Our parents were once kids too. They were teens and young adults, falling in love and getting into trouble. Many times, they feel that it’s too embarrassing to talk about their pasts in order to leave us with good examples. So they bend their truths a little.
Like how my parents told me they never met until their mid-twenties. That upon realizing they fancied one another, they immediately went to their parents and asked them to set them up for marriage.
I found out much later in life that this wasn’t true. They actually fell in love as teenagers, lying to their parents about going to the library every time they wanted to see each other.
Of course, I never heard these stories directly from them. They are fragments of stories I pieced together from hearing them reminisce about their past with my aunts and uncles.
It wasn’t just limited to love stories either. There was mischief and trouble too. My dad was the culprit for most of it with his gang of hometown buddies. My dad grew up in Batticaloa in the Eastern Province in Sri Lanka. He was the head of his crew, a band of troublemakers with an infamous crew name - a name that would prove to be devastating to my social life in grade school.
I grew up in Toronto, in a borough called Scarborough. And to pinpoint my exact location, it was in a suburb called Malvern. Like many neighbourhoods in Toronto, Malvern is a diverse community filled with cultures primarily from South and East Asia and the West Indies.
My band of brothers consisted of boys from one corner of the earth to the other. We were all immigrants or the sons of immigrants. We never argued about whether it was curry chicken or chicken curry, or the most authentic way to make roti or biryani. We just knew we made it differently.
What brought us together were video games, wrestling and rap music. That was us. And like any group of boys that age, we tried to solidify our unity through a crew. A gang or clique or whatever you like to call it. We wanted to be cool.
So one day, I invited my band of brothers over to my place to discuss a crew name. We sat in the basement running through names. We laughed and argued, brainstorming the coolest names possible. I guess we were getting loud because my father came down to check up on us.
He came downstairs in his saram and a white banyan. I wasn’t embarrassed. Some of my friends had seen this before and asked about it. The ones who didn’t ask had fathers who wore the same attire. It was fine.
My dad asked us what we were doing. I quickly said “Nothing.” But my dad, overhearing us from upstairs, knew exactly what we were talking about. He brushed his mustache with his index finger and his thumb and began with “You know, I used to have a crew back home.”
I knew this crew. I overheard its name and some of the mischief they had got in through stories my dad and uncle sometimes reminisced about. My friends weren’t the right crowd for this story. This was about to change my life forever. I snapped back at my dad “Appa! Just go upstairs!” Brave words for a young Tamil boy.
Instead of my dad putting me in my place, which I wish he did, he told me to relax and continued with his story. “You guys are from Malvern. Make your names associated with Malvern. That’s what we did back home. My home town was Batticaloa. We called ourselves the ‘Batti Boys’!”
Suddenly, everything went into slow motion, like a war movie where the soldier was at the point in time of his life where he was near death, surrounded by enemy fire and the scene would show the first-person view of the solider canvasing his surrounding only to see his comrades being shot at and falling around him. Only I was seeing my friends crying with laughter, slapping the ground and looking at me with squinted eyes filled with tears and smiles as wide as their faces.
You see, a batty boy is what West Indians use in reference to a gay man (it’s a derogatory reference). And my dad had just said he and his friends were “Batti Boys”.
And so for the following days at school, and for much of my life thereafter, my friends and fellow classmates would tease me mercilessly about this. It was something that embarrassed me so much when I was young, but now I share in the laughter.
Looking back at it now, as an adult, it’s truly amazing knowing that although my parents grew up in a different environment than I did, we grew up with similar stories – stories that sometimes get lost in translation! ;)