New title The Immigrant, set in Halifax, released
An engrossing portrait of an arranged marriage, The Immigrant by Manju Kapur has been released by Faber & Faber. The story is set in Halifax where the author lived from 1969-72 as a student of Dal. Touch BASE Associate Editor Golda Arthur interviews the author on the issues that trouble the immigrant as they struggle to make life work in another country.
TB: Could The Immigrant have been set anywhere in North America? Was it something particular to Halifax that drew you to place the story here?
MK: Broadly speaking, I suppose The Immigrant could have been set anywhere in North America, or rather Nina and Ananda’s experiences could have taken place anywhere. But it was my familiarity with Halifax that drew me to set my story there. Much about the story is peculiar to Canada: the snow, the health system, the emptiness, the comparatively fewer Indians, at least in Halifax at that time.
I had lived in Halifax for three years as a student, three years that were a time of great change for me and I wanted to commemorate the place.
TB: Tell me more about your time in Halifax.
MK: From 1969-72, I was a student at Dalhousie, doing my MA in English Literature. It was a mind blowing experience – first time abroad as an adult, first time alone, first time in the West.
I also liked the independence that living in Halifax gave me. I could more or less do what I liked, but with this great freedom I experienced great loneliness. I also missed India in ways that were startling to me. Some of this I have woven into The Immigrant.
TB: Your book gets inside the ‘arranged’ marriage of Nina and Ananda, an Indian marriage against a western background. What are your own views on modern arranged marriages?
MK: I have seen many arranged marriages that work as well as the non-arranged. If you are going to have an arranged marriage you are brought up with certain assumptions and expectations in place. I teach young women undergraduates, and we used to have an entrance test. One year we asked them their views on arranged marriages. Out of 400 girls, 398 claimed they would want their parents to arrange their marriages because their parents knew best, they had wisdom and experience. Obviously these girls had been brought up to distrust their own young judgements. Deference to elders, a desire to conform, an aversion to risk and a willingness to accept your husband’s family, these are important ingredients in the success of arranged marriages, and are traits that are implanted early on. Often people in urban areas have something that now goes by the name of arranged love, which as the name implies is a couple meeting, [after suitable vetting by seniors in the family], getting engaged fairly soon, and then falling in love before or after marriage.
TB: Identity and belonging are very powerful and recurring themes to me (having immigrated to Halifax as an adult) and for any immigrant. There is this notion that “there can be no arrival without a sense of departure”. In your opinion do immigrants ever really leave their past behind?
MK: Nobody can really leave their past behind, but whereas this is a reality that is taken for granted, for immigrants it can become a somewhat vexed issue, because it is often their past which interferes with the adjustment process taking place in the present.
What then do you do? Dump your past in an effort to integrate? Or drag it around with you in an effort to preserve your identity? Immigrants are constantly negotiating this.
TB: Ananda’s name is changed to “Andy” in Canada – I’m interested in your views on people who change their name in the West.
MK: Some people change their names for convenience, in order to fit in [Andy being one such]. Some cling to their names as part of their identity [Nina being one such]. To condemn or condone the practice would seem presumptuous: people lead difficult lives and if changing their name makes things easier, so be it.
TB: Are modern day immigrants different somehow from their predecessors – or do you think the immigrant experience has remained largely the same, subject to the same themes of loneliness and belonging.
MK: I think so. Of course on the one hand, the world is getting smaller, the internet makes communication less expensive and that much easier. This also means that that door back home is not so firmly closed. When things go wrong, coming back is a more viable option. Today for example, more Indians are returning home than ever before. But I do wonder whether the experience of transferring yourself to another country does not remain essentially the same so far as day to day life is concerned: the same loneliness, the same search for connections, the same adjustments to new ways of fitting in. All this is part of the nature of the experience.