Parkdale fixture Navneet Sondhi a 'good soul' whose life was cut short

'Nav' spent his days bringing joy on Queen Street West. And then, one day in March, he disappeared.

'Nav' spent his days bringing joy on Queen Street West until one day in March, he vanished

Navneet Sondhi, who was better known as Nav, was a familiar face in Parkdale, a neighbourhood that's now reeling after his recent death. (Umar Akbar)

Amid the antique stores, coffee shops and Tibetan restaurants in Parkdale, Navneet Sondhi was a familiar face on the western strip of Queen Street West.

But no one called him Navneet. The bearded man with a warm smile was just "Nav."

Parkdale residents say he was known for walking women home late at night to make sure they got to their door safely. He would spot people with a frown on their face and encourage them to smile, they said, and once popped into the bustling Grand Trunk — cheekily noting that he'd brought the bar a little good luck.

Sondhi was, as Grand Trunk owner Alison Barrie puts it, a "good soul."

So when the soft-spoken neighbourhood fixture vanished from the Queen West area in mid-March, Parkdale residents like Barrie started to worry. On March 23, she posted a call for information about Sondhi's whereabouts on the bar's Instagram page after some people spotted him squatting on Triller Avenue.

But soon after, ​the grim reality travelled through the neighbourhood grapevine: Sondhi had passed away after being evicted from his rest home in early March.

'Everyone in Parkdale knew who he was'

Stretching from Roncesvalles Avenue in the west to Dufferin Avenue in the east, Parkdale is the place where Tagalog, Polish, Tamil, and Hungarian all echo through the tree-lined streets. Many people don't make a lot of money, but residents say the neighbourhood is rich in other ways. There's a sense of family, a feeling of home.

Sondhi, many say, was a part of that.

His sudden death led to an outpouring of support online. "Everyone in Parkdale knew who he was," explains Barrie, who's lived in the area since 2008.

She remembers once walking across the street around Queen Street and Triller Avenue, then tripping and falling flat onto the sidewalk. "Nav was across the street and saw it happen," Barrie says, her voice wavering. "He darted across the street — through traffic — to see if I was okay, and helped me up."

Parkdale resident Aviva Rosnick says it's strange to imagine the neighbourhood without the man who would call her "senorita" when he'd see her on the street. "It was comforting to see him around, to have conversations with him on the street, to see him on the streetcar," she says.

Sondhi's character, his kindness — that's what people are remembering about him, with dozens coming to the Grand Trunk on Saturday night to pay their respects.

But other aspects of Sondhi's life remain a mystery.

Barrie says it's not clear how, or when, Sondhi passed away, but she's heard he died from an infection in his arm.

His background is also hazy, but a patchwork quilt of stories he's shared with residents over the years paint him as a wanderer; someone who has lived in Ottawa and Montreal, and may have come to Canada from India as a young child.

On Saturday night, people gathered at the Grand Trunk on Queen Street West for a community memorial in honour of Navneet Sondhi. (CBC News)

Sondhi was 'Parkdale's greeter'

He also had mental health struggles. During a November 2016 interview with Umar Akbar, a Parkdale-based producer, Sondhi opened up about having anxiety and schizophrenia.

"Mood anxiety is a disease that you're happy and joyful and then, all of a sudden, you have tears in your eyes," Sondhi says in a short video Akbar hurriedly posted on YouTube after word broke of his death.

At one point during the interview, Sondhi glances down, then sums up his view on life: "I try to make people more happy than my own self," he says.

Sondhi was "Parkdale's greeter," Akbar says, and a proud man who didn't ask for help. "He worked the streets, he had his own economy, he had his own position in the community," he explains.

That's what made Sondhi's death such a shock. He seemed self-sufficient. He had a roof over his head. He was on the fringe of society in some ways — but Akbar says there was a sense of trust that Sondhi had support, that he would figure things out. 

Many people in the community are now wondering what happened, and how someone so loved could slip through the cracks.

"I hate to say we as a community failed him," Akbar says. "But I'm struggling with that."

Sondhi left his rest home on March 1

A phone call to his former residence on Sunday afternoon led to a conversation with Marigold Roberts, a staff member at the Callender Rest Home.

Roberts says she knew Sondhi for three years, and that he first moved to the rest home on July 6, 2012. She says he was a "pleasant man" in his early 50s — but he couldn't kick a crack cocaine addiction. Sondhi was given several chances to stop smoking crack in his shared room, and after one final warning, he was evicted. 

Sondhi left the home on March 1, and Roberts believes he died roughly a week later.

The pair had an emotional goodbye before he left. Sondhi told Roberts he'd be around, that he'd come look for her. His death, she says, has left her numb.

"He was a pleasant young man, trust me," Roberts says again. "I miss him."