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Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents

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An inspiring personal saga that explores the collisions of choice and history that led one unforgettable family to become immigrants. In this groundbreaking work, Minal Hajratwala mixes history, memoir, and reportage to explore the questions facing not only her own Indian family but that of every immigrant: Where did we come from? Why did we leave?

What did we give up and gain in the process?

Beginning with her great-grandfather Motiram's original flight from British-occupied India to Fiji, where he rose from tailor to department store mogul, Hajratwala follows her ancestors across the twentieth century to explain how they came to be spread across five continents and nine countries.

As she delves into the relationship between personal choice and the great historical forces—British colonialism, apartheid, Gandhi's Salt March, and American immigration policy--that helped to shape her family’s experiences, Hajratwala brings to light for the very first time the story of the Indian diaspora.

This luminous narrative by a child of immigrants offers a deeply intimate look at what it means to call more than one part of the world home. Leaving India should find its place alongside Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Minal Hajratwala

13 books43 followers
Minal Hajratwala is a writer, performer, poet, and queer activist based in San Francisco, where she was born before being whisked off to be raised in New Zealand and suburban Michigan. She is the author of Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2009). She spent seven years researching and writing the book, traveling the world to interview more than seventy-five members of her extended family. In 1999, her one-woman show, “Avatars: Gods for a New Millennium,” was commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1999. She was an editor and reporter for eight years at the San Jose Mercury News, and was a National Arts Journalism Program fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2000-01. She is a graduate of Stanford University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews
Profile Image for Rekha.
858 reviews
May 31, 2009
I am of a cultural group that, at its peak, numbered at less than a half million people. That's the size of the population of Cleveland or thereabouts. Add to this an immigration experience to the US, a place where no one I have ever met has any understanding or knowledge of the culture of my parents and grandparents. This is something I am used to, that I expect, that is part of the air that I breathe. There are very few books written about my cultural group- I have read most I can find, and that hasn't taken me very long. Most of the time my group gets maybe a paragraph or two in a larger book about something else. We are a citation, or a footnote, if mentioned at all. I have never read or seen a book, watched a movie, read a poem, or experienced any art of any kind that reflects any part of my cultural experience that I can relate to or that seems real to me. Not one time. Not even a little bit.

So to say that finding this book --where the author talks about her diasporic heritage in depth, from her great-grandparents in India to her grandparents and parents in Fiji, to her parents' move to the US-- BLEW MY FRIGGIN MIND, is kind of an understatement.

So I read the book. And at first, I was so agog that I was ACTUALLY READING THIS, that such a book actually exists, that I could barely take it in. I read paragraphs over a few times. It was like, right there, IN REAL PRINT, you guys. A whole book. About me, about us. My us, which is such a specific us that we don't really get books all our own.

As I got into the book more, there were so many things about the author's family experiences that were vastly different than mine. At first this frustrated me, in the way that all underrepresented people feel when finally, a story or two about them comes to light. "When my friends read this, they're going to conflate this story with mine, and although this is a great representation of one aspect of Indo-Fijian culture, this is not representative of my family." When you don't get any representation at all, for so long, and then finally you get one shot, that shot is never going to able to speak to the whole of the cultural experience. That's the fucked up thing about having a few representations of something really complex.

Still, despite this frustration, I can't really explain what this book meant to me. It really made me bug out, ya'll.

Profile Image for l.
1,666 reviews
May 13, 2019
She calls herself a lesbian while dating men? Anyway this is just too much for my brain to deal with right now, maybe pick it up in the future.
June 24, 2020
'Leaving India' is a deep dive into the Indian disapora beginning right from pre independence days to the early 200os. The book is very thoroughly written which not only touches the life of multiple generations across different countries in the world but also highlights various major historical incidents running in parallel. As you progress, the book becomes more and more interesting and is nicely ended. Overall I'd say its a good read - beautifully written and expressed!
Profile Image for Himali.
41 reviews
December 23, 2012
Wow---this took me months to finish. The idea behind the book is interesting----the author weaves her family's diasporic narrative among the historical trends that led such migration to occur. And while she is a good writer, she goes into what I find an unnecessary depth of detail that really doesn't add much to the overall work. She also tries to maintain this journalistic distance throughout the first part of the book, which doesn't really make sense when you're talking about your own family.

