Monday, June 8, 2009

Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents by Minal Hajratwala

In Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents writer Minal Hajratwala tells the story of several generations of her far-flung family, and in doing so also traces the roots and reasons for diasporic movement. She uses the particulars of her clan's many uprootings and reroutings - from India to Fiji, to South Africa, to Australia, to New Zealand, to the U.K, and to the U.S.A. -- to explore the historical and societal forces that shape migrations. In her writing she manages to convey the results of her meticulous research as well as the more personal stories of her kin, and then, in the penultimate chapter, of her own life story and the metamorphoses she has undergone as an immigrant child of immigrants three times over.

When I first picked up this book, it was with a sense of curiosity, excitement and trepidation. Excitement and curiosity because I was looking forward to learning how a contemporary of mine -- also an immigrant, and, like me, one who has lived most of her years in this country -- would write about the Indian diaspora. Trepidation because when picking up a book that focuses on one's own cultural background, one never knows what to expect. Will it be like looking into a mirror? Like looking into a microscope? Or like looking into the wrong end of a telescope?

What I am most impressed by in
Leaving India is the way that the author picks out the story of not only her immediate family but also of various strands of her clan in a way that provides historical context - rounding out the whys and wherefores of the personal with attention paid to the larger forces that were at work in shaping their lives. The reader is educated as well as entertained -- we learn about overarching immigration/emigration policies and regulations that affected not just one nuclear family but entire communities and generations. One thing that intrigued me when I began to read the book is that Hajratwala chooses to write this strictly as a factual account. In fact, in her introduction she says:

"... the reader should know that this is a work of nonfiction. I have been asked frequently whether I am fictionalizing and the answer is no... The journalist in me is scrupulous about such matters, and no "poetic license" has been taken..."
While I rejoice in the fascinating history lesson that Hajratwala provides about diasporic moves, what I really revel in is the personal detail, that which she is naturally better able to provide for some stories than for others, in her pursuit of pure nonfiction. While I admire and appreciate her decision to just "stick with the facts, m'am," I find myself most drawn to the chapters about her parents and about herself, as these are the most fleshed out with story, which is my true impetus, always, to read. Of course this is a personal preference on my part; I respond more keenly to stories than to facts.

Blog readers, what are your thoughts on the continuum that is the realm of "creative nonfiction"? Is it ever acceptable to fictionalize a memoir in order to tell a more complete story, or must one always obey the dictates of fact and truth? Is there a grey area? I welcome your thoughts on this topic and also on any other thoughts that you have as you read
Leaving India.