By Minal Hajratwala; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 352 pages.
It’s hard to read either fiction or non-fiction about India or Pakistan without wondering about the proliferation of trees in peoples’ backyards. Without fail, a writer reveals simple childhood musings under a banyan, mango or tamarind tree. A sticky-sweet narrative laden with every cliché involving silk, henna, jasmine flowers and spices wraps that moment. Inevitably, a tragedy strikes people due to repression (they can’t marry whom they love!) and ancient internecine battles (too hard to understand but that’s just how those people function!)
Minal Hajratwala was born in San Francisco and raised in New Zealand and suburban Michigan before returning to the city of her birth. Leaving India: My Family’s Journey across Five Continents is her account of a century-long series of migrations undertaken by her family. The scrupulously researched and documented book will be an engrossing revelation for those who are used to imagining Indians as bearers of ancient traditions who never leave their homelands. Only one tree, bearing tamarinds, appears momentarily in her mother’s family’s backyard.
Hajratwala’s paternal great-grandfather Motiram Narsey left India in 1909, making his way to the Fiji Islands where he established “one of the largest department stores in the South Pacific Isles.” Her great-great-uncle Ganda Kapitan went to South Africa at the tender age of eleven in 1904. At seventeen, Kapitan inherited a small eatery in Durban that became a successful institution.
Hajratwala’s maternal grandfather Narotam left for Fiji in 1931, and opened a wholesale clothing business. After a period of prosperity, he died poor. His son Champak became friends with Bhupendra Narsey, who married Hajratwala’s mother, Bhanu. Hajratwala has 36 first cousins scattered in nine countries.
Today, Hajratwala—a queer journalist, poet and performer—occupies multiple identities. Her story and that of her family could have been rendered in syrupy terms, its members painted as enterprising and brave travelers. But Leaving India lays bare the complexity of migration, its cultural and economic hardships, and the dark underside of the many departures and arrivals. Including, for instance, the realities of race in South Africa.
When her great-great uncle arrived in Durban, one contemporary referred it to as “a second-rate Bombay” because it contained a concentrated population of Indians who were segregated and confined to the city and its outskirts, making its famous Grey Street neighborhood the largest “Little India” in the world. But in apartheid South Africa, Indians were accorded a higher status than native Africans, about whom both whites and Indians told strange stories. One Indian lawyer wrote that Black South Africans “are the descendants of some of the slaves in America who managed to escape from their cruel bondage and migrated to Africa.” The lawyer was Gandhi.
Race is as complicated in the United States, where Hajratwala’s parents migrate as the beneficiaries of immigration laws that favor educated professionals from India. Growing up in suburban Michigan, Hajratwala struggled to understand why she never fit: “I was a brown body, and did not know what that meant: that blending in completely would be impossible, that I could never disappear into the “melting pot” described in our history lessons on the ideal American immigration.” Yet, she contextualizes her feelings within the larger context of Michigan’s racial landscape, “a landscape shaped by successive waves of racism” and white flight from cities to suburbs.
But while her racial and ethnic identities are obvious, her sexuality is less so. Among relatives, she repeatedly encounters the question, “When are you getting married?” She writes, “There are people in my extended family who will read for the first time here that I am a lesbian… [ t ] here will be a minor conflagration… [ a ] nd then it will pass…Grace, joy, love, gratitude: these too are elements of my path. When I touch my lover’s hand in the dark, I know what the goddess wrote for me.”
It’s that last sentence that reveals Hajratwala’s quintessentially Californian self (to echo other stereotypes), and the book has a tendency to meander into such loopiness. Despite these minor failings, Leaving India remains an important and clear-eyed look at the realities behind the diasporas of our modern world.
Originally published in Windy City Times, July 22, 2010