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May 14, 1999


In Search Of Her Roots

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In 1995, a small New York press published House of Waiting, the story of an Orthodox Jewish woman's romance with an Indo-Caribbean man during the strait-laced 1950s. Last month, G P Putnam's Sons released Marina Budhos's second novel, The Professor of Light, a vivid account of a young American girl's troubled relationship with her brilliant but disturbed Guyanese-Indian father. Marina Budhos

Born and raised in New York City, Budhos is the great grand-daughter of indentured laborers who left India for Guyana about a hundred years ago.

She has written non-fiction about both Guyana and India, and has taught literature in Calcutta on a Fulbright fellowship. In an interview with Sadanand Dhume in her Manhattan apartment, Budhos spoke about her book, immigration and the links between Indians in Guyana and those they left behind.

What made you think of writing The Professor of Light?

It's a novel that has been sitting inside me for a long time. A few years ago I was sitting at my computer and the figure of this professor packing up every year to go to England sort of just appeared. And I had an immediate idea of this family. I wrote a few short stories and that was the beginning of it. Then, somehow I hit upon this idea of light. I was fascinated by it not only as a phenomenon, but also as a metaphor for identity: both as something fixed and as something fluid.

How much of the book is autobiographical?

There are facts that are autobiographical in so far that my father was Indian from the Caribbean and my mother was Jewish and we have family in England. But there is also a lot of imagination. I wanted to take the autobiography and take it to both a fictional realm and a magical realm.

Tell me something about your family's connection with India.

My father's grandparents came from India. The story has it that one side came from the Punjab and one side came from Bihar. But, you know, history gets a little blurred in the passing of generations. But they immigrated to Guyana in the late 19th century. My father grew up in a small village in Guyana that was entirely Indian. His father converted the family to Christianity because that was the way to rise back then.

My father then came to the US as a student. He studied international relations at NYU and actually ended up working for a while at the Indian consulate, in the 1950s, when they were setting up shop in New York.

Politically he was very shaped by India. Growing up in Guyana, he would listen to stories of what was happening in India on his short-wave radio. At that time this was common in Guyana.

What is your sense of the links between the Indian community in Guyana and Indians in India?

I think it changes generationally. There are strong links. For my father's generation it was extremely powerful. At that time, because of de-colonization, India was seen as a beacon. It was the first. It was the big one that had done it. Also, culturally, even though it was his grandfather who had come over, the village life was very close to Indian life. It was very preserved. There was a very strong sense of that identity. I think that has changed. Guyana has evolved its own identity.

But when I was there I was surprised that there was a back to roots phenomenon. But it's more blurred. People think of India as one entity. They don't think of it with distinctions.

Another thing that was a troublesome issue that came up in my father's generation was that they were seen as inferior Indians. It was not clear who belonged where. Identities were more mingled. People forgot. They didn't speak Hindi. So there was a linkage, there was sense of yearning, but there was also a rupture.

What do Indians in India think of the diaspora in Guyana?

I think there's a growing awareness of the Indian diaspora. There are so many overseas Indians at this point. When I was in India, I found people were really curious. People were doing research on it. I felt there was quite a lot of curiosity.

Where does The Professor of Light fit into the world of Indo-Anglian writing? Do you consider yourself an Indo-Anglian writer?

I don't know if I would label myself like that, but there are definitely ways in which the work resonates in that landscape. And I'd be excited to see it taken up or thought about or discussed in that way. The only reason I hesitate is that I cannot completely say what my landscape is. I seem to continue to mine this issue of not just Indians but immigration and the collision of cultures. The next thing I'm working on takes place in Queens. I have this non-fiction book that is essentially profiles of immigrant teenagers.

How does the experience of the Indian Diaspora of the 1990s resemble or differ from that of Indians who moved to Guyana in the 19th century?

My ancestors came to cut cane under pretty brutal circumstances. The brute facts of their existence and their need to get ahead and the poverty and the powerful yoke of British colonialism and the racial politics of the time can't be discounted. On the other hand, I do think there are certain resonant themes no matter what period you are talking about. An NRI immigrates with barely a ripple of adjustment and gets a job and a Honda and a house and all of that. But there's something that goes on psychically no matter what. Immigration is a process. There's a back-and -forthness that goes on internally.

An interesting thing is that the notion of India that I grew up with amongst my father's friends was frozen in the 1950s. When I went to visit India in 1988 and in 1992 I found that India had gone on, but the notion of India was frozen in people's minds from when they left. I think this is an extremely common condition among immigrants.

Will The Professor of Light be published in India?

Hopefully. They're working on foreign rights now. I imagine that it would have a natural audience there.

Sadanand Dhume studies at Princeton University. His articles have appeared in The Far Eastern Economic Review.

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