an aspiring hip-hop singer who suffered from depression. He killed himself while on suicide watch at a local hospital. His friends said his life will remain an inspiration for them. Supplied photo.

20-year-old Prashant Tiwari was an aspiring hip-hop singer who suffered from depression. He killed himself while on suicide watch at a local hospital. His friends say he will live in their hearts, always. Supplied photo.

If you were among the people that attended Prashant’s funeral, you probably witnessed an odd ritual.

Moments before his body was taken for cremation, the silent hall was punctuated with cries of “pineapple!”

The prickly tropical fruit, it so happens, was a buzzword for four young struggling musicians who wanted to communicate with the world and bring change through their lyrics and music.

Mayank Paul, 19, a member of Definition, a hip-hop group that Prashant belonged to, explained the chant.

A few years ago, Mayank Paul (MP), Shehzeb Iftakhar (Devious), Sukhman Dulay (Dulay) and Prashant Tiwari (PT), all members of Definition, were shooting the breeze and brainstorming about taking the world by storm, when PT, the ever pragmatic one among them, pointed out the obvious: their music was way too complex for the average human.

“He (Prashant) said we need to take all our lyrics and dumb them down,” Mayank recalled. “So, we were like, how do you dumb stuff down?”

“We need to say smart stuff stupidly,” Prashant quipped. “Yo, say anything on track, say, pineapple…”

And so “pineapple” became the mantra they used often when trying to connect with the quirky world that— at times — didn’t get them.

On a recent summer day, ten days after he was admitted to the local hospital, Prashant, hanged himself. He was under suicide watch. But, while he was in the hospital, his friends and family visited him daily.

“He couldn’t accept a lot of things and so, he wanted to change a lot of things,” Mayank said. “In one of the last conversations we had with him, he told us, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for the situation he had put himself in.”

During his short and troubled stint on this earth, all Prashant Tiwari ever wanted was, the world to validate his existence.

Definition members met by happenstance while in high school and connected. They all had one thing in common: an itch to transform the world, one hip-hop song at a time.

The quartet believed there was a growing feeling of alienation among teens today. School administrators couldn’t care less. Worse, no one in their immediate world, had the inclination or time to listen, coach or guide them.

Prashant was funny and wise. He was a jester and a philosopher. He understood the black and white shades of life, but could not handle the gray areas.

Not a day goes by when Gautam Tiwari, 17, (Prashant’s kid brother) doesn’t miss him.

“Depression doesn’t happen suddenly,” Gautam said. “It builds up. When kids leave high school, we are completely left in the dark. There’s a huge pressure to go to university. We have counsellors in school, I am not sure, if they are trained in mental health, they should be. Prashant was a driven person, but depression eats away at you slowly.”

School wasn’t Prashant’s thing. He wanted to be a rapper. Music was his salvation; his antidote to keeping the monster that was depression at bay.

“We were all pretty serious about making music that would make an impact,” Mayank said. “One of the things people should know about Prashant was that he wanted to discipline himself to the point nothing would faze him. He focused on his body and mind. Do you know any 19-year-olds interested in taking Sanskrit classes? Prashant wanted to learn the vedas and use them as references to guide his mind, body and spirit…”

“He always stood-up for what was right,” he continued. “Prashant had no problem saying anything that was in his mind. He was a very funny guy. He always did spontaneous things…”

There’s a huge expectation in our society to succeed, but what’s success? And who defines it?

Definition will be releasing an album soon that will include a track called No More that Prashant recorded a long time ago.

Prashant, you said it right. Ultimately, all existence comes down to the pineapple philosophy.


Who killed Prashant Tiwari?


  Prashant Tiwari, 20, seen here in this 2013 photograph taken at the airport in Paris. Prashant suffered from depression and was on a suicide watch when he committed suicide at Brampton Civic Hospital. The hospital has been reluctant to share details.

Prashant Tiwari, 20, seen here in this 2013 photograph, suffered from depression and was on suicide watch when he committed suicide at Brampton Civic Hospital. The hospital has been reluctant to share details.

That’s an easy one.

A gamut of systems— health, school and society—failed Prashant Tiwari.

