An Immigrant’s Tale

Natwar Gandhi

There is yet another reason why I write this memoirs.  The story I write here is that of an immigrant who migrated from India empty handed when he was twenty-five and lived better part of life in the U. S., the country of his dreams where his dreams came true. Yet, millions of immigrants stream into the country.  After all, the country is made of immigrants and their descendents.  So what is so special about my story as an immigrant?  More than a story, this memoirs is my tribute to America.

In this winter of American discontent of 2016, when a presidential candidate rode into the White House based upon his anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is rather quaint thing to say this is still the Promised Land for immigrants like me. In singing America’s glory, I am not ignoring what is bad and ugly here--crime, drugs, social promiscuity, the homelessness, racial discrimination, and its special interest driven toxic politics. And, yes I too feel the sting of discrimination--crank calls from crazies asking me to go back home. But where would I go? This is home now!

As I write this in June of 2017, what was just an occasional crank call for me, “go back to your country,” has turned into two shootings of Indians, one fatal by apparent strangers. All of sudden a climate of fear has spread across immigrant communities, particularly among South Asians who have made this country their home.  There was a recent report that catalogued  “incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities” from late December 2015 through Nov. 15, 2016, one week after the presidential election.1 That represented a 34 percent increase in incidents in less than a third of the period since 2014. As the young widow of a computer engineer who was gunned down in a Kansas bar said on her Facebook page: “Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?”2

There are larger issues that also bother me about contemporary America.  Above all, the disintegration of American family. Family is a stabilizing force in any society.  The gradual disintegration of American family over last half century has been relentless and profoundly worrying. This has a lot do with extreme emphasis on individual liberty, lax social mores, sexual promiscuity, and casual attitude towards marital obligations, particularly children. What Senator Moynihan prophetically warned about black families in 1965 might now be applied to all American families, including, white.3 He reported that out of wedlock births among black were about 24 percent, today that rate is around seventy percent.  “In 2015, nearly a third of all children (31 percent) were being raised by single parents or no parent at all, up from 15 percent in 1970. Over the same period, births to single mothers jumped from 11 percent of all births to 40 percent.”4 The recent book Hillbilly Elegy narrates this issue with great alarm.5 Despite all the issue with traditional families such as the one in which I was raised in India, a child is assured of family stability which is critical for early childhood development. Immigrants like me bring with us that social capital of family stability that has saved us so far from the ravages resulting from volatility of contemporary American family. Extraordinary success of the second and third generation Indian Americans might be attributed to this family stability.

This emphasis on family as a basis of good society is at variance from what the British anthropologist Edmund Leach argued in his Reith Lectures. He concluded that, "Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents."6  I have lived for many years in an Indian extended family and would not prefer to live there again. Yet, the kind of assurance a stable family gives to a growing child should not be underestimated. In a traditional Indian family, when a child comes home from school in the evening, he or she never has to face the problem of a missing parent because parents divorced.

I must admit that I am also disillusioned by the special interest driven descent of American politics into a quagmire that has immobilized not only Washington but also state governments. I had always credited American people with pragmatism, but of late, I have doubts. I hope this is temporary and that America will get back its mojo again.  Further, as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once pointed out America gets into a kind of collective lunacy every thirty years or so and gets into an unnecessary war--Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.  It is almost an American affliction, but because the destructiveness of American power, its consequences are catastrophic for a people that are at the receiving end of the lunacy. If my first book of poems, America, America, was a celebration of my adopted country, the latest book of poems, Pennsylvania Avenue was a scathing indictment.7

Yet, despite all its ills, I do not see America as a tragic country, as it is fashionable to say among some select intellectual circles.8  On the country, I see it as a triumphant nation that has provided an unprecedentedly high standard of living and freedom of expression to the majority of its heterogenous people.  No other country has done it on such vast American scale.  It has made good life possible even for the common man.  It gives him a chance to make something of his life by liberating him from the crushing burden of poverty plaguing most of the world. Any country that can do it within mere two hundred years of its formation should not be called tragic.

