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A Moving Tale of Migration

Reviewed by Poornima Apte Email Reviewed by Poornima Apte
May 2009
A Moving Tale of Migration

Over many decades, one basic pattern—follow opportunity where it takes you, set up home and hearth—has repeated itself constantly in the Indian community. The end result is that the diaspora is now scattered over dozens of countries all around the world. It is this fascinating dispersal that Minal Hajratwala sets out to chronicle through her book, Leaving India: My Family's Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents. She looks to trace broader emigration patterns of the Indian diaspora by unearthing the narrative of her own extended family.

So it is that for seven years Hajratwala traveled the globe listening to family stories and distilling them all into this wonderful account. She starts at the very beginning, explaining the family's start in five small villages in Gujarat. Tracing one's genealogical tree can be a challenge. As most South Asians know, a lot is built on anecdote and hearsay. The Hajratwala family, it is known, are Khatris (Kshatriyas). A tentative link to the royal Solanki family is also tossed around but the author isn't entirely convinced—the links remain dubious.

The story of the Hajratwala family migration can be traced to the very beginning of the twentieth century. At the turn of that century, the British Empire was looking for cheap labor to run their plantations in Fiji. Indentured labor was the answer. Thousands of Indians, driven to destitution by endless drought, enrolled and sailed over the seas to work under extremely harsh conditions. Motiram Narsey, Minal's great-grandfather, was marginally luckier. When he arrived in Suva, Fiji, there was already an established Indian community. Motiram learned how to tailor clothes and set up shop—M. Narsey & Co.—a small tailoring shop in 1911. Over the next few decades this shop would morph into a huge retail empire and Narsey's would become a household name in Fiji.

Hajratwala also details the path her great-great-uncle, Ganda Kapitan, took to South Africa. He eventually set up a roaring restaurant on Grey Street in Durban. Kapitan was also the inventor of the beans bunny chow. A bunny chow is hollowed out white bread filled with curry, a street food devised by the Indian community in South Africa. Hajratwala uses the bunny chow as an interesting metaphor. It's often how the “first generation of our diaspora views itself: essentially Indian at the core, packaged in and adapted to the local mores only as much as is conducive to economic survival,” she writes.

As Hajratwala gets more current chronologically, there are equally wonderful stories of other members of her family: grandfather Narotam, who participated in Gandhi's salt march many years ago, and that of Uncle Rancchod the enterprising story teller. One of the more entertaining stories is that of her parents—Bhupendra and Bhanu—and their eventual emigration to the United States. The story of how Bhupendra lands his first job going on a cross-country drive with just a few dollars in his pocket is really well done.

Towards the end, Hajratwala trains the lens on herself. “Deep in the marrow of every story is a silence. Having struggled, all these pages, to be transparent, not to overwhelm the stories of others with my own, now it is my turn to emerge, solid,” she writes. In one chapter, she details the delicate balance she maintained growing up as a hyphenated American. “Somehow we were meant to absorb ‘culture’ on the weekends, stay true to our parents' values, yet accomplish full-fledged assimilation at school,” Hajratwala writes. It's a story other South Asian authors have visited before, yet Hajratwala's account is tender and touching. It's also different because she uses these pages to come out—to reveal her identity as a bisexual. This part of the book is deeply moving and beautifully written as well—you can tell it has been a cathartic release for the author. It is also of political significance for the fairly conservative Indian-American community and it is hard not to give the book more historical weight because of this telling.

Yet, even if this is one of the more touching chapters in the book, it also feels oddly out of place in the narrative. Somewhere along the way, you get the sense that the book loses its original raison d'etre. What started out as a broader look at the diaspora as a whole dissolves into pure memoir. This isn't a strike mark against the book—it only hints at the possibility that there might be three books buried in this one.

At the end of Hajratwala's moving account, you begin to realize just how complex the process of emigration actually is. Leaving India is a brilliant telling of one family's dispersal throughout the globe. It is remarkable to know that all that movement was set into motion by pretty much just one person: Motiram Narsey. As a family member once told Minal, “Your great-grandfather wanted to go to Fiji, so he went.” The rest, as they say, is history.

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