This is epitomized by her parents' stories. While it's great she clearly admires her parents, she characterizes their life decisions as "correct" because they basically did what was expected of their parents and community---- it's irritating that she doesn't question the parochial and patriarchal mindset that surrounded much of their decisions. The author seemed to try to counter-point her parents' "perfect" lives by describing her more working-class cousin, Mala, and her struggles with family and migration. While interesting, I think another author, S. Mitra Kalita does a much better job, and devotes a whole book to this in "Suburban Sahibs".

The last few chapters are the most engaging, when the author finally drops her journalistic tone and talks about her own life as it fits into her family's diasporic narrative. She finally starts talking about the context of patriarchy and parochialism when it comes to the expectations of her community---but why cram it all at the end? It would have fit better integrating it with the decisions her family made along their journey across the world, and how and why they returned to their small community to marry, etc.
Profile Image for Charlie Close.
Author 24 books24 followers
January 31, 2016
Minal Hajratwala has written a sweeping yet personable history of her extended family's migration from India to points all over the world.

She tells stories about her family members' journeys to Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. She gives their histories, starting over a hundred years ago, and sets them in the context of the culture and politics of their new homes. Like most of the best history, we see the big picture by starting with the details and the individuals, their struggles and successes.

What makes this history unusual is that the characters are the author's own family members, many of whom she visited and interviewed. The book is very thoroughly researched but is written in a conversational style, the way a person would write about their own family.

I feel like I know Minal, at least a little, even though I've never met her, and even better, I feel like I've met many members of her broad and interesting family. I'm grateful for her contribution to history and thankful to have read her book.

(A brief disclosure. I worked for a short time with the author's brother several years ago and I came to know about the book through him. I have not met the author.)
Profile Image for Dorothee Lang.
Author 6 books33 followers
January 22, 2013
I started to read “Leaving India” as part of a global reading challenge – and was amazed by it. It was the title with its reference to five continents that made me pick it, and as it turns out, this book is both an exploration of family migrations, and a fascinating reflection on time and the world, reaching back to the days of the British Empire and sketching a picture of life in India that explains the migrations of family members to other continents. Minal Hajratwala has a wonderful way to make the places and times come alive, to take the reader into India – and later to Fiji, and South Africa, and all the other places.

It’s truly an outstanding book. I wrote about it to a friend, who started to read it, too, and from that, a book dialogue across continents emerged, which starts and returns to "Leaving India", but also includes some other world books and further links. The dialogue now is online at: http://virtual-notes.blogspot.de/2013...
Profile Image for Mary Mohanraj.
Author 74 books157 followers
Currently reading
February 25, 2009
"Historians used to speak of 'push' and 'pull' as the main facors in migration, principles as basic to human motivation as warp and weft are to cloth...."

So far, even though I normally find history dull and hard to read, am enjoying this. In part because I know Minal, of course -- it's impossible not to be aware of her as the person writing this memoir. But it's also smoothly-written and just plain interesting. Going to have my colonial/post-colonial students read Chapter 2, "Cloth", I think -- should give them a good sense both of what was happening with the cloth industry in England/India in early colonial days, and of why so many Indians chose to emigrate to the Caribbean.

Also (SPOILER ALERT), the end of the chapter made me cry.

Profile Image for Elizabeth.
119 reviews3 followers
May 24, 2014
Highly, very highly recommend!! This is a wonderful family history solidly situated in real history.
MInal is curious and courageous. She brings the rigour of an academic to the telling of her family's story. She illustrates the characters and their era with a depth of understanding that broadens our awareness of the strivings of these emigres: their cultural attachment to India, and their relationship to their adopted homelands in the different eras of immigration. Her analysis of her own trajectory is honest and moving. I wish her the best.
Profile Image for Gaurav Singh.
12 reviews2 followers
April 3, 2019
This is a very detailed personal memoir which can get never ending. Though the book had interesting sections about more meaningful things which I was looking for... which were about cultural challenges of immigration and moving around the world. What does it mean to grow up with Indian parents outside India. But these were very few pages, while the rest of the books were filled with names, timings and family details which I think was not important to me.
Profile Image for gnarlyhiker.
340 reviews13 followers
November 20, 2012
Ms. Hajratwala's Leaving India is one of the best books I've read in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Yes, I've read it 3 times. Minal has done a remarkable and outstanding job in regards to the Indian Diaspora and how it relates to her genealogy. While Leaving India is historical nonfiction, it is both lyrical and poetic. Brings to mind two of my favorite poets: Audre Lorde and Sonia Sanchez.
Profile Image for Vinayak Hegde.
446 reviews54 followers
November 6, 2019
The book is part personal autobiography and part family history. It interspersed with colonialism, British rule, family feuds, LGBTQ+ issues, immigrant experiences and more. The Khatri family moved from a small village in Gujarat to many different countries - Fiji, Uganda, South Africa, US, UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

