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Have you read The Girl from Foreign?” my friend Thoraya asked as we wandered down the Kadir Has University in Istanbul. We were attending a conference on “Immigration and Gender.”
“It’s by this Pakistani-American woman who goes to India in search of her grandmother’s Jewish roots,” I was told.
The book sounded intriguing. I was embarrassed that I had not even heard about it, and when I got hold of it I could not put it down. Almost 400 pages long, every section is a delight.
Part travelogue, part memoir, what drew me instantly to the narrative was that part of Shepherd’s journey is into the same western mountainous coast of India that recently played a role in my own passage of self-discovery. I had checked out Maratha forts to understand the history of my people; Shepherd goes to the same region to hunt for her grandmother’s people who, centuries ago, travelled thousands of miles across the seas and found refuge in this hilly terrain. My heritage was deeply rooted there, Shepherd had to dig deeply to look for her roots.
Shepherd’s Jewish maternal grandmother, her beloved Nana, is the product of the diversities of languages, religions, and the peculiarly provincial characteristics that originated in her family’s home base in Maharashtra, though the Jewish people seemed to be far more marginalized than the other religio-ethnic groups in pre-partition India. In Nana’s case, much had gotten lost in a post-partition life that she was compelled to adopt in Pakistan, part of the sub-continent foreign to her. When she falls in love with an older Muslim man, his northern allegiance further forces her to make her roots even more invisible.
Nana enters her husband’s family in Karachi as the second wife. She publicly follows her husband’s religion yet, throughout her life, even in her old age, when she moves to the New England home of her daughter and Christian son-in-law, Nana does not abandon her Jewish heritage.
It is this essential nucleus of her origin Nana passes on to her American-born granddaughter, Sadia, whose legacy is even more diverse and complicated.
Nana’s seemingly complete immersion into an alien world after Partition, away from her family of origin, is something many of us can relate to. It strikes a familiar chord for all who have moved from one land to another, from one religious-cultural mix to a “foreign” one.
A major part of Nana’s life is shrouded in mystery, a secret that she dares to entrust to her granddaughter only indirectly, by giving her the key to the cupboard that had been locked behind in Pakistan, teaching snippets of songs and stories, cooking a ritualistic dish or two that created nostalgic longing in her grandchild away from home. Nana tells her “…many times, recipes don’t just make food but teach you patience and care.” Shepherd, this child of the new world, molded by multiple religions, nationalities, and languages absorbs what Nana tells her, much to her own surprise.
It is a captivating narrative, told with skill by Shepherd. The smooth transitions are totally absorbing as we move facilely from one setting to another, from crowded Mumbai to the hamlets along the Arabian Sea, from Sadia being a foreigner, a stranger in India, to her ease of presence in the familial Islamic ambience of the Karachi household. Here she must explain to her relatives why and what had taken her to India rather than spending more time with them in Pakistan.
We go back and forth from India to Pakistan, from Mumbai to Boston, Maharashtra to the rugged Punjab where Jewish, Muslim and, occasionally even Christian, threads are woven together. The different strands don’t tie the reader down but merge seamlessly into a mosaic that brings Nana’s people vividly to life.
It is a story of the trans-national identity creation, the complicated psychological process that can be confusing and conflict-ridden, something that is part of many of us who have come from one place, live in another setting and have our anchors laid down in various emotional homes.
Shepherd catches the delicate nuances that must be left unspoken in Eastern cultures, sensitively reflected when she writes about her relationship with a young man, Rekhev. Rekhev introduces Sadia to the undercurrents of life in a dominantly Marathi setting where this boy from Jammu is, himself, an outsider.
Rekhev insists he is “a non-traveler” as he offers to accompany Sadia into the hinterland, a somewhat unconventional act for two single persons of opposite gender roaming together, even in modern-day India. As he watches over her, admires her, is attracted by her, Rekhev categorically refuses to “become a chapter” in her book.
“I don’t know how to summarize what I have been experiencing in Bombay. I don’t know the words to explain how I spend my time, the work that I am doing, how strangely exhausting it is. I don’t know how to explain my friendship with Rekhev or what it means. This is the first time I encounter the split-in-two feeling of dividing a life between multiple places” Shepherd writes towards the end of her memoir.
Shepherd may be the international observer, but it is people like Rekhev, the villagers on the Konkan coast, the fragmented Jewish communities in Maharashtra, the residents from Alibagh to Mumbai aspiring to go to Israel, who teach her, bring her beloved Nana’s world to life. Amongst this group of people unconnected to modern communication channels, hanging on to tradition yet versatile enough to adapt to today’s environment, Shepherd finds her worldview broaden. She comes away with a much clearer understanding of her grandmother as well as her own self.
At times language limitations, both on Sadia’s part and on the part of those who are trying to translate ideas and meanings for her, raise barriers. But if Shepherd had paused to unravel these knots it might not have given the account the steady speed that makes it flow leisurely and makes it emotionally gripping.
My underlined copy is already earmarked to be passed on to my “ABCD” daughter who, like Sadia, is a product of this multicultural world.
Latika Mangrulkar is an educator, writer, email@example.com