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Book review: Leaving India...

In Leaving India..., Minal Hajratwala recounts the migration of her extended family, initially moving out from a small village in Gujarat to Navsari and then to different countries around the globe.

books Updated: Apr 12, 2010 12:39 IST

Book: Leaving India: My Family's Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents
Author: Minal Hajratwala
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
Price: Rs.595

The Gujarati diaspora has always been much more energetic and entrepreneurial than any other migrant group from India. The 'push' and 'pull' factors of migration from India were similar - drought or bad times in the home village and the possibility of better opportunities abroad - but their entrepreneurial energies and chain migration helped the Gujarati migrant to establish himself in the new country.

In Leaving India..., Minal Hajratwala recounts the migration of her extended family, initially moving out from a small village in Gujarat to Navsari and then to different countries around the globe.

The Gujarati immigrant had his community to support him; well established Gujaratis would help the new migrant, give him a job, and later help with money and contacts to set up his own enterprise.

The Hajratwala family's migration began with Motiram who went to Fiji in 1909. In 1911, Motiram set up shop as a tailor, later he sent for his brother and his brother-in-law and then went on to become the proprietor of the largest Indian-owned department store.

It is a journey that began just about a hundred years ago when Minal's great grandfather travelled from Navsari to the Fiji islands to seek new opportunities, an uncle went to South Africa and her father travelled to the US with his young wife. The family migrated to Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, Britain, and the US with the result that now Minal has 36 first cousins living in different parts of the world.

"Each time we move, we must leave something of ourselves behind," writes Minal Hajratwala, but the migrants also made an imprint on the new country.

In Fiji, the Indians contributed roti-curry (vegetable roti roll) to the local cuisine, while in South Africa it was the 'bunny chow' that became a favourite snack food.

Minal's great granduncle, Ganda, and other Indian restaurant owners devised the bunny chow - curry stuffed in a hollowed out loaf of bread - as a takeaway during the days of segregation in apartheid South Africa.

Her story of migration to the US is not the typical Silicon Valley saga; it deals with Indian migrant stories in the period before Indians came to be celebrated as a model immigrant community.

Minal's parents were part of the 'brain drain' when America began to attract professionally educated Asians in the mid 1960s. But the Indian migration experience was not always a comfortable one.

Cultural variations were frowned upon in American society at that time and the need for adjustment produced many "Asian Americans with Indian characteristics" like Minal and her brother.

She writes about the pulls and pressures of the Indian need to "preserve our culture" when the Indian teenager's main aim was to "assimilate" in the American melting pot. She describes the pain and loneliness of growing up in a white neighbourhood in Canton, Michigan.

Culture became a weekend activity for Indian children at community functions. Now the Indian community has grown to the extent that there are temples and community centres and garba dances are organised during Navratri.

The Indian diaspora is a diverse and complex one, Indians migrating in different directions, at different times. Minal Hajratwala spent eight years tracing her family's journeys, talking to relatives to piece together their story of migration.

In India, she met relatives still living in Navsari and others who had gone to Mumbai and other towns in the country. Minal writes a frank and moving account of her sense of multiple identities, as a Gujarati, an Indian American, a South Asian writer, poet and a queer activist.