Book Review: Leaving India

Minal Hajratwala traces family history across the global Indian diaspora.

By Sunita Dhurandhar Oct 06, 2009

October 6, 2009

Leaving India describes the fascinating evolution of the Indian diaspora over the past century, through the stories of author Minal Hajratwala’s own family. The journey begins in Navsari, a village in Gujurat, India. Different branches of the family eventually migrate to Fiji, South Africa, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States. Hajratwala, a former journalist, skillfully weaves together the compelling stories of her family with history. She shows how British imperial policy and global economics, as well as personal choice, influenced the migrations of Indians. The narrative combines a poet’s prose with a journalist’s meticulous research.  

Minal Hajratwala, a San Francisco-based writer, performer and queer activist, traveled the world to interview over 75 members of her family and conduct extensive archival research. While presenting a groundbreaking history of one of the world’s fastest growing diasporas, the book is also deeply moving—with stories of finely drawn characters we care about.  Some of the memorable characters include Hajratwala’s grandfather, Narotam, who walked in Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March—a pivotal event in the nonviolence movement and India’s quest for independence. The family’s migration to South Africa began with Ganda, Hajratwala’s great great uncle, who opened a restaurant in Durban. In response to apartheid laws that forbade black Africans from eating in restaurants, Ganda and other Indian restauranteurs invented the bunny chow—curry served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread that customers could carry out.

Bhupendra and Banu, Hajratwala’s parents, grew up in Fiji and eventually moved to the U.S. Educated professionals, they faced choices affected by shifts in U.S. immigration policies—most notably a 1965 act that lifted bans on Asian immigration. Mala, Hajratwala’s cousin, also emigrated from Fiji to the U.S. Tormented for years by an abusive mother-in-law, she eventually moved to Los Angeles with her husband and joined the growing wave of working class South Asians. The narrative concludes with Minal Hajratwala’s powerfully candid account of growing up in the white suburbs of Michigan and coming out to her parents as a lesbian.

Hajratwala intertwines her narrative with eloquent and insightful reflections on exile, home and loss. “Perhaps we in the diaspora are always leaving India, or that part of India, real or imagined, which lives in our souls, memories, skins.” Leaving India raises profound questions relevant to all of us who have been shaped by a history of immigration.