A ringside view

That was enough temptation for me to forego my Sunday afternoon siesta and sit on the banks of the Brahmaputra among friends of the North East Writers Forum, to listen to what S Mitra Kalita had to say about herself, the influences that shaped her as a hardnosed journalist covering stories on the seamy underbelly of Enron, the gut wrenching tragedy of Ground Zero and much else. Clad in a smart black pant suit, the bespectacled Mitra endeared herself effortlessly with her girlish charm, candour and the ability to offer us a bird’s eye view of her life, work and her recent debut as a writer. The confidence she exuded was testimony to the emergence of the new expatriate who has merged seamlesly with American society and was no more the uneasy outsider.

Born of parents who immigrated to the US in the seventies, Mitra is presently an education reporter at the Washington Post and serves as president of the South Asian Journalists Association. She has authored: Suburban Sahibs. Three immigrant families and their passage from India to America published by Rutgers University Press (2003) and Penguin India 2004. She has written extensively about immigration and the South Asian diaspora. She previously worked for Newsday in New York city as a business reporter carving a beat out of immigration and the economy.

In the aftermath of Sept 11, she did extensive reporting on the backlash faced by Arabs and South Asians in the New York area, and authored a chapter in a book about the experience. She has reported from Mumbai and Buffalo, and many places in between.

Mitra graduated from Rutgers University, Phi Beta Kappa, with a bachelor’s degree in history and journalism. She received her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Mitra has received various awards for her work, was featured in the Best Business stories of 2003 and was most recently named young journalist of the year by the New York State Associated Press Association.

This is what I found out about Mitra’s book on the net:

In so many ways, Edison, NJ, is the quintessential American suburb, under an hour from the city by train, subdivided neatly into houses with identical floor plans, dotted with mini-malls and gas stations and monster movie theatres. Named after the famous inventor of the light bulb, town officials often boast it is the place "where tomorrow was born".

Suburban Sahibs tells us that this still might ring true. As immigration has continuously redefined America, it also has radically transformed the American suburb. Through the migration of three families from India to Central New Jersey, this book delves into how immigration has altered the American suburb, and how the suburb, in turn, has altered the immigrant.

Middlesex County houses one of the largest Indian populations in the world outside India. Their mark on the region has been gradual but increasingly definitive: auto-repair outlets named after Deepa” and “Singh,” a thriving commercial strip of sari stores and sweets shops, valedictorians named Patel and Shah. To be sure, the reception from long-time residents has not been an entirely warm one as Indian-American shopkeepers regularly contend with broken and egged windows. Yet as Indians achieve economic success, their desire for political and social parity grows stronger; their acceptance becomes less a question and more a reality.

In a captivating work of narrative nonfiction, journalist S Mitra Kalita traces the evolution of the suburb from a destination for new arrivals to a launching pad for them. She focuses on three waves of immigration in the post-Civil Rights era through the stories of three families: the Kotharis, Patels and Sarmas. Their experience offers a window into the America that has become: a nation of suburbs, a nation of immigrants.

In the late 19th century, tourists descended upon Edison to gawk at its Christmas lights displays. Today, thousands of Indians from all over the United States arrive in the same bedroom community to celebrate their own festivals of lights and colours. Suburban Sahibs attempts to answer the question of how and why they arrived — and how Edison, once again, might be the community that has shown us the future.”

Astonishing as it may sound, fifteen years ago Mitra was the high school kid thrilled about interviewing her headmaster for the school newspaper. Writing for her she explains, is a way of understanding people. The Kotharis, the Patels and the Sarmas she writes about are real people who bared the most intimate details of their lives before her with the hope that she would be able to chronicle the new America, more salad bowl than melting pot. Mitra’s is the first non-fiction narrative on Indians overseas.

All too often, migration to the west results in the realisation that one’s existence in another culture is compromised in many ways. It is an experience that causes fundamental, tectonic shifts in personalities and outlook. Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri have done significant work to arrive at an understanding of this phenomenon through the realm of fiction. But Mitra has shown that a factual narrative can be as gripping and unputdownable as those spun out of fantasy.

I can’t wait to get hold of a copy of Suburban Sahibs when it arrives in Guwahati bookshops in April.

- Indrani Raimedhi