At first glance, Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India seems like your standard memoir about a family immigrating from India to the US. It’s anything but. Hajratwala weaves a fascinating and true story of her family-extended and immediate-and how over a few centuries they slowly started leaving India for South Africa, Fiji, China, and many other places, and how her parents both ended up in the States. More than just a family’s history though, Leaving India plays out like a self-discovery book. Through each of her family members’ stories, Hajratwala is also looking for a piece of herself, and it makes for one awesome read. There is so much I could write about this book, but to stop myself my writing a super long review (because I loved so much and there is just soooo much to discuss), I’ll just focus on a few points that are still fresh in my head, since I it seems most of the pages I dog-eared have come undog-eared..
Hajratwala discusses arranged marriages quite a bit throughout the book. After all, pretty much all of her relatives and ancestors had them. What I loved (and can’t find the book which sucks because it’s a great quote..) was how she explains her peoples’ feelings on arranged marriage. Myself and most of my fellow westerners I’m sure don’t really understand arranged marriages and feel pity for couples who we think are being “forced” together. It’s books like this that completely change my perspective and make me realize how ignorant I really am at times. Hajratwala’s take is so different. She says it’s just a give for most young Indians. While American girls daydream about meetingthe man of their dreams and the courtship that will lead to marriage, Indian girls know their husband will be picked for them, and it isn’t like the end of the world for them.
Of course, what was also interesting in Leaving India was how the most recent generations in Hajratwala’s family have been slowly breaking away from tradition. Her mother was able to go to college, her bother and some of her cousins not only did not have arranged marriages, but married into different cultures. And then there’s Hajratwala herself. When reading the author’s chapter on herself, it’s easy to see that she stands apart from her family, an when she came out as a lesbian to her parents, she thought they might disown her. It was heartbreaking to read, especially since, even though her parents have accepted her and still love her, most of her family still does not know about the “secret”, which doesn’t need to be hidden nowadays in a country like the US. Her family is in some ways so focused on preserving their culture-which is wonderful, I wish my family still had some of our old traditions-but they are perhaps hurting each other by not becoming more open-minded.
Of course, these are all just my own observations. This book can be interpreted in so many ways and enjoyed by people of all cultures and with different interests. You don’t have to have Indian heritage to connect with Hajratwala’s family. If anything, this book will make you more understanding and accepting of a culture you may know very little about.
A favorite excerpt:
Page 81: To the west, the cool Atlantic swells up toward London, New York, and South Africa’s most picturesque city, Cape Town. To the east, the Indian Ocean is several degrees warmer; it gives the coast of Africa from Durban to Mombasa a tropical climate profitable for sugar and tourism, almost homelike for the more than a million Indians who have lived there for generations. This confluence of oceans is a rare coincidence of political and natural geography, where the act of naming does not create an arbitrary border, but gives voice to a natural one.
And yet it is the most fluuid, the most porous of borders. East and west meet a great force, a terrible frothing and crashing of waves. The whitecaps swirl, and as much as one tries to follow a dark wave, it curls under a paler one from the other side; as far as I can track a blue wave, it does not, of course, hold. Like the several great civilizations that have clashed and coexisted in southern Africa over the last two centuries, the waters cannot be segregated.
And who can tell which wave is resisting, which collaborating? The sea reveals no moral; what moves the whole is a greater tide. Perhaps the currents of history are what they are, and we only choose-or think we choose-which side to view them from, and where to take a stand.
Title: Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents
Author: Minal Hajratwala
Date of Publication: 2009
Number of Pages: 352
Source: Personal Copy