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Every Flavor in the Paan

By telling her family’s stories, Minal Hajratwala has described the vast Indian diaspora.

Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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By Laura Shin

In 1965, the trajectory of Minal Hajratwala’s life depended upon $20.

Hajratwala, ’92, the author of Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), had not been born. Her father, Bhupendra (not yet betrothed to her mother, Bhanu) was about to receive his master’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and wanted to pursue a PhD in the United States instead of returning to his parents’ household in Fiji. After applying to a hundred pharmaceutical companies and seven doctoral programs, he was universally rejected. He finally received an anonymous missive containing his adviser’s letter of recommendation, which frankly described how Bhupendra’s short temper (common in his hotheaded family) had vexed eight roommates, plus colleagues.

Despite this harsh lesson in American candor, Bhupendra wanted to stay. He headed east with $100. In Chicago one Monday, he had $50. Putting himself on a budget of $10 a day, he decided that if he didn’t have a job by Friday he would sell his car and textbooks to get the plane fare to Fiji. On Friday, he saw an ad in the Chicago Tribune (scavenged from the lobby of the YMCA) for an analytical chemist with knowledge of gas chromatography, a new technology that he had written a paper on. He applied that day and was hired without a request for references to start the next Monday. Only a $20 loan from his new boss allowed him to stay in the country he and his children eventually would call home.

Moments when individuals leap far from their origins, graze against history, and acculturate to new lands abound in Hajratwala’s book. Beginning with her great-grandfather and ending with herself, the book specifically profiles eight members of her family. Their personal stories, bolstered by research in population studies and immigration history, form a representative picture of how and why the Indian diaspora grew from fewer than 375,000 people in 1900 to more than 11 million people a century later.

In her San Francisco home last fall, the blue-bespectacled, calmly mannered Hajratwala says that before writing the book, “I knew we had family in a lot of places and that they all came from the same basic area of Gujarat and that they started as tailors and became business people. But about the individual lives, there was a lot I didn’t know. I certainly didn’t know the history piece of why they went.”

Hajratwala found the answers in a year of research and interviews with more than 75 family members in nine countries. The history of her clan—a branch of the Kshatriya caste said to have descended centuries ago from warrior-kings who were told by a goddess to take up weaving—is contained in 10 great books tended by genealogists in India. The modern family tree dates from her paternal great-grandfather, Motiram, who moved to Fiji in 1909. In the years preceding, Gujarat had suffered from famine, and the arrival of the spinning machine in India in the late 1800s had made jobs scarce for Gujarati weavers. In Fiji, Motiram set up a tailoring shop that evolved into Narseys Limited, once one of the largest department stores in the South Pacific.

Leaving India moves on to Hajratwala’s great-great-uncle Ganda, who, in 1905, as an 11-year-old orphan, illegally immigrated to Durban, South Africa. There, he became the owner of a restaurant located at the center of South Africa’s Indian community, then galvanized by a young lawyer now known by one name: Gandhi. Another chapter describes her maternal grandfather Narotam, who marched in Gandhi’s protest against Britain’s exorbitant tax on salt and then immigrated to Fiji. Her parents’ immigration to the United States illustrates the “brain drain” era of the 1960s and ’70s. For her part, Hajratwala recounts her coming out as a lesbian, which marks a departure from the traditional Indian expectations for wifehood and motherhood.

Hajratwala backs up the stories of her family’s migrations around the globe with solid research on the immigration policies and economic circumstances that spurred them, making Leaving India one of few books for general audiences to address the whole Indian diaspora. Each section opens with two statistics—the diaspora’s size at the time covered in that section and a list of the countries with more than 10,000 people of Indian origin. (The list of six such nations in 1900 swells to 10 in 1945, then 33 in 1984 and 47 in 2001.) Hajratwala gathered these statistics using documents from the British archives, Indian government and nongovernmental organizations. In the chapter about her parents’ emigration from Fiji to the United States, Hajratwala gives an overview of Indian transmigration to the United States. Anti-Asian sentiment in the early part of the 20th century culminated in a 1917 prohibition on Indian immigration to the United States and a 1923 Supreme Court ruling that Indians could not obtain citizenship. By 1960, perhaps fewer than 9,000 Indian immigrants lived in the United States. However, her father fortuitously applied to American universities for graduate school in 1963, after Congress had created several small educational programs for foreigners.

Research skills Hajratwala picked up at Stanford from teachers like history professor Estelle Freedman helped her intertwine history with her family’s story. “[Freedman] brought this feminist approach to her history which actually really informs this story, which is that personal lives are part of history. Taking seriously the lives of individual people feels like a really feminist project to me, and that I definitely learned from Estelle,” she says. In gathering the personal stories, Hajratwala, a former staffer of the San Jose Mercury News, collected 38 hours of taped interviews, more than 60 notebooks and four file boxes with folders labeled, for example, “Fiji–Indenture” or “Narotam–Gandhi–Salt March.”

The life of her great-great-uncle Ganda, the restaurant owner in South Africa, exemplifies how personal history can reflect greater societal changes. A thriving business that had a significant share of black clients, Ganda’s eatery eventually was constricted by apartheid policies that prohibited blacks from eating in restaurants. South African restaurateurs developed takeout dishes, including a curry called “bunny chow” that could be carried—in the age before Styrofoam—in a bread loaf. Ganda, a vegetarian, invented the “beans bunny,” whose filling was a spicy stew of tomatoes and fava beans.

