Apr 1, 2007

I for India: On Lata, Leaving, Longing, and Losing Our History.

I recently had the very good fortune to see I for India - a family documentary that touches on the emmigrant experience of a particular family that settled in the U.K. If you can see this film, I highly recommend it. It's a very personal look through the eyes of the family itself, because they used the medium of film to keep in touch with the family they left behind in the United Kingdom. The loving arrangement of these fragments was made by the youngest of three daughters and interspersed with amusing and illuminating BBC and other clips, as well as present-day segments with the filmmaker's parents, the emigrants who straddled two worlds in their quest for a new life, and even tried to return to India.

I'm not going to go into the play-by-play on this one. Just check it out. However, there were a few scenes that really touched me. There's a scene that has the filmmaker's father in the present day, going through his morning routine (and at other times going through mundane, home-owner chores like property maintenance) with his headphones on. The filmmaker smartly takes us inside the 'phones, and gives us a blast of old school filmi music from the greats of Bollywood. I couldn't name the song, but I'd heard it countless times before while growing up, and as the images on the screen segued from a small town in the UK in the 21st Century to older 8mm film from India, I felt like I was traveling down the winding road of memories with him.

And it was at that point that I started to think about my parents, and by extension, many emigrants from India and Pakistan who left bright-eyed and ready to study or work in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I don't know a lot about their stories beyond the touchstones ($8 in my pocket, going to Chinese markets to get Indian vegetables) that we always take for granted. But I do think that there are some things that lie just beneath the surface about their big trip out here, into the unknown and away from their loved ones and the reassuring feeling of belonging just because you look like everyone else.

It's nothing like what immigrants to urban areas in the UK and the USA face now. Even though the earlier generation was well-educated and/or relatively affluent, I imagine that the predominantly bachelor population had a bit of a shock having to do many of the household activities for themselves. They didn't have the option of going out for food and conveniences from home that most H1-Bs take for granted now, and had to either cook, or adapt to the new environment (with many bringing a less than climactic end to the countless generations who preceded them without taking drink, cigarette, or meat).

Nor did they have the regular communication back home in the years predating low-cost and accessible internet (or even international long distance). Forget that, getting the news of back home was probably quite difficult in the UK and nearly impossible in the United States of the 50s and 60s. So they were on their own, and left to their own devices to survive, to make a home for themselves, and find some comfort in what was likely a cold place. Imagining that time, and thinking of how much was changing in the United States, especially with Kennedy's election, his assassination, the war in Viet Nam, and the growing importance of political protest in the culture of the time, I just wonder what it was like for that generation of people who came to the U.S. to study or to work. What was it like for folks who came from inherently conservative backgrounds to be in the United States at the time when it was arguably at it's most liberal? When revolution was actually something more than the rhetorical exercise its become in the States. Many of my friends speak of the 60s and even early 70s as the time they wish they were around, and active, because of how many things were coming up at that time, and how much (at least in our looking back at their history) it seems like people were actually engaged and willing to be more engaged. But it seems that many of us forget that we likely know folks who were here during all of it. Our parents, our uncles and aunties, a family who we've been in touch with through our many informal desi networks. But have we ever asked them of their impressions, when Watts and other urban centers were burning... when the 4 students were shot at Kent State... when Fred Hampton was killed by the FBI? Or do we fear that nothing beyond the big assassinations really registered?

Anyway, aside from the context in which they came, they were probably met with curiosity in the U.S. (or downright racism), and I can't even imagine the range of reactions in the UK where the scar from the colonial "umbilical cord" was still fresh. Still, as curiosities, they were probably spared the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric that bleeds into most mainstream media in the present day. But without their own media outlets, the earlier wave of desi immigrants missed out on more than just the news: they also missed out on music and the simple comfort of turning on the radio and hearing songs that would remind them of growing up, of their parents, of home. But for whatever reason, and in whatever way, their connection to that music is incredible. Songs that they haven't heard in decades come flooding back when happen upon them, and their memory of when they first heard the song, or when they first saw the movie, is often impeccable. Somehow, the ability to recall the year of release seems to be very prevalent with a particular generation, and it's not limited to just the men - the aunties can bring it too.

Perhaps their separation from their homes and the music that enveloped them through much of their formative years (whether consciously or not), and the shock of arrival created a more developed connection with that music. But is that explanation sufficient?

