Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, gave voice to one of India’s largest mi-norities, Indian Muslims. Bapsi Sidhwa, in Cracking India, sheds light on Parsis, another religious minority of India. Roshni Rustomji deepens our understanding of living and loving across cultures with her novel, The Braided Tongue, and gives us more metaphors to grasp the complexity of ways in which Parsis of mixed racial descent moved across the Americas.
Rustomji’s background and experience are particularly relevant for this major work. Born in Mumbai, she has also lived and worked in Pakistan, Mexico, Lebanon, and the United States. She is co-editor of Blood Into Ink, and has edited two anthologies: Living in America and Encounters: People of Asian Descent in the Americas. Her considerable knowledge of these many diasporas allows to be transformed by a multi-ethnic, multiracial, transnational unfolding. The novel sparkles, telling a rambunctious, rapturous tale, at once sorrowful and ecstatic.
Katy Cooper, our narrator, once believed she was of Western origin, but gradually learns to assimilate her Indian roots. Her family was both for and against the British. “He (her father),” explains the narrator, “had been a spy for the British … when my mother’s cousin Dinaz Mehta and her husband Ashok were about to be arrested in Bombay for making bombs to throw against the British.” Philosophical differences could split up a family, but we soon realize that migrating across cultures can create deeper fissures.
The three central heroines of the novel, Katy (Katayun) Cooper, Carmelita Gutierrez, and Ratna Sharma travel across the Americas, to India, and then back to discover their roots, identity, heirlooms. Carmelita voices the central metaphor: her grandmother found her grandfather’s tongue “had been cut, sliced apart, different strips hanging separate from one another.” It was part Zapotec, part Latin, part Spanish, part English, and these different cultures could not be integrated. Carmelita’s grandmother lovingly heals her husband’s torn tongue: “… she braided together the separate strands of her husband’s tongue. Slowly and carefully. With great artistry.”
Another inspiring immigrant Katy encounters is Putlibai: poignant, luminous. Putlibai is self-taught, an immigrant farm worker and sweatshop seamstress. Her husband often punishes her, forces her to stand facing a blank wall for hours. When faced with such a void, she imagines flying over the whole world: “Sindhu, Devinagar, Karachi, New York …” She flies away, leaving adversity behind. She internalizes her new country, she masters processes of living and dying with dignity.
Others claim a new heritage, different from their culture of origin. Dinaz Mehta, the narrator’s aunt, says it best: “Pukka or not, I am an American. I breathe here … I sing here …. I have left parts of my body all over this place … My uterus in North Carolina. Both ovaries in Milwaukee … And I am Indian Chinese Asian. No one can cut boundaries into my heart!” We are of one earth, and as Rustomji reminds us, we can return to it, our tongues integrated, healed. —Jyotsna Sanzgiri