I still say that if you know what you want do with your life then America is still the place to come. Here in America you get your chance to make your mark in life.  Here at last, what matters is what you know and what you can do.  Its generous people still open their hearts and doors for immigrants like me and let them pursue their dreams and remake their lives.  As long as that spirit is alive and well, America will remain great, Trump or No Trump! No demagogue can detract America from its manifest destiny and no terrorist can make it lose its bearing.  For an immigrant like me it is baffling to hear some of its opportunistic politicians bad mouthing America. 

Most Americans take their country for granted.  I don’t.  I know better.  I am from the old world, where they still see America as the Promised Land, and keep their eyes on that prize of the Promised Land.  When I hear people denigrating America, I am reminded of a poem by Ray Bradbury: 9


We are the dream that other people dream.
The land where other people land
When late at night, they think on flight
And, flying, here arrive where we fools dumbly thrive ourselves.
Refuse to see we be what all the world would like to be.
How dumb! Newcomers cry, you are mad! They shout,
We’d sell our souls if we could be you
How come you cannot see the way we see you?
You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be
You are the dream that other people dream.

I am a citizen now, and I celebrate July 4, but the day of my biggest celebration each year is October 10--on that day of October 1965, I landed in America.  That is my Independence Day!

On Being Uprooted

I still have to face the fundamental issue of migration--of being uprooted--that all immigrants face. Famed novelist Salman Rushdie referring to his migration to United Kingdom writes, “migration tore up all the roots of the self.  The rooted self flourished in a place it knew well, among the people who knew it well, following customs and traditions with which it and its community were familiar and speaking its own language among others who did the same.”10 Migrating to England Rushdie felt the loss of three of his four roots: place, community, culture. The fourth one--the language, English, was still with him there. The fundamental difference between Rushdie and migrants like me is the social and economic conditions in which we were raised and lived before we migrated.  He came from an affluent family living in an exclusive area, and went to a private school. He was blessed with all the privileges and prerogatives that go with being rich in India. Had he lived through all the harrowing times that I had gone through in Mumbai, he would not be much talking about “my beloved Bombay.” He hated to leave the city which I had hated passionately and wanted to leave desperately.  Poverty trumps most of our personal likes and dislikes.

The perennial issue for an immigrant is: where do I belong? This is an intensely personal issue. Given all the slights, hurts, humiliations and hopelessness that I had endured in Mumbai, I knew I did not belong there.  When my lucky break came, I took the first available opportunity to jump the ship.  After living in the U. S. for more than fifty years, I know where I belong and that is not India.  Every time I go back to Mumbai and other places in India, I would be at a loss there now.  After every visit when I return to the U. S., I feel I have come home.  That is not just because I am now used to my American amenities, but because America has given me my human dignity.  In Mumbai, I felt worthless while in America I am valued for who I am and I feel good about myself that was never the case in India.

There is another reason why millions of poor people like me want to come to America. Rushdie like many who migrated to England, found that the country’s establishment was “not letting them in.”11 That is not how I found the U. S. Given the record of amazing success of even the first generation Indian immigrants, among others, American society at large and the establishment in particular have been open to immigrants, particularly those who are educated and skilled.  Just imagine several major American corporations, universities and their business schools are now headed by first generation Indian Americans. Citing my own example I could say that only in America, a first generation Asian Indian with accent could become Chief Financial Officer of the nation’s capital with extraordinary power and responsibilities. But even those immigrants who are not educated and skilled in professions have found a way to achieve their American dream as long as they were willing to work hard. For example, the less educated but entrepreneurial Indians have been remarkably successful in running small businesses as convenience stores, donut shops, laundries, motels, gas stations, grocery stores, etc.  Simply put, if you are willing to work, work is there!

In my long life spanning two countries and nearly eight decades I have made many mistakes but coming to America is not one of them. Indeed, that was the best thing that has happened to me. And I was glad to give up all the things that Rushdie was loathe to give up--place, community, culture. I even lost the fourth one--the language. Yet, I am happy that I came to America that gave me the opportunity to be who I am today.

