Excerpt from Leaving India

Excerpt from Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

Minal Hajratwala

There are moments now when the wall, the one that grew up so strongly around me in childhood, seems to have dissolved entirely. Or I have absorbed it into myself; it is no longer made of brick, but of skin, and is perhaps no more than the boundary each of us has, our simple sense of self. It is a hard-won unity, not to live in compartmentalized fragments; easier sometimes to avoid explaining the rites and vocabu- laries of one tribe to the other. Yet the moments when I have felt truly integrated shine brighter than suns in my memory; I would not trade them for a princess’s ransom.

It was only when I began traveling among my relatives for this book that I came to understand how each life is a tangle of push and pull; how each migration opens up future directions; and how my own journey, which I had come to believe and been made to feel was so unusual as to be selfish and freakish, was in fact continuous with a long heritage of moving from the known to the unknown, from tradition into modernity, from village India into a cosmopolitan world. In my interviews I found not only success stories but also secret shames, sometimes one buried within the other: illegal border crossings, whisperings of second wives and concubines, stories of abuse and survival, turn-off-the-tape- recorder moments that I knew I could not retell but that I absorbed nonetheless. As I unveil a piece of the vast silence about sexuality in order to tell my own story, I know these other secrets are the context.

Shame is bone-deep, says my reiki-shiatsu healer, as her brown hands massage my muscles, tense from typing. I close my eyes, and an image arises: a grid of fishbones under my skin. Interconnected, sharp-edged, like the history of all of the women in my family, the bones are flexible and nearly translucent. I try to describe this new spine, its compelling, almost mathematical beauty.

My name means fish, I tell her. Where am I from? This is my body, this is where I live.

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