India’s Serpentine Path to Equality

Published in: September-October 2009 issue.


Haunting BombayHaunting Bombay
by Shilpa Agarwal
Soho Press.  362 pages, $24.

Leaving IndiaLeaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents
by Minal Hajratwala
Houghton Mifflin.  430 pages, $26.


ON JULY 2, the High Court of Delhi overturned section 577 of the Indian Penal Code, ending nearly 150 years of criminalizing homosexuality. With this momentous decision, India sheds its past of colonial homophobia. The two books reviewed here address that complex history. While these two books are very different, they do share at least one common theme: Indian families in search of their recent past. Haunting Bombay depicts a prosperous family pushing back thirteen years of fear, shame, and denial to learn the shocking truth behind the death of a newborn child. Leaving India recounts the series of migrations of the author’s family members from India to the other parts of the world, while also revealing the secret of her own sexual orientation to her family.

Haunting Bombay evokes the city now known as Mumbai as it was in 1960 through the experiences of the Mittal family, residing in the exclusive neighborhood of Malabar Hill. The main character, thirteen-year-old Pinky, has spent most of her life under the care of her grandmother, the matriarch Maji, having lost her mother during the chaos of Partition while an infant. She shares the house with her uncle, his wife, their three sons, and several servants, all of whom have secrets of their own. Also living with them, without realizing it, is the ghost of a daughter lost after childbirth. Pinky accidentally frees the spirit from her confinement in the bathroom, which has been locked at night ever since the death. This act forces the family to relive painful memories that each member has tried to escape for so long through his or her own means (alcoholism, obsessing over health, visiting prostitutes). While Maji attempts to exorcise the ghost through the assistance of both a Hindu priest and a tantric, or black magician, in the end Pinky herself must discover the terrible truth behind the child’s death.

Adding to the family’s trouble is the baby’s former nurse, or ayah, who has returned after her dismissal and apparent suicide, using her great mystical powers to wreak terrible vengeance on her former employers. Blamed for the death of the baby, the ayah lures Pinky away from her family, taking her on a nighttime tour of the city before ending up on the shores of the Arabian Sea, prompting the girl to confront her family at last about what really happened that fateful night. There are also hints throughout the novel of a lesbian relationship between the ayah and one of the female servants, although nothing is made explicit. Full of supernatural events, the novel nevertheless remains grounded in human emotions and fears. A wife’s desire for her dead child to return, for instance, allows her to defy Maji’s order to remove all water from the bungalow in an attempt to starve out the ghost.

Throughout Haunting Bombay, Agarwal interweaves fascinating details about Indian history and culture, from the ancient stories of the Mahabharata to Bollywood movies. She is especially gifted at describing food: readers will quickly learn about khichidis, lassis, cholay, and many other dishes unfamiliar to most Westerners. India and its citizens appear quite exotic, bound by traditions and beliefs that are thousands of years old even while living in a world of electricity and automobiles. One of the most shocking practices concerns the hijra, men born with disfigured genitalia who are feared and shunned by most Indians, who must therefore eke out a living begging or offering prayers for the health of newborn children. The hijra as a group only appear once in the novel, but their beliefs will prove a major force behind the past actions of the Mittal family.

Leaving India combines journalism and personal memoir in describing the world journeys taken by the family of Minal Hajratwala. It begins with her family’s mythic origins as members of the Kshatriya warrior-king caste, created by the half-god, half-goddess Ardhanarishvara to defend the world against demonic forces and corrupt priests. Next we meet the first ancestor to leave India, Minal’s great-grandfather Motriam, who went from being a village soothsayer to being a tailor in Fiji a hundred years ago. We also learn about the economic and political forces that enabled Motriam to travel to an unknown land, notably the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1834, which led to a need for plantation workers in the colonies. The British turned to India, with its many unskilled peasants needing work, and paid for their passage across the ocean with their servitude. Thus began the process that Hajratwala calls “the modern Indian diaspora.”

From there, Hajratwala works her way forward in time, documenting the travels of her ancestors and relatives on both her mother’s and father’s side to South Africa, Fiji, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, weaving into the story the unusual ways in which they were forced to overcome discrimination in their host countries. For instance, her great-great-uncle Ganda is credited with having invented the “beans bunny,” now a national dish composed of a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with vegetable curry. It was invented in response to the increasingly harsh racial policies of the South African government, which prevented blacks from sitting down in restaurants, even those owned and run by Indians. Hajratwala shows how Ganda, once a demonstrator in Gandhi’s salt tax protest, became an innovative merchant, working around prejudice.

Of course, the economic challenges faced by some countries turned into opportunity for Indians seeking a better life abroad. The need for experts in engineering, science, and math forced the U.S. to raise its quota on Indian immigrants in 1962, granting permanent resident status to qualified applicants. This is the route taken by the author’s father, who moved with his wife Bhanu from India to Iowa City for graduate study, then to a research position at a San Francisco pharmaceutical company, and eventually settling in a small town in Michigan. Without realizing it, Hajratwala’s parents were part of the “brain drain” that sent thousands of Indians to more developed countries, many never to return home.

Hajratwala also explores her own migrations, both physical—from San Francisco to New Zealand to suburban Michigan—and sexual. She writes thoughtfully of the experience of growing up different, whether as Indian in a mostly white community, or as a lesbian among her conservative parents, all the while keeping her thoughts and resentments to herself. She recounts movingly how her parents accidentally came across some of her private writings, revealing her homosexuality, and confronted her with this knowledge. After the initial shock and tears, they reconciled their traditional beliefs with their daughter’s sexuality.

The last part of Leaving India speaks to the remarkable assimilation of the Indian community into the larger world. Marriages between Indians and other ethnicities, once considered shocking, are now quite common, as attested by Hajratwala’s own brother, whose “half-Finnish, quarter-Irish, quarter-Norwegian” wife Heidi he first dated against his parent’s wishes. The fact that the author’s young nieces and cousins, living in London, Hong Kong, and Michigan, wear saris as often as blue jeans, and watch Bollywood movies along with Hollywood blockbusters, demonstrates how easily and how effortlessly the young generation moves between Indian and Western mores. The Hajratwalas still struggle with some aspects of the West, including homosexuality, but on balance their ability to overcome cultural obstacles makes for an inspiring family history.