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'Wherever Indians went in large numbers there was an immediate backlash'

By Arthur J Pais
March 18, 2009 12:59 IST
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Journalist, performer, teacher, and left-leaning lesbian activist, Minal Hajratwala has published her first book, Leaving India, a grand collection of family histories culled from interviews with over 70 members of her extended family settled in a dozen countries.

The book focuses on Gujarati families but Hajratwala, who worked at San Jose Mercury News for over six years, shows that the compelling stories in her book have universal resonance. A third-generation Irish immigrant in America or Australia, for instance, can understand why so many Indians left their country over many decades in the past 200 years ago.

The Irish who know how their ancestors suffered a huge potato famine in mid-19th century in their country can relate to the Indian Diaspora often triggered by famines and poverty, she feels. San Francisco-born Hajratwala, who was raised in New Zealand and America, began her study about seven years ago by asking simple but key questions:  Who are we? Where did we come from? What did we give up and gain in the process? She tells's Arthur J Pais that she has told 'the stories of ordinary people who were shaped by history'.

Hajratwala is a not a common Gujarati name.

(Chuckles) It is quite a unique name, and I am sure the few Hajratwalas across the world are all related. 'Hajrat' means a person of prophecy. One of my ancestors was well known for prophecies. He would also help people find out their lost personal items.

You write many colorful stories about your ancestors. What are some of the interesting discoveries you made while researching for this book?

When I was in Durban, South Africa, I went to a local history museum to get details about Indian migration. I was surprised to find a picture of my great-great uncle there. I read about him and found out that he was also into the restaurant business and had unwittingly discovered a dish. Black Africans were not allowed into restaurants and there were no plastic containers or Styrofoam to pack the takeaway food. My uncle thought of stuffing a bread loaf with vegetables, in this case fava beans. He was a strict vegetarian. The dish became so popular and now Beans Bunny is almost the national dish of South Africa. And I had it this afternoon in a South African restaurant in Brooklyn. I just could not believe that I was enjoying a dish in New York, which started with one of my family members.

What are some of the most intriguing aspects of immigration you were able to discover?

I noticed that wherever Indians went in large numbers there was an immediate backlash, starting in the mid-19th century. I was curious about how they negotiated with the local people and colonial forces to continue to live in those countries. In some cases, they joined hands with the local people and in some, they joined the ruling class.

Who are some of the people you recall most in your family's diaspora?

My grandfather Narotam was a Gandhian and had participated in the Salt March with Mahatma Gandhi. After he was released from jail, his parents sent him to Fiji to join the extended family. To someone like him, working with the local family became a natural thing. Stories like these reminded me of the choices we have today.

What kind of choices?

We can either become a Bobby Jindal [the ultraconservative Republican Governor of Louisiana] or Vinita Gupta [the crusading civil liberties attorney].

What are you celebrating in this book?

The stories of ordinary people who were shaped by history. I was not looking for people who made history, though I discovered some of my ancestors did do that. I have written about people who had history acting on them.

In a way many of the migrants were pioneers…

They were. They went to far-flung countries in the British Empire. They started a trend that then became a wave. Through the lives of these people, I have tried to tell the story of one of the biggest diasporas ever.

How did this project start?

I have lived on three continents. I was born in San Francisco. I was whisked away to New Zealand when my father got a teaching job there. I was a baby then. When we came back to America, I was about seven. I grew up in suburban Michigan where some schoolmates would ask me, which Indian tribe I belonged to. Today, thanks to Bollywood, yoga and Indian restaurants, Americans know something about India but not 20 or 30 years ago. In a way this book came out of a question my friends often asked.

What did they ask?

We always received relatives in our home, and I told my friends about it, about a cousin visiting us from Hong Kong or Fiji or South Africa, they would say, 'Your family is all over the world.'

How scattered is the family?

When I began counting at first, I had 36 first cousins; I think my final list had 75 cousins, first, second and third living in about a dozen countries.  

When did the migration start?

Their migration begins in the wake of the famine of 1899, when my great-grandfather Motiram left to learn the tailor's craft in Fiji, leaving his wife and children behind. Soon they would join him. He founded a family business in his new home, then invited other family members to join him. His shop eventually became one of the largest department stores in the South Pacific isles.

How long has this book been in the preparation?

For nearly seven years. I travelled extensively for about a year and a half and visited family members and their acquaintances and did research in many places, including London and Durban.

How did you go around looking for family members?

My parents helped me a lot. In fact, they came along with me for a few weeks as they wanted to combine their vacation in helping me. They had kept in touch with family members across the world. My father grew up in India, and my mother in Fiji.

This book is published in America by Houghton Mifflin, which was a home to Jhumpa Lahiri and is still a home for a number of distinguished writers. How did you find the publisher?

I had the idea for the book when I had a fellowship at Columbia University. A lot of books by writers of Indian origin were coming out at that time. I was not interested in a novel but I was convinced there would be many interesting stories about the Diaspora involving my family. I wrote a 50-page proposal and a few writing chapters and began marketing them.

This book was in the works for seven years. How did you support yourself since you were not working for any newspaper at the time.

I did not have a full-time job but I have taught courses, helped write grants, and done consultancy work. I live a very frugal life. When I travelled to research the book, I bought a world pass and I was lucky to be welcomed by many members of my extended family. I also had an advance from my publisher.

Why did this book take seven years?

The first year and a half I travelled, gathering information. This was tough because there were very few documents pertaining to individuals who migrated 150 years ago. I continued doing research as I was writing the book, especially about migration to America. I have been a journalist for many years and I know what deadlines are. But with this book I took my time because I had to be fully satisfied that I was doing justice to the challenge I had on my hands.

Did you come across family members whose histories were not really positive?

There were a few whose histories I did not like and I did not include them in the book. In any case, I was not writing a tell-all expose.

How did you get the trust of the family members for this project?

I had met many of them before. Even then, I made it clear I was meeting them in the professional capacity and they had nothing to fear.

What do you mean there was nothing to fear?

I was recording our conversations. But I told them that if they wanted to tell me something as background information and did not want it to be mentioned in the book, I would switch off the recorder.

You have offered portraits of individuals. Did you come across someone you decided not to write about…

There was one person who was going to make a chapter but she told me at one point that she had bribed officials to get a visa. I thought I could not give her a chapter but the stories she told me became part of a larger narrative. I was never worried about writing about a person I did not like. One of the advantages of having a very large extended family is that I could choose the stories.

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Arthur J Pais