When she went to South Africa, Hajratwala initially intended to feature another family member, until she wandered into the local history museum, which contained a section on Indians in Durban. A familiar name caught her eye. “I saw this placard—“bunny chow, something something”—and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s my uncle that I’m staying with.’ On closer inspection, she realized it was his father, Ganda, whose story was chosen to show how Indian businesses had grown during that time and been involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

Hajratwala was anxious about revealing private information about her family. One chapter begins with a quote from her cousin, Mala, from Fiji: “For ten years I cried.” Mala’s story begins at 17, when she is a capable, merry young woman whose family is in no hurry to marry her off. After she caught the eye of a young shopkeeper from a town an hour away, he persisted until the marriage was arranged. Life would have been agreeable enough except for the turbulence that followed with the mother-in-law whom Mala was duty-bound to obey. A self-dramatizing woman who once grabbed a kerosene jug and threatened to immolate herself, Mala’s mother-in-law could not be pleased no matter how diligently Mala worked or how much she tried to accommodate her moods. The abuse was so irrational that Mala’s father, on the occasion of her second child’s seventh birthday, urged her to leave her husband—a socially suicidal act in a culture that has no word for divorce and uses “widow” as a curse. Mala declined to return to her parents and thereby become a social pariah.

When the aftermath of a 1985 cyclone caused the family’s business assets to be divvied up, the couple gained a bit of financial independence that their hard work soon increased. The 1996 coup in Fuji led them to apply for the 1997 immigration lottery in the United States—along with about 6 million others. Mala and her husband won one of 844 visas granted in the sixth of the world that included Fuji. They moved to Los Angeles, where they have worked various jobs including parking attendant and McDonald’s clerk. Mala, who now rises at 5:20 every day for a hospital job, says her life is “freedom.”

“At one point, I was having a really hard time feeling like it was okay to say the more difficult things about people in the family,” Hajratwala says. However, a photo of her great-grandmother Maaji, who loved to eat paan (a betel leaf wrapped around filling), gave her an epiphany. “Paan is the size of your hand. They spread all this paste and spices and seeds in there, and they pull it up into this triangular package,” Hajratwala says. “It’s spicy, sweet and salty, and there’s a bitter taste at the base of it. You can get the cute version that doesn’t have a lot of stuff, and then the ‘king’s version’ has everything. So I had this sense that the book was like the paan—if you want the best one, you have to be willing to put the bitter in there with the sweet and the salty. That’s what makes it the king’s paan.”

Hajratwala’s father, Bhupendra, says of his daughter, “A lot of people know about their families, but it takes a different kind of talent to put it into words.” Then he adds, with the modesty of someone who learned much from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Of course, my opinion is biased.” As Hajratwala relays in Leaving India, her father’s troublesome temper mellowed, largely due to the Carnegie book. When she graduated from Stanford, her father gave it to her with this inscription: “May this book bring you [a] lifetime of happiness as it has brought me.”


Online Only: Excerpt from Leaving India

One of the stories told in Leaving India is that of author Minal Hajratwala’s great-great-uncle Ganda, an orphan who immigrated illegally (he perhaps traveled as a ship stowaway) to South Africa in 1904. The first of the boy’s relatives had arrived in South Africa in 1887, but within a decade the country had moved from freely welcoming Indians to being more discriminatory toward them as Indian merchants had thrived. This excerpt is used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

For Ganda, eleven years old, it would have been easy enough to disappear into the ghetto. An uncle and cousins lived in the neighborhood, and they must have taken him in. They would have known that, sooner or later, he would need an official identity: he could be stopped on the street at any time and asked to show his documents; he could be arrested for breaking the 9 p.m. curfew or walking on a sidewalk reserved for whites; he could be deported.

So his relatives—being, after all, wily Asiatics—hatched a scheme.

In Johannesburg, cousin Chhiba reported to the police that his son had gone missing. He gave a description, a name. Perhaps he said that the boy might have run away, to Durban.

Meanwhile, in Durban, Ganda filed for his identity papers. He had no birth certificate, but that was not unusual. He gave his “father’s” name, Chhiba of Johannesburg.

As for his last name, the uncles and cousins used “Kapitan.” Most rural Indians never use a surname until they encounter a Western authority, and so it was with Ganda’s predecessors, who had to invent one upon landing in South Africa. Kapitan is a unique choice among our people, and the stories of its origin vary widely. Three brothers jumped around like monkeys and were nicknamed “three monkeys,” or kappi tran. Or, it comes from the first port where they landed in South Africa: Cape Town, pronounced according to the principles of Indian-English phonetics. Or, the first family member in South Africa came on a ship steered by a man called el capitán, which the sojourner thought to be a fine surname and so adopted as his own.

Armed with these names, young Ganda submitted his papers and his references. Crosschecking, the officials found the missing persons report. They verified his identity.

Ganda’s middle name, by tradition, should have been his father’s name, Dayaram. He would have become known as G. D. Kapitan; the Durban institution he founded would have been G. D. Kapitan & Son Vegetarian Restaurant. His father would have lived forever, almost, in that single initial recognizing his paternity.

But now his name reflected his new “father.” And somehow in the transcription process, Chhiba became Chhagan. He became Ganda Chhagan Kapitan, a self-made man—G.C., for short.

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