Author: Mira Kamdar
Publisher: Public Affairs/Prakash
ISBN/UPC (if available): 1-891620-58-4
When Motiba Died a whole world disappeared with her, Motiba-grandmother in Gujarati-was marked with mysterious signs from a lost era-geo-metric tattoos on her face and forearms. What did these symbols mean? When had they been etched? Why?
Haunted by the riddle of Motiba’s tattoos, Mira Kamdar begins a journey down the hazy, twisting corridors of the past. The deeper she delves, the more she realizes that her family’s story is part of a much larger saga. It is one version of the great story of the twentieth century-the story of leaving home, of severing roots, of losing one’s tribe, the story of abandoning a rural life firmly anchored in traditions and rituals for the tantalizing prospects of urban existence in an increasingly global consumer culture.
Kamdar’s journey begins in Motiba’s birthplace, the tiny village of Gokhlana in Kathiawar, India. From Gokhlana, she follows her family as it emigrates from the feudal, rural India of 1900 to the bustling streets of Rangoon in the 1920s and 1930s. The family joins the thriving Gujarati merchant community in Burma, and quickly prospers. But their Burmese idyll is shattered when the Japanese bomb Rangoon in December 1941. After a harrowing flight out of war-torn Burma, the family returns only to be stripped of their riches and expelled by the Burmese dictatorship in the early 1960s.
They start afresh in Bombay. It is there, in Bombay’s sumptuous Art Deco movie houses, that the children discover America. Seduced by Hollywood’s fantastic portrayal of post-war American life, Kamdar’s nineteen-year old father sets off for the United States. We witness his travails as a lonely Indian immigrant in the 1950s, and see how his children and grandchildren grapple with a multi-ethnic identity in the late twentieth century.
With rich, vivid details of her relatives many fascinating lives, Kamdar deftly evokes the moods and atmospheres of lost times and places. She retraces pivotal historical moments-satyagraha and India’s independence movement, World War II, the brain drain years of a triumphant American military-industrial complex, the borderless, dot.com world of the Indian diaspora today-but never strays from the intimate experiences of her remarkable family.
The history of the Gujarati diaspora is one of the great unwritten narratives of pre-modern globalization. In Motiba’s Tattoos Mira Kamdar gives us a loving and poignant account of a twentieth-century version of this story. This finely written, well-researched memoir is not just an important first step towards the telling of this story-it is also a very good read.
-Mamitav Ghosh, author of The Calcutta Chromosme and Shadow Lines
There was an unexpected bonus for me in putting myself in Ms Kamdar’s capable hands and following the peregrinations of Motiba and her family-I came to a clearer understanding of the larger Indian Diaspora and the political forces of the twentieth century. Motiba’s Tattoos is colorful, poignant, humorous and beautifully-told.
-Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner and My Own Country