CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007
Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees was first published in 1987. Set in 1979, it follows the story of a family from India, at a time when a large number of immigrants to Canada came from South Asia. Despite the specific references the characters make to India and their heritage, plus some references to dated events and expressions that are no longer in common usage, the challenges these characters face apply to every group that has immigrated to this country in the past and at the present time.
The challenges are of identity and adjustment. Can the first generation of immigrants ever really feel at home in their adopted country? Can they go ‘‘back home’’ once they have left? Does the second generation have any way of ‘‘finding themselves’’ if they do go back to their parents’ homeland? How long will it be until someone is considered just ‘‘Canadian?’’ Will being non-white always be a barrier to assimilation?
Each of the characters is dealing with the disruption caused by immigration. Sharad, the father, trained as a scientist, but he makes his living in Winnipeg as a real estate broker. His wife, Savitri, is exhausted with the demands of her job as a teacher and the demands of her family. In India, they would have had a higher social status and would have had servants to fulfill their daily needs.
The parents sacrificed their status for their children’s betterment, yet Sharad is often nostalgic for his past and questions his decision (“……if an Ontario poplar can’t grow and survive in Manitoba soil, what chance do we have?”). Still, he tries to instill their children with the vision of opportunity he feels that immigration offers and is confident they will retain the best of their family and cultural values. Daughter Jyoti has a white boyfriend, and Jayant, their oldest son, is planning a driving trip to Montreal with his buddies. But even though the children have Caucasian friends and are engaged in activities outside the Indian community, the two oldest are not convinced they will ever belong.
The extended family also has issues. Sharad’s sister, Veejala, announces she is quitting her job at the university, leaving her family, and going back to India. Vee has never felt comfortable in her new surroundings and has other personal problems. Her unhappiness is reflected in her unhappy children. Her son Vithal is alienated. He has failed in school and in relationships and has also toyed with extremist Indian politics. Her young daughter, Priti, needs mothering but is being left behind.
The characters find that to survive they must redefine themselves and accept each other as they have become. That does not mean leaving their past behind entirely, but it does mean that they must put down “roots,” just like a tree, to thrive. Their family bond assists them all as they go forward.
The play is an effective examination of all the issues that immigrants face. It would be an effective catalyst for discussion in today’s high schools which are full of youth from every continent. There are many long speeches in which characters bare their souls; students can test their theatrical mettle through them.
The detailed notes provided would be more suited to a screenplay or a novel. A director might find it difficult to cast a play according to these instructions, which specify that the son should be two inches taller than his father. An actor might not be able to blush as Jyoti is expected to, as well. Broader instructions would give a director the latitude to interpret Parameswaran’s text without departing from the meaning.
Uma Parameswaran teaches English at the University of Winnipeg. The immigrant experience informs her work. She has written several novels, plays and poems on issues faced by Indo-Canadians.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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