Leaving India

Juxtapositions abound in Minal Harjatwala’s Leaving India, which traces generations of the author’s family, weaving back and forth across maternal and paternal lines as they spread out from India around the globe. Meticulously researched and documented, the book offers narratives of individual lives within historical and anthropological contexts. It also unfolds a personal account that uncharacteristically minimizes its author, except in her role as reporter, until Hajratwala unveils her own story near the end of the book. Presumably in an attempt to minimize confusion, she includes graphics of her family tree, a chronology, and a map depicting the family’s journeys. However, especially in the early chapters, it may still be hard for readers to keep everyoneand everythingstraight. Some critics have commented on a sense of slow going, noting the text’s plethora of characters, events, details, and anecdotes. Still, readers who persevere are ultimately rewarded. As Hajratwala explores the story of her own family’s choices, she also unfolds the larger story of the Indian diaspora.

In Hajratwala’s “Acknowledgements” and “A Note on the Text” sections, readers are introduced not only to this expansive work but also to the language sensibilities of its author, a poet as well as a journalist. Hajratwala says that she interviewed nearly one hundred family members, friends, and community sources during the eight years the book was in progress. She confesses to her “geekish love of research” and references eight months of travel and research when “almost every member of my extended family hosted, fed, or chauffeured me.” Hajratwala also acknowledges scholars and others who helped her find resources along the way, with special mention of those in India, where “research often seems possible only through acts of grace.” She describes her usage guidelines, offers pronunciation cues, and promises that any necessary non-English words will be defined in the nearby text. She also explains the few basic non-English terms that recur throughout the book. Hajratwala emphasizes that Leaving India is a work of nonfiction, where no poetic license has been taken because “the journalist in me is scrupulous about such matters.”

Hajratwala has explained that in this book she set out to find the intersection between character and history. The first chapter is a stand-alone essay that delves into Hajratwala’s caste (Kshatriya) and clan (Solanki), “the group of people we think of as our close relatives, a cluster of Kshatriyas who live in certain villagesfive villages, to be preciseand with whom we share rituals and sacraments.” The rest of the text is structured in four main parts that unfold stories of the author’s family members, spanning the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century. Each part opens with a dated title page estimating the size of the Indian diaspora at that point (from fewer than 374,000 in 1900 to greater than 11 million in 2001) and a list of countries with more than 10,000 people of Indian origin. Parts 1 through 3 contain two or three chapters apiece. Each has an introductory page with title, epigraph, and a portion of the family tree that locates its main character. In part 4, following the epigraph Vaasudeva Kutumbukam (an ancient Sanskrit mantra translated as “the whole world is one family”), Hajratwala creates a collage of her own generation. First, though, she goes back to its roots.

The opening narrative focuses on Motiram, Hajratwala’s paternal great-grandfather, born to a clan of weavers in the village of Navsari, in southern Gujurat. Records show that he went to the Fiji Islands in 1909 and, two years later, established a small tailoring shop that eventually became one of the largest department stores in the South Pacific islands. Without records of “the precise combination of ambition, wanderlust, and desperation which led him to cross two oceans,” Hajratwala focuses on what she can knowconditions in India at the time as well as influences from the British “empire in need.” She offers a meticulously documented rendering of the years of Motiram’s childhood, when cotton was being extensively grown in India to feed the mills (by then, most of the cloth in Gujurat was machine made); with a harsh tax requiring yearly payment on both the harvest and the land itself; and where the famine of 1899 caused widespread death even in relatively successful Navsari.

Although Leaving India is nonfiction, Hajratwala skillfully and carefully includes possibilities and alternate scenarios as she speculates about Motiram’s reasons for emigrating and the surrounding circumstances. In the same way, backed by...

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