My mother’s family is considered “small,” meaning that it has had a scarcity of sons. Unlike my father’s family tree, which branches again and again—seven sons, five sons—my mother’s family tree is a straighter line: only a few boys per generation. From this slim history, her father, Narotam, emerged.
The only grandparent I remember was my Aaji, his widow. We met for the first time when I was seven, shy and reeling from the shock of migration. My family had just moved from New Zealand, the only home Iremembered, back to the United States. After stops in Fiji to visit too many relatives (my only memory is of a fish bone getting painfully stuck in my foot) and in California, we landed in Iowa to visit my mother’s brother and his family. He had brought Aaji to live with him a few years earlier. When I was enjoined to hug her, I obeyed—and promptly broke into tears, at the strangeness of it all.
From then on we saw her once or twice a year in Iowa. I learned to embrace her without sobbing, leaning into the softness of her sari and comfortable rolls of fat. But the combination of infrequent visits, strange old-lady smells, and the fact that she could never seem to pronounce my name correctly kept us strangers. I was distracted too, I suppose, by her odd habits. She sniffed something from a small tin that she kept hidden in her bosom, and when I asked my mother what it was, she said tamkhil—tobacco. I had never heard of snuff before, and filed this away in my mental folder of things old Indian ladies do. She was quiet, never saying much except to moan Raam, Raam, invoking the name of the Hindu god-king whenever she had to stand up or sit down, arthritic knees creaking. She drank, before dinner and sometimes before lunch, a shot of whiskey mixed with water, chased by a Guinness. My parents being teetotalers, I found this alarming as well. It never occurred to me to ask her about history—not even about my grandfather, my Aajaa.
Aajaa. The word feels strange in my mouth, for I never had occasion to use it, missing him by six years and two continents. Growing up in New Zealand and then Michigan, away from other relatives, I knew little about Narotam Chhagan: that he died when my mother was still in school; that his death and the collapse of the family business left my mother and grandmother very poor; that he had met the prince of Tonga; and that he and his friends drank so much that my mother fled the house on weekends, seeking a few hours’ respite at double-feature matinees, which is why even today she hates alcohol and adores Burt Reynolds.
When I was eleven years old, it was a movie that showed me another side of my Aajaa’s life: Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Today, I can critique the film for its historical distortions and Hollywood lens. But back in 1982, in suburban Michigan, it was a precious opportunity to see India and Indians on the big screen.
First, however, we had to find a screen. In the conservative, middleclass suburb of Detroit where we lived, Gandhi was not a big release. The town’s sole movie house, the Penn Theater, was an old-fashioned hall with red plush seats that showed such classics as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. My family never went there, opting instead for James Bond flicks and E.T. at the sixplex in a nearby suburb’s mall. I did not see the Hollywood classics until years later, in a university class on the history of film. By then, in the 1990s, the Penn Theater had changed; an enterprising Indo-American was renting the theater on Saturday mornings, showing Bombay musicals to packed houses, selling samosas and chai along with popcorn at the concession stand.
But during my childhood, the Indian community in Michigan was still tiny, so we had to drive half an hour to the progressive university town of Ann Arbor to seeGandhi. It was screened in one of the university’s auditoriums. We sat near the front, next to the center aisle, craning our necks throughout the three-hour epic.
Halfway through, a pivotal scene occurs. Gandhi’s followers have marched to the sea to protest a tax on salt. As they approach the salt-works, a row of police armed with lathis—five-foot clubs tipped with steel—stand ready to stop them. Gandhi’s men, though, keep walking. When they are just a few inches away, the police officers strike: heads crack, faces split, ribs are smashed.
