Book Review: Passage West by Rishi Reddi

Passage West

Rishi Reddi

April 21, 2020

Passage West is a vibrant first novel from Rishi Reddi following a family of Indian sharecroppers at the onset of World War I, revealing a little-known part of California history.

This wise and wonderfully written novel, reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s best, shines a light on a little-known facet of American history: the role of Indians — or Hindustanees as they were then more commonly known — in the California farming industry during the earliest days of the 20th century. Rishi Reddi’s debut is at once sweeping and deeply intimate, examining with both keen insight and empathy the plight of pre- and post-World War I sharecroppers as they struggled to adjust to and thrive in an era of constant upheaval. 

Our protagonist is Ram Singh, the reluctant immigrant who leaves behind his beloved wife Padma in India at the strong encouragement of his uncle, who took him and his mother in after his father’s untimely death. There isn’t much of a livelihood to be made in a country under the boot of British taxation, so Ram makes the long journey to America’s West Coast in order to begin repaying his debt of honor to his uncle. At first, he joins a cousin on a lumberjack gang in Oregon. A traumatic incident soon sees him fleeing south at the invitation of a friend he made while on the transit over.

His friend, Karak Singh, has been working on the cantaloupe farm of his own cousin, Jivan Singh, one of the most prominent figures in Imperial Valley’s Indian population. But he has ambitions for sharecropping his own parcel of land, and with war in Europe looming on the horizon, he believes that he can make a killing in cotton farming. Trouble is, he doesn’t have much experience with the product, which is where Ram’s expertise comes into play. Having grown cotton back in India, he understands the crop better than almost anyone else in the Valley:

When Ram held the first fibers in his hand, he felt he held a part of himself, but it was not the cotton of his boyhood. That cotton had come into being through the people who had lived before him for thousands of years on Punjabi soil; they had selected what seeds to plant, they had played with pollen and stamen and pistil to make what had not existed before. That cotton was the offspring of that soil and the people who lived on it, bound together.

 

The cotton he held now was new, like the settlements of the Imperial Valley itself. It had come from the experimental station in Arizona. It bore the name of people who were of this land–the Pima who worked for the American government to create it. It was new like the American people, built upon the backs of the original dwellers.

His instinctual love for cotton and farming, in addition to the money he feels duty-bound to send back to his uncle, keep him in California and away from Padma and their newborn son for much longer than he wants. But as war sweeps over the world, as global politics become local, as the rules of citizenship and the rights of immigrants change for the worse, Ram finds himself trapped in a world that seems intent on stripping him of everything he holds dear.

It’s wildly instructive to read of how race relations and immigration policies were at once so different yet similar to what we have in this country today. Ms. Reddi’s impeccable research, whether on the laws under President Woodrow Wilson or on the efforts necessary to turn a profit off of farming in the early 1900s, merges flawlessly into the fictional narrative of her devastating tale. Her writing is both clear-eyed and compassionate as she examines the struggles and xenophobia common to most of her characters, perhaps nowhere more sharply concise than in this passage, about those who choose to stay in the Valley after land laws make them local pariahs:

The Hindustanees with Mexican wives remained, the ones with children and dreams of children, the ones who had wished for a home as soon as they left their old unsatisfactory one. When they met each other in the streets, they recognized in each other’s eyes the challenge that they had accepted. They were to be “strange” so that the Anglos could be normal, they were to be dirty so that the Anglos could be clean, they were to know their place so that the Anglos could be sure of theirs. If their children sat in the same classrooms as the Anglo children, they were to consider themselves fortunate, so that the Anglos could feel generous.

Passage West is a brilliant, moving novel that earned every single one of the many tears I cried over it. It speaks to the question of what it means to be American, of who belongs, and, most importantly, how we can do better as a nation at guaranteeing the basic human rights and dignities of everyone who lives and works on this soil. I firmly believe that it’s destined to be an integral part of the national conversation moving forward, at least to those who read fiction and care about immigration. Ms. Reddi is a tremendous talent.

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