My Indian story as well early experiences in America narrated here appear so dated now. I am writing about the events and things that have happened some sixty or more years ago. Though some events are still vivid in my mind, most are buried under the layers of hazy memories. As we remember past to write about it, there is a some invention as well. Some sort of palimpsest is inevitable.  But then this is not history, it is memoir. Of course, any thing we remember of a distant past is colored by our subjectivity. However, there is no other way to remember the past. “Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.”12

References :

1. See Amy Wang, “A man assumed a store’s Indian owners were Muslim. So he tried to burn it down, police say.” The Washington Post, March 12, 2017.  Also see, Power, Pain, Potential--South Asian Americans at the Forefront of Growth and Hate in 2016 Election Cycle, SAALT, 2017

2. See Editorial, The Washington Post, March 8, 2017

3. Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Washington, D.C., Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.

4. Robert Samuelson, “Trump is not destiny. Here’s what it is.” The Washington Post,” June 12, 2017, p. A17. Samuelson summarises the finding of Report of Joint Economic Committee, The State of Associational Life in America, SCP Report 1-17

5. J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (New York: Harper Press), 2016

6. Edmund Leach, A Runaway World? (New York, Oxford University Press, 1968), p.44

7.  Natwar Gandhi, America, America (2006) and Pennsylvania Avenue (2011), Mumbai: Image Publications.

8.  Natwar Gandhi, “Still the Promised Land,” The Washington Post, June 13. 1989, op-ed

9.  Ray Bradbury, America: An Ode to Immigrants, The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2006.

10.  Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton, New York: Random House, 2012, p. 53.

11.  Rushdie, ibid, p, 69.

12. Oliver Sacks, “Speak Memory, The New York Review, February 21, 2013.

e.mail : natgandhi@yahoo.com

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Depressed in London (and in Ahmedabad)


The period starting September 2016 has been my loneliest phase till date. The loneliness at first was deliberately desired but it slowly became a cause of great anxiety and later grew into a depression. For far too long, I have wished to write about mental health based on my experiences of what I went through and what I still suffer (albeit in a very truncated sense). A long impending emotional outburst resolved my several month-long internal conflict about whether to write or not write reflecting on the dreadful part of loneliness i.e. depression: Whether the personal should come out in public or not?; how do I balance the sentimental with the rational? I decided to hurriedly write this slightly long piece yesterday not thinking of many such questions that ringed inside my head (breaking boundaries of some grammar rules): In the process, this has become more of an unorganised personal tale; better to publish it with its imperfections than not. Hence, unconcerned of what many would think, today, I wish to open up.


As I looked at the morning-sky at 7:15 AM, it seemed that the sun was yet to rise fully. Time of sunrise and sunset is unusually peculiar in London. After preparing the routine insipid breakfast, tuning in to Hindustani Classical music, I turn in a ritualistic fashion to read at 8:15 AM. The sun had yet not risen. No: It had already set; the time was 8:15 PM. My (self-prescribed) medicines had proved out to be too heavy, giving 19 long-hours of sleep.

I sat awe-struck at this obstinately enduring depression (while staring endlessly outside the window at the panopticon like structure of my residence building), that had stayed with me for nearly 11 weeks till then, end of February. It has continued till now, draining myself of self-dignity and energy on many occasions. My concentration ability dwindled: as it accompanied a persistent migraine (and sometimes unbearable chest pain). My curiosity to learn reduced so thin that it was impossible to discern whether it was there at all or not: Intellectual orgasms became a blissful memory (and other kinds of…? Shhh). Whatever little remained of my curiosity was consciously achieved at a time when I urged unconscious learning like before. These fault-lines of mind coupled with that of blood, in the first-time witnessed anaemia. The all-optimistic assurances (and reassurances) of my counsellor seemed nonsensical. The socialising sessions with the small coterie of friends I had in London appeared purposeless.

