MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Where are you from? It can be simple question, a little small talk to get a conversation going. But for many Americans it's a question you might get because you have dark skin, an accent, or distinct features. The question might offend you. It might cause you to want to do some educating. But sometimes, no matter how long you may have lived in this country and how much you may identify as an American, it might also cause you to stop and ask yourself, where am I from? What are my roots? How did my family come to be here? This is the very question author and journalist Minal Hajratwala explores in her new book, "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents."
The book traces the various paths of the expansive Indian Diaspora that led her ancestors to leave their nation and settle in nine countries around the world. And with each new setting, forming a redefinition of what it means to be Indian. Minal Hajratwala joins us now to talk about her book and the discovery of her family. Welcome, thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. MINAL HAJRATWALA (Author, "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents"): Thank you Michel.
MARTIN: Now, your own personal story is interesting enough. Born in the U.S., parents from Fiji and India, raised as a child in New Zealand, attended middle school in the suburbs of Detroit. One generation would have been, I think, interesting enough but how did you decide to go back seven centuries?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Yes, well, I really wanted to find the story from the beginning. You know, as a journalist I was always asking why and I think that came from my childhood personality. Apparently, one of my first words was why. And I just really wanted to know where everything started and the deeper that I went into it the more I felt that I needed to go back a little further, a little further, a little further.
MARTIN: Did you ever imagine you'd spend seven years on this journey?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: No, I thought that I would do the research in one year and do the writing in another year. And it took me a lot longer than I had anticipated.
MARTIN: You highlight the stories of far too many family members to go through but let's start with your great-great-uncle Ganda(ph). He travels through India, to South Africa in 1905. Tell us a little bit about him and why South Africa?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: He traveled on a boat, he was a child, he was 11 years old and they think that he stowed away on the boat. He had uncles there and his own parents had passed away and he didn't really have anybody in India. And so somebody put him on a boat to South Africa and when he landed he was taken in by his uncles. Eventually, he ended up owning a small restaurant and he developed a really distinct form of food called the Beans Bunny Chow, which was a vegetarian dish and it was a kind of take away food in an era before Styrofoam containers.
MARTIN: It's McDonald's.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: It was McDonald's, that was his claim to fame. And when I was in South Africa, I was surprised to walk into a local history museum in Durban and see his picture on the wall.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And let's talk about Motiram Narsee(ph). He is in some ways the patriarch of the family.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Yes, Motiram Narsee was my great-grandfather and he traveled from India to Fiji in 1909. He went with another man from his community. And Motiram Narsee set up a small tailoring shop that later, through his sons and his sons' sons became one of the largest department stores in the Pacific Islands.
MARTIN: And he is important to your story because his start there kind of affected the immigration patterns of the rest of your family. But why did he go to Fiji to begin with?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: It was a little bit random. There was a large Indian community in Fiji already because they had been taken their as indentured laborers to work on the sugar plantations in Fiji by the British Empire. Then there was a trickle of people from the area that my family was from who went to ply their skills. And so some went as jewelers and some went as blacksmiths and he went as a tailor. And so he actually ended up recruiting other members of the community and the family. So, his own brothers, his cousins, everybody ended up immigrating to Fiji.
MARTIN: A lot of your book also focuses on the stories of your parents. And you follow each of their lives separately up to the point when they meet for the first time and then they're about to get married. If you just tell a little bit about them. Tell us a little bit about their story.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: My mother was born and raised in Fiji. My father was born and raised in India. But he went to Fiji to join his family after his Bachelor's degree. And theirs was a marriage that was kind of match-made by their education. They were both the most educated members of their communities. And they had an arranged marriage.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: When they came to the United States, they were part of what is called the brain drain generation, where the Western democracies were kind of trying to get skilled professionals from all over the world to emigrate to the United States.
MARTIN: One of the things I found very powerful about your parents' story was the struggle, particularly by your father, his internal struggle, about whether to stay in the U.S. or whether to go back to India.
And I think there are a lot of people who don't realize that people are, in fact, having that struggle. I think a lot of people figure, oh, well, people come here, of course they're going to stay here. But in fact, it was painful for your father.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Yes. I think we do have this idea in the United States that everyone comes here for the American dream. And in fact, my parents didn't come here for that reason. They came for education, and they ended up staying a little bit because they found disappointment back home when they went back.
