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Excerpt: 'Leaving India'

Click image above to view an interactive map of the diaspora of author Minal Hajratwala's family.
Click image above to view an interactive map of the diaspora of author Minal Hajratwala's family.

"The lake of nails is where your history begins," Bimal Barot tells us.

Dust filters through the half-light of afternoon. I am slightly nauseated, two days of traveler's sickness and a journey through winding alley-ways — not to mention several countries, by now — having taken their toll. After interviewing relatives at half a dozen stops on my forty-thousand-mile-plus air ticket, piecing together the story of our family's migrations, I have come to India: to find whatever fragments remain here, to trace the shape of our past and learn how it shadows or illuminates our present.

Written records about private lives, though, are sparse. In English they come only from encounters with the colonial bureaucracy, usually at or after the moment of emigration. Before that, any information is kept in Gujarati, the language of our region, and in the Indian manner — which is to say haphazardly. Historical property records are inaccessible, but a date engraved on a house tells when it was built. Birth certificates may not exist, but an old lady's memory links a child's birth with a cousin's wedding with an eclipse of the moon.

But there is one objective Gujarati source, a collection of books filled with personal data. In the time before widespread literacy, one caste had access to the written word. Others, if they could afford it, paid these learned men to keep track of — or spruce up, if need be — their personal histories.

So I find myself sitting, with my parents, in the home of our clan's genealogist.

In a way it is astonishing that we have arrived here at all, on the strength of a name and a vague address given to me in Fiji weeks earlier by a distant uncle, who last used the information several decades ago:

Behind the Temple of Justice:
Vadodara is busy and industrial; home to 1.4 million, it is the third largest city in the state of Gujarat. Its air, which these days is a soup of diesel and factory fumes, was once so fragrant that it drew vacationers of the highest rank. The Prince of Wales, visiting in 1876, enjoyed the flowered breezes of the Garden Palace as a guest of the local maharaja — a kept man of the British Empire, who despite liberal inclinations squandered his people's money on luxuries and on making a good impression. For the English prince's visit, the maharaja ordered an honorary parade of soldiers, elephants with parasols, drums, spears, flowing robes, and horses kicking up dust. In this manner also, more pomp than substance, the maharaja ruled over the five villages where my ancestors lived.

Excerpted from LEAVING INDIA by Minal Hajratwala, copyright 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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