If anyone is surprised at the success of a book on South Asian immigrants on the East Coast, New Jersey, of all places, nobody is more astonished than the author herself. S. Mitra Kalita sought to tell the story of the other side of immigration from South Asia—not the doctors, engineers, and IT specialists, as much as those just trying to stay afloat while navigating what can often be an inscrutable American culture.
“My philosophy of journalism is that, on a very important level, you have got to care about your subjects—and I do; maybe that’s one of the reasons the book has been so well received!” This is not a hard-nosed sociological study of immigration, and to Kalita’s credit, that was never her intent: “This book was written in an attempt to educate Indians and educate myself about members of our community who are not part of the mainstream. The people who, in essence, are not ‘seen,’ but should be in order to give a more accurate picture of the community at-large.” This accurate picture includes the little-realized fact that up to a quarter of the Indian immigrant population, according to Kalita, is still below the poverty line, and that this unfortunate group is often mocked and scorned by other more successful members of their very own community. “Information needs to get out there,” Kalita says. This book is, indeed, a start.
Suburban Sahibs turns an observing eye toward three families who have chosen to settle in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Kalita details the harrowing day-to-day struggles of the Kotharis, Patels, and Sarmas. As the author explains in her introduction, she decided to turn her focus on these families during a one-year period beginning with Navaratri in October 2000 and ending with Election Day of 2001. “If there was ever a year to chronicle the lives of South Asians in America, this was it,” explains Kalita. “There was the presidential election of 2000 … an earthquake rocked Gujarat, killing thousands and moving many in New Jersey to mobilize relief efforts. It was the year when the country’s longest period of economic prosperity came to a grinding halt. The dot-com bubble burst, the stock market tanked, and the pink slips came home. Then the date that needs no explanation—Tuesday, September 11, 2001.” This background perfectly contextualizes the experiences and reactions of the families for the reader, creating a more holistic understanding of their struggles.
At the outset, Kalita sets up the dichotomy that has become almost second nature to immigrants of all stripes: keeping one foot here and one “there.” While celebrating their Indian festivals in an American setting has become second nature, indeed an imperative of cultural survival, it creates a perception of not being fully assimilated. One of the most interesting things about the treatment of the immigrants in this book is not only how America (Amrika to many immigrants) has changed these individuals, but also, how they themselves have come to shape the greater community. Many of the immigrants were initially seen as outsiders, and in fact some still are. Many have had to contend with more than just the icy stare of hostility—violence in many ugly forms from outright physical assaults to vandalism of family-owned businesses. But what consistently comes through in this book is a steely-eyed determination that brought these immigrants here to begin with, and a commitment, in the face of so much adversity, to plod on.
Of the three families featured, the Kotharis are clearly the most successful. They were part of the first major wave of Indian immigrants to arrive at American shores after the change of immigration laws in 1965. Their lives follow the usual trajectory of many Americans’: education, marriage, home, and children. Sanku and Lipi Sarma, originally of Bombay, were originally intimidated by the idea of going to America and making it their home, but eventually made the leap. We follow them as they figure out the maze of job advancement and adjustment, go from being upwardly mobile in India to keeping pace in America. The family of Harish Patel exemplifies the direst example of economic survival of Indian immigrants. The reader will feel the mounting desperation as the head of the household Harish attempts to make ends meet on minimum wage jobs and being the example he feels an Indian father should be for his daughters.
Kalita, a daughter of Assamese immigrants, is passionate in her desire to “get the story out” and draw attention to the plight of the new Indian-Americans. She sighs and says, “We have such a long way to go, and I realize this is a small start, but I feel as though the community is hungry for stories like this. My hope all along is that what I’ve observed and put down on the page will resonate with people. What I’ve shown here is a picture of the way things are, warts and all.”
While one would imagine that the professional distance the author must have had to keep from her subjects would give the book a more clinical tone, exactly the opposite is true. “I really tried to keep emotion in my observations, tried to let it come through that these were people that I really did, in the final estimation, care about. While I was actually writing the book, I had very little contact with the families that I observed, but thought a lot about them—I still do, in fact.” And were her subjects interested in her, too? “Yes!” she laughs, “They were very interested in how Indian I felt!” When I ask her if she thinks she passed the test, she sighs softly and says, “I definitely think so.”
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.