My father was a great Indian patriot and he really wanted to go back to his country, but when he went back there, he found the conditions to be difficult for him. He found a lot of poverty and he found corruption.
He interviewed in India for a university professorship job, and when he tried to negotiate for a higher salary, the dean told him that, you know, the richer students, they'll come to your office, they'll give you some money, and then you'll give them better grades.
MARTIN: But then when he was in New Zealand, despite the fact that he was extremely well respected, both professionally and personally in the community, he was told by a colleague that he should never expect to be promoted because he was Indian.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Yes, and there was just such a big difference in the racial and immigration policies of the two countries at the time. New Zealand, like Australia, took a long time to open its borders, really, to Asian immigrants. And not until the 1980s did that happen, whereas the United States did that in 1965.
So because Lyndon Johnson signed the immigration act in 1965 that basically overturned eight decades of policy excluding Asians from the U.S., my father came at just what happened to be a lucky time.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author and journalist Minal Hajratwala about her new book, "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents."
One of the things I also found fascinating about the book is how you weave in America's racial story into the fabric of your parents' story. You recount an incident where your mother was advised by a family member to wear her saris when looking for an apartment in - where was it, Detroit or San Francisco?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: That was actually in San Francisco.
MARTIN: In San Francisco, so that she would not be viewed as one of the undesirable minorities. What do you think about that?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: You know, I think that societies are so interesting and so complex, and whenever a new group of people comes in, there is a kind of fear among the people who already live there. And you know, it's just, I think that sometimes we are blinded by the fact that Indian-Americans have had some economic success and educational success in this country to the fact that we're still people of color, and we still experience the things that other people of color do experience.
MARTIN: One of the things that this book talks about, and I'm skipping over just - I'm skipping over centuries, really. There was this one passage that I just, I found actually kind of painful, I have to tell you, as an African-American, where you go back to your home village in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Gujurat.
MARTIN: Gujurat, where your family originated, and there's a genealogist who's able to trace your family history, generation after generation after - if you pay him some money, he says I'll send it along, and he sends it a couple of months later. And I'm just mindful of the fact that so many people in this country cannot do that, can't trace their roots.
Some don't want to, but I wonder when you connected to that tree with so many stems, what was that experience like for you, to look at a book and see, what, seven generations?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Yes. It is a deep privilege to have this kind of knowledge. And even within the Indian Diaspora, the people who went as indentured servants in the late 1800s and early 1900s to places like Fiji and Guyana and Trinidad, many of them don't have those histories going back so far.
And really in my family, I know that one of the reasons that we have that is that our family was always considered to be sort of a higher caste. So there was a kind of privilege that came along with that, which was that they could, over the years and centuries, afford to pay these genealogists to keep track of the history.
So on the one hand, it feels like such good fortune, and then on the other hand, I feel like it gave me a sense of deeper connection to India itself and to the fact that even if we don't have that written down, we all do have a lineage. And we may or may not know specifically the names of those people, but we can know that we have that.
And one of the things that I was hoping that the genealogist would be able to tell us was the names of the women in the family, but they didn't record that. So what I don't know is the names of my female ancestors going all the way back to 1765.
MARTIN: This is a fascinating tour of migration, immigration patterns and policies in a number of countries, and how that affects people's individual choices.
For some people, the story will be very close to home, but for others, it will not be. It isn't their particular story, but do you think that there's something universal in your book?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: I do. We live in such a globalized world that people are traveling all the time. And certainly in the United States, unless we're Native Americans, we are all members of one Diaspora or another at some point in history.
MARTIN: In the last part of the book after going through the stories of your family members, you reflect on your own life and the journey that's made you who you are today. You write that you never considered yourself an immigrant until this book, but why do you now?
Ms. HAJRATWALA: Well, I was born in San Francisco. I lived in San Francisco for about six months, and then we moved to New Zealand. And then when I was seven, we moved back to the United States, and by the time we landed in Michigan, I had been through several migrations.
So technically, I'm not an immigrant. I was born an American, and I still am. But I feel like I've had the migration experience that many people have when they move into the country as children.
And when I was in college, I experienced what I now think of as another kind of migration which is that I came out as a lesbian. And for me, that felt like a shift from one world, the world of my family that I'd grown up with, into a new world, a world of what I now call my chosen family.
MARTIN: Minal Hajratwala is a journalist and author of "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents." She joined me from our New York bureau. Minal, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. HAJRATWALA: My pleasure. Thank you.
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