Friday, April 24, 2009

The diaspora as adventurous pilgrims

It’s a happy coincidence that a recent, highly lauded work of fiction with an Indian setting shares its backdrop with Minal Hajratwala’s multi-generational saga of her globetrotting family. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, set in the early 19th century, delves into the lives of sea-faring “coolies” or indentured labour who were transported to islands as far as Fiji and Mauritius to work on British plantations. This followed the outlawing of slavery across the British Empire in 1834.

Hajratwala’s book is not fiction, yet her tale begins with just such an intrepid journey that her paternal great-grandfather, Motiram, made to Fiji in 1909. Having recently read the excellent Sea of Poppies, I was delighted with the promise of spending time with its non-fiction counterpart—the tale of a real Gujarati family that spread its wings across the globe.

Hajratwala splendidly keeps that promise. A graduate of Stanford University now based in San Francisco, she bravely summoned the passion and diligence to undertake this mammoth project. It entailed crisscrossing the globe and uncovering family secrets that were at best indistinct. The resultant book is a fascinating study of a few of the emigrants whose tentative steps eventually resulted in today’s Indian diaspora of as many as 30 million people living outside the country.

Hajratwala begins by drawing an elaborate portrait of her paternal clan, the Solankis. According to the varna system that designates social standing, Hindus descended from four distinct groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (artisans), and Shudras (labourers). The Solankis are Kshatriyas, and Hajratwala builds on this seemingly inconsequential fact to narrate an account, based on community lore, of how her ancestors turned from warriors to weavers, and how that dovetails with Motiram’s journey in 1909 to seek his fortune in Fiji. There he worked as a tailor—a first step on the way to building one of the South Pacific’s largest department stores.

Another path brought Hajratwala’s maternal side to Fiji. Her maternal grandfather, Narotam, walked with Gandhi during the famous march to Dandi in 1930 to protest the colonial salt tax. A year later, to support his young family, Narotam joined the Gujarati community in Fiji and began sewing women’s clothes. Eventually, he and his brother opened a ready-made clothing store. Narotam’s last child, Bhanu (Minal’s mother), was born a year before India gained independence from Britain in 1947—an event he had made his own little contribution toward.

It is a tribute to Hajratwala’s writing that she is able to coalesce the disparate factions of her family into a satisfying whole. Her training as a journalist ensures that the narration has no loose ends. And we are not even halfway there. It’s 1963 and a young man is about to make use of the recently relaxed US rules for foreigners wishing to study in America. Bhupendra, the author’s father, enrolled in a manufacturing programme at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was among the first generation of Asian immigrants to come to the United States for skills training, and in the process, permanently change the composition of the country.

The families arranged an alliance between Bhupendra and Bhanu, who was still in Fiji at the time. The two had nothing in common except the “Gujarati from Fiji” tag. He was stern and no-nonsense; she was sweet and artistic. The wedding was hastened so that Bhupendra could return to the United States in time for the start of the new school year.

The newly-weds haltingly made their lives in America, which required numerous adjustments, large and small. When she first arrived, Bhanu, not a vegetarian, was nevertheless aghast at the bloody look of all meat on offer—especially beef, which she had never tasted—and for a whole day ate nothing but chevdo, a traditional mix.

The day Hajratwala was born in 1971, her father sent out three telegrams, one each to Fiji, Toronto and London. He also received a telegram offering him an academic position in New Zealand. And so this peripatetic family was again propelled to new shores. “Gain and loss, give and take: these are the fundamental tropes of migration, the ebbs and flows that are as certain as travel itself,” Hajratwala writes.

Perhaps the most prominent symbol of change in her family was the cultural openness in America that allowed Hajratwala to come out as a lesbian to her parents. It may be the limited scope of the book that prevents Hajratwala from fully exploring how immigrant communities handle this explosive subject. Yet, in its spirited and kind representation of the rapidly enlarging Indian diaspora, Leaving India is testimony to the truth of the adage: “What Destiny writes, neither human nor god may put asunder.”

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This review appeared in Wilson Quarterly and Business Standard.

Also read 'Poppies' set before Opium Wars

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