The story is the author trying to follow her roots through the maze of history. The narrative is too long and there are quite a few unnecessary details thatr detract the reader from the central story - the experience of the early Indian diaspora and the immigration that led to it. Some parts are also quite preposterous and smack of elitism - like the family's visit to India and the author's lamentation of how poor it is. (of course, it is poor and they moved away for better lifestyle and opportunities) and the emigration of the authors family to the US (from Fiji) to NZ and back to the US. Definitely the family did work hard initially and prospered but it is a little hard to sympathise for them sometimes as they clearly elite and well off (Compared to a lot of early immigrants). This is especially true when they did benefit a lot from the timing of the changed immigration laws.

Even with these flaws, the book is worth a read for the early immigrant experience though it is coloured with a specific family's history and choices. I just wished it was a little shorter and read less like a family journal in some places.
Profile Image for Somya.
103 reviews
August 2, 2020
Stories of immigration can have similar threads and then some experiences can be atypical...because of when immigration happened, where from, where to, how the home country changed over the years, personal experiences and preferences.

This story begins from small town Gujarat a 100 years ago and traces movement of the author's family from India starting with her great grandfathers... to Fiji, South Africa, and everywhere else through generations. This book is an excellent resource if you want to learn about the laws and local politics that shaped immigration in countries as far and wide as New Zealand, Canada, US, Fiji, South Africa over the last century.

As for the actual immigrant experience of the author's parents in North America, there are similarities and differences with immigrants today. The difference exists because of how North America changed in the last 30 years in terms of acceptance, how India changed as well....quite rapidly in the 90s, how immigration itself changed.

Interesting in many ways but the book was just a tad long. I was a little impatient when the author started to talk about her cousin's experience after tackling both sides of her family in some detail :)

358 reviews3 followers
September 29, 2020
This is a very good book. It is well written. At first I thought parts of it might be boring, but that did not turn out to be true. It was quite interesting to read the stories of Minal's family and also the history of the different locations. I wasn't aware that there were many from India in South Africa. To be honest had I know Minal was going to share her story of her sexuality, I probably would not have read the book, but I am glad I did. I think it will help me understand my friends from India better as well as immigrants whose children are born in a different country with a different culture from their parents. I would guess that often when they immigrate, they do not realize their children will be different from them and their culture. Minal's chapter did make me sad because of her loneliness and isolation as a child. I struggled with her identity being so wrapped up in her sexuality, when there is so much more to her than that, such as being a great writer. Had she been befriended and loved by followers of Jesus I think her life and choices would have been different. She could have found (and still could) find her identity as a child of God.
Profile Image for Marian.
366 reviews44 followers
February 11, 2019
History is story and, like story, it's comprised of individual people enmeshed in their lives. This meticulously researched, beautifully written, and deeply compassionate book is a tapestry of stories, bringing us into the life struggles, ambitions, and migrations of multiple members of the author's extended family over the past century--and not only recreates their lives but evokes the sociopolitical and economic forces that influenced where they traveled and who they were able to become. The stories of perhaps two dozen people, moving among and between India, Fiji, South Africa, London, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, bring us the history of colonial India, the diaspora it first set in motion, and the waves of onward migration that have followed. In its careful, loving intimacy, the book achieves dramatic scope--and testifies to history. *And* it's beautifully written.
Profile Image for Alyssa.
598 reviews16 followers
July 3, 2020
A deep dive into the author’s heritage and how it was shaped by the Indian diaspora through the pre-colonial times to modern day. She traces her ancestors and relatives from India to Fiji, South Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the US, and beautifully describes how they’ve attempted to meld their lives in those new places with their history in India. Great mix of personal storytelling and the historical events happening in those countries and continents and how they shape her family’s choices. Richly researched and vividly written, the book is dense but fascinating, especially if you have avid interest in the Indian culture.
Profile Image for Jill Robbertze.
554 reviews2 followers
September 28, 2020
I was disapointed with this book, but first let me say that the Author put a lot of work into it, as it is well-written and very well researched both historically and in the amount of detail of her extensive family.....but herein lies the difficulty that I had with it: A large percentage of it reads like a text book on immigration laws in different countries through the ages, and the politics of the times. Keeping track of the numerous family members was, at least for me, impossible (although not really necessary) I did find some parts interesting but I was rather more relieved to get to the end of it !!!!
192 reviews4 followers
May 8, 2017
Loved it! And yes, probably knowing the author swayed by judgment a bit. And being part of the Indian diaspora myself.

