Long years ago when I was researching an oral history book on Partition, I’d often collar likely-looking people and ask: “Where are you from?” Often the answer was: “Now or before?”, the ‘before’ referring to the not-too-distant past in undivided India. Time had come to be divided into a before and after moment, and home the place left behind.
Minal Hajratwala’s elegant and eloquent story of her family’s journey across many waters begins with a somewhat similar question posed to her in an American city. The question, and the questioner, direct her attention to others that migrants face—when did they leave, why did they leave, where did they settle, who are they, where is home really?
None of these are new questions, nor are the answers she finds of earthshaking importance—they’re truths every immigrant will recognise, every diasporic traveller will own. But the journey itself is what makes this book so interesting—for the past does not reveal all, much remains elusive, what emerges so richly fills out the picture. The connections with families spread out in five places are fragile, sometimes non-existent, but there is also a willingness to share, and the truth that emerges is that while so much is lost when you leave home, much remains too. For Hajratwala, as for other diasporic Indians, this ‘much’ is that indefinable thing: India. In exploring this, the author also sheds a subtle light on the question of nationalism.