But more men take their place, row after row advancing—peacefully, calmly, with determination but not violence. And as the police keep beating them down, the camera dissolves to “Walker,” an American reporter played by Martin Sheen. He is at the phone, calling in his story. From the script:
“They walked, with heads up, without music, or cheering, or any hope of escape from injury or death.” (His voice is taut, harshly professional.) “It went on and on and on. Women carried the wounded bodies from the ditch until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on …
“Whatever moral ascendance the West held was lost today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give, and she has neither cringed nor retreated.” (On Walker close. His sweating, blood- and dirt-stained face near tears.) “In the words of his followers, ‘Long live Mahatma Gandhi.’”
Then the word Intermission filled the screen, and the lights went on in the Ann Arbor auditorium, and my mother turned to me in the light and said with some surprise, “You’re crying.”
After a moment she added, quietly, “You know, my dad was in that march.”
According to his first passport, now yellowed and crumbling, Narotam was born in the village of Gandevi, Surat District, in 1908. A later passport gives a birth date, December 12, which he must have invented for a government bureaucrat. In a village where the passing of time is measured by religious festivals and natural or personal disasters, where birthday celebrations are reserved for the incarnations of the gods on earth, no one would have memorialized the exact moment of arrival of the second son of a family so humble they were known as the Chaliawalas, people of the sparrow.
Against the blur of history, one episode of my grandfather’s life stands out in sharp relief. Luckily, a photograph was taken at precisely this moment. He stands young, intense, dressed like a saint all in white. The way the silver has faded over seven decades creates a halo around his body, a pale, pure cocoon of light. It is July 1930, and he has emerged from three months of hard labor in prison, for joining Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution.
For at least four thousand years, Hindus of the “upper” castes have divided human life into four stages: student, householder, retiree, renunciate. In trying to write about my Aajaa’s life, I am reminded again of how little I know about most of my ancestors; how little anybody knows. They were peasants, after all, the details of their lives sketchy from the very beginning. But Narotam would have known about these phases, and hoped his life would follow the ideal pattern of millennia.
He could not have had much of a carefree childhood, coming from a family where he, his parents, and his siblings—two brothers and two sisters—had to work hard and constantly. School was a luxury in which they could not indulge. Child marriage was routine, a way to guarantee a young person’s future and strengthen the web of relationships between families. Narotam’s parents matched him with a girl of the same caste, Benkor, who lived just blocks away in the same village and whose father had died. They were perhaps ten years old when they circled the marriage fire.
After the wedding, Benkor went back home, as was the custom; tradition held that the girl could not go to her in-laws until she reached puberty and her in-laws paid a bride price. But years passed, and Narotam’s family had no money, not even for the customary pair of thick silver anklets. Benkor waited.
In the traditional Hindu view of life, adolescence is not about raging hormones, wild haircuts, or bad attitudes. It is a serious time, built on celibacy and spiritual learning. Out of childhood, a young man becomes a brahmachaarin: literally, student of the soul, of god, and of ultimate reality.
Narotam had spent his teenage years not in such study but in work, saving what he could to send back to his parents in the village. His father had finally taken out a loan for Benkor’s dowry and brought her home, at the shockingly old age of twenty. Narotam went back to Gandevi to settle down. The villages, like Bombay, were astir with news of the salt march, in local dailies and in Gandhi’s own Gujarati weekly, Navajivan, or “new life.”
Thousands of villagers gathered along the route to see the Mahatma and support the movement. Walking ten to twelve miles a day, Gandhi gave rousing speeches and recruited volunteers. He urged village headmen to resign their posts and cease cooperating with the British government. He promoted other elements of his agenda: spin khaadi and boycott foreign cloth; include “untouchables” in all aspects of society; close down the liquor stores. He told Gujaratis to seize the moment to lead their nation into freedom. He asked the warrior caste to take up its age-old profession, this time on the battlefield of nonviolent struggle. And he told young men likeNarotam to spend their brahmachaarin period in the movement, rather than in the schools and industries run by the British. They were to examine their souls as they fought for the soul of their country.
The salt march [at Dandi]—with its strict daily routine of predawn prayer, measured walking, and spiritual speeches by Gandhi—may have been Narotam’s first exposure to the concentrated religious study befitting a brahmachaarin. Jail was the next.
