The search for one’s roots is an experience that is probably as all-American and sacrosanct as a pilgrimage to Disney World. Mira Kamdar, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, felt the urge to explore hers when she lost one of her primary anchors in her life, “Motiba”(Gujarati for “grandmother”). Motiba was marked with a series of tattoos on her face and nobody, it seemed, quite knew the reason for their existence. Born an American to an Indian father and a Danish-American mother, Kamdar exhibits a delightful blend of qualities — both “typically Indian” and, most often, “typically American.” In “typical American” fashion, she admits to a “typical Indian” quality — being afraid to ask questions of something no one ever talked about. Ultimately, Kamdar did decide to find out more about Motiba, if for no reason other than to give herself some closure about her grandmother’s death.
Understandably, an immigrant’s search for her past ultimately becomes a voyage of self-discovery. Motiba’s Tattoos is a brilliant chronicling of Kamdar’s past and her family’s history. The journey begins in Kathiawar, in the Kamdars’ homeland in the west of India. Motiba hailed from a small, remote village, Gokhlana, and Kamdar travels here with her father and her aunt to get a feel for the life that Motiba lived as a child. After all, places such as Gokhlana hardly ever change at all. This despite the “one portentous exception: the presence of a new television satellite receiver dish.” Motiba hailed from a rich family and was used to a luxurious life before marriage. Her marriage to “Bapuji” was a step down in material comfort for her. Despite this, she adjusted to a new harsher reality uncomplainingly and without resentment.
From Kathiawar, lures of riches and fortune took the Kamdars to Burma in an India that was still under British occupation. Here the Kamdars enjoyed a fairly luxurious lifestyle for a while, and business flourished. Unfortunately, Burma soon turned violent and the Kamdars returned to India having lost everything. Once in India, the Kamdars made the country’s “city of gold,” Bombay, their home. The flat in Juhu (a suburb of Bombay) the Kamdars moved into was the very same one where Motiba spent her last days. Financially insecure after the Burma debacle, the family relied for support on Kamdar Jr. — Prabhakar Kamdar, Mira’s father.
Coached in the American way of life by the endless viewing of Clifton Webb comedies, Prabhakar decided to emigrate to America, the ultimate “land of opportunity." “My father had just landed in postwar America,” Kamdar reminds us, “a place where the corner grocery store did not yet stock Garden burgers, yogurt, or tofu. Identities were clearly drawn, especially along racial lines.” It is in this America that Prabhakar “Pete” Kamdar made a living, met his American wife and brought up his “all-American” (sort of) family.
By this point in the narrative, Motiba is out of the picture for the most part. Yet the description of the Kamdar family’s assimilation into the “salad bowl” of America makes for fascinating reading. Mira’s look at her own family’s troubles along the way is a welcome take on the much-studied “immigrant identity crisis.” Kamdar’s voice is fresh because it is so appealingly honest and sincere. “In India, my Americanness was both an asset and a hanidcap,” she says. From all accounts, the reverse was true in America. Growing up as a child of mixed heritage was not easy, yet Kamdar seems to have gotten it all together amazingly well. It is Kamdar’s ability to perceive and empathize that often shines through in the book:
“As an American who is part Indian and who has lived in India at various times in my life, I am constantly shifting between points of view on myriad social matters, Kamdar explains, “I do and do not understand. I do and do not accept. I do and do not condemn. The hard economic realities of a society deeply divided by class and caste, into haves and have-nots, are evident and cold. Yet the human relationships across these divides are often genuinely warm, sometimes lasting entire lifetimes, even continuing over several generations.”
The author knows her family in future generations will discover new ways of being American. Despite this positive peek into the future, there is a level of wistfulness indicated by her bemoaning the adverse effects of globalization. The final chapter is tellingly named “Kaliyuga”, indicative of Hinduism’s last cosmically destructive phase. Motiba’s Tattoos is a brilliant achievement not simply for its telling of one family’s story. In tracing her family’s migration from the remotest of Indian villages to modern-day America, Kamdar has also chronicled the migration of much of the Indian diaspora. The Kamdar family story is the story of almost every Indian-American. On a broader scale, it is the story of every immigrant who comes from “someplace else.”
Motiba emerges in the end as a remarkably strong woman who made the best out of externally imposed societal limitations. She was a woman with power, even if it was exercised over a small circle. Above all she was a woman with grace who kept the family together with a wry sense of humor. Once, when asked if she would like to visit America with her husband, Bapuji, she remarked: “What, and bring my work with me!” It doesn’t take much here to see where Mira, the granddaughter, gets her spunk from. It must run in the genes.