Mira Kamdar

"Motiba's Tattoos: A Grandaughter's Journey into her Indian Family's Past"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 12, 2005)

"Part beauty mark, part brand, part talisman, Motiba's tattoos were a legacy of the tribal values she carried literally inscribed on her person into the modern age."

Motiba's Tattos by Mira Kamdar

Telling the story of her beloved grandmother Motiba, a woman from the agrarian and pastoral culture of old Gujarat, Mira Kamdar places Motiba in the changing culture of India, showing that the changes in Motiba's family during the past seventy years are also emblematic of dramatic changes in Indian culture as a whole. Herself the daughter of Motiba's son Prabhakar (Pete) and Lois Christensen, the Danish-American cowgirl he married while a student in the United States in the 1960's, Kamdar is especially sensitive to nuances of culture. As a child visiting back and forth between the U.S. and her grandparents' India, she comes to know and love Motiba and the old Jain way of life she represents, while at the same time recognizing that she herself is different. She does not "look Indian" or understand the subtleties of the Indian culture she observes while on visits, however much she might strive to, and like many children of immigrants, she is also not sure she wants to be "different" from the culture in which she lives.

In this poignant and sometimes melancholy account of the passing of an era, Kamdar describes the journey she makes after Motiba's death to honor her, see the places where Motiba grew up, and experience the culture which shaped the entire family's values. The author's rich and vibrant descriptions of the peasant countryside of Kathiawar, where she is greeted like a long lost relative, illuminate the contrasts between the rural lifestyle of Motiba's youth and the urban life of overcrowded Bombay in which she spent her life following her marriage. As the author discovers, the Kathiawari men in small villages still herd sheep down the middle of the one-lane road, the women remain inside their houses out of modesty toward strangers, people live in houses with dung floors and only a few electric lights, most of the food is grown on site, and tea is served with fresh buffalo milk. Peacocks and hens, quail, red-breasted herons, and storks still reside in the wild, and streams are crystal clear--clean enough to use for washing and drinking.

It is in their entertainment that the first signs of permanent change have begun to appear, however. The itinerant performers, tight-rope walkers, and actors of regional folk plays, which used to be the primary entertainment of these tiny, remote towns, have given way to the first satellite dishes, and people regard the programs they see on the "tube" as a measure of "progress." Houses made of concrete blocks have begun to replace traditional homes, dress is beginning to reflect western styles, and old rituals are being abolished as impractical.

Against this backdrop of traditional values, Kamdar brings her Indian family history to life, describing it in terms of the country's history—her grandparents' marriage, her grandfather's adoption of the values of Mahatma Gandhi, the emigration of the family to Burma to manage their businesses there, the bombing of Rangoon by the Japanese during World War II, the loss of fortunes, the return to Bombay, and finally, the emigration of several of Motiba's children to the United States.

It is in Kamdar's insightful comments about her own life in the United States as the child of an immigrant that the reader sees the author's focus begin to change. Though she appreciates and whole-heartedly embraces Indian culture when she visits Bombay during summers, she makes compromises as an American in American society. She sees herself and her father's family as "a little island of India in a vast land of Leave it to Beaver." She recognizes, however, that "Dad was an immigrant in the old-fashioned, quaintly assimilationist style. There would be no bilingual, bicultural confusion for his children…he would do everything to make sure we melted into the great American pot," something to which she does not object as she tries to prevent her American friends from discovering that her father speaks English with a strange accent.

The tales of Indian history which infused her life as a child visiting in India eventually give way completely to tales of her life in the United States, as she grows up and moves with her parents and siblings throughout the west following her father's jobs. The significance of the death of Gandhi on her grandmother's life yields its place to the effects of the death of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King on her parents' and her own life. Ultimately, as the number of the author's Kamdar and Khara relatives living in the United States increases, we see the diminishing effect of Indian tradition on their inner lives and thought. What was an integral part of their historical family life becomes a pleasant memory, an echo of an old way of life--the final result of the Indian diaspora, which began in the mid-20th century and which continues, unabated, to the present day.

Rich, warm, humorous, and earnest, Motiba's Tattoos gives the universal story of an immigrant family's metamorphosis from one whose primary allegiance is to another culture to one in which opportunities to assimilate are recognized and embraced. In the process of becoming American, uniquely personal values evolve and are treasured. Retention of the old traditions must become a conscious effort.

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About the Author:

Mira KamdarMira Kamdar is of mixed Asian Indiand and Danish-American ancestry. She grew up between the West Coast of the U.S. and India. She graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon and earned a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in French Literature with a minor concentration on the history of the French in India from 1600 to 1800. She taught French and Comparative Literatures and Women's Studies at Louisiana State University before leaving academia for the world of international affairs and business in New York City, joining the World Policy Institute in 1992.

Mira is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute at New School University where she directs the India portion of the Institute's Emerging Powers program. Mira is also a Senior Advisor to Digital Partners, a Seattle-based non-profit organization working to find solutions to the global digital divide. Her writing has appeared in publications around the world, including The International Herald Tribune, The Times of India, The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

She currently divides her time between New York City's East Village and the Pacific Northwest. She is at work on a novel set between India and an island in Puget Sound.

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