Three recent books by overseas Indian writers, two fiction and one nonfiction, deal with the heartaches, trials and triumphs of emigration. The authors honestly and eloquently chronicle how leaving one’s past behind and starting over can result in loss, mourning and sacrifices.
Three recent books by overseas Indian writers, two fiction and one nonfiction, deal with the heartaches, trials and triumphs of emigration. The authors honestly and eloquently chronicle how leaving one’s past behind and starting over can result in loss, mourning and sacrifices. But it also changes the course of life. Ultimately, like rivers that flow from different directions to converge and join the ocean, they can lead to a whole new world.
In Chitra Divakaruni’s latest book, Before We Visit the Goddess, a character quotes a Bengali saying: “Good daughters are fortunate lamps, brightening the family name. Wicked daughters are firebrands, blackening the family name.” It is a dictum that locks girls into a life constrained by societal norms. But who gets to decide what is good and what is wicked? And can time blur the distinctions between the two? That is the question Divakaruni poses through her lyrical, masterful saga of three generations of women connected through ties of blood, but separated by time, place and their own convoluted sense of destiny.
The book begins with Sabitri, an aging, lonely woman living out her retirement in her ancestral village. A sudden phone call from her estranged daughter Bela sends Sabitri into a tailspin of despair. Her granddaughter Tara is dropping out of college and Bela asks her mother to dissuade her. Sabitri sits down to write a letter to Tara, who she has only seen in photographs and in the process awakens memories of her own struggles to get an education. As the daughter of a poor, part-time priest, Sabitri burns to become a teacher, but the money her mother earns making delicious sweets is barely enough to keep the household running.
A chance meeting with a rich woman who, on a whim, offers to educate and house Sabitri in her sprawling Kolkata home opens the door to a promising future. But a few months later, Sabitri’s heart betrays her, and she is ruthlessly thrown out of her benefactor’s house. Ashamed and angry at her own foolishness, Sabitri salvages her life by marrying her college professor. When she finds herself an impecunious widow with a young child to bring up, Sabitri, with ruthless determination, turns herself into a successful businesswoman. Ironically, she turns to making sweets, just like her mother. But Sabitri’s magic touch helps her build a thriving business, and she is able to give her daughter the education that she was denied.
Bela, Sabitri’s daughter, grows up resenting her mother’s absence in her life. The sweet shop seems to swallow up all her attention and energy and Bela is often lonely. When she meets Sanjay, an orphan brought up by relatives who abused him, their common bond at the injustice of their lives grows into romance. Sabitri dislikes Sanjay, criticizing his political beliefs and lack of future prospects. It is perhaps inevitable that Bela, when forced to choose between the two, decides to leave her mother. She decamps for America, where Sanjay and his childhood friend have gone as political refugees, to marry him and begin life as one of the many Indian immigrants who flocked to the U.S. in the 1970s. In spite of their love, the marriage soon sours when Bela’s subterfuge to banish Sanjay’s friend from their lives results in a betrayal that prods him to divorce her. One might live in another country with miles of ocean separating them, but family roots run deep, at least when it comes to losing one’s moral footing, Divakaruni seems to say. Bela, now a single mother like Sabitri, turns to alcohol to ease the bitterness of being a failure.
Tara, Bela’s daughter, drops out of her parents’ lives after the divorce. She cannot forgive her mother for betraying her father and she cannot forgive her father for breaking up their family. It is the 1990’s and Tara flounders through various low-level jobs as she attempts to find her own identity and purpose in life. Like many second- and third-generation Indian children, Tara cannot figure out her place in the world. At home, the food, the ambience and the culture is heavily Indian. In the world at large, the culture she encounters is American. Where is her true home? Where does she belong? Unable to come up with an answer, Tara views herself American and ignores her Indian heritage.
But a chance visit to the Meenakshi temple in Texas forces her to realize that being born into an Indian family is part of her emotional DNA. Standing before the goddess, she is unable to give the priest her birth sign or her gotram thus making an archana impossible. Yet the scent of incense and flowers is a comforting, familiar sense of home and Tara yearns to belong. Hating her parents for letting her down, she begins to understand, have led to choices that are threatening to derail her life.
Do the sins of the mother visit the daughter? Can love, flawed and complicated, ultimately redeem the loved one? Did Sabitri’s letter help to connect with her granddaughter? Will Bela forgive her mother for being too strong? Will Tara save herself from self-destruction? Divakaruni lays out her complex, multi-generation tale as a vivid mosaic across the ages.
