“At times I hysterically wonder why people ever leave their own countries and go abroad. Why don’t we ever learn that all changes of places are for the worse? It’s not love for a place, it’s the familiarity, like old winter clothes” — Upamanyu Chatterjee, “English, August”
“There is so much we do not know about ourselves, so many ifs and perhapses that guide us toward becoming ourselves” — Minal Hajratwala
To be American is to constantly be on the defensive about your identity. America is nothing, if not diverse, but this unique culture comes with a somewhat unreasonable expectation — no matter how long you have lived in the US, you are always expected to explain your origins.
This may not seem like such a big deal to Americans whose families have been in the United States for a century or more. But for families like mine, who only called the US home during the Vietnam era, justifying our identity, our “Americanness”, is a constant part of our lives. To be asked, “Where are you from?” and answer, “America”, is old hat — and so are the raised eyebrows and inevitable follow-up question, “No, where are you really from?”
For journalist Minal Hajratwala, one of those moments came during an unlikely encounter at a San Francisco bathhouse in 2005. After the above interchange, almost verbatim, Hajratwala writes, “I might list all the other places I have lived, from New Zealand to suburban Michigan to Silicon Valley — but none of these would give a clue as to either ethnicity or character. I find myself resisting the expected answer: India … Within India, too, we have a deeper history than a simple region or village name. We are, if legend is to be believed, from royalty, from mud and from fire.”
Tracing your family’s story “from mud and from fire” and following their journeys across the world could take a lifetime. For Hajratwala, it took seven years and the result of her efforts is her non-fiction debut, Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents.
Leaving India is a profoundly important book in the canon of South Asian American Studies. I would go so far as to place it at the very top in the company of essential accounts of the Diaspora like Karen Leonard’s Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (1992), Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk (2000), and Govind Bhakta’s Patels: A Gujarati Community History in the United States (2002).
Each chapter is a knockout punch that covers a piece of her own life and family’s story, but linked to a specific place of the Indian Diaspora and tied to specific narrative themes. Thus, South Africa is linked to racism and Apartheid; Michigan to Asian-American discrimination and identity; Stanford to Queer Studies and feminism; India to colonialism and the “brain drain” and so on.
What makes the book so strong and so massive a contribution is how it is structured. Hajratwala’s gift is her ability to weave several different filial tales in stages, accounting for both sides of her family, with India as the original point of origin, but with a smattering of different points of disembarkation. Obviously her tale starts in the eponymous five villages located in the North Indian state of Gujarat, at the turn of the 20th century, where rural Indians eked out a meager existence in the dusty towns of British India. To give an indication of how pathetic opportunities existed at the time, Hajratwala grimly notes that in 1909 in the town of Navsari, there were 600 liquor shops and only one school.
Lured by possible economic success, her family members start leaving for South Africa and Fiji. Through hard work and just plain grit, the men – no women – start sending money home and then asking other male relatives to join them. Thus begins the exodus.
The similarities between Hajratwala’s family and mine were astounding. We both come from peaceful maternal families (“quiet and humble”) and chaotic paternal clans (“loud and brash”). We both have had distant relatives who succumbed early to alcoholism; both have relatives who met Gandhi and were also jailed during the Indian independence movement; both have seen the uneasiness of the older generation in accepting ‘whites’ into our families; and both have experienced life-changing moves: hers from New Zealand to the US and mine from the US to India.
Leaving India provokes relentless introspection about individual identity, as a simple point along the spectrum that is representative of our families’ histories. The book forces you to reconsider your own problems or adjustments in light of your parents’ stories and those of the greater family.
When my mother and father arrived in Chicago in the mid- to late ’70s, they were part of the “Brain Drain” that brought Hajratwala’s parents, as well. Nowadays, if you throw a quarter in any direction in Illinois you could hit someone of Indian descent; but not so in 1975. What could it have felt like to spend the first 25 years of your life in South India and then endure a Midwest winter for the first time? My parents have talked about feeling incredibly lonely, surrounded by few people who looked or sounded like them.
And then the first rays broke through their gloom when they unexpectedly found not only their countrymen, but people from their specific communities — caste, language, ethnicity, etc. For my mother, a chance encounter on an elevator resulted in a friendship with a fellow doctor that has lasted more than 30 years; overhearing someone speak Tamil at a dinner party gave my mother one of her best friends to this day. Hajratwala recounts a similar experience in Leaving India where one of her relatives made a close friend at a grocery store when both women overheard the other pronouncing the Gujarati word “maachli” (fish) with a particular accent and knew they were from the same caste!
But what are the costs of Diaspora? In some ways Hajratwala suggests that her inability to adapt to American culture was the result of her family’s journey. She doesn’t blame her immediate and distant family for her depression, loneliness, and alienation during her adolescence, but the tension is palpable in the book. It is fitting that she writes, “Each time we move, we must leave something of ourselves behind; perhaps then the map of a Diaspora consists, like a constellation, mainly of gaps.”
Leaving India is a living testament to Hajratwala’s attempts at filling those “gaps” by recounting her family’s history and her own journey in a cogent and poignant manner. Although the Indian-American community has finally attained visibility in the US across a variety of mediums and through different avenues, it is comforting to see that despite the myriad paths in front of us, at least one of us has the courage to return, and recount, the source of our identity.