Far and Wide

Minal Hajratwala set out to trace the Indian diaspora.

In the opening scene of Minal Hajratwala‘s one-woman show,
Avatars: Gods for a New Millennium — which was
commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for World AIDS
Day in 1999 — a young Indian-American woman identified only
as “M” announces: “I was born in America, but I was supposed to worship
the Hindu gods, with their fantastic stories and costumes.” Images of
Hindu gods “stood against the back wall of our suburban temple, lit
with floodlights, radiating a huge aura that said ‘Obey your parents.’
We made offerings of raisins and rock candy,” M remembers, but the
gods’ “marble skin was always cold, they never performed any miracles,
and when I put my hands together and gestured toward them, I just
wanted so much more.”

Ouch. Joining her onstage, god-of-destruction Shiva and his consort
Parvati assess M, predicting that she’ll have “beautiful babies” and
that they’ll “bless her wedding” after they “find her a doctor or an
engineer” to marry. But by the third act, M has transformed into “the
Goddess of Tough Love,” who tells her would-be acolytes: “If the world
ends, you’ll be having an orgasm — and so will I. … I’m not
Aphrodite, or Venus, little blonde goddess on the half-shell with tits
the size of teacups. Uh-uh.”

Stanford-grad queer-activist writer/performer Hajratwala plies the
lines between sex and spirituality, blood and society again in her book
Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five
, which she discusses at the Women of Color Resource
(1611 Telegraph Ave. #303, Oakland) on Tuesday, July 21. To
research the book, she spent years interviewing more than seventy of
her relatives in such far-flung locales as Hong Kong, Fiji, South
Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, where she spent some of her own
formative years.

“I grew up not knowing much about the diaspora at all,” Hajratwala
explains. Having moved back and forth across the Pacific as a child,
she thought little about “why all that migrating was happening” until,
she realized one day that her kinfolk lived in nine different
countries: “There are reasons that certain borders were open and closed
to Indians at different periods in history.”

About ten years ago, Harjatwala says she began “noticing how South
Asian-ness in the United States had shifted from this sort of obscure
nationality to … a megatrend.” This increased visibility of Indians
and Indian culture in America was a big change from the “very white
community in suburban Michigan” where she lived as a child: “When we
said we were Indian, people asked us, ‘What tribe?'”

The book took much longer to write than she had originally planned,
because although “I’d been a journalist for years and I had also been
writing poems for years … whenever I tried to write about my family
or the diaspora in those forms, I wasn’t satisfied. It turned out that
neither poetry nor journalism was quite big enough to hold my family
stories. I needed a narrative, almost epic form.” 12:30 p.m., free.

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