Book Review: 'Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents' By Minal Hajratwala

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Sunday, March 15, 2009


My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents

By Minal Hajratwala

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 430 pp. $26

As he fought for India's independence from the British in the 1930s and '40s, Mahatma Gandhi relied on the strength of his country's villages. His hope was that they might become self-sustaining: 700,000 tiny, independent republics. One wonders what he would think of the unprecedented late 20th-century dispersal of Indians to every corner of the globe and their rapid rise in the places they landed.

In "Leaving India," Minal Hajratwala deftly explores this diaspora through the story of her family, whose members left their ancestral villages to seek opportunity in places as varied as Fiji, South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the United States.

Hajratwala's goal is to tease out where personal motives for migration intersect with the forces of politics and economics, to "find the meeting place where character intersects with history." Her family is descended from the Solanki dynasty of warrior-kings who reigned over Western India until they were vanquished in 1242. According to family legend, a benevolent goddess advised her clan, the Khatris, to lay down their arms and become weavers. And so they passed "quiet lives" in five villages in the Gujarat region, waiting "out the centuries until the next great scattering . . . by forces nearly as mysterious as gods and demons."

One of those forces was the British Empire. In the late 19th century, demand from British textile mills created a cotton boom in rural India. But as farmers switched from grain to cotton, the countryside became vulnerable to famine, particularly in drought years. It was a time, Hajratwala writes, when young men from all over India boarded ships "to seek their fortunes, or at least a respite from chronic poverty." Among them was her great-grandfather, Motiram, who sailed in 1909 for the Fiji Islands, where the British had put Indian laborers to work on sugar plantations. Motiram was luckier, or more enterprising, than most; within a couple of years in the South Pacific, he opened a tailor shop that grew into a department store and a retail empire.

At about the same time, Hajratwala's great-great uncle Ganda was running a vegetarian restaurant in Durban, South Africa. For the immigrant, as we learn repeatedly in "Leaving India," necessity is truly the mother of invention: When Indian restaurateurs were barred from seating black Africans, Ganda and others began serving curries in hollowed-out loaves of bread for carry-out, inventing the beloved dish known as "bunny chow."

Through the stories of her parents, Bhupendra and Bhanu, Hajratwala also traces the laws and policies that shaped the Indian encounter with the United States from 1917, when the U.S. government barred South Asian immigrants as undesirables, to the present. A turning point came in the mid-1960s, when the United States began to admit significant numbers of Asian immigrants; the author recounts how her father walked into the U.S. Embassy in Suva, the Fijian capital, in 1963 and was soon on his way to the University of Colorado at Boulder to study manufacturing.

"Leaving India" is meticulously researched and evocatively written. Hajratwala spent seven years traveling the world and interviewed more than 75 relatives. But it can be difficult to keep this large and far-flung family straight, and it seems at times that Hajratwala is more interested in (or better able to reconstruct) the historical forces that shaped her relatives' lives than in their individual characters.

This flaw disappears as we get closer to the present. Her portrait of her parents is full of telling anecdotes. We learn, for example, that her mother used earnings from her first job as a physiotherapist to prepare a trunk of saris for her bridal trousseau, while her father read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and talked his way into graduate school at the University of Iowa. During her parents' first trip across the country, two nights and three days aboard a train, Bhanu could find nothing vegetarian to eat; at a brief stop in Cheyenne, Wyo., she rushed off the train to buy potato chips and was nauseated by the high altitude, which she had never experienced before.

For the most part, Hajratwala removes herself from her narrative, "to be transparent, not to overwhelm the stories of others with my own." But at the end she offers a searingly honest chapter about her "border crossings," her journey from trying to meet parental expectations to living in San Francisco as a lesbian. She remembers growing up in Michigan, wary of getting too close to her mother's cooking for fear of smelling like curry in school, and the first blush of acceptance she found in college as a poet and campus activist. She describes the warmth she found among her relatives in India as well as their resentment of her good fortune in America. "Leaving India" is a story of migration, but it is also, as Hajratwala reminds us, about "the ones we leave behind."

Sadia Shepard is a documentary filmmaker and the author of the memoir, "The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home."

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