‘Not from nothing but from the bones of who you are’

‘Not from nothing but from the bones of who you are’

By LORA TOMAS | | 6 June, 2015
Minal Hajratwala. | Photo: minalhajratwala.com
Minal Hajratwala speaks to Lora Tomas about poetry, teaching creative writing, re-tracing the steps of her extended diasporic family and the importance of creating pantheons of one’s own.

Your great-grandfather wanted to go to Fiji, so he went." This is how Minal Hajratwala's family relays the first overseas immigration among their Gujarati ancestors: a spur-of-the-moment decision, less demanding than choosing the colour of drapes. Her months-long globe-spanning research trip was an attempt to put such statements into perspective: political, historical, economic. What came out of it is the complex and detailed saga of the "scattering," the branching out of Hajratwala's family tree and the fast-growing Indian diaspora on the whole. For the San Francisco-born writer, editor, and poet, who partly grew up in New Zealand before her family moved again to the States, her book Leaving India: My Family's Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents (Tranquebar Press, 2009) is as much about coming to terms with her own story and identity, as it is about a larger phenomena. "Now when someone says, 'Where are you from? How did your family get here?' I can say, here, I wrote 400 pages about it! Go read it!" says Hajratwala in an email interview.

These pages open with the god/dess Ardhanaarishvara and the Lake of Nails in Rajasthan, then move on to medieval Solanki dynasty and later a certain water-gazing hazrat-waalaa, a seer, before arriving at New York LGBT rights activists and Navaratri swirls in San Francisco. Hajratwala's in-depth research, encompassing myth and statistics, weighs lightly on the reader: her writing is smooth and straightforward, at times deeply personal and lyrical, while she reveals the outer pushes and pulls, like colonialism, the indenture system, brain drain, immigration lotteries and marriages (girls falling off clan trees like ripe fruit, never to be fully re-attached anywhere else, the author notices), as well as destiny coded in family temperament. Hajratwala's book is about resilience and resourcefulness, and some unexpected discoveries.

"In South Africa, for example, I went into a local history museum and saw my great-great-uncle's picture on the wall," she tells me. "That's when I discovered he was the inventor of local delicacy, the 'beans bunny.' I was able to interview his descendants; my cousins still use his recipe. It's basically fava bean curry stuffed into a bread loaf, and it came about because black Africans were suddenly prohibited from sitting down in restaurants and eating. So my great-great-uncle and the other Indian eatery owners had to come up with a way to sell 'take-aways.' This was before the era of Styrofoam and plastic containers, so they invented the curry-in-a-bread-loaf idea, which came to be known as the 'bunny chow.' It's now considered a South African national dish! My great-great-uncle was a strict vegetarian, so he created the vegetarian version, the 'beans bunny.'"

But hybridity was encouraged only if culinary, and that to an extent. Although being Indian in South Africa when Gandhi was there starting his career as a social instigator was hard, it was still better than being a "coloured" native African, writes Hajratwala. The shades of dark vary, and they matter. Even Gandhi chose to work with that fact, not against it. Reminiscing on her Michigan school days, the author recollects feeling acutely alienated, disoriented, while, at the same time, a different kind of disorientation was plaguing the white Americans (relatively recent settlers, too). "In the late 1990s I was of course noticing how South Asian-ness in the United States had shifted from this sort of obscure nationality to being a megatrend. I grew up in a very white community in suburban Michigan, and when we said we were 'Indian,' people asked us, 'What tribe?' Really." But a lot of the immigration dynamics are also about breaking out and newfound possibilities.

Hajratwala’s poetry collection Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2014) could be read almost as a sequel to the family saga.

Dropcap OnHajratwala's poetry collection Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2014) could be read almost as a sequel to the family saga. It's an extravagant chöd offering, "ritual to pour your body ('radical nectar') into pure-sordid mouths of demons, also gods" — American, Indian, and the rest. There are Buddhas for every occasion and every occasion is an opportunity for an exorcism by words (there is no other kind, anyhow). It's a soothsaying ramble, an explosion in every direction, a reading of cast tags and hashtags. By scrolling down tabloid stardust — it feels — you could catch a glimpse of milky, spiraling eternities, if you knew how to look. And Hajratwala does.

The contained but powerful first poem Angerfish takes Dhammapada's image of unprocessed anger — a rotting fish wrapped in straw — to tell a modern parable: "On the first day / the fish wrapped in straw / starts to stink. / On the second day / if you walk by the barn / it enters your clothes. / (...) It whispers / sweet sauces — / We are brought here to love, yes, / but not blindly."

In Dialogue of the Lady Monsters, Lady Gaga and Apollo's priestess, Cassandra of Troy — a prophetess whose words no one took seriously — are emailing each other, talking personality cults and viscera. Lady Gaga writes: "Darlingest C, / I coined a term: spiritual hologram. / The crowds go wild. I am their empty / fantasy, chthonic / cipher rising from trope-hole / dipped in hotlights, hollow hotpant echoes / of their own percussive / petrifications — right, / am I right? Feel me?"

The poem The In & the Out is an erotic lesbian poem in which a hum is an aum, a moan a mantra, and the innate bodhi of the body can be accessed through touch. Originally commissioned as a solo show by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for World AIDS Day in 1999, the revised theater piece Avatars: Gods for a New Millennium fills the last 30 pages of the book. "It was around the time that people were joining up for end-of-the-world millennium cults, so I had the idea of starting a cult of my own, as a performance artist. I performed it, and roped in a few friends for very brief walk-on roles." In it, the Goddess Vac is urging the soul-searching Poet to creativity and full embodiment by daring her to come up with her own pantheons. "Not from nothing but from the bones of who you are."

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