A for Adapt

Ok, it doesn’t matter how much you dislike Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, how can you not fall in love with her dad making pulao? Personally, I’m not entirely convinced about either the recipe (no black peppercorns, really?) or Amar Lahiri’s assertion that it’s not buttery, but as a wise person said, “It’s hard to go wildly wrong with an entire stick of butter and some harmless spices.” Listening to Amar Lahiri talk his way through the recipe was rather sweetly nostalgic. It reminded me of my father who will always say chocOlate (chocolate) and obhAr (over). He, of course, managed to burn an egg in an attempt to boil it so there are going to be no videos of him making pulao. My mother is a seriously good cook though. In fact, I think I survived schools in foreign countries mostly because while other kids wanted to beat me up, they wanted the lunch she packed me more. It never made sense to her that I wanted about 10 rotis and copious amounts of aloo jeera since I showed no interest in the same food when she gave it to me at home. But she gamely stuffed my lunch box and that gave me some amount of immunity from lunchroom bullies. Trip me up and I spill the aloo jeera, which means Bully nos. 1,2, 3, and 4 will have to stick to the crummy sandwiches their mums packed them. So I’d hand over my lunch box and scram. They’d tuck in. Meanwhile, I’d buy those horrible, rubbery, soya-sauce-sticky chicken wings from the cafeteria and ogle at the hawker-stall chicken rice that Nikki from New Zealand (whose mother couldn’t be bothered to cook lunch) brought every other day.

Somewhere near the last part of “Leaving India“, Minal Hajratwala talks about Indian-origin kids in America who steered clear of the kitchen before going to school so they wouldn’t smell of “curry”. It’s a fantastic image: a girl dressed in whatever is cool at the time – leggings? Sweater in a single colour that hasn’t been knitted by gran? – inching her way out, desperate to not carry a whiff of India on her. It’s such a futile exercise because, whether or not she smelt of curry, she was still going to be brown and thanks to that colour, she was still going to carry what Hajratwala calls “a history of skin”. No matter what she wore or how far she stayed from the kitchen, those who had to smell curry on her would smell it anyway.

A family pic from the slide show on Minal Hajratwala's website

A family pic from the slide show on Minal Hajratwala's website

“Leaving India” is the best book I’ve picked off the diaspora literature shelf in a while. If there’s one thing that studying postcolonial theory and literature has done to me, I’d have to say it’s instilled in me an exhaustion at the mere thought of the personal memoir because they all tend to sound the same after a point. Even the fictional ones, like pretty much all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, seem to be that one unchanging story with a few occasional tweaks. But “Leaving India” is not about a person finding themselves through the retelling of her family’s tale or a trip to the homeland. Hajratwala’s book is a wonderful reminder that all immigrant stories are different even if many of our experiences seem to be the same (which is why I’m curious to see what desi friends in Amrika think of the book). She traces the journeys of a few of her family members in an effort to chart out how they’re today scattered over five continents despite having all started off in the same one village in the easily-recountable past. The shops they start, the homes they build and the friends they make don’t exist in a little bubble of their own making. Even though Hajratwala emphasises and re-emphasises theirs is a very tightly-knit, conservative community, the world that they create for themselves is in response to all that is happening around them. So the personal story is alternated with snappy history lessons on the European hatred for coolies, the biases in American immigration policies and how the Patel motels began.

It’s a tough job to create portraits of people, emphasise how distinct they are and yet not lose sight of how they are also representative of the community they belong to; Hajratwala does this superbly. She never lets you forget that this is the story of one family and one community; it’s not a stereotype and while aspects of the experience may be typical, the story itself must be different because its powered by the characters. By the time you’re halfway through the book, you know that her dad’s side of the family has an angry streak and that her mum’s side has a gritted-teeth determination running through them. Hajratwala shows how qualities like this have helped her family members survive in some rather inhospitable circumstances but she doesn’t shy away from showing the Indian community from being selfish on occasion and frequently cruel. You sense an intense feeling of disappointment when she’s able to find only one person in the South African branch of her family who supported the ANC in the days when the system of apartheid was being cemented, for example. There’s a certain longing when her mother and Hajratwala speak of Hajratwala’s maternal grandfather who walked with Gandhi to Dandi. He was arrested and soon after he came out of prison, he had to leave the country he loved so much to become a small-time businessman in a distant island. Hajratwala’s uncle Ranchhod, one of the most endearing characters in “Leaving India”, rebels by not learning or speaking English for years. It’s impractical, quite silly and ultimately he does have to give in to the language but this is the closest we come to seeing someone be political and fight the good fight.

It was wonderful to read a book that was unsentimental, honest and not trying to disguise the fact that we’re not a heroic bunch by conventional standards. In fact, we’re pretty unlikeable in many ways. We do obsess about petty details, we’re often narrow-minded and happy to exploit if it serves our end, and we have a seriously unhealthy need to please people (which generally lands us somewhere between over-eager and subservient). The idea of flaunting convention is not thrilling to most of us and we tend not to appreciate it in others. Indian heroism is reserved for little victories. It’s in our ability to adapt, perhaps. In the fact that Hajratwala’s mother would write a letter to her son and daughter telling them they’re ungrateful because her son wants to marry a white American and her daughter says she’s lesbian; but then go all guns blazing when organising her son’s wedding to the same white American. In the fact that there’s an Indian diaspora on almost every continent and that Amar Lahiri makes pulao for Thanksgiving even as his Bengali accent, with time, curls into American around the edges.

5 thoughts on “A for Adapt

  1. Pingback: links for 2009-12-06 « Rumblegumption

  2. Hey Anon,

    I think you don’t understand how deep seated this fear of curry-smell is for children of the diaspora. It is not just limited to avoiding the kitchen when they leave their houses. Some of Sid’s friends have two kitchens in their houses – one to cook their curry in, and the other to show their odourless friends that they don’t cook curry!

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