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The Rediff Interview/S Mitra Kalita
January 08, 2004
S Mitra Kalita says her first book Suburban Sahibs has a modest goal. It does not intend to tell the story of 1.7 million Indians in America. Instead, it studies how immigration has altered an American suburb, and how that suburb has altered the immigrants.
Kalita, an education reporter for The Washington Post, is the daughter of immigrants from India. In her book she focuses on three families and on why they left India, and how their American Dream has been working out.
The book, published by Rutgers University Press, is a study of Middlesex County in New Jersey, home to one of the largest group of Indians in America.
She notes how their mark on this region has been gradual but increasingly visible: auto-repair shops named after 'Deepa' and 'Singh,' a thriving commercial strip of sari stores and sweet shops, and valedictorians named Patel and Shah.
But, like other immigrants throughout American history, Indian immigrants too did not find it easy to be welcomed in the community. Kalita recounts the now familiar story of how Indian-American shopkeepers regularly contend with vandalism.
Two decades ago, not far away from Middlesex County, a gang of youth called Dotbusters had gone around beating and abusing South Asian immigrants.
Kalita -- a speaker at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event this weekend -- spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais recently.
Why should we read your book?
There are a lot of books examining the American experience in different stages of its history. This is a book that deals with Indian experience in a part of America after the 1960s. For Indian readers, the book would offer the kind of insights and stories many of them were not aware of. For the Americans, the book exposes them to stories they might not have heard at all. There is an element of discovery throughout the book.
How did this book start?
It started as a class project at Columbia University. It was required that we had to write a book proposal. But the book I ended up writing was quite different from the one I had in mind early on. I had no idea that I would be writing business stories for Newsday when I first thought of a book about Indian families in the suburbs. The book began to include a lot of business stories.
What was the working title?
I had called it Amrikan Dream (to sound it like someone saying it in Hindi), and I wanted it to be the title. But my editor thought people may mistake it for a typo.
Why did you think of that title?
Because the book is in a sense about the American Dream. Immigrants come here with a dream but not everyone has achieved it…
How did the new title come about?
I had attended a seminar on religious fundamentalism in India held in Flushing (in the New York borough of Queens) last year. Several friends had come over to my house later and when I mentioned I was looking for a title for my book, my friends started making suggestions. Thom Powers who makes documentary films suddenly said, How about Suburban Sahibs? I looked around the room, and everyone including [writer] Suketu Mehta and [journalist] Leela Jacinto were nodding. I thought if these people are convinced, I could sell the title to my editor.
Did you decide that day itself that it would be the title?
I loved the idea but I thought about it for a few hours. I looked up in the dictionary and found that the word 'sahib' had many connotations. I also wanted a title that did not have to be celebratory, and it did not have to be defamatory either. Sahib was widely used in colonial times. This was one connotation. It is used in the workplace in India today. Sahib is also a boss, and Pradip Kothari, one of the people in my book, is one. I also remembered when I was in India with my relatives in Assam and if I did something I am used to doing here, for instance used a knife or fork while dining, my cousins called me a sahib.
What do you expect readers to make out of the title?
I think it will intrigue some, and Indian readers will know various connotations of the word. But this title won't work for the Indian edition. The word 'suburban' won't mean anything to many people in India.
How is the book being edited for India?
When I wrote the book for American readers, I had to define many Indian terms and words like 'pao bhaji.' Now, I have to explain to the Indian readers words like 'convenience stores.'
How did you go about choosing the families depicted in the book?
I wanted families that had enough dramatic tension in their lives. Such tension was necessary to sustain the narrative.
You came close to the families you write about. Were you afraid at any time that they may not like everything you wrote about?
I was aware of that. But I also had an understanding with them that I would show them the manuscript. I wanted them to be on my side, and I did not want any factual errors in the book.
Did it work out well?
Yes. Some families helped me clarify a few things, correct a few mistakes. One man, a Hindu, whose daughter had married a Sikh, thought I was using the word 'elope' too many times to describe what had happened. I reduced the use of the word, then.
Did you feel at any time while you wrote that you might lose your distance?
I wrote much of the book away from the families, in my Queens home. I felt a distance then.
What are you thinking about for your next book?
There are several things I am tinkering with, but I am not sure at this moment.
Is it going to be a work of fiction?
No. It will be a non-fiction work like this book. I think I am going to write a book about Assam. How it used to be a prosperous state and suddenly after Independence because of the central government's ambivalent attitude towards it, things began to go badly.
How much do you know of Assam?
I was born in Brooklyn (another New York City borough) and I have lived in Puerto Rico. But I have been visiting my relatives and friends in Assam often. The book will tell the story of a people. How some people like my father left Assam (and India) because of the awful poverty and lack of opportunities. Some people took to arms and became insurgents. Many continued living under utter deprivation.
Why would someone, say, in Manhattan or Kansas, care about a book set in Assam?
Strip the people in my book of their names, it could be a story set in any Latin American country, or for that matter in any other country. It is going to be a story of the human condition.
How about a non-Indian book?
It is also on my mind. I mentioned earlier I had lived in Puerto Rico. I am very intrigued by what I saw and heard there.
Have you considered being a full-time writer?
There were fleeting temptations but I think of the health insurance and the regular paycheck. But there is also another reason. Though my book is reviewed by publications like The New York Times, I know it is going to have a limited impact. But when I write for The Washington Post I am reaching thousands of readers, and I am able to make a bigger impact.
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