One World – One Great Big Family

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Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents By Minal Hajratwala“Indian diaspora” is one of those phrases that have become part of conversation these days. Most people mouth the phrase without thinking too much of it – yes, yes, it covers UK, New Jersey, somewhere else in America, Canada. And then the conversation trails off in vagueness. The reality of the far flung Indian diaspora does not become apparent until you get hold of a book like Minal Hajratwala’s. Her extended family consists of 36 first cousins strung out across the globe between Fiji, England and South Africa, literally five continents when you sit down to analyse them.

What she does is follow her ancestors on a very personal journey. One that started from Navsari in Gujarat in 1834, just after slavery was outlawed in the British colonies and replaced by another form of servitude, indentured labour. Indians willing to work in the plantations – or even if unwilling, it didn’t really matter – were shipped from ports like Calcutta to other outposts of the Empire like Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji and South Africa. VS Naipaul’s ancestors were in fact amongst them.

She 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.”

“Hajratwala’s own surname came from her great grandfather Narsai, a “hajrat waalaa” or prophet who could find lost rings and kidnapped children.”

Hajratwala took seven years to trace the journey “from mud and from fire”. Highlighting the lack of opportunity available at the time, which made migration so tempting; Hajratwala notes that in 1909 in Navsari, there were 600 liquor shops and only one school. She explores the different reasons behind migrations – imperial policy, global economics, or even personal inclination. And while she des so she describes some memorable characters like her grandfather, Narotam, who walked behind Gandhi in the Salt March and went to jail for it. The South African branch of the family started with Ganda, Hajratwala’s great great uncle, who opened a restaurant in Durban. At the time, apartheid laws banned black Africans from eating in restaurants, To circumvent the laws Ganda and his fellow Indian restaurateurs came up with the bunny chow, an early form of takeout food, curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread with ‘bunny’ being a derivative of ‘bania’.

Hajratwala’s parents, Bhupendra and Banu, moved to the U.S.from Fiji. Despite their education and degrees, they found life in the US tough, thanks to discrimination and the fact that their lives were circumscribed by the vagaries in U.S. immigration policies — above all by the 1965 act that made Asian immigration much easier. And then there is the story of Hajratwala’s cousin, Mala, whose story Hajratwala got to learn much later, who left an abusive mother in law to come and run a store with her husband in the US. The story ends with Hajratwala’s own adolescence in Michigan and her gradual realization that she was gay. Though her account of her coming out is powerful, it does hold up the strands of her narrative longer than is necessary.

And, occasionally, the strands of cousins, wives, daughters in law and uncles get hopelessly tangled as the story disappears within the cast. But that does not take away from the importance of Hajratwala’s contribution. She writes about how people who had no surnames acquired them along the way, from their occupations and who managed to find an identity in far flung places amongst different races and languages. Hajratwala’s own surname came from her great grandfather Narsai, a “hajrat waalaa” or prophet who could find lost rings and kidnapped children. And all her stories are given a firm historical context backed by impeccable research. In the end India is always with them, no matter where they in the world they are. “Perhaps we in the diaspora are always leaving India, or that part of India, real or imagined, which lives in our souls, memories, skins.”

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Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents
by Minal Hajratwala

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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