To overcome the low mood, I began some brief affairs with the cultural atmosphere of London, yet the depression would remain. The self-constructed meaning of life – to pursue knowledge in the silence of my room buried under innumerable books – laughed at my face: It was a purpose rightly thought but wrongly carried in reality. This at a place where I always dreamt of being – something that had been made possible by a wide-range of scholarships (I was disappointing all of them). All in all, I lay wondering about the meaning of modernity, pushed into post-modern loneliness.

[At the cusp of my (high-sounding) epistemological break from the discipline of management, I sinked into an (see this snobbery) epistemological crisis.]

In this (supercilious) epistemological crisis, books came to advise me at unexpected moments. In Tube, Gandhi told me to self-negate and reduce myself to level-zero and kill desires. Remarkably during a class on English Civil War, Iqbal self-affirmed my worth when I should have been focusing on Parliamentarians and Royalists. While exercising (if the migraine, which remained for 6 months, momentarily dissipated), Tagore reasoned with me to move beyond binary oppositions and seek moderation. In the high-modernist SOAS library, Nehru romantically urged me to build a synthesis among all currents of thoughts, worldly and personal. While taking an exit from this revolutionary campus, Camus argued to reawaken the Rebel in me (with just means), and Foucault (don’t take him seriously), as always, reinforced my cynicisms in all human designs. On my way to British Library, Rousseau reminded of his warnings about the perils of modern civilization. And in the solitude of my room, Greeks wanted me to live a good life of reasoning: How often do we associate places with political thoughts? 

[What about Marx?! I knew that you never had sympathy for the working classes. (You do not know anything. In my mind, Marx the sociologist keeps on defeating Marx the organiser.) Why no poets?! (You do not think about poets when poetry is absent from life.)]

When Greeks stopped urging me to live with reason, books stared at me in my inhumanely designed 11 by 7 feet room that I was forced to recognise as home. Yet I abused all of them, as the written word lost its value. I despised my bookshelves: It was the death of Socrates; thus walking on the streets, London’s architecture stopped making its political arguments in my mind as the transition from classical to neoclassical, Gothic to neo-Gothic, articulate (but sometimes ugly and suffocating) modernist designs to (deliberately) senseless post-modernist structures stood there without evoking thoughts.

In despair, I turned to the final rescuer in whom this rationalist had long lost faith, God. In the Muslim prayer room of college (British multi-culturalism, as they say), I kneeled with lachrymose emotions allowing my nose (long-nose problems or a blessing; Rushdie writes: ‘A nose like that, little idiot, is a great gift.’) and then head to hit the ground: ‘La Illaha’ (There is no God), leaving it there without completing it, echoing Mansoor’s Anal Haq, and Sarmand. I tried to loosen up (alas, failed) as the Dhamaal at SOAS in tribute to victims of the blast at Sehwan Sharif proceeded, ironically celebrating the death of many.

[I had to ahistoricise myself and make a quantum leap into the future: I was high modernism individualised. (Should I hide this overthinking? (Yes! (Such are the voices in my head.)))]


March was spent fighting loneliness and a fading sense of ambitions; I was victorious at the end of it. Drawing my meticulously detailed planner (please: do not reduce every minutes of life to pages of some planner) for April and May (as the classes came to an end), I felt supremely confident: Go out of home once a day, meet someone once in two days (that is ridiculously less), relish food whenever possible filled between the regular tasks of finishing essay-writing, library visits, exercising, managing household, cooking, Urdu self-learning, and movies. [Dopamine recovering, serotonin moderate – artificially maintained, migraine almost over]. The first week of April passed with some success, then the world turned upside down: In 4 days, I was back to ground-zero (or probably slipping beneath the ground).

On the morning of 10th April, with unbearable chest pain and a throbbing head, I searched number of Samaritans and then set out to dial Ambulance – Heart Attack (it was not – is not there a long family history?; nor did I call); in three hours, I was reading at the British Library with all the bodily pain. [Dopamine minimal, serotonin – is it there?] At night, I re-drew the planner for the next 2 weeks increasing outings and socialising. And in another 30 minutes, I broke down (for the umpteenth number of time in the past 4 months) but this time was different: I decided to fly back to Ahmedabad at the earliest. Hurriedly packing my bags, I paid my farewell to London. When I took photographs of my room before leaving (my way of taking stock of what remained in the room), tears rolled down rapidly (again, for the umpteenth number of time in the past 4 months): There was no courage left in me to ever return to this metropolis. Nothing less than a miracle was required to save me and let me complete my degree.