Somini Sengupta’s The End of Karma, Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, is a fierce, honest, and detailed encounter with a range of restive 21st century young people in the country. India currently has the youngest population in the world — more than 300 million Indians are believed to be between the ages of 18 and 24 — with another million turning 18 every month. This means that India has to come up with 10 million jobs a year to employ them. With an education system that is failing, and a world labor force tilting towards automation, what lies ahead for these young Indians? Their aspirations, struggles, and successes, says Sengupta, will be instrumental in determining the future of the country.
Sengupta, who headed The New York Times Bureau in Delhi from 2005-2009, has deftly mixed personal stories with political histories and facts to create a compelling, compassionate picture of contemporary India, highlighting its strengths and its crippling weaknesses. With a journalist’s passion for figures and dates mixed with the gifted writer’s talent for the telling phrase, Sengupta names these young Indians as “noonday’s children,” as opposed to the “midnight’s children” of Salman Rushdie. Sengupta’s young men and women were born in the 1990s, more than 40 years after Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed India’s awakening into freedom at the stroke of midnight. These young Indians, Sengupta says, implicitly believe that their future is not linked to their karma.
Sengupta uses the stories of seven young Indians to illustrate her point. Delving into the lives of ordinary young men and women she shows how, despite their differences in language, economics and birth, each in their own way aspires to push the boundaries. There is Mani, a young Adivasi from Jharkand, who catapults herself to a better life by joining hundreds of other migrant workers to become a housemaid in one of the luxury apartments in Gurgaon. Her wages help to send her younger siblings to school, to marry and to pay for upgrades in the family’s living conditions. Rakhi (an alias to protect her family), a young woman from a relatively comfortable home, runs away to join an underground Maoist group, hoping to bring justice to the oppressed. Twenty-seven-year-old Ankit, from an upper caste, middle class family in Patna, allows his admiration for Arvind Kerjriwal influence him to reject an offer to attend a college in the United States and instead become the Aam Aadmi Party’s social media chief, determined to fight the endemic corruption around him. And then there is 20-year-old Monica from a Gujjar family in Delhi who elopes with Kuldeep, the young son of a Rajput family. Their decision to marry has tragic consequences. Girls from the Gujjar community are not supposed to fall in love and choose their husbands, and certainly not from another caste. Her older brother punishes his erring sister by gunning both her and Kuldeep down.
Easily one of the most memorable people in her book is Anupam Kumar, the son of an auto rickshaw driver in Patna, Bihar. He is 17 when Sengupta introduces him, and a 4th grade dropout who dreams about studying about life in space. Audaciously, Anupam wants to study at one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), renowned among the world’s prestigious universities and perhaps the most difficult to enter. At nine, he rejected his public school, because his teacher is unable to read properly. Backed by Sudha, his mother, who makes it her life’s mission to help Anupam succeed, because “she looks to him to outrun his destiny — and take them all with him,” Anupam is enrolled in a coaching center, where he studies from 8 am to 8 pm, six days a week, cramming for the all-important 8th grade final exam. He goes to the state run public school once a month to maintain his name on the attendance roll.
When Anupam’s scores are not good enough to get him into IIT in his first attempt, Sudha finds a local tutor whose rigorous training regularly gets students into the IITs. Anupam’s second effort succeeds so well that he is lauded all over the world and is trumpeted in the Indian press as “an icon of young India’s aspiration.” Triumphantly, he enters the IIT Kharagpur campus, intent on learning astronomy. Within a few months, Anupam begins to feel like a misfit. Social rather than academic challenges stymie him. The next year he transfers to the Indian School of Mines from where he graduates and goes on to acquire an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management. Today he lives in Navi Mumbai with his parents and works for a financial state regulatory agency and both his younger siblings are studying to be engineers. Sengupta says he is one of many young Indians who turned their back on their past to say, “And why not me?”
Anupam’s story ends well. He may not have become an expert on space, but he achieved his dream of lifting himself and his family from the gritty backstreets of Patna. But what if you are a young girl from a similar background with tall dreams? Varsha is 17 and the daughter of a dhobi in Gurgaon. She goes to school and helps her father in his business, ironing the expensive clothes of the people who live in the gated high rises around them. The recent spate of violence against girls has ignited in her a desire to become a policewoman. But unlike Anupam, Varsha’s mother is no cheerleader. Her father, while proud of her academic prowess, encourages Varsha to finish high school, only because it will help raise her prospects in the marriage market.