I just saw myself reflected in these pages, and I gained a greater understanding of myself, my journey, and my ancestors in the process. The book did take me a while to get through. At the same time, all the characters seemed to represent parts of me, and that was amazingly moving.
8 reviews10 followers
September 14, 2018
The author promises a journey and takes you on one. You travel back and forth across continents and find yourself invested in her story, as much as yours.
10 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2019
Wonderful book. Somehow manages to be both a grand sweep of history and a series of intimate portraits of Indian diaspora all around the world.
Profile Image for Kristy Lin Billuni.
4 reviews2 followers
April 22, 2010
I’ve waited far too long to post this, perhaps because I had another identity crisis when I sat down to write it. I’ve written a few “reviews” of writing projects on this blog, all of which have been positive. And I realize that when you are writing 100% positive reviews, you are not so much a reviewer or a critic and more of a promoter.

And when I read back through previous Amazon reviews, I see that I am no critic. That’s probably because when I love a book enough to write about it, I am not critical. I am in love. I loved Drew Banks’s first two novel’s and MJ Hahn’s amazing podcast. I wrote about them and called what I wrote reviews.

But they are not reviews; they are love letters! The Sexy Grammarian is not a critic. She is a teacher. And a lover.

So, I now sit with pen in hand (yes, I do draft most of my blog posts in ink) to write a well-deserved love letter to the incredible and beautiful book, Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala.

Every family should have a Minal, a member who records the family story with involved passion that can only come from the inside of a family but also sits back and observes, to give us a journalistic, even critical view. She tells the story of her extended family and its scattering of people and how that fits into the greater diaspora from India to all over the world.

Minal's writing lilts and then reports, questions and then critiques. She is a historian, a romance writer, a gossip, an academic, and a researcher, all at once. Perhaps that’s why her book has been nominated for both a Lambda Literary Award and a California Book Award.

At one point there were four copies of this book on my shelf:
o one for my cousin, a writer who has plans to write about our family
o one for my mother, who loves to study our family's geneology
o one for my wife, who kept stealing my own copy before I'd finished it
o my own treasured copy, purchased from and signed by the author—her inscription encouraged my own writing.

But it's the copy on my shelf reserved for my mother that worried me. Before I picked up my copy of Leaving India, I heard that there was some controversy about the "sexy chapter," that critics had complained that Minal snuck some lesbian sex into the pages of her otherwise serious, journalistic endeavor.

In spite of my disgust with a literary world that thinks sexy = not serious, I worried about my mother reading the chapter about Minal, the sexy chapter. “Here is a book about family history, Mom. Oh and watch out for the lesbian sex toward the end.” But when I read it I knew this story would not be new to Mom. This chapter of lesbian love, laid out like a collection of tiny, precious poems, tells the tale of heartbroken parents with papers in their hands—papers that told them, your daughter has become something you fear.

And that story would not isolate my mother but bond her even more deeply to the whole picture of this amazing book. She’s been through that, even if she hasn’t been exposed to this particular picture of diaspora, of family, and of change.

Incidentally, I post this love letter to Leaving India just as Minal prepares to help launch Indivisible, the first anthology of South Asian American poetry. You can catch her tomorrow night, reading poetry from the book at The Green Arcade, 1680 Market Street @Gough, San Francisco. (415) 431-6800.

This review has been cross-posted to Amazon and my blog.