Trapped in an abyss of darkness and hopelessness, Prashant probably felt he had no choice, but to finish the task he had set in motion a few days earlier when he grabbed a knife and stabbed himself repeatedly on the torso, neck and other parts of his body.

At that time, he could have harmed himself fatally; but instead he reached out in despair and asked his father for help. In the ER, Prashant clung on to a weak thread of hope and placed his trust— and life — on a team of professional all sworn on the Hippocratic oath.

On June 26, at approximately 2 a.m., the 20-year-old — who was supposedly on a suicide watch at Brampton Civic Hospital (BCH) — removed his clothes and fashioned a noose around his neck. He then climbed on to a chair and proceeded to hang himself from a vent in the washroom. His body was discovered three hours later.

A retired nurse that I spoke to recently expressed surprise at the circumstances surrounding Prashant’s death. Apparently, patients placed on suicide watch cannot wander into the washroom, unsupervised. How’s it that, she wondered, for three hours no one bothered to check on a high-risk patient who had few days earlier slashed himself and needed multiple stitches?

I’m certain, it must not have been easy for Prashant’s still-grieving family to revisit and share details of his life and death. Yet they did.

The raw grief on their faces as they talked about him was heartbreaking. Both Rakesh (dad) and Gautam (brother) talked candidly without sugarcoating the truth because they want Prashant’s story to be a lesson and a wake-up call for families nursing a relative with mental health issues.

“No child or a human being wants to die,” said a distraught Rakesh. “It’s only when you experience total hopelessness or have a mental illness where you have no control over your own actions that the idea of death and dying will come to your mind. Prashant was a disturbed child who reached out to authorities in his school, his guidance counsellor and in the last few days of his life to the healthcare professionals. No one helped him…”

Prashant, a child of divorce, for some odd reason blamed himself for the fracturing of his parents’ marriage. He carried guilt, truckloads of it.

Distraught father Rakesh Tiwari has been running from pillar to post seeking answers around the death of his son, Prashant. Prashant was on a suicide-watch at the Brampton Civic Hospital (BCH) when he took his life.

Distraught father Rakesh Tiwari has been running from pillar to post seeking answers around the death of his son, Prashant. Prashant was on a suicide-watch at the Brampton Civic Hospital (BCH) when he took his life.

As the drama of life unfolded in the Tiwari household with custody battles and divorce proceedings, a young bewildered child unwittingly became the collateral damage in the saga of life. He was four-years-old or even less when the world stopped making sense.

Following the divorce, Prashant went to live with his mother, but somehow a few years later, he ended up in the foster care system.

Try and imagine the confusion of a young innocent child trying to come to terms with abandonment and rejection. The effect of his turbulent childhood soon began to manifest.

Prashant was troubled and exhibited behavioural problems typical of a child that had seen more than its share of upheavals. Labeled a troublemaker, he was suspended numerous times for his difficult behavior and later for smoking pot.

In Grade 10, Prashant turned into a new leaf. He became a peer leader at school and was active in sports. The insidious demon that was depression surfaced every now and then, but the resilient young man fought bravely.

He told Rakesh that he had sought help from his guidance counsellor and his principal. He criticized the school for not doing enough to help students like himself exhibiting signs of mental health issues.

If we are looking for irony, how’s this? Prashant graduated from Mississauga Secondary School in 2012. A year before that, the school made headlines when a gruesome incident of murder-suicide involving a student occurred.

Akash Wadhwa, 16, jumped to his death (from the Hwy. 401 overpass near Mavis Road), after murdering fellow student, Kiranjit Nijjar.

Much like Prashant, Akash suffered from depression. As news of Akash’s and Kiranjit’s deaths rocked the school and the community, Prashant felt the school had let Akash down.

Prashant’s death has unearthed a can of crawling worms.

He was on a suicide watch, so why was he left unsupervised? What was a chair doing in the washroom? Why was the hospital initially reluctant to conduct an internal autopsy? And more importantly, why are the circumstances surrounding his death still cloaked in secrecy?

In my next blog entry, I will reveal details of Prashant’s life leading up to his death including chatting with his friends. Stay tuned.