Intimate histories

Written by Suman Tarafdar | Updated: Nov 30 2009, 02:36am hrs
Seven years, 75 family members across five continentsall for a voluminous tell all 100-year-old family history spanning generations. It can be fairly safely surmised that for some in her family, the author is no longer the most favourite cousin from the US, given the amount of dirty linen washed in Leaving India: My Familys Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, a memoir/ pen portraits of a Gujarati family that began its journey of immigration a century ago. As the author points out, she also received abusive mails from a family member, who ultimately realised that despite being from the land of dreams, she would not help his dream come true by helping in the migration process.

Migration. Thats the magic word that binds together this remarkable work. US-based Hajratwala, through a combination of reportage and overheard family conversations over the years, presents one of the most detailed stories of a single family move in the last century. Her retelling of history highlights what is often lost in the grand sweeping tales of national or regional historiesthe microcosms that are as important and revealing.

Her story takes place in the backdrop of the World Wars, Gandhi and the Indian anti-colonial movement, apartheid, Indian diasporas global spread, pre war immigration laws for the first world, deadly global epidemics such as influenza, brain drain from the poorest nations of the planet to its richest and Americas emergence as the land of dreams. Her story brings them alive. There is her grandfather Narotam Chhagan in the Dandi March, great grandfather Motiram Narsey migrating to Fiji to escape crushing poverty at home, and later dying of flu along with other 100 million across the world, GC Kapitan, great great uncle inventing the bunny chow in South Africa, popular to date, father Bhupendra meeting US demand for Needed workers post World War II, under the Immigration Act of 1965.

Hajratwala is candid in her approach. This is not a posed portrait, but one with uneasy warts exposed. Not a tale of heroic exploits and achievements though the Narsey legacy lives on public memory in Fiji. The unintended heroism is in migrants facing enormous hardships and animosity, yet making in their chosen lands.

The tales of Motiram Narsey establishing himself in Fiji starting from nothing and building a retail empire make for fascinating reading. The tale of how the bunny chow-curry served between loaves of breadis equally fascinating. White South Africa, in its effort to subjugate enterprising Indians, invented laws that prevented people from other races, in effect blacks, from patronising Indian-owned restaurants, which led Indians to innovate a dish that could be a takeaway! Her own tale, of having to confront her sexuality and making her parents accept it, is as much a tale of identity and the search for self.

Hajratwalas narrative is at once simple yet unputdownable. For future writers on Indian diaspora, it shall be a touchstone, a marker to compare with.