Passage to Oak Tree Road

Review of Suburban Sahibs


In her novel, Desirable Daughters, author Bharati Mukherjee describes Jackson Heights, NY, thus: “sidewalks full of Indians, every face is Indian, every shop and storefront features Indian jewelry, Indian clothing, Indian travel, Indian food and spices, Indian sweets and restaurants. The smells and the noises are familiar; Seventy-eighth Street and all the side streets are clogged by double-parked cars and delivery vans.” These days, that same description can be fittingly applied to Edison, New Jersey, undoubtedly the “home to thousands of Indian immigrants landing at Newark and JFK.”

Indian immigrants, especially along the Eastern seaboard, are familiar with Edison, NJ, as the location of Oak Tree Road, the one-stop shopping destination for all things Indian. In Suburban Sahibs, an incisive book on the growth of Indian immigrants in Central New Jersey, Washington Post reporter S. Mitra Kalita follows the lives of three very different Indian families all pursuing the American dream in Edison.

“Perhaps Edison is the Central New Jersey town best known among Americans, for being the place where Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb in 1876,” says Kalita. Today, Edison mirrors New Jersey on the whole, which has witnessed a burgeoning Indian population. 
Between 1990 and 2000, for example, the Indian population in Edison nearly tripled from nearly 6,000 to about 17,000.

Sanjay Shah

Kalita chooses three representative families she hopes will hreflect the socio-economic diversity of the Indians making Edison their home: there is long-time resident Pradip (Peter) Kothari, a local businessman and wannabe politician, Harish Patel and his family, who are struggling to stay afloat on the minimum wage, and newer residents Lipi and Sanku Sarma trying to dodge uncertain economic times on H-1B visas.

Kalita expertly follows these families over the course of one year – from October 2000 to Election Day, 2001. Kalita rightly observes that this one year was probably the best to observe the effects of momentous events on lives: the 2000 Presidential elections that lasted nearly a month, the economic downturn that started right around the time, the massive earthquake that hit Gujarat, and of course, the events of Sept. 11.

Carefully interspersing past histories with current facts, Kalita expertly chronicles the lives of the families she follows. Pradip Kothari came to America in 1972 and soon settled with his family in New Jersey. A long-time resident of Edison, Kothari has seen the effects simmering race relations can have on the political climate of the state and town. Kothari was around when the infamous “Dotbusters” made their mark in New Jersey. When Pradip first set up shop in Edison, he was greeted with broken store windows. That was when he decided to “take action” to get involved locally and galvanize the growing Indian population into taking measures for change. Soon enough, Kothari stood for elections in local state government and Kalita traces his run expertly in these pages.

The Sarmas, Lipi and Sanku, immigrated to America at a time when skilled technical labor was in high demand, during the late ’90’s. Entering the USA on H-1B visas, the Sarmas were fully aware that they were inextricably tied to the fortunes of one company, the one they were assigned to. In tough times, if they were to be laid off, visa regulations would require them to leave the country immediately. Suburban Sahibs documents the Sarmas’ roller coaster ride as they face economic downturns together.

Probably the most poignant and touching story in Suburban Sahibs is that of Harish Patel and his family, all trying to eke out an existence in a rundown apartment complex in Edison, Hilltop Estates. Theirs is the story of the elusive American dream and about barely making do. “Among his jobs in the United States, he pumped gas, packed boxes, filled pill bottles rolling off an assembly line, watched for shoplifters, and sold newspapers,” says Kalita of Harish Patel, “his two brothers who had preceded him to the States never told him of the hardship that came with living in there. Instead, their stories of America – the cars, the jeans, the money – impressed Harish Patel enough to lure him away from home. Since then, Harish had spent every day in America convincing himself the greater opportunity, especially the chance for his daughters to get a good education, was worth turning his back on home.”

In Suburban Sahibs, Kalita skillfully narrates the families’ stories within the larger context of their past lives and their coming to America. She also expertly hints at larger issues: the division amongst Indians in America into multi-regional groups (Lipi once remarks that she had never had so many Assamese friends even in India!), the effects of a “model minority” on local school systems and the tensions even between successive waves of Indian immigrants.

In the end, Pradip Kothari runs in a local election and loses, the Sarmas hold on to precarious jobs here, and the Patels are still struggling along, with daughter Kajal also working at the local Shop Rite.

Kalita often suggests in the book that Suburban Sahibs is part of a larger phenomenon – it is but a small snapshot of the immigrant experience and shows America as a nation of suburbs. While this phenomenon is true and rightly observed, it is often tough to make that logical extension from Kalita’s tightly focused work on the Indian community. Broader generalizations need more examples from without.
Suburban Sahibs is a wonderful piece of journalism and a long overdue book. It grants New Jersey, specifically Edison, the rightful place as the launching pad for many an Indian immigrant. That even the Indians who live there occupy different rungs on the socio-economic ladder, should surprise nobody, even those of us who only visit to eat bhelpuri and to stock up on bhindi from Oak Tree Road. 

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