Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Minal Hajratwala : Leaving India

Minal left India alright (actually, her great grandparents left) -- but she has most profoundly left its family culture, being the only Khatri whom she knows to come out publicly as a Lesbian, which is a big step beyond marrying outside caste. (not to mention rejecting an arranged marriage).

And yet, of all her 35 first cousins, she probably knows more about family history and traditions than any of them, and this book, assuming it to be as accurate as she claims, will be a valuable document for her family for many generations to come.

It's also interesting to the armchair traveler like myself -- to get these little snippets of history from Gujarat as well as Fiji and Durban, South Africa. I'm even fascinated by the tiniest of anecdotes -- like how one family branch temporarily moved to Hong Kong to establish a trading company to supply electronics and such to South Asia and even Africa. (African buyers are only interested in price -- so that's a place to sell cheap batteries that only last for 15 minutes). But now that branch is moving to Australia because Hong Kong is being eclipsed by Guangzhou.

This book is just packed with that kind of detail -- accompanied as well with immigration statistics and a large bibliography relating to Indians in the many places to which they moved. Which is to say that the author is trying to be a serious scholar (though I'm in no position to judge her success)

The author's personal history is also quite fascinating - and very moving -- as she is dragged around the world by her parents, and ends up with a very lonely, unhappy adolescence in suburban Michigan.

When she confronts her parents with her sexuality, her father calls her "an educated idiot" -- for good reason, since her university experience (at Stanford) had gotten her all wrapped up in the theories of feminism long before she became a practicing Lesbian. She is clearly a very bright, top-of-the class kind of girl, and she picks up trendy ideology very quickly. But what else did her background give her? It was her parents who cut her roots to India -- and a handbook for a boyscout "Hindu merit badge" was no replacement. (yes -- her father actually wrote such thing)

Actually -- I wish we had gotten more about the life of her parents. It seems that her father, a chemist, was not especially cut out for either industry or the university. His education was only a ticket to America - and after his heart surgury (stress related?) he ended up as a financial planner. (no further details are given, but I'm guessing that he became a salesman for an annuity/investment company) Her Mom seems to have been more entrepreneurial - getting a degree in physical therapy and opening a suburban practice that became quite lucrative.

But still - it's amazing that Minal could be as open as she was about her parents (I mean -- they're still alive -- and they still seem to be close enough to travel together and live in the same city)

What does America have to offer us immigrants? (I'm including my family as well, since her great grand parents left Gujarat about the same time that mine left Central Europe)

Economic opportunity and university education -- or as author puts it - "freedom" -- the freedom to do and think what you want.

How does that compare with the richness (as well as restrictions) of a traditional culture, whether Hindu, Christian, or Jewish ?

What modern American culture doesn't especially offer is a good place for children -- and so children have found their own pop culture of anger and alienation.

How will the Khatri caste adapt to a society that invites them to come out of the Indian ghettos in which they lived in Fiji, South Africa, and even London? (for some reason, Indian culture is more tightly knit in London - and many children would never dream of breaking their parents' heart by not consenting to an arranged marriage)

I suppose there will always be some traditionalists -- but mostly, like Minal and myself, we're all thrown together in America, trying to make a brave new world.

How important is sexual orientation? Well -- it's very important for those under 30, and right now, it still seems to be an important focus of Minal's life as a Lesbian activist. But let's see what happens as she gets older.


Favorite parts:

The rise and fall of the Narsey empire in Fiji - showing the both the benefits and the liabilities of keeping a business within the family. When it begins, family is a good source for loyal, hardworking, underpaid staff. But once it's been established, the family members just take what they want (as loans) , and after the death of the founder, nobody is left to stop them. Another result, in that small island world, is that the family, indeed the entire Fiji Gujarati community, is alienated from the rest of the islanders. (the author shares a quote from James Michener about how unpleasant the Indians seem). So eventually, the native Fijians drive them all out.

And it is interesting to note that other than robberies and children being beaten by their parents, there is no violence in this story, which stretches through 5 generations. That's quite a record for any family living through the entire 20th Century. They were completely outside all the wars and revolutions. None of them served in any armies, one spent some time in prison for political activism against the Raj.

What's missing:

What's missing is a broader, deeper picture of human life (beyond a record of business and marriage). Of course, this would be problematic, given that that all of the characters are relatives of the author, and she probably is going as far as she can. (she also notes, in an interview, that she didn't discuss the people whom she didn't like).

There don't seem to be any crash'n'burns among her extended family - i.e. lifelong dependents, but there are a few very unhappy mothers (who take it out on children or daughters-in-law), and I'm guessing that many of the men would be diagnosed as alcoholics.

There also don't seem to be any over-achievers - except in small-scale business. No politicians, artists, writers (except for the author), scientists (if her father had accomplished something, I think we would have heard about it)

There's also nothing about religious/spiritual life - other than family ritual. From what I've read about Indian temples in America, their histories are rather colorful, with a special place for charismatic leaders (just as in Pentacostal Christianity). The author herself has apparently joined a Zen organization - but there's nothing about that in her book.

BTW - what about those mothers-in-law? They are the great villains of Chinese family drama, but this book only records one ferocious example. And I'm not quite sure what happens to widows in the Khatri family. Do they rule their children the way that aging Chinese widows do?

BTW II: Just to note the role of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" in her father's life (it changed his attitude towards prospective employers, and enabled his success) The author also gives a copy as a gift to a cousin -- and the book is even mentioned in Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy". This wise approach to human relations is 180 degrees away from the attitude I picked up from my father - but there's no point in me changing now: I've gotten comfortable with being thoroughly disliked.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Thrity Umrigar : First Darling of the Morning

Very hard to keep a dry eye with this one - from beginning to end -- it's one long sob.

But I don't feel especially exploited because it seems so real, locked into an inward-looking family within the inward looking community of Parsis, one of the world's smallest urban minorities.

Can it be that there's only a hundred thousand of them on the entire planet?

Well, there certainly won't be any more thanks to her.

The author never broaches the subject, but apparently she never marries (and there must have been proposals from other Parsi families) She badly needs to leave home, but rather than taking a husband, she takes an airplane to Columbus, Ohio (which fascinates me - since I did the university there myself, about 10 years before her - and now can picture her in my familiar haunts - especially the stacks in the library)

Or -- maybe I do feel a little exploited -- because this girl, like her father, is such a smooth salesman - and the job of a salesman is to tell customers what they want to hear - so we get just the right amount of guilt-tinged self reflection. Her book is overwhelmed by "like me - like me - please like me".

Her story makes a nice comparison with that of my Chinese friend -- who also ended up standing in front of a U.S. immigration officer -- desperate for a new life -- and confidently turning the situation to her advantage to come away with a visa.

But whatever happened to the idealistic girl who cut classes to protest social injustice? It looks like "mommie dearest" (her cruel, unhappy mother) drove her away. And whatever happened to that poor woman, anyway? There's a postscript about the author visiting her sick father a few decades later, but what about Mom? Did that miserable couple stay together until the bitter end?

There's something so self-centered (self protective ?) about the author, I'm not very interested in reading her novels. But as a story about herself, this one feels so true and compelling. (and she knows how to build one climax on top of another)

As a reader, I felt like I was sitting next to her in the airplane carrying her away from her family - and she took the 12 hours of that international flight to tell me her story.

The images of her sweet, suffering dad and his sister -- who can forget them? Or the car trips they took through Bombay -- the interactions with the street people -- the patient nuns who worked at her grade school - taking her beloved, dead uncle to a "tower of silence", and the gentle oppression of the Indira Ghandi 'Emergency' (gentle compared with China's revolutions)

It's all quite memorable and intense.

But once that plane has landed -- I don't especially want to see this "Mad Parsi" again, who sadly, at least for Parsis, has really no particular attachment to Parsi tradition. In a sharp reversal of the Philip Roth novel, her life is "Goodbye world, Hello Columbus"

Note: it's also interesting to find her review of the John Keay history of India that I recently read.. We came away with very different ideas about Keay's response to the two major issues of Indian history - i.e the Muslim and British occupations.