It was the title that first drew me to the book. I always think that for a person to test its survival skills in the fullest one sure way was to become an immigrant. Leaving your homeland, leaving behind all that is familiar and embarked in a strange land without your family support and have all your strongest held beliefs and values tested to the core.
The life leading to the immigration…
The Immigrant is about Nina and Ananda. Nina, a college teacher of 30 in India, in a failed relationship before she reluctant allow her mother to set her up with an arranged marriage. Ananda, moved to Canada after practising dentistry in India and moved to Canada (Halifax, to be specific) to obtain his degree. Through one failed relationship, it was Ananda’s decision to accept his sister’s proposal to find him a wife from India and bring her back to Halifax to live.
The consequences of change are far greater than Nina could have imagined. From New Delhi to Halifax, Nina has to change what she eats to what she wears. Nina’s whole world is thrown into question. Without a job, all day long Nina waits in the apartment for her husband to come home.
Establishing a new life will be harder than what Nina’s thought.
The story of The Immigrant is set in the ’70s and I like the way that the author, Kapur, took her time to tell the stories of Ananda’s first experience immigrating to Canada. Living in a basement in his uncle’s house, Ananda has to find his way very quickly to be self-sufficient and moved out of his uncle’s house. It was very convenient to have Ananda befriended Gary, who offer him a place to stay and to set up a joint dental practice. The courtship of the arranged marriage was also special and subtle. Many letters were sent back and forth, and it was through the letters and the final meeting that sealed the couple’s fate to be joined as husband and wife. Nina’s mother was keen for her daughter to marry well. Ananda’s sister wants to fulfil their dead parents’ wish to see Ananda marry an Indian wife. Kapur told the stories of both continents so sharply observed and to such precision that this was one of the best Indian immigrant’s stories I have ever read besides those that I have read of Jhumpa Lahiri’s.
Marriage is an adjustment…
Nina’s married life feels lifeless to her from the moment she is in Canada. She was living in a cocoon to begin with. She doesn’t have a job, a social life. She learns how to shop in a supermarket, borrow books from the library which spur her aspiration to study to become a librarian. Kapur describes with fine accuracy of detail how the unthinkable becomes the everyday, Nina shed her Salwar Kameez and first begins to wear western clothing or tastes meat. Such changes are understandably fearful to most of us – to dress every day utterly differently from how you ever dressed before, to live on food the thought of which has always been disgusting, impossible. Yet after the change is made, difference and disgust fade and the exotic becomes the banal. Even the body that wore a sari with accustomed grace begins to change, to lose its softness, to look better in sweatpants and T-shirt. Is this reassuring, or unnerving? Kapur refrains from judgment. She describes, quietly.
I was keen to know what will happen from the new life onwards where the real life challenges starts. In fact the challenges they faced were not peculiar to immigrant couples but one that new couple may experience in their early years of marriage as they adjust to their new lives.
Nina wants children, Ananda doesn’t feel quite ready. Nina is frustrated, Ananda was surprisingly very accommodating and help with house chores and offer to cook. Ananda is trying his best to make his new wife comfortable in Canada, but he is also experiencing sexual anxiety and it was this need to prove himself that was the catalyst for marital trouble…..
I have mixed feeling about the book. I thought it started out very strong and ended in a rather feeble way. I am not a prude but I cringed on reading about the extent the way someone would go out and to prove his or her sexual prowess, reading about infidelity and betrayal in a marriage is also not my favourite topic. I thought depicting Nina as a normal Indian woman in India and turning her into a very liberated one was feeding into a stereotype of what a liberal western woman should be and that did not convince me nor I want the book to end it in such ambiguous way.
Nonetheless, Kapur writes very good passages:
In marriage, the power of shopping together cannot be underestimated. Planning the week’s menu suggests a stronger future than sex ever can. – page 181
Opportunities are very insistent. If you neglect them they promised to retaliate by filling you with regret for the rest of your life. A lost opportunity refuses to hide, it pops out at every low moment, dragging you even lower. – page 17
Makes me think about the immigrant experience…
Having said that, this book is a poignant story of two immigrants who have chosen to take on their lives in their adopted country in a different way. The novel also opens up some interesting questions: Should the immigrant attempt to integrate and be more like the people in his or her adopted country or keep at preserving his / her cultures and traditions in a threat of the surroundings that smothers it? There is no easy answer but it is the question that an immigrant asks themselves in their everyday life.
The right answer, for me, is to strive to become a better person by taking what is good and dropping what is bad in both cultures. And to everything that one may encounter, lost its permanence, fail to take root and became temporary.
“Perhaps that was the ultimate immigrant experience. Not that any one thing was steady enough to attach yourself to for the rest of your life, but that you found different ways to belong, ways not necessarily lasting, but ones that made your journey less lonely for a while. When something failed it was a signal to move on. For an immigrant there was no going back.
The continent was full of people escaping unhappy pasts. [..] when one was reinventing oneself, anywhere could be home. Pull your shallow roots and move. Find a new place, a new friends, a new family. It had been possible once, it would be possible again.” – the end, page 330
I think I want to read her other books, Difficult Daughters may be the one. I think she writes sensitively and quietly, a talent I value.
Paperback. Publisher: Faber & Faber 2008; Length: 330 pages; Setting: India and Halifax, Canada. Source: Own copy. Finished reading at: 8th December 2012.
I’m reading for Immigration Challenge.
About the writer:
Manju Kapur (born Amritsar, India) is an Indian novelist. Her first novel, Difficult Daughters, won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, best first book, Europe and South Asia. She teaches English at Delhi University under the name Manjul Kapur Dalmia.
She studied and received an M.A. in 1972 from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and an M. Phil from Delhi University. She is married to Gun Nidhi Dalmia; they have three children and three grandchildren, and live in New Delhi