[Did you not want to return to Ahmedabad? – the city you cherish, the most. Did you not read out aloud, on the banks of Sabarmati from Gandhi Ashram, that clichéd poem on the day when you left for London? (Questions contain the answers.)]

Approaching India from a distant vantage point, I could point out how modernism and post-modernism mixed themselves with traditions. From Britain, I wanted to see India through some lucid prose, growing some intellectual fecundity by desiring a solitary life; I wished to inculcate courage to speak truth to power. To do that, I desired loneliness in London – actively, literally – forgetting that isolation never helps. What was to happen once I ruptured this distance?

(Nehru was true, almost always:). As I left the Ahmedabad airport with its spectacularly ridiculous futurism, I saw a couple touching feet of their parents. (India is “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer). The occult was repeated approaching a materialistic possession: Put the right foot in the car first. (of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and). Followed by a dose of truncated rationalism I received from family: Why insist on having a cup of tea at Lucky before reaching home? Did not you have good food on the plane? Could not say – ‘I did not eat nor did I sleep’. (yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”). Here I was: Much had changed and yet nothing had been erased though the process of closing up (what? Mind!) was (is) underway. 

Hence, as I reached Ahmedabad back, I wondered about the paradoxes of the city: Ahmedabad’s people aspiring to acquire Western materialism fail to imbibe the West’s cosmopolitanism; the city is at once parochial and modern with all its innocence (and violence): Yet most loveable. I partially regained my self-esteem by frankly and openly sharing my emotional state of mind with friends and less so with family. As I reached out to friends in Ahmedabad, I yet felt lonely – passively, metaphorically. Nevertheless, endless café visits, reading of novels, and of course, the soulful time spent at my favourite places in the city revived much of my enthusiasm. But as the day of departure to London came closer in mid-May, I started to slip back.


I would want to leave the story of the time from mid-May unexplained: Numbness has been a norm; though the worst phase of depression is over, on most days, I found myself lacking internal enthusiasm (less so now). At night, I felt energetic enough to conquer the world only to wake up with thoughts about how to survive the day. In the numbness, I became sure that the future was optimistic and for that, I needed to focus on only one thing: Appreciate the present and the past will take care of itself. For a history student, the past is of utmost importance but now I had to grapple with the mundane realities of the present: How to feel energetic? How not to sleep for 10 hours a day (some experience insomnia; some oversleep) and wake up with calm emotions (without migraine)?

The battle with depression has been an excruciatingly painful one. During these 9 long-months, the burden of past has informed my present blurring my visions of future. In the past: the societal stigma concerning mental health loomed large at me. The cry that ‘men don’t cry’ rendered me a non-muscular person – Gandhi (despite being a sexist) remains my life-time hero for he did not pretend to symbolize any muscularity; this cry does more harm to men than to anyone else.

The only probable solution to my frustrating condition of low energy seemed to lie in the past. I wanted to relive it. I wanted to repeat my undergrad and energize myself by the festivity of college life. I wanted to reside in my dilapidated old city home in the familiar (but sometimes very nosy and intruding) sociability found in innocent neighbours. Like all attempts to recreate the past, this too is futile. In this terrible diagnosis, how was I supposed to live in the present, optimistically staring at the future? I am still searching for an answer.


As I reaffirm my self-worth, I urge whoever reads this to take mental health seriously and not ridicule it as yet another wasteful, snobbish adventurism to gain sympathy (which I also did in past and in the first two months of witnessing depression). (In fact, the poor are more vulnerable to it more than the rich and the privileged like us. They simply do not have a vocabulary to describe it.) Seek help at the earliest, open up: I repressed my emotions for 2 months until they revealed heavily upon me.