While female literacy in India grew higher than that of men between 2000-2010, and the rapid growth of economy also opened up new job opportunities, paradoxically, the proportion of women in the work force actually declined in 2011. Varsha’s desire to stand on her own feet and be financially independent is pushed aside by her father, who thinks a daughter-in-law with a pistol will not be acceptable in a traditional family. Who’s going to win? In 2015, Varsha scores so well in her 12th grade exams that her father concedes a victory: she can go to college. Step by step, inch-by-inch, she is seems to gaining closer to her goal, and along with Sengupta, we can only hope that “stubborn, smart Varsha” will eventually fulfill her dream.
These young men and women may be from the marginalized sections of Indian society, Sengupta says, but they too are part of the portrait that forms India. And while no single story can illustrate the life of a billion people, Sengupta hopes that by telling their stories she can also pinpoint where India needs to urgently focus: clean drinking water and electricity, immunization of infants and children, improved primary education, equal quality of education and jobs for girls and women, as well as better representation in the justice system, and taking on the challenge of closing the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor.
Sunjeev Sahota’s new novel, The Year of the Runaways, seems to the fictional counterpart of Sengupta’s reportorial look at migrant lives. The one difference is that the young Indians in his novel, dissatisfied with the dead end lives that are their lot in India, come to Britain for better opportunities. Written in a quiet, conversational style, Sahota’s book takes you into the underbelly of illegal immigrant hell: the exploitation, the grinding boredom of their daily jobs, the cramped, dingy living conditions, and the constant fear of being picked up by police are detailed almost clinically, with a matter of fact preciseness that conveys poignancy more powerfully than a diatribe about the misery of their lives. But it also reveals the gumption, the resoluteness and the comradeship that sustain these workers. When going back home is not an option, succumbing to racism, the cruelty of their employers or the corruption that dodges their every step is also not a solution. The only way out is to grit your teeth and look to a better future.
Sahota’s book centers on three characters who come to Sheffield, England, in search of jobs: Tochi from Bihar pays a travel agent to smuggle him into France on a false passport and from there, hidden in a truck, he arrives in Britain. Haunted by the harrowing memory of the massacre of his family during a caste war, Tochi knows that being born as an “untouchable” means facing a constant stream of physical, emotional and mental abuse. Yet his will to live surmounts his sorrows and he comes to Britain determined to snatch a life, expecting no kindness or friendship, wrapped in the cocoon of his tragedies, and living an inner existence that is part prison and part fortress of his own making.
Avtar sells a kidney and with the proceedings comes on a student visa, but rarely attends college. His shopkeeper father depends on the money he sends back home to keep the family afloat. He is also saving to marry the girl he loves. Her middle class family will never entertain the idea of him as a suitable husband without money to back his ardor.
His friend Randeep has comes to Britain via a fake marriage to Narinder, a British Sikh. His father’s ill health has forced him to drop out of college to take on the job of supporting his parents and siblings. Randeep plans to scrounge around doing menial jobs for a year until his marriage is deemed genuine by authorities. Their approval will confer on him the legal right to remain in England and eventually gain citizenship, at which point he plans to bring his whole family over.
Narinder is the enigma of the novel. She makes it clear from the beginning that she is not in it for the money. A reserved, pious young woman who fends off Randeep’s lame attempts to get close, she is also the book’s weakest link in some ways. Her motive for agreeing to the fake marriage is not very plausible — rebelling against an arranged marriage would have made more sense if Narinder had been portrayed as a headstrong, even an immature young woman. Instead, she is thoughtful and kind and retains a strong belief in her faith and in her determination change society through seva in the gurudwara and prayers. In the end, Sahota makes you care for her and wish a happy ending in her life.
Sahota gives you elaborate backstories for each of his characters, switching back and forth in time to build a strong, composite portrait with a dexterity that makes them substantial rather than cardboard figures. Their world is neither beautiful nor inviting, but Sahota’s writing makes you realize that it is real and present. This is not the England of Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy or William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” But these Sheffield roommates are heroes in their own right. And their stories need to be told.
All three books seem to tell us that emigrating — whether it is from the confines of a village to the big city, or from the dingy backstreets of a city to an aerie in a high rise, or across oceans to a strange new land — comes with its own risks and rewards. Loneliness and a sense of rootlessness are inevitable. But there is also the satisfaction of hard won benefits for them and their families back home. Is it worth it? That is a question with no easy answer. As Sabitri says, “This was something I had achieved by myself, without having to depend on anyone.”
Perhaps, ultimately, the courage to make that leap into the unknown is enough.