I hope you will find in these very personal words a reflection of how I was born into this world and how my voice was reborn onto these pages. Your pages.
Most people, even those at the farthest remove from the traditions of their ancestors, can usually take solace in knowing their parents. And from that understanding of mother and father, we might make the umbilical connection to our homelands, thus making it possible for us to at least make a limited connection between past and present identities.
I am confident that “Ma and Pa” are indeed my biological father and mother, though there is an ambiguous uneasiness in my family around where and how I was born. My gentle parents were inclined, during my childhood, to tell a far-fetched tale about my birth outside of the Oza family in a slummy part of Bangalore. This mid-20th century Bangalore was nothing like the software and outsourcing capital that it has become in the new millennium. I imagined it to be not unlike Bisalpur and Nana, the traditional Rajasthani villages where my parents grew up. The sleepy Bangalore of family lore was far away from the fast-moving Bombay where I was actually born.
When Pa was working for Dow-Polychem Limited, he often traveled from Bombay to Bangalore to ensure that the new factory for the company’s expansion into South India had all the necessary material for successful construction. On one of his trips to Bangalore, Pa asked Ma to come along. Just outside the factory gate, they saw a sweet baby playing by himself in the mud. From this same dirt, the construction workers had built makeshift housing, replicating their village communities caste by caste. The workers had traveled what must have seemed to them to be long distances, even though their home villages were just on the outskirts of the city.
Ma picked up the baby—naked as a newborn—and attempted to locate his parents. Language was a barrier. In a mix of North Indian languages, Ma asked every woman she met, “Whose baby is this?” Equipped only with village dialects of Kannada, the women pieced together Ma’s Marwari-Hindi. They shrugged their arms upward, suggesting that only God knew, and returned those arms to the more lucrative lifting of bricks. By the end of the trip, while Pa was putting the final touches on Polychem’s business, Ma had conclusively determined that the baby was an orphan. And thus my parents adopted me, brought me back to Bombay, and raised me to be an Oza in every way except for my remarkable appetite for South Indian food and my life-long search for identity.
During my childhood, when Pa or Ma told the mythical foundling story, it was usually accompanied by a wink and a nod and a quick reassuring segue to my true birth in Bombay. Unlike my siblings, I was not born in our maternal village. Pa was a proud, cosmopolitan secularist who wanted at least one of his children born in a proper, big-city hospital. And for Pa, there was no city bigger than his Bombay. He had seen Bombay grow from a colonial outpost into the pulsing financial and entertainment capital of independent India.
In some ways, Bombay had given Pa life, because as the city grew, he grew alongside her. To repay this debt to his adoptive city, and to take his rightful standing as a modern man, Pa was intent on changing the Rajasthani Brahmin tradition of an expectant mother returning to her parents’ home to give birth to her child. When Nirmal, my elder brother, was born, there was no question of breaking with tradition; since Pa was not in a solid financial position, he was grateful for the support from Ma’s parents. They lived in Nana, a sleepy North Indian village a short train ride away from Pa’s Bisalpur village, but centuries away from Bombay. After Nirmal came my sister Savita. Before her birth, there was a lively debate between Ma and Pa; Ma won and again returned to her childhood home to give birth. And likewise, my younger brother, Kamlesh, was born in Nana, with his maternal grandparents doting on him after birth. As my birth approached, however, Ma acquiesced. And then both Pa and Ma had to defend their decision against rumors about hospital corruption.
Fanning the flames of innuendo were a series of newspaper articles and a cackle of old ladies who had come from villages in Rajasthan. Though they had never read a newspaper, these aunties (most of whom were unrelated to us) began a nosy and noisy whispering campaign, “How can the Oza family break with tradition? Who knows whose child they will get here in Mumbai. The nurses are swapping baby boys for baby girls. The rich mothers who don’t give birth to boys bribe the hospital people. And when the nurses take the boy babies away from the poor mothers right after birth, they switch them with girl babies of the rich. Chi, chi, chi. And sometimes, when the wealthy can’t have children at all, there is no switching or twitching. The hospitals just take the poor people’s babies and give them to the rich, telling the real mother that her baby is dead. You don’t believe us? Well, it is in all the newspapers. The Times of India and the rest. This would never happen in desh, back home in our villages.”
Ma relayed the gossip to Pa, who had no patience for the whispering of illiterate, old aunties. He had already paid a deposit for the hospital room and had boasted to friends that the apartment flat that he and Ma owned would now, in addition to a refrigerator and a phone, have a baby born at the finest hospital in Bombay. But Ma, influenced by the wisdom of the old, wanted to go back to her village of Nana one more time.
This time, the village did not win, but neither did the hospital’s maternity ward. The city’s victory was not complete. I was born in our Bombay home. The delivery, closer in spirit to a Nana birth, was not an antiseptic affair. In place of a doctor was a servant woman who, today, would be called a midwife. Back in the middle of the last century, she carried no medical title and received a hearty meal and an old sari or two for her competent and trustworthy hands. These hands that were accustomed to labor of a different sort, welcomed me to a world of passages, small and big.
News of my birth traveled quickly, not because there was anything special about me, but because all births were special and baby boys were especially celebrated. The aunties stopped gossiping about the hospitals and began proclaiming the many virtues of a mother who gave birth to a son. These mothers and grandmothers always looked to each life event as a source of conversation. Ma was feted for having brought two sons and a daughter into the world. My elder brother had allayed low-lying concerns about infertility. My sister’s birth had satisfied the old ladies’ clamor (and their husbands’ unarticulated need) to have Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, look favorably upon our family. And my birth ensured that Pa and Ma’s old age would be insured with familial social security.