Profile Image for Madeline.
876 reviews167 followers
August 18, 2011
As the subtitle implies, Leaving India is a sprawling kind of book - it deals with a bunch of generations in many different places. The actual narrative threads are, somehow, both more focused and more diffuse than I expected (and, frankly, than I prefer: I prefer a slightly tighter organization). I found that I had a pretty good cumulative grasp on who everyone was, and what their stories were, but sometimes while I was in the middle of the story I was a bit disoriented. BUT, it all worked out, so I guess she knows what she is doing!

Also, there are parts of this that are really memoir-y (it's not quite a memoir, though?). They're not the dirt-digging, revenge-getting kind of memoir.

I think of this book as sensitive, and I think Hajratwala probably is. No, like, "touchy," but perceptive and open. That's a valuable quality to have, and it comes through strongest in her portraits of her parents, who are vividly and compassionately and compellingly rendered, here. You respect them immediately for their hard work and strength of character. And she also does a good job of exploring the mechanisms of immigration and how they affect individuals. It's good and gripping.
Profile Image for HadiDee.
1,418 reviews8 followers
April 10, 2021
The early parts of the book were really interesting as MH traces the migration patterns of her family as they wend their way FIji, South Africa and the US while providing a sense of the historical contexts and what they meant to individuals.

The last section deals with MH own journey as she 'leaves India' emotionally. The writing is more personal her

There were a few research errors. For example: the Jallianwala massacre took place in Amritsar not Calcutta; and Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 not 1998. Neither of these is a trivial mistake and it made me wonder about the veracity for the rest of her research.

Overall I'd recommend this book - it provides a great overview of the Indian diaspora.
Profile Image for Rahat.
18 reviews
July 25, 2009
It's a very lengthy book, but I'm glad I finished it. Minal provides a very informative look at the history behind the South Asian diaspora, and she recounts her own family's stories that could very be any one of our family's stories.

At the end, however, I wasn't able to see a common thread linking all the stories, despite Minal's best efforts. To me, the book described the history of eight family members, each with very unique stories that connected to the other only by the accident of blood. I'm sure that was Minal's point, but I think her point could have been made in about 200 pages, not the 381 pages that she used.
Profile Image for Kandyce.
93 reviews
August 25, 2014
i enjoyed this book from the beginning, when the author opens with a quintessentially indian scene- her, seated with her family, on the floor in the back of a house of local "historians" (essentially, men with good memories for major events- eclipses, heavy rains, droughts) inquiring as to whether it would be possible to have her family tree mapped out.

this is a non fictional account of minal's family and their history of emigration from india. who is who, and how they are all related, is confusing at times, but she tells her family's story as a story instead of a dry, historical account of facts. i was surprised by how much i enjoyed it!
Profile Image for Kat.
96 reviews
June 12, 2009
For me, this book struck the perfect balance of learning and feeling.

I tore through the narrative because of the beautiful portrayals of the Hajratwala's family members. She has pieced together their stories through oral histories and written record with a journalist's fairness and a poet's lyricism. Unlike most non-fiction, I was completely emotionally involved with the "characters" in this book.

Along the way, pieces of the last 150 years of global history fit together for me in a way that they never have before. Fascinating and enlightening - wonderful work!

Profile Image for Karen.
496 reviews20 followers
May 26, 2009
There were a lot of things I liked about this book so it probably deserves 3 1/2 stars. It was an interesting interleave of the history of Indian immigration and personal stories from the author's family's experiences. Unfortunately the fact that it tried to tell the story of so many different people interrupted the flow of the narrative. There were also parts where the language was a bit over-flowery for me. Overall I enjoyed the read and learned a bunch of intriguing historical tidbits.
Profile Image for Molly.
9 reviews
May 28, 2009
This is an accessible and entertaining mix of memoir and history. Hajratwala skillfully synthesizes the extensive history of the Indian diaspora, placing her own family within a trend that began at the end of the 19th century. She succeeds at constructing the lives of her grandparents and great grandparents through stories she hear from relatives across the globe, and offers insight into her own place in this migration.
14 reviews
September 23, 2009
Got through the first couple of chapters before I had to bring it back to the library. Learned a lot of good history about the Indian diaspora, but the pacing and balance is uneven. Hajratwala has opted for a difficult form: balancing family history against a more generalized diaspora history. The chapter on Fiji was succinct and a good balance, but the South Africa chapter was unwieldy--odd, since I am more interested in the diaspora in that country.
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