Passage West, the first novel by the US-based writer of Indian origin, Rishi Reddi, revolves around migrant lives in the US, and is shaped by events of the 1900s and the even more momentous decade of the 1920s. This was the time when various laws and acts determining immigration and inclusion were passed; these in turn shaped response and identity in the different new world many would soon call home.
Reddi takes up the lives of Punjabi farmers in California, who from a state of relative freedom, saw increasing restrictions in terms of land ownership, miscegenation, and finally in 1923, the denial and revocation of citizenship rights to Asians with the Bhagat Singh Thind case. Mislabeled “Hindus”, and clearly recognizable by their turbans—for they were mainly Sikhs—the story of the early South Asians in the US was one of adventure, discrimination, and the desire to find community and belonging in a new land.
Reddi’s earlier collection of short stories, Karma and Other Stories (2014), is set among more recent immigrants to the US, a territory made familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Interpreter of Maladies. Reddi’s characters (unlike Lahiri’s), however, are from southern India, with the same inter-generational confusions and complexities about fitting in, as part of a model minority. Her stories hone in sharply on the baggage of beliefs and behavior immigrants carry with them, especially in attitudes towards caste, hierarchy, and religion.
In the first story of Karma and Other Stories, “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy”, the titular character, who is now retired, comes to terms with his shriveled importance and is upset when baristas and store clerks misunderstand him and his accent. He assumes it is all deliberate. In another story, “Bangles”, an older woman finds herself out of sorts as a visitor in her son’s home in Massachusetts, refusing to merely remain in the shadows and care for her grandchildren.
In Passage West, Reddi paints a wider canvas, and moves the storyline back to a pivotal part of early South Asian immigrant history. Heightened anti-immigration sentiment on the US West Coast first manifested itself against the Chinese and the Japanese in this time period. The Chinese were barred from citizenship by a series of Exclusion Acts enacted from the 1880s onward. For the South Asians, discrimination came in the 1900s, when laws barring them from marrying whites and owning land were enacted. In a few years’ time, however, many ‘Hindus’ would find unexpected success when they settled down as thriving agriculturists growing cantaloupe and cotton in the Imperial Valley area of South California, but the aforementioned legal constraints bind and shape the lives of the novel’s characters.
When laws that snatch away their legal rights to the land they have cultivated are enforced, Hindu farmers enter into devious, convoluted arrangements with absentee (mainly white) landlords. For Karak Singh, such an arrangement has tragic consequences, and for all his associates, Ram Singh too, life can never be the same. And yet:
‘It was not easy to forget, it would never be forgotten, what had happened only fifty years ago. The mind does not know time. What had happened was ever present between them, made itself known in every meeting, every conversation, every occurrence, as when Karak allowed a breath to escape him, neglected to draw another, and Ram stood, solemn and empty, in acceptance of this fact.’
Passage West begins with flashback, with Ram Singh visiting the dying Karak Singh in hospital. The friendship dates from 1910, the year they were passengers on the same ship carrying them from Calcutta, to Hong Kong and then Vancouver (an early port of call before San Francisco). Ram Singh fell victim to a xenophobic attack, one of many that ‘Hindu’ lumbermen were subject to in several towns along the West Coast, in Washington, Oregon and California, between 1907-1910. The men have been friends for a long time, bound by community and shared struggles in this new and alien land, but Ram Singh’s feelings about his immigration, and friendship with Karak Singh are complicated. For Ram Singh, the move to the US has always been a temporary measure; he intends to return to his homeland someday, soon.
The novel is in part a narrative of secret resistance when leaders of the Ghadar party sought support, funds, and volunteers, from the farmers of California. One such leader, ‘Pandit’ Ramchandra appears at Jivan Singh’s farm and makes an impassioned speech to the farmers against British rule. Passage West is also a story of the pull of old ties; the urgency and desperation to seek love, make connections and prove oneself, so as to belong in this different world that has, inadvertently or otherwise, become home.
Ram Singh and Karak Singh — for reasons of their own and because the World War I years (1914-1918) made travel ‘home’ a dangerous proposition — soon find themselves simply unable to return to their home country. Reddi captures this torn-apart emotional state, when Ram’s longing for Padma, the wife in his village in Punjab, leaves him conflicted with his desire for Adela, a Mexican woman, who has seen war and suffering in equal measure.
Reddi’s research is attentive and detailed. The relations of the ‘Hindu’ farmers with their neighbors—a Japanese farming family—and the Mexican helpers who come around every harvest time, is fraught with multiple tensions: of making oneself understood, and the need to reach out with delicacy, for hurts are accumulated all too easily, as grievances built up over sudden slights, imagined or intentional, take decades to be dismantled.
While there have been nonfictional accounts of this period, most notably, Karen Leonard’s 1994 Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (Temple University Press), Reddi’s novel is visual and resounds with vibrant pulsating drama. The midnight stand-off outside prison, and the courtroom exchanges in the book’s second half are especially riveting.