I remember when my grandfather started to forget.

In 2014, he told me he left eggs cooking on the stove and then went out of his house to run errands. When he returned, the kitchen was foggy and smoky.

A year later, he was struggling to understand where he was or who he was around. He could no longer read.

And then he began months of screaming, crying and despair as he lost more and more of himself. This is the limbo period of dementia, between who you are and where the loss takes you. Where you can recognize that you are drifting further and further away from your memories and your identity. This is where the real pain is.

I could tell he was slowly falling down a pit, with my family and I watching him, as he clutched his way back to the surface. But he couldn’t, and slipped into darkness.

What he also forgot was how to speak English. He resumed speaking Telugu, his first language. He only occasionally uttered a word or phrase in English, but none of it was consistent. Yet these small instances have given our family moments of connectedness.

But I, as a third generation kid in Canada who only spoke English, realized that my last chance to reach him was lost. He was a man who centered me in his life, and adored me, unequivocally. When I had health issues as a teenager, he said he would do anything to face any struggle I faced, in my place. Now he was in more pain than I ever imagined and I felt I had let him down by not even being able to provide words of comfort that he could understand.

Losing the ability to speak to her, I also felt parts of my identity and culture disappear as our conversations got lost in translation.

Then in 2019, Tata (meaning grandfather in Telugu) passed away.

With him gone, not only mentally but physically, I felt my roots drift further and further away. Besides not knowing the language, this thought was always accentuated by the fact that I didn’t have an Indian name – something that often made me feel like I had to prove that my South Asian identity belonged to me.

I never learned Telugu because he decided that Canada wouldn’t have it, wouldn’t have us, if the family relied on our language.

Born Subrahmanyam Yerramilli, Tata grew up in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. At the end of the 1960s, he, my grandmother, my mother and my aunt left India for Mississauga, because he was given a job as a nuclear engineer.

As my mother and aunt grew up, he wanted them to speak English at home. My grandparents also didn’t mingle with the small Indian community that was in the GTA in the 1970s, finding that it didn’t reflect who they were.

My grandmother tells me now that they felt they had no other choice — how could they find a job, have friends or go to university if they did not prioritize English ? All of their neighbors were white and they came to Canada alone with two young children. They didn’t want to be stared at, for their clothes or their food – they wanted to be accepted.

But despite everything, in the comfort of our home, we never forgot our roots. My grandmother still wore a sari inside, making upma, a porridge-like dish made from semolina, and idlies, round rice cakes. In their basement is a puja mandir, which is a temple for Hindus.

Olivia Bowden's mother, aunt and grandparents in the 1960s.

However, this bond constantly faced the strains of integrating into Canada, a country that my Tata loved, but which eventually took away part of our culture. Ironically, it would be during the last moments of my Tata’s life that I would be unable to communicate with him, despite his enormous efforts to start a new life here.

That’s why at 28, more than two years after his death, I finally set about learning an essentially Indian language. Unfortunately, Telugu language courses are only available with private lessons. So, now I’m learning Hindi (even though I have ancestors who probably wouldn’t be happy about that). Yet for me it is important that when I visit India I can have basic conversations in a language other than English, and soak up the world where my family is from and better understand parts of who I am and what I came from.

The Hindi I am learning is very basic and conversational, but I feel reassured knowing that I will be able to visit India with my family and be able to order a coffee. I understand Bollywood movies better without subtitles. And while that may seem like small steps, it’s a world that is part of me, that my family felt they had to hide in this country.

While this encourages me to go all the way, I can’t help but think about what my family felt they had to leave behind to reap the benefits of becoming “Canadian” and fitting into a “minority” identity. model” prescribed here.

What I wish was that he had come to a different Canada, a Canada where he didn’t feel he had to leave Telugu behind. If it’s still possible.

Olivia Bowden as a child in a saree.

This is often why I am drawn to writing about equity and the culturally specific lens in all aspects of our institutions, from health care to education to housing. This pandemic has made it clear that our systems coldly exclude those who are not fluent in English, even as Canada relies on immigration and uses it as a political talking point to gain favor on the world stage.

I don’t know if he would be happy for me to want to revive parts of his culture that he sought to leave behind, but I do know that he enjoyed philosophical discussions and debates, something I will stick to a lot and which I will often think about.

And I hope that I too can pursue our roots through language.