October 2009

Niranjana Iyer


An Interview with Minal Hajratwala

With 36 first cousins scattered around the globe, writer Minal Hajratwala belongs to no ordinary family. Leaving India explores the reasons behind her family's migrations from India to countries as far-flung as Fiji, England, and South Africa, over the past one hundred fifty years. In the process, Hajratwala analyzes the evolution of the global Indian diaspora, which is unofficially estimated at about twenty-four million. Leaving India has been widely praised, receiving positive reviews from The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, amongst others.

Hajratwala spoke to me via email about the Indian diaspora in America, the research that went into her book, and the place she calls “home.”  


Narratives of the Indian diaspora are, in general, dominated by tales of migration to North America and Britain. Your book, however, shows that the Indian diaspora is deeper and wider than most observers reckon?

Definitely. In 1834 the British Empire outlawed slavery and decided to replace it with indentured labor from India (and later China). That's how the mass migrations we associate with the modern Indian diaspora started, when Indian workers were taken to European colonies en masse: Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji, South Africa, etc. It wasn't until the 1960s that large numbers of Indians were even allowed into Western countries; prior to that, race-restrictive immigration laws made it impossible. Now we're in a third wave that is really part of the globalization trend, where not only skilled but also unskilled workers are able to find migration paths in many different directions. For Indians, the oil-rich countries of the Middle East have become big destinations. 

 Your parents and grandparents left India for other lands. You were born in the United States, grew up there and in New Zealand, and now live in San Francisco. What sort of connection do you maintain with India in this context? Does the country still hold meaning as “home”?

To me, India is more "homeland" than "home." Sometimes it's an almost imaginary India. In the book I liken it to a mosaic, composed of bits and pieces of memories and visits and media images. It's not the same as when you actually live in and know a place. I love visiting India and at some point I may decide to live there for an extended period, but for me, at least for now, San Francisco is home.

My homelands include both India and Fiji, and they exist for me in imagination, in memory, in my parents’ stories, in occasional visits; they inform who I am, but I don’t think about or encounter them every day. My home is here for me every day, and has a cat and a bed and a writing desk in it. I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area more or less since 1988, so even though I have roots in other places, this is the place I know and love best.

In your book, you seem to discard the notion of the ABCD -- the American-Born Confused Desi, a person of Indian ethnicity who is constantly forced to choose between America and India and confused as to her cultural identity. Do you think that image is irrelevant/dated now?

 I think that image was always a lie, although like most lies it had some truth to it. Our generation was not particularly confused; we were a focal point for the confusion of others, both the white society around us that didn't know what to make of Indians and the immigrant generation that didn't know quite what to make of America.

To distill the complexity of a group of 1.7 million people of various socioeconomic levels, religions, languages, and regional backgrounds down to a single "image" is something that various forces both inside and outside the Indo-American community are constantly trying to do, but it's an impossible and, to me, undesirable project. I'm much more interested in a multiplicity of images of who we are and can be. The diaspora is incredibly complex and diverse, and in the United States some desis have been here five generations, some arrived yesterday, and there are confusions and certainties in each situation. The best image for me would be one of those goddesses with a thousand and one different faces and arms and tools. No confusion, but lots of options.

You mention that it is America, and no other country, that fires your Indian nephew’s imagination. What is it about America that continues to inspire so many Indians in particular to migrate here?

Many immigrants have a hard life here, come poor, struggle, and stay poor. What inspires that kind of passion is really the hard sell that is constantly going out from Hollywood, from the mainstream media, and even lately from Bollywood. Entertainment and news media have a huge impact. The Silicon Valley story, which I was in the middle of as an editor at the San Jose Mercury News in the late 1990s, was a classic example; Americans love the archetype of someone coming from abroad with three dollars in his pocket, starting a company, and becoming king of the world: "Only in America are such things possible!" Sure, that happens enough of the time that those stories can be perpetuated, and the myth can be re-inscribed again and again. But numerically, that is obviously a tiny minority.

In the past few years as the U.S. economic recession is dominating global headlines, the bloom is off the rose a bit. Migrants are choosing Australia, Europe, and other destinations where their material prospects are healthier. In writing the book it became clear to me that the American dream is only one manifestation of a kind of desire that my relatives have been pursuing for more than a century: the Fijian dream, the South African dream, the Hong Kong dream.

At the same time a lot of people from India are still coming to the United States because now it's a well-trod immigration path, for reasons that date back to the Cold War period and U.S. economic and scientific interests at that time. In writing Leaving India, I learned more about how my parents were part of the “brain drain” generation that started around or after 1965, when skilled scientific workers from Asia were being encouraged to migrate to the United States. Meanwhile India had (and continues to have) a large pool of technically educated young people with some English skills because of the British Empire’s legacy in India. So the American Dream mystique has coincided with specific national policies in both places to create a situation in which, for the last 44 years, the annual U.S. quota for immigrants from India is maxed out every year.

You’ve noted that access to South Asian culture is limited in America compared to other countries (such as Britain). How does such lack of access impact the (South Asian) immigrant’s identity?

In the United States, Indians have been until recently a tiny, invisible minority, overshadowed in most places by much larger communities of color. There are two basic responses to this: one is to assimilate as much as possible with white society, and the other is to live and work in solidarity with other communities of color. As the population grows larger and geographic concentrations occur, a third response is also possible, which is to live more insularly and not have very much interaction outside of one's own community; you already see this with the Indian community in places like Toronto, for example. These are all very predictable responses in terms of immigrant community identity formation, and I think we make a mistake when we think we have some special identity formation process going on. We're just like other communities in that way; we grow, we adjust, we make choices both individually and as groups, and those choices -- not some essential sense of South Asianness -- are what ultimately shape our identities.

