Book Reviews

Immigrant Experiences

Manju Kapur is the most talked and appreciated current Indian English woman novelist. She is the author of four acclaimed novels, Difficult Daughters, A Married Woman, Home and The Immigrant. Difficult Daughters won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize [Eurasia] in 1998 and Home was shortlisted for the Hutch Crossword Book Award in 2006.

Immigrant psyche shows the interaction of traditional culture within the culture of an adopted alien land and bring about a transformation in the inherited tradition and culture of the immigrant.

The immigrant experience is a composite one made up of collectivities, multiple journeys, stillpoints and border crossings. Experiences are shaped by economic positions, personal skills and political relationships between country of origin and of adoption.

Migration that leads to separation may be seen as rebirth, rebirth in a new place, city, country marked by a new culture, different flora and fauna, new adjustments and so on. But even if  'Migration is reincarnation', it takes the memory back to the earlier birth even as the migrants have to 'build a new world only to die in hope and dread'. The consequences of the separation is that the migrant infuses Indian cognition in all beautiful things, that is, he makes sense of all the pleasant experiences in terms of Indian structures. He finds them everywhere. The welcome baggage of Indian reality that he carries with him as migrant enable him to interpret and recognize contemporary alien experience. This is the experience he makes sense of through Indian structures. If he sees ocean, he compares it with Indian ocean. Apart from this intrinsic cognitive belonging, there is also a good deal of similiarity search and naming to establish affinity.

In this Manju Kapur's novel Ananda experiences such immigrant experiences. He was practicing as a dentist in Dehradun and he never thought that he will leave India. Although his uncle was practicing in Canada but he had no clue about his future. Because,

'From the moment of his birth Ananda had been surrounded by the ritual of his caste. Before he left home, his parents did their best to reinforce the practices of a lifetime. He was a Brahmin, his body must never be polluted by dead flesh. Low caste boys in the college hostel might try and tempt him towards non–veg, cigarettes and alcohol. Should he deviate from the pure habits they had instilled in him, his mother's heart would break [p.14][1]

Ananda's parents died in one accident and after that his mother's brother forced him to come Canada because he has settled in Halifax for past twenty years. In India he will not be able to recover from this loss. In Canada he can make a fresh start because this country is full of opportunities. Ananda's sister came from Agra to see him off ; 'Remember if you don't like it , you can always come back'.[p.18][2]

Ananda landed in Halifax on the15th of August, his country's day of independence. His uncle received him and asked from him,

'Why do you think that there is such a brain drain in India? he demanded. India does not value its minds – unlike here. Otherwise you think we are not patriots? But there even the simple task of daily life can bleed you dry"[p.18][3]

As Ananda walked in Canada he find empty spaces and he stated thinking and comparing this with India.

'Where are the people?' he asked,
'They will come –once we enter the city. But don't expect many - the whole country has barely 20 million – and Halifax only 80,000'.
Now 80001.

Ananda was used to the hustle bustle and crowd of India but there he was finding no crowd in Canada  so he was feeling strange.

'Where are the people?' repeated Ananda.

'Always the first thing to strike our countrymen', laughed the uncle. 'You'll get used to it'. [p.19][4]

During the breakfast his uncle and his wife Nancy taught him the manners prevalent there. Ananda again started feeling the home sickness. He was served Indian food but he pretended to like the western. There in the house of his uncle he has to make the bed. He explained to his cousin Lenny,

'In India we had a maid who did all this, I mainly studied', explained Ananda in turn [p.21][5]

Ananda's uncle submitted his application to the Dean of Admissions at the Dental School. He promised him to give 100 dollars a month but Ananda had the Indianness within him to repay this debt.

'I will pay you back uncle', he murmured. You had to learn fast in the West, it was sink or swim, and Ananda was trying out his strokes. [p.24][6]

Everytime his uncle Dr. Sharma encouraged him to relish there in Canada but this immigrant psyche couldn't be left behind. Does he then suffer from a nostalgia? The answer to that is 'No' and this is significant. Nostalgia implies a deep sense of loss and certain irreversibility - but here there is no loss, as things that are 'lost' he experiences all around him.Vijay Mishra talks about the belonging which is very deep rooted, very strong, ingrained so much so that the transplantation cannot dither it. This is significant because it is founded in a breadth of vision and helps him empathise with local life and conditions in the country of migration.

