July 1st is Canada's birthday and for many of the naturalized Canadians it is also the day they were baptised in Canadian democracy and received one of the most coveted honours: Canadian Citizenship.
However, the way I was awarded this honour was extraordinarily miraculous. There were no performances to watch, no cake to eat, and no paper flags to wave. All I did was to go to the Citizenship Office. Those were the days when you could sit down face to face with an officer and tell your story.
"How can I help you?" she asked.
"Like others, I too have several reasons that helped me cobble my decision to give up my birth citizenship, but the one that drove me to your office today is very specific. Do you have time to listen?" I asked.
"Of course I do," she smiled.
Her grey hair and her aging face assured me that there was nothing she hadn't heard, already. However, I wanted her to know that the force behind my decision to surrender my Indian citizenship was neither financial nor political though India was under the state of emergency. It was 1975.
I told her, "During July, I was in India. Coincidently, my brother, Ram also happened to be there from Nigeria. One evening, we decided to stroll on the banks of the holy Ganges hoping for a spiritual experience. Instead, what we experienced was rather demonic. " I noticed, "demonic" perked her attention.
PHOTOS Suresh Kurl receiving the Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award in 2012.| The Kurl family pictured at P1000447 a 2013-Canada Day celebration in Downtown Vancouver; from left - Shachi (younger daughter), Suresh, Apama (eldest daughter) and wife, Tripta.
The icy Ganges was flooding the riverbanks with mud and mountain debris. It was monsoon season. I spotted a huge tree stuck in the steel chains installed for the pilgrims to hang on to when they step down into the waters for a dip. As we came closer to the tree trunk I noticed a body stuck in the branches. I asked Ram what he thought it was.
He confirmed the obvious. It was a naked body of a man.
We went looking for a police officer to report our find, and when we found one, we told him about the body, and offered to take him to the location.
“What am I supposed to do with the body? It’s not my job,” he said.
“The body might be of a missing person, a murder-victim? Would you not want to know?”
“Report it to the Sewa Samiti. They will take care of it. It’s their job to pick up such bodies and cremate them,” advised the officer.
Ram and I looked at each other and left to report to the Volunteer Bureau.
"His mother might be searching for him; his wife might be waiting for him, his children might be crying for him, but it did not matter to the policeman," I told Ram.
"How easy it is to find a body and dispose of it. In a couple of hours all signs of his life will be erased through cremation," Ram grieved.
"I bet they will not even take a picture of this man before they pile him up on a heap of fire wood and burn him," I added.
"We are way too many to be treated with dignity. Hundreds of new ones will be born before the end of the day to replace this dead one," Ram rationalised.
We entered the Volunteer Bureau, reported the dead body, made a small donation and left.
My mind switched gears; from death to life. The first thing I would do when I return to Vancouver would be to renounce my Indian citizenship. Unless I cut my apron strings, I would continue to feel conflicted. My tug-of-war of attachments to two countries would continue to bleed me.
Before I turned in at night, Rabindranath Tagore offered me his support, "And where the old tracks are lost, a new country is revealed with its wonder," Geetanjali.
The lady officer took a deep breath and asked, again, "What can I do for you?"
"I am here to apply for citizenship," I replied.
PHOTOS Suresh's wife, Tripta and their first child, Apama; taken in Vancouver in 1970 | Kurl family taken on Suresh's 65th birthday at the Pan Pacific Hotel, Vancouver
"Here is an application form. Please fill it up," which I did, right in front of her.
She reviewed it, and then asked me for the application fee and a copy of my recent photograph. "Now stand up, face the Canadian flag, raise your right hand and repeat after me..."
And then, she stuffed my application in an envelope stuck an URGENT red label, and tossed it in a basket of outgoing mail.
"Congratulations, Mr. Kurl. You will receive your citizenship certificate in the mail in less than a month," she shook my hand.
I thanked her and left.
Exactly three weeks later I received a manila envelope marked URGENT. I opened it and found my Citizenship Certificate and a wallet size Citizenship plastic card.
Jumping with joy, I left for the Citizenship Office to kiss the lady's magic hand, but she was not there, gone, retired. The day I saw her was her last day.
My decision to settle and raise my family in Canada was, in retrospect, one of the happiest and boldest decisions I ever made. Canada is a genuine democracy. Canada translates democracy into action and lives it every day. I know it; feel it. Trust me.