We also live in a time when a lot of questioning of the very concept of "identity" is going on. So we're seeing, too, attempts to transcend narrow boxes of identity and claim multiple identities in a kind of layered way; so for example I can be Gujarati, queer, South Asian, lesbian, a writer, a poet, Indian, American, etc., and allow all of those identities to co-exist as easily or uneasily as they do. In a way I think of them as memberships, not essences.

Talking of multiple identities, do you find yourself or your work labeled in any particular way? How do you deal with such labeling?

The book has been largely sold as a South Asian book. For a while it was on a "Treasures of India" table at one of the chain stores along with novels and cookbooks and henna how-to books, which I thought was hilarious. You have to keep a sense of humor about the marketing side of things. I can't live in a place of constant outrage.

It's also labeled as a gay book, especially online, which is generally great because it helps more readers to find me. I’m happy that readers can search for and find Leaving India under a multitude of possible labels: India, migration, queerness, biography, memoir, history, nonfiction, local author, local bestseller, book club book, journalism, etc.-- the more labels, the more possibilities that readers will find it!

The most distressing thing was that just a few weeks after the launch, Amazon created this whole mess where they stripped all the books labeled "gay and lesbian" from their searches, rankings, etc. Somehow they'd lumped in all the gay books with "adult" content, and so my book (along with thousands of others) suddenly sort of disappeared -- it wouldn't show up even if you searched for it. Eventually Amazon restored it saying it was a "glitch," but it definitely made me think about how marketing labels can easily be turned against you and used to censor or limit access as well.

Tell me about the research that went into the book.

I traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, England, Canada, and of course throughout the United States -- basically anywhere I had family members. In each place I interviewed as many relatives as would talk to me on the record, and of course I stayed in people’s homes. I had already met most of them over the years, because people in our family travel a lot. But as a child and then a young woman, I was naturally limited in the kinds of conversations I would normally have. As a researcher, however, I could talk to everyone, from elders to teenagers. I was always clear that the interviews were for publication and I always gave people the option to go “off the record” with anything they didn’t want the world to know, so I think that created a kind of ease and comfort. For the most part they willingly shared not only their memories but also their photographs, archival documents, old passports, everything with me. And my ability to speak the language, Gujarati, improved dramatically.

In each place, I also met with academics or historians who knew the history of the South Asian community in that particular region. And I went to local libraries and national archives to look at documents related to the early history of Indians in that area, censuses and statistics about the community, Indian newspapers and newsletters, and mainstream newspapers -- really anything that would give me the texture and context for the personal stories that my relatives were telling me.

For Leaving India, I knew I wanted to tell the big picture of the phenomenal growth of India’s diaspora over the past century, but in order to make that a compelling narrative, I needed to get really, really personal, to dig down several levels: emotional, sensual, spiritual, psychological, etc. And so there is an element of emotional courage involved, which I think sometimes historians and academics shy away from. Intimacy with the reader requires a willingness to be intimate with the family members whose stories I’m telling, and to be intimate with myself and my own feelings as I wrote. My intention in starting this book was that I really wanted to enter into and convey the emotional motivations of people: why we made these journeys, what was motivating us both consciously and unconsciously, what factors even beyond our own knowledge were acting upon us. All the research is useful because it’s driven by that desire to understand the experiences of others, so I hope it supports the intimacy instead of undermining it.

With all that rich material, it must have been tricky deciding what to include and what to leave out?

The process of selecting from all the material I gathered, finding (and losing, and finding again) the voice of the book, pulling a few strong narrative threads from hundreds of disconnected anecdotes, and overcoming my terror of making the wrong choices was what took seven years.  

Seven years. Did you quit your day job to devote yourself to this project? How did it all work out?

I was a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News for eight years. I left to take a fellowship at Columbia University, where I wrote the proposal for this book. I thought it would take me a year to research and a year to write! When it became clear it would take much longer, I started grant writing, editing, and other freelance work. It worked out.

You’ve placed much emphasis on the accuracy of your writing, stating explicitly that you have not fictionalized anything in the book. What significance does this scrupulousness about telling the truth about your history hold for you?

It's interesting that, no matter how much I reiterate that Leaving India is nonfiction, people still call it a "novel.” On the one hand I think that's a compliment, as people often say admiringly of nonfiction books, "It reads like a novel." No one ever compliments the voice or pacing of a novel by saying "It reads like nonfiction"!

On the other hand I think we've just become very used to the dominant experience of South Asian literature in the United States being fiction. It's lovely for readers to sink into an exotic world of spices, silks, and family dramas, and often those dramas are stripped of historical tensions such as colonialism and racism, or at least history takes a far back seat. To me the project of this book was to understand why and how the Indian diaspora formed, in a very personal way; why do I have 36 first cousins spread out all across the globe? And because I really wanted to understand precisely how political and personal circumstances conspired to affect our lives, it wouldn't have helped me to just make things up. I have other fiction projects in the work, and fiction is a fine way of making sense of the world; it just wasn't right for this material, for me.

You’re a poet, and a journalist. Did you have to work to reconcile these two sides while writing the book, or did they flow into each other?

My journalistic and poetic voices battled mightily, but it was a productive struggle in a sort of Hegelian sense. I hope the synthesis is as satisfying to readers as it was torturous for me.


Niranjana Iyer lives in Ontario, Canada. Her writing appears in rabble.ca, The Missouri Review, and The Smithsonian Magazine, amongst others. Visit her website Brown Paper ( http://niranjana.wordpress.com) for more information.