For Gandhi, who had spent nearly two years in prison on sedition charges from 1922 to 1924, a cell was a place for meditation. […]
Narotam, too, might have found jail restful, a time to meditate. It is doubtful he had many visitors, ninety miles from home in the big city of Baroda. Nor were there many letters, surely, for no one in his family could write much, and he could not read much. For company, he had the guards and his fellow prisoners. Living two to a cell, the satyagrahis—except for leaders like Gandhi—were mixed in with the regular prison population, and were allowed to see one another freely. It was the only extended period of solitude, even leisure, in Narotam’s life.
When Narotam was released, the whole town of Gandevi turned out for a parade in his honor. Such celebrations were held all over Gujarat; the satyagrahis were treated like soldiers returning from a just war. […]
To Narotam’s father, however, his son was not so much a hero as a young rebel about to go astray. The movement’s dangers had become all too clear, and Narotam’s father had a plan.
Narotam’s older brother and a cousin were already working as tailors in Fiji. To finance the trip, the women of the family had had to pawn all of their meager jewelry. Even Benkor, who had waited so long for her silver dowry anklets, had sold them.
Now, the eldest son had sent some money back, and Narotam’s father wanted to use it to send his second son to the colony as well—away from the dangers of radical politics, and where he could help support the family.
Narotam could no longer indulge in his brahmachaarin stage; he was launched, according to tradition, into the “householder” stage of life. Here the spiritual lessons learned in youth are not abandoned. Rather, a householder must learn to apply them in a more complicated environment. He must learn his dharma.
Today, Dandi, where Narotam and Gandhi picked up their first fistfuls of salt, is barely a town—so unremarkable that on at least one modern map of Gujarat, it is mislocated some fifty kilometers north up the coast. Named for an ancient lighthouse (diva daandi in Gujarati means “stick of light”), it is the dusty endpoint of a main road, with a few ramshackle buildings: restaurant, corner store, and several shacks selling liquor to tourists from the neighboring “dry” districts of Gujarat, where Gandhi’s prohibition campaign enjoys enduring legal success. In the main plaza, just before the beach, a man sells juice from freshly cut sugar cane, squeezing each long stalk through the teeth of a large steel machine set on the cobblestones. A memorial and museum are decaying near the town, showing Gandhi bending over in the famous salt-robbing pose.
On the beach itself, racks of fish are strung to dry in the sun, filling the air with their pungent aroma. The day we visited in 1997, my brother and I dipped our toes in the sea and took pictures on the beach, and I thought about my Aajaa.
His life is a complicated example for me, its moments of shining idealism and sad compromise illustrating the relentless ironies of diaspora. Born a British subject, he helped his countrymen gain their freedom, only to die a British subject in yet another colony. Born poor, he became wealthy but died poor again. A man of strong principles, by the time of my mother’s memory he was weak, often drunk, patriarch of a clan of merchants and traders, plagued by swindlers and cheats.
And yet that is not the whole story. One step out of India, he made the next possible. In Fiji his children went to missionary schools, where they studied the Bible and learned English. At home, they might sit on the floor and eat with their hands, but in school, they memorized how to set a table with two forks to the left, knife and spoon to the right. Decades later, armed with this knowledge, the two youngest would come to America. And their own children would treasure that jailbird photograph taken decades ago, the one that hints at another kind of man: a young revolutionary infused with the light of belief.
At the water’s edge I stood alone for a few minutes, gazing at the orange sun sinking into the sea, trying to feel my Aajaa’s spirit in the salt air. But spirits rarely come when called, and after a while, I turned back toward the darkening land.
Excerpted from LEAVING INDIA by Minal Hajratwala, copyright 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Minal Hajratwala is a writer, performer, poet, and queer activist based in San Francisco. She was an editor and reporter for eight years at the San Jose Mercury News, and was a National Arts Journalism Program fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.