Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: Suburban Sahibs by S. Mitra Kalita

In relating the journey, trials and tribulations of three immigrant families from the heart of India to Edison, New Jersey, the author of "Suburban Sahibs", S. Mitra Kalita, pays tribute to the immigrant and their dogged pursuit of the American dream.

Personally, I can't think of anything harder than having to leave your home, family and all things known and familiar and to try to make your home in a distant land where everything is so...well... foreign. Immigrants as a whole must possess a genetic make-up that hungers for new challenges and adventure. Infact, I think there have been studies to show that populations with a higher degrees of immigrants ( eg. USA) tend to have more entrepreneurial and creative zeal, with their citizens generally displaying an unflappable optimisitc streak and high energy drives. When seen in medical terms, this condition can be termed as hypomania which is the 'high or creative' part of the bipolar disorder. Conversely,the nation with the lowest number of immigrants, eg. Japan, tend to have the least bipolar populations. If this study interests you, you might want to check this article out.

Anyhow, I digress----back to the book at hand.

S. Mitra Kalita follows the lives of three Indian families: The Patels, Sarmas and the Kotharis for one year (2000-2001). Each family can be pegged at different levels on the socio-economic scale, but no matter the level, they all have the same desires and dreams: to succeed and to be the best they can be even if it requires immense sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice might involve taking up a job for less than the minimum wage even though they were at the managerial level in their own countries. For others, it might involve sharing a one-bedroom apartment with 2 or 3 other families, and for the very unfortunate it could mean years of forced bachelorhood in America until you could save enough money to bring your family over.

Well, back to the three families:

The Kotharis were among the first wave of emigrants to arrive in New Jersey in the '70's and like their compatriots who arrived with them, they were financially secure and well educated. But because they had the dubious distinction of being the first successful and visible Indian immigrants, they were racially discriminated against and had to put up with the notorious "Dot Busters", a New Jersey gang who identified Indian women by the dot on their foreheads and harassed them. Prakash Kothari our first protagonist, is a born leader and he wastes no time becoming an influencial memeber of the Indian community. After having established a successful business he now wants to join politics because it is his belief that India is not well represented in the US government.

The name Patel is now synonymous with Motels or Inns because members of the Patel clan arrived in the US from Uganda (where they were forcibly removed after Idi Amin took over) and many of them bought motels to make a living. Most of them are very successful hoteliers now, but Harish Patel, the protagonist in "Suburban Sahibs", and also a part of the second and neglected wave of immigrants from the '80's (the extended family of the first wave) is struggling to stay afloat on a minimum wage. He longs so much to get a white-collar job in clerical, book-keeping or accounting positions, but he is constantly told that he is 'hard to understand' or has 'too heavy an accent'.

The third family, the Sarmas, arrived in the US on H1-B visas at a time (mid. '90's) when skilled technical labor was in high demand. For them there were jobs for the asking and more luxuries and privileges than their home country could give them, however, being on H1-B visas they were inextricably tied to the fortunes of the company they were working for---getting fired or quitting meant immediate deportation. Their temporary status makes planning for their future a Herculian task for the Sarmas.

In chronicling the story of these three immigrant families, Mitra (pictured right with her husband) not only shows us how coming to the US changes Indian families, but also, how the suburbs in America change to accomodate these immigrants.

From the book:

Middlesex County, New Jersey, is home to one of the largest Indian populations in the world outside India. Their mark on the region has been gradual but increasingly visible: auto-repair outlets named after "Deepa" and "Singh," a thriving commercial strip of sari stores and sweet shops, and valedictorians named Patel and Shah. The reception from long-time residents has not been entirely welcoming—Indian American shopkeepers regularly contend with vandalism. Yet, as Indians achieve economic success, their desire for political and social parity grows stronger and their acceptance in the U.S. is less of a question and more of a reality..."