By Martha Anne Toll
In 1921, my grandmother moved from the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan to Rochester, New York to get married. There she lived until her death at age 109, outlasting my mother by eight years.
Nana lived in a high rise close to Mom’s childhood home, a home I came to know after Mom died. Rochester was a stark and lonely place for me.
Sejal Shah’s Rochester is altogether different. In her finely wrought, debut book of essays, This Is One Way To Dance, Rochester teems with extended family — a sprawling Gujarati community replete with weddings and parties and feasts and cousins-in-kind and playdates.
And yet, Shah is the all-American girl. She writes:
“I attended an elementary school outside Rochester, New York, called Council Rock, referring to a treaty made by the white settlers with the Seneca Indians. The white folks broke the treaty and named a school instead…. These are the Indians I grew up thinking about.”
Shah’s essays explore congruent realities: She is a born and bred American who is simultaneously embedded in the Gujarati diaspora.
She writes herself into the Nancy Drew books as the eponymous girl detective. She undergoes the agonizing coming of age that is American girlhood. While she and her friends experiment with “hair-removal systems” such as Nair, their fathers play carom [a type of billiards] and mothers prepare an endless stream of Gujarati meals.
Shah brings important, refreshing, and depressing observations about what it means to have dark skin and an “exotic” name, when the only country you’ve ever lived in is America:
“This is what white boys say: Your hair. Your skin. This what black boys say: We together, together. This is what the Asian boys say: You date out too, I can tell. This is what the Jamaican boys say: I never liked you Indians. This is what the desis say: Get out of Massachusetts [where Shah attended college]. Move to New York.”
In America, you have to be able to answer where you’re from. Since Shah’s truth — “Upstate New York” — is unacceptable, she develops a stock answer: My father was born in India, my mother was born in Uganda and grew up in Kenya. We’re Indian; I’m Indian.”
Shah did not set foot in India until she was 19.
The essays in this slim volume are engaging and thought-provoking. Each ends with a date that tells the reader when it was first written, placing it in context in Shah’s life. In a somewhat unusual afterword, Shah supplies notes that explain her creative sources and the writers, teachers, readers, and editors who have influenced her work.
The essays are well-crafted with varying forms that should inspire and enlighten other essayists. Some are composed of sections a paragraph long or less; others overlay real family events (weddings) with how the movies do or don’t portray “Indian” culture. A particularly delightful chapter is the last, called “Voice Texting with My Mother,” which is, in fact, written in texts.
Shah unveils Americans’ stunning ignorance about countries and cultures outside their own, reminding us that India is a giant place with multitudinous cultures. In “Kinship, Cousins, & Khichidi,” Shah takes a journey through food. She recalls the 1980s as “Moms in the kitchen, making chaa” and every family driving a Cutlass Cruiser station wagon with wood paneling. Her home echoes with Gujarati, “different to my ears from English-on-the-phone, English-with-the-neighbors.” The grownups socialize upstairs, the kids in the basement, “happily staining their hands with cholé and batakaa ni shak with roti,” while playing table tennis and pool.
A chapter called “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps,” is just that — a list of inanities accompanied by commentary. Shah’s shrink asks her to recommend an Indian restaurant. Acquaintances request invitations to her wedding because they’ve never been to an Indian one.
Shah’s thoughts on heritage and belonging are important and interesting. She goes beyond cultural commentary, however, to explore her development as a writer.
She examines the meaningful relationships in her life, including those she has lost. She memorializes a dear friend who commits suicide and her brother-in-law who died before she could meet him. She honors mentors and friends, past and present, and takes us through her wedding preparations.
When my Nana was 107, my sister and I moved her into a nursing home, where she spent her final two years as a powerful mascot for the other residents. The last time I was in Rochester was to bury her.
Like my grandmother, Sejal Shah returns to Rochester as a married woman. For Shah, Rochester is home. Even so, she questions her choice; she’s the only member of her family to elect to settle in the place of their birth.