In search of one's roots

The author travelled seven years to retrace the diverse histories of 75 members of her far-flung family
In search of one's roots
In search of one's roots

Publishers&rsquo catalogues these days are stuffed with diasporic stories roving reporters with mid-western twangs and hennaed hands searching for a postmodern twist to the old arranged marriage tale, earnest graduates from the home counties seeking to exorcise their bangla bhooths. Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri and a herd of others leap to mind &mdash and leap out again, like so many springbok. Writers such as Amitav Ghosh and V.S. Naipaul weigh in on the other end of the scale hard acts to follow.

Into this crowded arena comes a journalist from San Francisco who spent seven years travelling to retrace the diverse histories of 75 members of her far-flung family. The result is a book that is by turns revelatory and poetic, informative and touching. Leaving India tells the story of the spread of Indians &mdash which she dates to 1834 with the end of slavery and start of Indian indentured labour &mdash to today&rsquos world with up to 30 million people of Indian origin living abroad.

Hajratwala&rsquos book is highly accomplished, meticulously researched and beautifully written. Her ambitions, however, are apparently small to tell the story of one family from southern Gujarat, starting with her great-grandfather&rsquos departure to Fiji. This is how she speculates on his thoughts

&ldquoThe year was 1909 and he was not afraid.
Or He was desperate. His father and three of his brothers had died he was the man of the house he had to do something.
Or They had not yet died he was carefree... and did not think of his own death.
Or When he took his family&rsquos leave, none of them dared hope to see the other again.&rdquo

Hajratwala tells the story of colonialism, apartheid, the Indian freedom struggle, &lsquobrain drain&rsquo in short, globalisation. There are books in which lives are swept along by historical forces. But there are few where both micro- and macroscopic perspectives are in sharp focus one illuminating the other in a fascinating dance. If Sea of Poppies is one, Leaving India is surely another.

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