An Interview with Mrs. Vanita Sabharwal
Author: N. Shaikh and M. Syed
Date: 2012-05-25 12:22:51
Category: all categories
Metatags: Leaders, Punjabi, Seniors, Toronto, Women


On a warm but rainy May afternoon in Toronto, we sat in the company of Mrs.Vanita Sabharwal—a dynamic and active Punjabi-Canadian community organizer, leader and senior lady.  The two of us met Mrs. Sabharwal in a cozy Indian restaurant nestled in the heart of Gerrard Street, Toronto. Surrounded by the patent South Asian aromas of spicy curry, mustard oil and pickled vegetables, Mrs. Sabharwal shared details of her vibrant work and inspiring life story--one that she had worked so hard to create for herself and her family in Canada. 

"A new home"

"From Jalandhar, India. On April 14th 1998," she said beaming.

Articulating the precise date of her arrival showed the special meaning this date held in her heart.

Mrs. Sabharwal has four children—two sons and two daughters. In April 1998, one of her sons sponsored her and her husband to Canada. Mrs. Sabharwal credits her son's familiarity with Canadian life as one of the main reasons for a smooth transition into Canada.

"We were very lucky. My son cared for us and we genuinely wanted to embrace our new life. Even at that time, there were a lot of immigrant South Asian families and businesses in Toronto,” she explained.


"Finding my way"

"Tell us more about your early efforts to settle down," we asked.

She recounted that it all began by chance the first few months of arriving in Canada. One day, her husband happened to be strolling near a park in the neighbourhood and saw a group of South Asian women sitting in the park and socializing. He came home and advised her to socialize with the ladies so that she doesn't feeling isolated at home. So the next day, she went to the park and mingled with the ladies. Through her conversations, she learnt about many community resources. From there, she became determined to become more involved in the social service sector. 

"Contributing to my community"

Mrs. Sabharwal shared that now her network of community and social contacts has expanded from the small circle of ladies she first met at the park. She listed her accomplishments and her volunteer involvement in several prominent community organizations all across the GTA.  Seeing very few South Asian seniors involved in the community, she adopted the roles of facilitator, team leader and mentor to inspire others. She also acquired certification in childminding and safe food handling. In an effort to constantly improve and challenge herself, she recently added "actor" to her personal accomplishments by participating in a theatrical play about how breast cancer impacts women's lives.  Also, just last month she became a board member of a prominent non-profit in the city.

"I want to raise awareness of issues that our South Asian community faces and those that our women don't know about. We have to own our issues. That's why I have worked for projects for healthy active aging in senior women, breast cancer awareness, Diabetes education, elder abuse and blood pressure," she asserted.

"From my community to my home"

Mrs. Sabharwal maintained that one has to practice what they preach. She sweetly boasted that her life is meticulously organized.

"My day starts at 6:30 am. I make breakfast for my son, pack his lunch, do a bit of yoga, pray, and then by noon, I am out of the house doing community work. By 6, I am back home preparing dinner. By 11 pm I just catch one or two episodes of the Indian soaps before bed."

And every day, regardless of how busy it is, Mrs. Sabharwal makes sure to cook healthy meals for her whole family—everything made from scratch. Even though she is the only strict vegetarian in her family, she still makes all the meat-based dishes for her husband and son, making sure to supplement their diet with vegetables and legumes.

She maintained that managing the kitchen and the preferences of each family member was not only essential for the well-being of her home but for her own health as well. For example, she shared that a little while ago, she started noticing the signs of Arthritis around her thumb but she refused to sit back and helplessly let Arthritis limit her mobility. Mrs. Sabharwal told us that she started exercising, even regularly kneading the dough for Chapatis to keep her fingers flexible and strong. 

"Look" she said, pointing her thumb towards us, "…No more pain at all anymore! I didn't come to Canada to sit in a hospital." 

"Passing on my knowledge to the next generation"

Mrs. Sabharwal noted that preserving the sanctity of families and the values and life skills she learnt living in Jalandhar have been essential to her survival in Canada. She talked extensively about finding a common ground between home and work roles.

“This is part of our culture….to maintain harmony and peace at home. My husband and I have been married for 50 years. We motivate each other to be active. He has his own circle of friends.  We have our roles. And no one can say that my work takes me away from my home responsibilities."

She spearheads an intergenerational home and values playing an active role in the lives of her grandchildren. 

She took a moment to sip her Masala tea and reflected. 

“It has always been my dream to see my children and their children get education and have good jobs.  I want to teach my grandchildren the value of education and our history. These are important values for our history."

The rain had subsided by the time we left the restaurant. Mrs. Sabharwal rushed ahead of us to catch the bus and waved goodbye. We waved back—awestruck by the resilience, hard work and will of a Punjabi-Canadian elder determined to contribute to her home and community.

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