Mainstream South Asian American diasporic fiction focuses mostly on the post-1965 generation of immigrants, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origins quota and facilitated the arrival of highly skilled workers from India and other Asian countries to help the U.S.
Yet the history of immigration from India, China, and Japan to the U.S goes back much further to the early years of the twentieth century, at least, when many Indians, particularly Sikhs from the state of Punjab arrived in California to work in the logging and farming industries. Although historians like Karen Leonard and Ronald Takaki among others have documented this early history of Asian immigration, very few fiction writers have tapped into this rich history for their fictional explorations. Rishi Reddi breaks new ground by undertaking this ambitious project in Passage West.
The novel follows a group of Sikh men, particularly two friends Ram and Karak from 1914 to 1974. The novel begins with the death of Karak and Ram’s preparation of a eulogy which provides a narrative flashback into the life of his friend. The early part of the novel sets up the geographical landscape of Imperial Valley, California, where the two friends find themselves after stints in the British army, time in Hong Kong, and a brief experience in the logging industry in Oregon, for Ram.
Readers are gradually introduced to tumultuous events sweeping through the world, the growing farming community in the Imperial Valley consisting of Sikh and Japanese farmers, the restrictions to land ownership and citizenship rights, the inability for Sikh farmworkers to bring their families with them leading to the growth of bachelor communities, the growing racial hostility, and violence against Asians in the U.S, expressing itself in infamous incidents like Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried passengers who were British subjects from India and who were denied landing rights in Vancouver, Canada, which was also a British colony and were forced to return to India.
We also notice the growth of revolutionary politics with the rising influence of the Ghadhar Party, which consisted of expatriate Indians who raised funds to support armed anti-colonial resistance against the British, going so far as to support Germany during World War 1.
The emotional core of the novel resides in the compelling description of two forbidden love stories. Both Karak and Ram develop relationships with Mexican women who they meet in the farming community. In spite of the anti-miscegenation laws, religious and linguistic differences, Karak marries Rosa and starts a new family and life with her. Ram, on the other hand, is attracted to Rosa’s cousin Adela but feels torn by his loyalty to his wife, Padma, and the son born out of their brief union. Ram and Padma at the beginning of the novel are deeply in love with each other, but as vagaries of their lives and the cruel immigration laws unfold, their ties gradually attenuate.
The racist immigration system is rendered most visible in their harrowing separation. At a more public level, we see the passage of Alien Land laws that restrict land ownership by non-white races, forcing many farmers to become internal refugees looking for land in other states or underpaid employees of farming corporations. Even more poignant is the depiction of Sikh and Japanese soldiers joining the U.S. Army in the First World War, being lured to this task by the promise of citizenship. Yet, in spite of their service, they are denied recognition and dignity for their brave service. Reddi provides us glimpses of the losses faced in the trench warfare as well as the deadly attack of the Spanish influenza of 1918 which claims the life of Amarjeet’s best friend, the Japanese American Harry Moriyama.
The most brutal rendition of racism is offered in Reddi’s depiction of the sustained attempts by agricultural corporations to exploit the Sikh farmers, not having the right of land ownership, by cheating them of their harvests. This results in the climactic episode in the novel which leads to a murder, the near lynching of a Sikh man, and the long-term effects of this traumatic event in Ram’s ability to return to India.
Reddi’s novel is the product of sustained archival research. She has conducted interviews with descendants of Sikh Mexican families, as well as historical research on the harassment, racism, and violence that these early immigrants were subjected to. She seamlessly weaves historical characters and events in the rich tapestry of her novel. This novel dispels the monolithic model minority myth of South Asian Americans. It celebrates the working-class roots of early immigrants from India, the multiplicity of religions and faith traditions that these immigrants came from and united to fight against common injustices.
In addition, the novel highlights solidarities between various minority groups, not only the marriages between Mexicans and Sikhs, which is very different from the mostly endogamous marriage traditions of South Asian marriages but also the solidarities between Japanese Americans and Indian Americans. This is a novel that deserves serious scholarly attention and should be embraced by more courses in South Asian American literature and history. However, even though this novel is the product of intense scholarship, the research does not burden the writing. The novel flows effortlessly. It is deceptive in its elegance and simplicity and powerful in its empathetic portrayal of early South Asian Americans.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.