The story of my generation of Indian American immigrants is a blessed one.
I don’t belong to a generation that had to struggle in a foreign land, hoping that our children will reap the benefits of what we sowed. When I arrived, almost 16 years ago, I got off the plane fairly confident of my future success. I was an immigrant of standing, unlike the others who came before me. I started my journey at the upper end of the socio-economic ladder, unlike the Irish and the Italians, the Chinese and the Japanese, and countless other immigrants who started at the bottom of that ladder. I spoke the language and I spoke it well. I didn’t have to worry about my kind of food would be available. I walked into restaurants with confidence, my head held high, not worried about how I might be treated given the color of my skin. A few years later, the food of my land, was mainstream. Prepackaged Indian food was sold in grocery store chains and in upscale boutique grocery stores. Aspects of my culture would soon become known to many of my non-Indian neighbors, colleagues and friends. A few months back, my boss asked me, “What is Holi ?”. Holy as in sacred, I asked, not sure of the question. “No the Indian festival of Holi”. His daughter’s school, an elite private school for the wealthy, was celebrating the festival. My friend’s daughter wishes us a happy diwali on her way to school, dressed festively for the occasion.
Of course, this is somewhat of a simplification. I was paid a pittance the first years of my life here and we barely managed to save anything. I was miserable at work for the first year and a half. Shanthala constantly aches for her parents and her brother back in India. We talk about what our future might be like as we grow older, when we watch lonely, fragile older white Americans. And once, very early in our stay, one older looking lady at a bus stop yelled loudly at us as we drove slowly by, “You are taking away the jobs from this country”. And many did flee the country in the wake of the dotcom bust, abandoning homes and leaving cars in airport parking lots.
But our angst is middle class angst, not the soul-destroying worry of whether we can put food on the table or whether our children, along with us, will be declared illegal and deported. We neither escaped from oppression nor a wretched life. The fiction of Indian Americans too follows this theme. It speaks of the struggle for identity, of resolving a clash of cultures and a sense of alienation felt by those who continue to carry India with them everywhere they go. Jhumpa Lahiri‘s fiction, for example, is of this nature as are the stories of Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee and others that I have read.
How To Read The Air by Dinaw Mingetsu is the story of an Ethiopian American immigrant. The main narrator, Jonas Woldemariam, retraces the road trip taken by his parents, before he was born. He leaves his wife, a career and what he’s made of his life – not much – in undertaking this trip. He weaves their story with his across 300 pages and in doing so, reveals the devastation of the inner landscape of immigrants like his parents. As the Washington Post critic put it: “The story contradicts our most cherished cliches of immigrant progress: We expect the parents to work hard, trapped between countries and languages, saving their pennies and toiling at every opportunity, chagrined by their children’s disregard for the old values, their easy integration with American culture. But Mengestu complicates that oft-told tale with a peculiar, psychologically perceptive story that makes one wonder how a country of immigrants could ever survive.”
Aspects of the alienation, especially for his mother, has echoes of the alienation felt by Jhumpa Lahiri’s creations such as Mrs. Sen or Ashima. For example, when he writes:”Learning a new language was, in the end, no different from learning to fall in love with your husband again“, the sentiments maybe similar to the feelings of Indian women who land in this country married to people they barely met back in India. But, these women usually don’t have to deal with the meager life that Jonas’ father could provide. Or the battering that Jonas’ mother had to face.
Jonas, the protagonist, is hollow inside, damaged in a way that seems almost impossible to repair. His life is dictated by maxims such as “obscurity as being essential to my survival. Whoever can’t see you can’t hurt you” and “finding new ways of numbing myself so nothing my parents, or by extension the outside world, did could touch me“. This could be the story of a child from a broken home, trying to stitch together a different narrative. He wants his parents to have gone through travails that they did not, possess grace that they did not. He tries to imagine their lives differently even as he acknowledges the futility of the exercise, the lie. He says at one point: “history sometimes deserves a little revision, if not for the sake of the dead, then at least for ourselves.” I wondered often as I read the story if this was less an immigrant story than a broken home story. I wondered if the man who’s writing automatically dictates the categorization of his story.
Mingetsu writes beautifully, lyrically. His writing never comes in the way of the narrative. His writing can be sage as when he describes Jonas’ ruminations about relationships: “In our rush to presumably better ourselves we had both missed what had otherwise always been obvious-that it often didn’t take much more than careful consideration of each other’s needs to secure a degree of happiness“. Or it can be aching such as in the passage when he writes about Jonas’ mother wanting to extend the start of the road trip by returning frequently back from the car to the home they were leaving behind, the home that promised some sanctuary to her: “Life in general, in other words, need not have ended, just so long as my mother could be granted the small gift of lying endlessly on a bed on an early September afternoon staring at the ceiling while her husband sat parked in the driveway waiting for her. It could have made a picture-perfect scene, supposing the canvas was drawn wide enough to allow for a view of house, bedroom, trees, and car – a scene quiet enough to deserve the merit of being hung in a famous museum. People could have gazed at it in some future era and said to themselves, ‘So, this was life’“. Or it could be about Americana: “Sometimes I think if they had never learned to use the second person singular their lives could have turned our so much better. They could have turned to that indifferent and guiltless third person the same way they later turned to faith and cardboard boxes to keep death at bay. They could have used it to endure the burden of layoffs, failed spelling tests, and the soaring cost of heating oil, but at least in this way they were like most Americans, saddled with a “you” to blame and the need to see someone hang“. There are countless others I have lost track of.
Highly recommended read.
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