Without the support of incredible teachers, cherishing moments of affection, care, and counsel provided by friends in London and from back home in India, I would not have been able to write this: time to acknowledge them. Every time a well-known personality took his/her life out of depression, at least 2 friends made it a point to ask me about my well-being and provide assurances. (Remember: Some will only pretend to help – “Oh, I am sorry” – it’s important to know that too; only a few will help – never let them go). Special thanks are due to Gopika, Nirali, and Sudhir who supported at crucial moments while giving timely, unmatched personal and academic help. Of course, Aarti (with her ‘simply’ communicated frequent doses of pragmatism (activism?) with which I inevitably disagree first only to reconcile to it later; the copy-editor in her would be frustrated by seeing the peculiarly deliberate errors and complex writing style of this piece), Anisa (who acted as my counsellor on many occasions), Charul, Chirayu Samaan (words shall not suffice for this ceaseless pillar of lifetime support), and Jayraj (whose ever enthusiastic voice unfailingly energises – always, mixing scholarly talks with enjoyable, rich small talks – which I cherish as my perpetual talisman) cannot be forgotten. Particular regard to Vipoolbhai whose conversations helped without knowing anything about my condition (and who let me lavishly dig into his personal library of 20k books!); he would read this to his dismay I believe. More thanks are due to (some of them did not know about my health): Aadit, Abin, Ari, Grahame, Jyot, Naveed, Sagar, and Mathias. During this phase, some have suffered incredible thoughtless flows of relentlessly emotional outbursts from my side. I take this moment to apologise to these victims.

While writing this, I have deliberately left out the extreme incidents (not to forget the cause: It is not important to tell everything to everyone; regardless, the cause entirely stems out of my own faults) and also the trivial ones like wondering for one full hour whether the alphabet ‘q’ precedes ‘b’ or ‘t’ (now I am fully aware that it precedes ‘r’) – never forget that mental health tremendously affects your memory functions.

Had this depression not taken place, my academic experience in London would have been more vivid, but I am grateful to it for making me a better person who knows how to master some of his habits of mind and body. I have realised that the quest for a perfect self – invented at breath-taking speed to impress the world – is a farcical chimera. I assumed the individual’s social (and more importantly, personal) world to remain stable without any struggle: My liberalism’s staunchly anti-utopian vision had failed to truly reside within me; now it settles itself more thoughtfully and prominently – No more robotic perusal of 24/7 intellectualism.

I will return having rediscovered myself through London though not fully ready for the imminent (why do you want to use that word?) epistemological transition if not rupture. Now on, I will be slow on life, easy on myself, and care to enjoy everything that comes without solid expectations or planning to the minutest detail: that should be the norm for all of us and not the exception as the Brooklyn moment (the movie that is better than the book) is awaited when I return to London for the graduation.

[I finish writing this having successfully (hopefully?) defeated the worst phases of depression without any usage of antidepressants, drug or alcohol abuse, in London (in a new accommodation which I am leaving, for good – the previous one reminded too much of bad (and happy) memories (memories: the good is so merrily mixed with the bad that what you want to remember inevitably reminds of what you wanted to forget; I did not want to relive both for some time – ahistoricization, right?!)), as on my right lay (fitted in a broken photo-frame – ground handling at airports) Socrates’ timeless dictum – An unexamined life is not worth living (When will you examine yours? (What else was this? (Sorry.))); and on my left is pinned my source of idealism, Tagore’s ‘Where the mind is without fear’. (E, such a nerdy geek you are!) As I flick my glance from left to right, I missed staring at two photographs: the first is an image of Mahatma in conversation with the sage Tagore, and the second is the iconic (endlessly photoshopped) image of Nehru with the Mahatma – such conversations shaped India: All three had to spend momentous years of their lives in London, the city that crucially defined India.

Some will wonder why the voices of my mind are ambivalently contained in brackets running directionless; my answer: during depression, I could not discern who I was and who I was not.]


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features