News & Politics

Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage From India to America

“Eloquently captures the essence of the immigrant experience.”

 What began as the author’s interest in the collision of her two worlds—her parents emigrated to the United States from India—became a book after a visit to suburban New Jersey during Kalita’s graduate journalism studies at Columbia University. The result is an insightful account of the South Asian immigrant experience in the post-civil-rights era.

 Kalita, a Washington Post education writer, follows three families—the Kotharis, Patels, and Sarmas—as they acclimate themselves to their new homes, streets away from the “McMansions” of Edison, New Jersey. Entering these families’ world during Navarati—a Hindu festival honoring the triumph of good over evil—she observes “silks flailing, skirts swishing . . . bare, pedicured bejeweled feet alongside Nikes and Timberlands.”

 Kalita paints a portrait of struggle as Indians face attacks by “Dot Busters”—non-Indians who commit random crimes against South Asians. She notes that, in some ways, the violence has had its intended effect: “Indian women packed away saris and bought blouses and blue jeans. They no longer circled red bindis from canisters of vermilion powder onto their foreheads each morning. They made their children stay in after dark.”

 Blatant oppression is interwoven with undying faith as the Sarmas worry about the duration of their stay in the States under the temporary-visa program and question their aspirations: “Could they ever be Americans?” Kalita writes. “And if they could, did they even want to be?”

 While there’s no ribbon-tied ending, subtle triumphs provide hope: “Today there are sari shops, restaurants, jewelry and electronics boutiques, doctors’ offices, and auto-repair garages with names like ‘Deepa,’ ‘Patel,’ and ‘Singh.’ ”

 Kalita writes with a sense of familiarity and candor that’s poignant and never didactic. She eloquently captures the essence of the immigrant experience—one that extends far beyond the South Asian diaspora.

S. Mitra Kalita

Rutgers University Press