Dr. Sharma forced Ananda to become a cosmopolitan,

'Look at me', Dr Sharma often said, pretending Ananda had a choice of where to place his gaze. 'Look at me. I am a citizen of the world'. In other words, every summer they went to Europe. In Rome, Florence, Paris, Venice, London, Amsterdem, Munich, in art galleries, theatres, and museums he exposed his family to the finest artefacts of western civilization. [p.26][7]

Ananda couldn't feel the fervour and frenzy during such festivals like Holi and Diwali.

'Ananda would have preferred not to know when Diwali and Holi fell. With his parents he had eaten special foods on fast days, prayed with them before the gods on Janamashtami, Dussehra, Diwali, Ram Navami, Holi and hundred other smaller occasions. There way no way he could replicate any ceremony on his own, he preferred complete rejection. [p.27][8]

Ananda was wondering that his uncle was participating in Diwali with his children and he saw small images of Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Hanuman on a raised dais. Dr. Sharma explained to him all about this,

'Twenty years ago there was no India club. I am one of the founding members. I realized that if I forgot everything of mine, then who was I? When the children came, it became even more important to keep in touch.' [p.28][9]

Ananda performed well in the dental college and he broke all the taboos. He drank alcohol in the college. Now Ananda was feeling that he was changing.

'My uncle eats everything –including beef'!

'Ah yes, Dr. Sharma has been here a long time, hasn't he?

'Twenty two years, but he began with the meat when he was a student in India.'

'Andy here is a late starter. But soon you will be asking for steak', Gary rallied.

'Cows are sacred in India, Gary. You must not make fun of a person 's beliefs', said Mrs Geller.

'I am aware of that Mum - I havn't traveled in India for nothing – but Andy knows what I mean. When in Rome do as Romans do.

Ananda carried Gary's joke further to show how well he could take the spirit of what they were saying, 'The cows there are sacred, but may be I will commit no sin if I eat the cows here. Let's see how long it takes me', he remarked and they laughed to encourage him in steps he took to be Canadian [p.33-34][10]

In this way Ananda was leaving the reminiscences of India quite behind and he was entering in the new world after getting his degree. He has new jobs, new appointments and new duties. He also started thinking about his marriage but if he marries a local girl, would he be able to adjust himself?

'If Ananda marries a local girl , he would find himself in a difficult situation. When one come to a new country, one has to come wholeheartedly otherwise one could be very miserable'. He wasn't telling Ananda what to do, all he was saying was that the boy should think about it'. [p.36][11]

In Canada a wife was to support his husband and she demanded equality but in turn they also shouldered many responsibilities. Dr. Sharma's wife had a special empathy for young Indian immigrants facing his own initial difficulties. Ananda was brooding about this that to marry a white woman would be like marrying the country with your whole body. He was also wondering whether being Hindu would be a deterrent to a church wedding. Ananda's sister searched and engaged an Indian girl named Nina for him. The exchange of letters starts between them but Nina was not able to decide to migrate from  India,

'Canada seems like a nice place,' Nina remarked after two months had passed.

'Many people go abroad for a better life'.

'You had the best of both worlds Ma. Living abroad, without having to leave home for ever.'

'What is there in this country now? Nothing. You know that as well as I do.'[p.62][12]

Ananda and Nina got married and migrated to Canada but Nina had still had reminiscences of Indian lifestyle and meals. She has took special pickle which her mother gave to her and which she secretely carried to 10,000 miles. Nina thinks that Indians become immigrants slowely because they are not among those who have fled persecution, destitution, famine, slavery and death threats. She further explains,

'These immigrants are always in two minds. Outwardly they adjust well. Educated and English speaking, they allow misleading assumptions about a heart that is divided.In the new country they work lengthy hours to gain entrance into the system, into society, into establishing a healthy bank account.' [p.123][13]

Immigrant psyche has very deep effect on Nina as a wife because she cries and feels homesick when she is alone.She has started passing her time in reading books.

