My daughter, born and brought up in California, not far from Yuba city, recommended Passage West. She said I would like it; I thought she said that because the book I am writing now is historical fiction. I resisted. I know all about it, I said. She bought the book and gifted it to me.
Passage West is about the Sikh migration to USA (and Canada) and it is the first fiction set in that era, I have read. One cannot be Indian in the bay area in the seventies and not have eaten paranthas from Yuba City or heard personal stories. By now, 50 years later, a body of non-fiction has been published and I did a “walk through time” of their journey in an imaging show. I relate to their history in a personal way; it is so close it not only history but also my story. And the story of every immigrant.
I worried a fictional account would trivialize the time. Hence my resistance.
I was wrong to worry. Passage West excels in all the ways only fiction can : empathy for multiple viewpoints, complex personalities, and actions seemingly contradictory made relatable. Reddi does not fall into the trap of dehumanizing her characters in favor of history; she does not push a point of view; or paint characters who need redemption; or present ones to be vilified. We are humans first and history second. She tells a darn good story that will reach many more people (who will learn history in the process) in a way they can relate than any non-fiction ever can.
By necessity, the cast of characters is large but for me the names and language add authenticity though I understand it may be daunting for some. Also Reddi touches lightly on some topics, for example the Gadar movement, and so the subtext may not be accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Indian struggle for freedom. However, given that her historical landscape has tentacles into every aspect of world politics, I think she has achieved a marvelous balance between detail and sweeping saga.
I thanked my daughter. It was interesting in so many ways, I said.
And she said : I never knew any of this history.
Whaaat? She doesn’t remember the drives to Yuba city to see the fruit trees abloom? or the makki roti and saag! The present flies and becomes past in the blink of an eye.