Although Bombay was a metropolis teeming with millions of peope, Pa and Ma had established our family in their community, and we children felt safely nestled. When we relocated (or was it dis-located?) to Canada in the mid-1960s and the United States in 1969, I suddenly felt like an outsider looking in—a tough life for a child wanting to belong, but wonderful training for a consultant and writer seeking to make sense of the world. Every move was an act of courage. I long felt as if I was constantly in transition: always departing … never quite arriving. A bit like a character caught in Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox, I found myself going halfway from heretothere, fromthishousetothathouse, which meant that I never quite reached my destination. Never until that fateful day when I called India Currents, and Arvind Kumar, the magazine’s founding editor, picked up the phone.
It was the late 1980s, and I had returned to my job with Hewlett-Packard in the Bay Area after a trip to India. During my travels through India, I had surreptitiously read Salman Rushdie’s novelThe Satanic Verses and had grown certain that I needed to lend support to Rushdie. Since this title had invoked the fatwa and furor of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his gang of book burners, it had been banned in India. Taking the book into the subcontinent was itself an act of defiance. Writing a review of it was even riskier. But this small act enabled me to stand up to those who would censor a book, silence a voice. Of course to go from writing in solitude to publishing required a courageous partner.
Although a bit incredulous, Arvind, who did not know me from Adam, Ahmed, or Anand, said, “There’s no time like the present. Can you send me a copy of your review?” Seizing this writer’s carpe diem moment, I said, “Sure. How about I drop by India Currents on my way home from work?” As it turned out, Arvind’s office was an extension of his house in San Jose, and he kindly welcomed me into his home that fateful evening. Upon reading “So Far from Home” (the article’s title was derived from the title of an early Mira Nair film), Arvind extended an exceptionally mindful kindness by accepting my contribution, and suggesting that I decline the acceptance; he wanted me to consider the wisdom of publishing a piece on Rushdie when the author had been forced into hiding and some bookstores had been cowered by real and imagined threats into pulling The Satanic Verses.
That night I shared the unlikely “publish-and-perish” dilemma with my wife and parents. All three were cautiously supportive. Like Arvind, we all had more to consider beyond my aspirational dreams of writing: The magazine had to consider boycotts, threats, and its reputation; the family had to ensure the safety of four generations that lived under one roof (my grandparents, parents, wife, children, and I lived as a traditional extended family balancing continuity and change). In the end, Arvind and I agreed that India Currents would publish the piece using a pseudonym for me: Rajendra Kumar. And accompanying the article were illustrations by “Mangala” (my wife’s name with an extra vowel). Perhaps that protective vowel has kept watch over our daughter, Anupama, who was born a few months before India Currents came into the world, and our son, Siddhartha, who came into our home-sweet-home in 1989, the year that Rushdie disappeared into “safe houses” for the seemingly simple act of writing.
In the early 1990s, at a reading of Living in America, one of the first, if not the first, anthology of South Asian writers “living in America,” a distinguished-looking audience member came up to me and said, “Desh is pardesh, and pardesh becomes desh.” I was quite startled since I had used that same phrase in the Rushdie article, completing the sentiment of diasporic inversion of homelands with “everything seems upside down.” Somehow, the distinguished gentlemen connected the fact that the “Rajendra Kumar” of India Currents was the “Rajesh C. Oza” of Living in America. I remember feeling, “Such is the lovely mystery of the writer’s life.”
Over the years, I’ve had several other generous interactions with readers. One of my favorites was with a fellow reader/writer. In the mid-1990s I had stepped away from India Currents, in part to dedicate my writing energy to doctoral work in organization change. When the time came for me to request scholars for my dissertation committee, the committee chair, Ken Murrell, suggested that I reach out to his friend, Jo Sanzgiri. While I did not know Jo, her name sounded familiar. As it turned out, Jo had written book reviews for India Currents under her full name, Jyotsna Sanzgiri; we had read, and appreciated, each other’s writing for years. Jo’s insight on the metaphoric connection between the Indian diaspora and organizational life not only helped me get through the challenge of the doctoral dissertation, but it also recommitted me to reading and writing fiction and nonfiction by, and about, my superextended Indian family. Ashok Jethanandani welcomed me back to an India Currents that had evolved from a handful of black-and-white pages into a colorful cultural institution. Subsequent editors, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan and Vidya Pradhan, have kept the welcome mat available to me. And as publisher for this journalistic touchstone of the Indian American community, Vandana Kumar has balanced the needs of change and continuity, online and print, readers and advertisers, and, of course, editors and writers.
While each act of writing feels like a courageous act of bringing something new into the world, after my first article from so many years ago, the many book reviews, travel essays, opinion pieces, and appreciations I have written these past couple of decades in India Currentshave fortunately not required that I hide behind a pen name. How sweetly affirming to know, and be known by, my super-extended family.
As for my nuclear family, when India Currents turned 20, Mangla wrote the following letter to the editor: “Dear Ashok, Arvind, Vandana, and India CurrentsTeam: Thanks for the memories. Twenty years ago our daughter was a one year old and now she’s a junior in college. Our son was a dream and now he’s dreaming of college. Congratulations on making your dreams mature into young adulthood. I’m looking forward to India Currents’ silver and golden anniversaries.”
I sincerely hope that some 25 years from now, grandchildren of Mangla and mine will come across the golden jubilee issue of this magazine and tell their grandfather, “What a lovely, mystery this evergreen relationship between India Currents’ readers and writers.”
For Arvind, Ashok, and Vandana, without whom this house called India Currents would not exist, and my writing room inside it would remain stillborn.