Manjuben Part 2 – The Migration of My People

(Spoiler Alert – Please read part 1 in order to enjoy the story as it unfolds.   The link: Manjuben Part 1)

We left Manjuben’s tale dangling on the phone with a husband as mysterious as she.  After the conversation, I tried to picture scenarios where she would find an African-American husband, but none came to mind.  From the blank in my brain, an axiom emerged – acknowledging false assumptions opens the mind, but doesn’t necessarily fill it with new thoughts.  Dante may know he’s lost in the woods, but Virgil is still needed to guide him out.

Morning brought Rodney and Manjuben to my door.  Rodney was the same shade of brown as both of us.  I politely scanned his facial features for clues.  Did he have typical desi eyes or nose?  Is he Indian-American but only speaks English, or maybe he’s from the South and doesn’t speak Gujarati?    My speculations were denied with one act – before parting, Rodney furtively leaned in and kissed her goodbye in front of me!  Manjuben accepted, looked at me, and looked away.  Rodney = pardesi for sure.  Well, I didn’t have to worry about judgments coming from her corner.  She had enough racy scandal for both of us.

We started with 5 pounds of carrots.  There was washing, peeling and shredding, before I added ghee, milk, sugar, almonds, cardamom and saffron, as the humble orange root boiled into carrot halwa.  Perfunctory inquires about kitchen utensils and the location of the loo over, we settled into the ease of repetitive chores while I turned to politely pointed questions about my mystifying sous-chef.

Geography provided a neutral opening.

“Manjuben, where in Gujarat are you from?  My parents are from small villages outside of Surat.”

“Geetaben, I’m not Gujarati.  I speak Gujarati, and lived there, but my family is actually from Sindh and I grew up in Mombasa.”

With one response, my nosy interest in her married life turned to the migratory patterns of my people over the past century.   First, the bare facts in her words:

“My family is Hindu and lived in Sindh.  During Partition, my grandfather fled to Mombasa for fear of Muslim attacks.   The crossing to India was so dangerous that he decided taking a ship to Kenya was safer.  We left everything behind.  Then in the 70s Idi Amin was threatening to kill all Indians in Uganda.  Similar talk started in Kenya, so my father moved us to Gujarat where we had relatives who settled there from Sindh after Partition.  My husband and I married young, and we had a son.   After sometime, we moved to North Carolina where I lived for 10 years.  We have been following Guru Ramji.  My husband passed away a few years back, and I was alone and working.  A friend suggested I meet someone in our samaj who is also a follower.  Though he is half black, half white, Rodney follows Guruji more than I do.  He’s also completely vegetarian, and wakes up at 4 am everyday to do meditation.”

The timeline presented, whatever does it all mean?  For those of you unfamiliar with the chronicles of the Indian diaspora, we’ll need a map and some history books. Let’s peel the onion, layer by teary layer.

From the blank in my brain, an axiom emerged – acknowledging false assumptions opens the mind, but doesn’t necessarily fill it with new thoughts.  Dante may know he’s lost in the woods, but Virgil is still needed to guide him out.

1.  Partition – The independence of India from British rule in 1947 came with the creation of Pakistan.  The migration and subsequent slaughter of almost one million Muslims and Hindus is called Partition.  It was the largest migration of people in history.  The ongoing battle over Kashmir has its origins in 1947 as well.

2.  In 1972, Uganda’s dicator Idi Amin began a campaign to rid the country of all claiming Indian descent.  Thousands were airlifted in the middle of the night to Canada and the UK for fear of rape and beheading.  The anti-Indian sentiment was spreading to other countries in East Africa and many who had settled in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa decided to leave for the West or return to India, and particularly to Gujarat.

3.  In the late 1960s American immigration policy toward India dramatically shifted.  With a shortage of doctors and engineers, skilled India workers were invited to the US and given immediate green card status.  Those immigrants in turn quickly became citizens, usually in 5-7 years, and were allowed to invite family members to immigrate as well.  This is the story of my parents.

But today’s story was about Rodney.  So let’s return.  In coming weeks, I will share more about Partition, Africa, Hindu-Muslim hatred and the Indian brain-drain to the West.

It seems for Manjuben that death had created an opening, which began for Rodney as an entering.  I don’t know what life events brought a mixed race American man to follow a Hindu guru.  But what appeared incongruous to me the night before quickly aligned to the tenants of two people’s core belief and practices.  Believing is one thing, but life is about the daily acts that express our ideas.  Their religious faith meant they acted the same – meditation, vegetarian meals, socio-economic parity.   As she shared more about her daily life and duties to her husband, many of my assumptions proved spot on.  She felt the same sense of duty toward her husband as any woman in my family.  She cooked the food she knew, minus the burning heat, and he happily ate it.  He liked his tea at 6 pm sharp when he walked in the door.  She was sure to have it ready for him.

Believing is one thing, but life is about the daily acts that express our ideas.

They both had grown children, and somehow their life seemed to work pleasantly.  More so than my single existence.  She does suffer from diabetes and showed off her encyclopedic knowledge of prices and shops.  She advised me on where to buy carrots and bell peppers, and gently suggested a new way to wash cilantro and ferment dhokla.  Manjuben had a Bollywood story, but her essential nature was still like millions of Indian women.

And for all the virtual voyages she took to describe her origins, it took her all of 20 minutes in my kitchen to ask about my marital status.  Familiar indeed.


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