How is it that people can so easily go from being oppressed to being an oppressor? Immigrants fleeing from a society where they were second class citizens come to a new country in order to make a fresh start, but somehow forget what it was that caused them to have to flee in the first place. Instead of being merely grateful for the opportunity to live as they like without having to look over their shoulders, they become driven to make a success of themselves no matter what. Perhaps because they lived with insecurity for so long, they are blinded to anything but guarantying security for themselves and their loved ones in this new place, and lose track of everything else.
Obviously that's not the case with all immigrants, and its not even a statement one can make about any particular community in general. Within any group of people there will be those, no matter what their backgrounds or personal histories, who will have no compulsions about doing whatever they have to in order to get ahead, and those who follow a more moderate path. Yet in a society whose system is based on the premise of winners and losers, one group will invariably be higher up the ladder that somebody else. Therefore, no matter how good their intentions, they will be the exploiters, in either a small way or a large way, of those beneath them. While we may like to think of ourselves as living in a classless society the reality is wealth equals status and the more you have the more exalted you are.
In his new release, Dahanu Road published by Random House Canada on March 30th/10, Anosh Irani recounts the story of a family of Iranian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India before WW ll in order to escape their status as second class citizens. By the time we join the story the family are well established land owners and the founder of the family's fortune's grandson, Zarios, is now an adult. Zarios has grown accustomed to privilege and leading a life of idleness. While his grandfather may have had to walk from Iran to India, and suffered deprivations and abuse as a child, neither Zarios or his father Aspi have had to struggle for anything.
Working for the family, and all the other local landowners, are the Warlis, a local tribal people whose land this was before the immigrants from Iran arrived. Zarios is not a cruel person by any stretch of the imagination, but he's never given any thought to how the Warlis went from owning the land he stands to inherit, to working for next to slave wages as field workers on it. As his father is as ignorant of the land's history as he is, it's to his grandfather that he must turn to for answers to the questions that start to arise soon after the story begins. For, one morning, as he's walking the land, he comes across the body of one of their workers who has hung himself. When it turns out the last person to have seen Ganpat alive was Zarios' grandfather, he becomes curious as to what happened at that meeting. His grandfather said, with great scorn, that Ganpat had asked him for money, which he naturally refused to give him.
Nothing more might have come of this incident, after all it was just another drunk tribal worker who hung himself, save for the fact that Zarios meets Ganpat's daughter, Kusum, and is immediately attracted to her. When he finds out that Ganpat wanted money to free his daughter from an abusive marriage, Zarios takes it into his head that he will rescue her and then take her away from her life of squaller. Naturally he has no idea of what he's doing. All his life whenever he has seen something he's liked or wanted he's taken it, and this case is no different. It's not that his intentions aren't good in this case, or that he means Kusum any harm, but if he can't even tell his parents that she's not a servant when they come home unexpectedly and find her sleeping on the living room floor, well how is he going to be able to have any sort of permanent relationship with her?
As the book progresses we learn what Zarios doesn't know about his family's history in the region. Ganpat's death is the catalyst which not only propels the action in the present, but brings the past alive for both his grandfather and Kusum's family as well. For it turns out that the fortunes of the two families have been intertwined long before the youngest generation met. Over the course of the book Irani does a remarkable job of having the past and the present march through its pages side by side with the former providing the backdrop against which the latter takes place. Whether we are given access to the grandfather's memories as he thinks back over his life, or we listen in on Kusum being told her family history by her aunt, what is revealed is both sad and disgusting.
What's most impressive about Dahanu Road is how the reader finds it very easy to slip into the world of the landlords and accept their behaviour as, if not normal, than perhaps harmless. The men gather at a local tea house every day, each with their own peculiar personality quirks to make them endearing to the reader, and it's not until a while has passed we realize none of them have to do anything to make money. For while they sit around all day long their fields are being worked by people like Kusum and her family, who live in huts with dirt floors. Then we also start to learn how these same men treat the Warlis - how they hold one of their fellows in high esteem because he devised a method of cleaning the crop that will guarantee the women having to expose themselves for their pleasure - and their cute little jokes and pranks don't seem so harmless anymore.
On the surface this is a deceptively simple book, but you will discover there are secrets hidden beneath some words and questions hidden among the paragraphs. Why do immigrants escaping oppression end up oppressing others? Is it only because of the fear they feel from the insecurity they've faced in the past, or is there more to it than that? Irani doesn't offer any simple answers to any of the questions he raises in the book - there are no simple answers in the real world, just attempts at understanding in the hopes we learn from the mistakes of the past. While it appears that Zarios represents that hope, the reality is that nothing much has changed by the time we get to the end of the book from the way things were when we first met him and we're left wondering what the future holds.
(Originally posted April 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.