'It has been a month, and she was keen to set down roots that would make her feel more at home. In India these relatives had seemed peripheral, more tourist  than family. Now her perception has changed. She wanted to be close to them'. [p.132][14]

The novelist has very beautifully fused the Indian political scenario of 1975 to 1977 in this novel as a background. This scenario is the most talked matter for the Indians living in Canada. Nina even was finding difficulty in arranging her Indian clothes in Canada. The novelist has very beautifully described this situation thus,

'As immigrants fly across the oceans they shed their old clothing, because clothes maketh the man, and new ones help ease the transition. Men's clothing has less international variation, the change is not so drastic. But women who are used to wearing western clothes find themselves in a dilemma' [p.152][15]

In Canada Ananda was busy in his job but for Nina it was very difficult to pass her time. Although she has been a teacher in Delhi University but she would not be able to get a job there because she was not qualified. She passes her time by hearing the report on Kumbh Mela in India which happens after twelve years.

'The words reverberated through Nina, though she was as much a stranger to the Kumbh Mela as anyone in Canada. Educated, secular and westernized, she had never had anything to do with ritual Hinduism'. [p.175][16]

Ananda also enjoyed this description even hearing from Nina. Ananda was surrounded in his memory when he attended Kumbh mela with his mother and father.

'But he remembered something. Getting up when it was still dark, shivering on the river bank, the sound of counch shells, his father carrying him as he waded into the freezing water, his mother holding his sister's hand, people, people all around in the growing pale of morning. [p.176][17]

Nina felt the same vein of feverish memory about her father and mother.

'Yearning for home did strange things to the mind. Even though she despised cheap nostalgia, the way she has reacted to the Kumbh Mela was proof that living in a different country you became a different person'. [p.177][18]

Although Nina was enjoying her life in Canada. She was thinking that she is away from rows of jhugggis in the nalla near her house, without sanitation, water or toilet facilities in India. She started remembering how she has to go to the bus stop and she has to lift her sari. She was thinking if those poor persons are migrated to Canada they can live there peacefully because of open spaces. The novelist has described immigrant psyche not only through the eyes of Ananda and Nina but through the interest of Mandy, with whom Ananda has extra marital relations.

'She wasn't even curious, she had never said, like so many people did, that India was a place she had always wanted to visit. Occasionally she realized she thought people lived in trees among tigers roaming the jungle, these impressions he never bothered to correct. [p.283][19]

Nina was not satisfied with her married and she had extra marital affair with Anton. At this stage she started thinking about India where husbands were not expected to meet one's entire needs and there was no force on man—woman relationship –love—fulfilment. For an immigrant, it is very difficult to balance between two cultures and he or she keeps swinging like a pendulum from one culture to another from home country to immigrant country.

Satendra Nandan puts it in his essay on The Politics of Dispossession and Exile:

'What then is writer's enigma of survival? Initially, it is an outrage of more horrendous fates of people elsewhere. One is dislocated from one world, but is connected to so many others. Suddenly they become closer to one's own. The writer then tries to find new ways of being human, new ways of redefining his humanity, new ways of recognizing his inseparable humanity with others'. [20]

This is indeed, remaining rooted and defeating the challenges of displacement.

Manju Kapur completes this novel with this Nina's statement.,

'Perhaps that was the ultimate immigrant experience .Not that any one thing was steady enough to attach yourself to for the rest of your life, but that you found different ways to belong, ways not necessarily lasting, but ones that made your journey less lonely for a while.When something failed it was a signal to move on. For an immigrant there was no going back.  ... When one was reinventing oneself, anywhere could be home. Pull up your shallow roots and move. Find a new place, new friends, a new family. It had been possible once, it would be possible again'. [p.334][21]

1-Manju Kapur—Immigrant, Random House India, New Delhi, 2008 p.14
2-ibid p.18
3-ibid p.18
4-ibid p.19
5-ibid p.21
6-ibid p.24
7-ibid p.26
8-ibid p.27
9-ibid p.28
10 ibid p.33-34
11 ibid p.36
12 ibid p.62
13 ibid p.123
14 ibid p.132
15 ibid p.152
16 ibid p.175
17 ibid p. 176
18 ibid p.177
19 ibid p.283
20 Satendra Nandan -'The Politics of Dispossession' in Fiji : Paradise in Pieces [Ed.] Vijay Mishra, ANU, Australia : Pacific Indian Publications, 2000 p.57
21 Manju Kapur—Immigrant, Random House India, New Delhi, 2008 p.334   


More by :  Prof. Dr. Ram Sharma

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