As I settle into a big armchair in the Mehta’s living room overlooking Pugwash harbour, Bala brings out a coffee pot and a plate of pakora.
“Indian fritters,” she explains. Three kinds of deep-fried vegetables: potato, cauliflower and egg plant. Warm and delicious.
Good thing I just have to sit back and listen to the story of how Bala and her husband, Devinder, or David, came to live in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. It’s a love story, actually.
Bala was born in Kenya, in eastern Africa, while David’s family left India in 1948 when he was 14 because of the partition (he was born in what is now Pakistan). They speak fluent English plus three other languages.
“The medium of instruction in school was English,” Bala explains. “At home, we talked in our own language [Hindi or Punjabi] and you talked to the Africans in Swahili.”
Bala and David met in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and married in 1962.
“Bala had already gotten admission to go to London University so she went in September,” says David, who resigned from the Kenyan government in 1963 in order to join his wife. “I had a friend in England who said, ‘Dave, if you’re going to leave Kenya, leave the whole of Africa because it’s going to be a ball of fire. And when you go to England, don’t stay there too long.’ So that was in the back of my mind. We were teaching in England. In 1964, we applied to go to Hong Kong, the United States or Canada.”
Someone in the staff room suggested they go to Nova Scotia because it was closer so if they didn’t like Canada, they could return. Back then, you applied directly to the principal and the Mehtas applied to ten schools in Nova Scotia.
“They all sent us a letter but Pugwash sent us a telegram so we thought their need was greater than anybody else’s,” David explains.
They couldn’t have arrived at a better time than early August.
“The principal, Bob O’Connell, met us at the airport and we stayed with Howard and Frankie Elliot,” David recalls. “You couldn’t meet better people than those. Within two or three days, we knew the whole of Pugwash. People were so wonderful. We come from big places, London, Kenya, but we suddenly forgot the big places. This was heaven.”
Both David and Bala started out teaching in Pugwash but in 1967, David transferred to Tatamagouche where he was the industrial arts teacher for 22 years. Bala taught Grade Primary at Cyrus Eaton Elementary.
I ask David why he thinks they fit in so well and so quickly.
“If you know your job and you know how to mix with people,” he answers. “No matter where you go you are accepted. If we weren’t good teachers, we would have had a problem.”
Bala adds, “We felt so much at home straight away. We didn’t miss our family or our life in London. Everyone was so friendly. We had no problem adjusting.”
Not even to winter. According to David, they were used to cold and snow.
“We were in the northern part of India and in Nairobi, Kenya, there is cold weather. In England, we got used to the snow.”
“Oh, the first winter we had in London was the worst,” Bala interjects. “It snowed like anything. There were no trains going, no buses.”
“We enjoyed winter [here] because we enjoyed skiing and snowshoeing,” David says.
What made a lasting impression on them, however, and what they cherish most, is the sense of being part of a family in the Pugwash community.
Says David, “You could knock on the door and ask for a cup of coffee.”
That reminded him of what it was like in their community in Kenya: the welcome at any time, the offer of a cup of coffee, the insistence to stay for lunch.
“You become part of the community because you take part,” David insists. “You have Christmas, we celebrate Christmas, we are happy to. We have our own Festival of the Lights [Diwali] that we celebrate but we did not just stick to our own traditions, we stuck to the local traditions. Christmas, Thanksgiving. That way we were part of it.”
They were familiar with Christmas because there are a lot of Christians in Kenya as a result of Catholic missionaries from Ireland . As well, Kenya was a British colony. The Mehtas were exposed to British, African, Indian and Muslim cultures even before leaving Kenya.
The Mehtas built their home in 1969 and their son, Anil, was born in 1970; he now teaches biochemistry at a university in Atlanta, Georgia. While they visit him frequently and have returned to Kenya several times, they’ve never wanted to move away from Pugwash.
“We had moved so much, from Nairobi to Mumbasa [India] then to London, when we came here, we didn’t feel like moving anywhere else,” says Bala, who is an accomplished painter of birds, sunsets and landscapes. “We made very good friends here.”
In 2014, they’ll mark 50 years since a telegram convinced them to come to Pugwash but they celebrated 50 years of marriage last April. When I ask them their secret of longevity, big smiles split their faces. Sweet, gentle smiles.
“Give and take,” David answers. “No one is in charge. Be happy. Enjoy one another. Share everything.”