When I think of my family members and uncles and aunties I know from India, and their depth of recognition of popular songs from Hindi films, and the emotional ties they have to that music rivals anything I know from my friends or myself. The music and love of the songs from that particular time (40s, 50s, 60s) is not a casual exercise for many of these folks, even though they did not own much of the music while growing up. It was radio, maybe more than the movies themselves, that soldered the songs to their memories, creating a link that has stayed with them through the great journey over the ocean and into America.

And the amount of music that they know off the top of their heads, and the connection between those songs, their memories, and who they are is astounding. For a long time, as an American/British popular music enthusiast, I scoffed at the relative paucity of music in India that was independent of the film industry. The link between the movies and the music, though, is making more sense to me, especially in the context of immigrants who are removed from the lives and worlds that they remember. While folks listen to songs/music many times, especially when linked to their emotions or memories, there's something more profound about the way that songs from Indian films end up having both a very personal connection for our folks, and also a visual element because of the films in which they were housed. It's difficult to separate the soaring duets by the famous singers from the actors/actresses who were likely in mind when the songs were conceived for the films in which they appeared. Take the interplay between emotional weight of the song from within the film, and then the emotional pull of that song within the listener's own life, and suddenly, you have emotional content that's far more potent than most pop music in other contexts. I guess the best analogue we may have is musical theater in the United States, for the folks who have the privilege of seeing really good shows and being affected by them - Rent is the obvious choice for me, but I have similar feelings for songs from Les Miserables, Sunday in the Park with George, and a few others. It's the combined effect of the music, the lyrics, the delivery, and the context. And getting context beyond the song itself is helpful to bond your emotions to those songs.

I remember going through my Dad's records while growing up, and just passing right by all the desi records to get to a Muppets 45 that we had, or later on, to discover the copy of Abbey Road that he'd bought, which now hangs on my sister's apartment wall. But I went back home recently and dug out the records that Mom had stored carefully, even though we hadn't had a working record player in the house for well over 15 years. I was amazed at what was there - more than just for the retro-cool of having Bollywood paraphernalia that didn't reek of the new schmalzy palette of the 21st Century, but because these records represented, for folks who were pretty modest in what they bought and kept, some kind of connection to home, to belonging, and perhaps even to their childhoods and adolescent years. I was suddenly filled with more regret that I didn't take the chance to go through these records and garner some of their stories when I had the chance.

Maybe some of the 45s actually came with my Dad from India when he first came here in the early sixties to study, though given how little money he had, that's pretty unlikely. Maybe they came with his brother, who he sponsored in the early seventies. Some of the 45s are in thin plastic sleeves that have a record store's name printed on them - a store from Bombay. Maybe some of the records were part of some prized collection that he took care of when he studied in Bombay. But that's incredibly unlikely as well, because he wouldn't have had a record player in India.

But sadly, the possibilities of where these records were from, and how they fit into the puzzle of my father's life in India and in the United States are not comforting to me. They are pieces of a relationship that I didn't put together quickly enough, when the time was in front of me. And I don't want to create fiction about something that is so hardwired into who I am. I want to collect and understand where these things fit in the past. I want to recreate what really happened. I want to see my father eye-to-eye through the few things that he left behind of who he was.

Ignoring our own histories in the effort to emphasize the injustices felt by newer economic migrants doesn't really help them. It just makes the middle class activist more likely to ignore stories of early immigration, acculturation, and resistance that don't fit the mold of "the most oppressed" group within the community or direct action or organizing. The motives for their resistance to discrimination and misunderstanding may not comport cleanly with our goals for critical analysis and desire for a break from the capitalism that brought them here to begin with. Their "making it" (economic assimilation, if not cultural) after initial difficulties may seem to argue against the whole project of discussing their history to begin with.

But denying their history or its personal import makes us somewhat rootless. Rootless in way that is unlike those people in poor communities with whom we want so much to identify, to work with and on behalf of (for non-organizers). We deny these stories from within our own families because we perceive that the minor injustices and difficulties that we think our parents faced register as less immediate, less pressing than what people are dealing with now. But I'd argue that we need to ask these questions. We need to document these stories, if not for some larger movement, then at least for our personal histories and to pay the proper tribute to our parents who made it through cultural upheaval in a way that few of us will ever experience. So even when we're talking about middle class privilege, and while we keep their experiences within the broader context of the different waves of immigration and the difficulty that poor and uneducated immigrants have in this American society, we should keep in mind that the stories of our parents are still interesting, affecting, and part of the mosaic of our communities in this country.

And I think that more than anything, I for India really recognized this, without overemphasizing their struggle in the UK or anything else. It was clearly a labor of love to her parents, and it made me think of how much time I've lost without asking some of these questions. Some of which I will never get to ask.

No comments: