Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reviewing the book Leaving India and the question “Where are you from?”

I was intrigued by the topical title of the book, Leaving India, a copy of which I picked up while traveling to Bangalore recently. The book, while readable did not exactly “keep me up late into the night” as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s blurb on the jacket promises. It is a mix of academic and theoretical observations peppered with stories and anecdotes. I finished reading it on the 14-plus hour plane ride back to San Francisco.

Minal Hajratwala has done a great job of traveling, interviewing and capturing the immigration saga of her extended family spanning over a century. The book is primarily about migrants of the Gujarati Khatri community that the author belongs to. By selecting her extended family for her research, Hajratwala has been able to focus on an otherwise eclectic topic of immigration.

She draws from her personal experiences, a childhood in New Zealand and Michigan. There is a tinge of bitterness about her childhood, partly attributable to her experiences in racially charged Michigan of the seventies.

One of the most interesting passages in the book is when Hajratwala examines the question “Where are you from?” (P 339).

This is a question NRIs, ABCDs and Indian Immigrants get asked a lot; lot more than we care to admit!

Many a times, the question is just an ice-breaker, like when you are asked “Where are you from?” and you reply “India,” after which the Caucasian woman may ask “which part of India?” . . . and if you say “Bangalore” she might start off with “I was in India a few years ago with my husband/friend, we traveled to Agra and Jaipur”

Now, if like me, you happen to be an NRI, and when asked the question, you answer “I am from Phoenix, or Here, San Francisco,” you might hear Oh?”

And just as Hajratwala reflects in her book “". . .and in her voice you might hear a faint rise: disbelief, wonder, a set of questions she does not ask” . .. “I am thinking of all the times I have faced this question – dozens? Hundreds? – and how, even now, I feel I must defend or explain my answer . . . but none of these would give a clue to either ethnicity or character”

Touché, Ms Hajratwala, well put!

Ps: My Book review on Amazon.com
Washington Post's review of the book