Radikal Readings: Leaving India

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Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would read a book about the Indian diaspora and the Fiji Islands. On the heels of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, on a whim, I decided to research books about my parents’ home country, the Fiji Islands. I expected books on tourism and travel, but never did I expect to find Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala.

The book is much more than just the journey of Indians from India to Fiji, Hajratwala specifically writes about her own family’s journey from Gujrat, India to the Fiji Islands, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and various parts of America. The author spent 7 years researching the book and interviewed 75 relatives in the process. The result is a stunning, in depth look at the Indian diaspora through Minal’s family.

As I stated above, I had a personal tie to this book. Rightfully, or wrongfully so, I had certain expectations of what I wanted out of reading it. Numerous times as she kept mentioning the contributions of Gujrati’s to the Fiji Islands, while not mentioning other people of Indian backgrounds, I had to remind myself that this book was about her family, and not the Indian community in Fiji on a whole.

However, that aside, it was fascinating to read about the history of Indian people in Fiji, as opposed to stories I heard growing up from my parents and grandparents. It’s not only Fiji of course, as the narrative of relatives in South Africa and the tension and race relations of the time were eye-opening.

While I relished reading about the Indian diaspora and how Indians came about living in Fiji and all over the world, I appreciated and relished the story of Minal’s parents. Her father’s struggles in America, to the family’s move from New Zealand to Michigan. The difficulties and opportunities immigrant family faces in the United States are all outlined. I so much related to Minal’s talk of her parents feeling less tied to their changing homeland as my own parents have talked about.

The writing style itself is very detailed and at times dry, as it Hajratwala seems to give too many details that don’t necessarily lend to the story on a whole. It ends up sounding like a history lesson when she tries to maintain a journalistic distance oddly while talking about her family. However, that changes in the last part of the book when Minal turns the narrative to herself and her upbringing in New Zealand, Michigan and finally San Francisco.

For the first time I completely related to the stories in a book. The stories of Minal being made fun of, I began to understand the world was composed of me and Them. Stories of her name being made fun of and the resentment she felt towards her parents choosing an Indian name.

Besides, I was ashamed of anything that made me different – and my parents were most certainly the core of my difference. I was ashamed of what they wore, what we ate at home, what I called them: Mummy and Papa. Normal kids had Mom and Dad, I learned when a classmate read one of my school journal entries and laughed; from then on, I referred to my parents as Mom and Dad, states Minal. Sadly these are all thoughts that I once had as a child and teenager growing up.

It’s hard to imagine now, as she says, These days, when Hollywood debutantes sport Bollywood fashions and “chai tea” is available at every Starbucks, it is hard to remember the America where I grew up: an America where people did not recognize our ethnicity, where we were constantly mistaken for black or Hispanic or anything but ourselves, where when we said “Indian” they asked us, “what tribe?” Living in San Francisco, where a new yoga studio seems to open up every month, I am tempted to forget that other America which regarded anything foreign with suspicion…  

Minal details a painful childhood, dealing with not only the pressure of living with two different cultures, dealing with racism, and trying to fit-in as much as possible, but she also came out as a lesbian in college, something that is still very much taboo in the Indian community.

I related so much to Minal’s push and pull of Western and Indian cultures – her parents and family versus the outside environment she grew up in. It was refreshing to read about something I so deeply related to. For this, I can’t thank Minal Hajratwala enough for telling her family’s stories.

She goes onto gain acceptance from her parents and a love and acceptance of her own culture and faily. And finally the most telling sentence of them all, Where am I from? This is my body, this is where I live. 

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