Discovering Myself Through Indian Diasporic Literature
April 10, 2020
Imoved to the U.S. as a young newlywed in the early 1980s. Given that a 3-minute phone call to India cost $10, the depth and range of communication with loved ones back home were extremely limited. Receiving advice, support, and guidance from my elders was simply not an option. However, my attitude of curiosity and adventure kept me from feeling overwhelmed.
Over time, as I mastered the basics of my life as an immigrant, I developed a desire to understand my place in my new country. Were other immigrants experiencing similar dilemmas? What were the answers they had found to their questions? What could I expect in my life as I grew older? What about the lives of my children? In that pre-Internet era, I naturally turned to books for insight.
Searching For Meaning
I looked far and wide for fiction and nonfiction in English and my mother tongue, Marathi. Some of the earliest books I read were Our Feet Walk The Sky: Women Of The South Asian Diaspora, Gothlelya Wata (Frozen Pathways) and Kumpna-palikadle Shet (The Field Beyond The Fence). I even read the narratives of immigrants from other countries and other eras. My favourites were Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain.
Unfortunately, most of these narratives did not reflect my lived experience. I had not come to the U.S. as a refugee, nor had I been forced to come here due to circumstances beyond my control. I was a highly educated professional and I had chosen to immigrate. The biggest difference, however, was that I was not struggling with a sense of displacement. Rather, I was attempting to understand my Indian roots so that I could better devise my (and my children’s) American wings.
During this period, the most celebrated author of Indian diasporic literature was Jhumpa Lahiri. I dug eagerly into her books, but unfortunately, I did not find her depiction of the diasporic experience particularly relatable.
For example, the family in Hell-Heaven, a short story published in the New Yorker, chooses to socialise exclusively with other Bengalis. What if there were other fellow Indians nearby, who were also looking for friends from ‘back home’? What if there was another young family that was not Indian at all? Having grown up in cosmopolitan Mumbai, where newcomers quickly became and were readily accepted as fellow Mumbaikars, I could neither relate to nor sympathise with such circumscribed preferences or the stagnation that resulted from them.
As for The Namesake, it features no meaningful dialogue between parents and children. There are no discussions about school friends and food preferences. Nor are there any conversations about choosing college majors and dating. Knowing that topics such as these are discussed heavily in Indian diasporic families, I felt that the lack of communication among family members made The Namesake quite empty and, in turn, left me feeling empty.
In short, Lahiri’s protagonists seemed aloof and their lives seemed unexpressed. Her narratives offered me neither emotional engagement nor insight and understanding, and so, my search continued.
Essential Books On The Indian Diaspora
The books in this genre that hit the spot for me were Motiba’s Tattoos by Mira Kamdar and Suburban Sahibs by S. Mitra Kalita.
Motiba’s Tattoos is about an American-born woman’s search for her roots by excavating the life of her grandmother (Motiba). Her journey takes her to Mumbai, to a small village in Gujarat, and pre-1947 Burma. Reading about the author’s search for her family’s history, and the lengths to which she went to uncover it, was fascinating.
It made me realise that there could come a time when my children (and theirs) might similarly seek to know the history and the stories about our family. It gave me a peek into the inner lives of my children and the constantly shifting balance—triumphs and challenges— of life as an NRI. In short, Motiba’s Tattoos helped me understand my journey and place it within the context of the larger forces to which I was subject at the time.
Suburban Sahibs tells the true stories of a Gujarati family (the Patels) and an Oriya couple (the Sarmas) who live in an NRI enclave in New Jersey. By interviewing the individuals, the author achieved something quite remarkable: she gave voice to people who otherwise remain nameless and whose lives remain unnoticed.
The Patels’ conflicts with their teenaged daughter gave me a taste of what might await me when my children reached that age. For example, while the parents’ rules and expectations about the time by which they expected their daughter to come home each night were based on Indian norms of chastity and safety, the young girl was responding to completely different peer influences where those ideas of chastity were outdated and it was almost a rite of passage to rebel against one’s parents.
The Sarmas described how easy and enriching they had found it when they had integrated into the melting pot of Mumbai. Yet, once in America, they joined the local Bengali group because it was closest, both geographically and linguistically, to their home state in India. But, even within that gathering, they ended up forming close bonds with just the Oriya-speaking subgroup. While the Sarmas did not seek to self-segregate, unlike the protagonist in Lahiri’s Hell-Heaven, they still found it hard to find their place in a somewhat local Indian group.
This matched my experiences and I finally accepted that seeking to congregate with one’s own ‘kind’ was an essential trait of being Indian in a foreign land. Armed with this insight, I set about finding ‘my own kind’, over the ensuing years, but not exclusively among Indians, with confidence as well as curiosity.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
In hindsight, I see that there is a basic difference between the books that are exalted by American tastemakers (like Lahiri’s books) and the ones that I found meaningful. The former, for me, presents a version of the immigrant experience fashioned to fit American readers’ preconceived and somewhat one-dimensional perceptions of the inner lives of the Indian immigrant next door or in the next cubicle over.
The roots of Americans’ preconceptions may lie in the fact that a large percentage of present-day Americans have immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents. Being familiar with the outlines of their ancestors’ lives, they feel sympathy as well as curiosity about the lives of present-day immigrants. Indeed, as Lahiri’s editor at Knopf opined, ‘[Readers] can read their family stories into her family stories.’ Projecting what they know, and imagine, these readers are primed to expect loss, nostalgia, and adversity. But, they need a fairly empty canvas on which to paint with their imaginations. Writers like Lahiri provide that canvas.
Armed with this analogy, I recognise that not all books on the Indian diaspora are meant for a reader like me. And so, I continue to seek books that provide resonance.
An interesting thing happened to me as a result of my reliance on books as guides for developing an understanding. I started writing about my NRI life. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently put in her TED talk titled ‘The Danger Of A Single Story’, my unique story matters as well. And, I would add, it matters particularly because it is different from the sparsely-painted-canvas version of the Indian immigrant life.
My literary pursuits have enriched my life in innumerable ways. I hope that this account of my hits and misses convinces others to continue their search for literature that resonates, extends their understanding, and develops their empathic abilities.
Nandini Patwardhan possesses a Masters degree in Mathematics from IIT Mumbai. She lives in the United States. Her biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, titled "Radical Spirits," was recently published.
You can read her articles here.
Interesting perspective, Nandini.
I enjoy Lahiri, primarily for three things: the refinement of her language, her ability to capture nuances of mood, and the largely intrapersonal conflicts of her characters: she writers interiors well. As you say, her characters don’t really discuss issues with each other, I’ve not examined her works in terms of accurately capturing the specificities of the India-to-US immigrant experience… I need to do that now. It sounds very plausible that, writing for a primarily American audience, Lahiri’s canvas would’ve been — not blank, perhaps, but coloured with the specific assumptions of non-Indian (and maybe non-first-generation) immigrants. As I’m sure you’d agree, every story relies on assumptions to be told; a story that relied on none wouldn’t make sense. Thank you for raising this point about Lahiri’s audience. I will revisit her work in the light of your insight,
I appreciate your analysis of what aspects of which books did, and didn’t, work for you. Thank you for an interesting read!