From India, with love
Vail, CO, Colorado
From the shores of Bombay to the urban sprawl of Cleveland the cultures may change but the social practices do not, and there may not be a foremost authority on the subject than Thrity Umrigar.
The India-born, American-educated author visits The Bookworm in Edwards Friday evening at 6 to discuss her novels as well as the assimilation to American culture as an immigrant in pursuit of the “American Dream.” Umrigar, who is a professor of literature at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, is the author of the critical and commercial smash “The Space Between Us,” a novel that explores India’s rigid caste system. Her latest novel, “If Today Be Sweet,” was released earlier this month.
Although “The Space Between Us” made her famous in literary circles, “If Today Be Sweet” features subject matter and a story more familiar to Umrigar, running a parallel to her own immersion in a new homeland. “If Today Be Sweet” tells the story of the recently widowed Tehmina Sethna and her struggle to form a new life without her charismatic husband to balance out her shyness.
Tehmina moves in with her son, Sorab, who spends days, and many nights, crawling up the corporate ladder. As Sorab toils in the office, Tehmina attempts to bond with her daughter-in-law Susan, a classic American beauty who’s been afforded every opportunity in her suburban Cleveland bubble. Instead, the distraught Tehmina is the victim of Susan’s sharp tongue and cold shoulders, leaving the widow to ponder a return to India and its comfortable, familiar surroundings.
“In some sense ‘Sweet’ is the most personal of my books because in many ways it reflects the trajectory of my life,” Umrigar said, adding that she arrived in America as a naive 21-year-old student at The Ohio State University, and later Harvard.
As Tehmina navigates the unfamiliar course of American culture alone, while debating the merits of U.S. citizenship or a return to India, she turns her wary eye to the children next door. From a distance, Tehmina suspects the boys are mistreated, and possibly abused, by their mother. Tehmina cannot help but to further investigate.
The theme of abuse is also sadly familiar to Umrigar, whose memoir “First Child of the Morning” details her relationship with her own abusive mother. Ultimately, “If Today Be Sweet” chronicles the choices an immigrant must make to acclimate to America while staying true to native traditions.
“Many sociologists have commented about the fact that the genius of American society is to take once-radical political movements and ‘normalize’ and mainstream them,” Umrigar said. “It’s a kind of co-option that occurs. Something similar happens to ethnic minorities, also, I think. Part of it is that mainstream American society, rightly or wrongly, looks so attractive to outsiders that they all want to be part of it.
“I know that when I was 21, that described my approach to America. But as you get older, you realize that with every gain there is a loss and you learn to value the things that get lost in the process of assimilation.”
If “Today Be Sweet” also solidifies Umrigar’s standing in a hierarchy of talented, successful Indian authors whose stories have been met with lucrative sales and plenty of praise. Along with Umirgar, the India contingent includes Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-author of “The Namesake”; Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss”; and the mafioso epics of Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games” and Gregory David Roberts “Shantaram.” In the Hollywood sense, India is a ‘hot’ place to set a novel these days.
“I feel humbled to be compared with those writers,” Umrigar said. “The fact that India has produced such talented writers and such great stories doesn’t surprise me at all because India is such a larger-than-life country. I think there’s a story at every street corner in India. And thank goodness, we’re now living in a time when there’s a real thirst in America to know the stories of other cultures and peoples.”
With the success of “The Space Between Us” looming over her as she typed out If “Today Be Sweet,” Umrgiar promises that any pressure to one-up her big hit was self generated.
“The Space Between Us” poignantly and provocatively tells the story of two women whom India society practically forbids to relate on a meaningful level. Sera Dubash has every material possession available as part of the elite Parsi class. A product of opulence and excess, Sera still remains insecure, courtesy of her abusive husband.
Soon she realizes the things she buys can’t cover up what’s inside, and she begins to envy the life of her illiterate, street-savvy servant Bhima.
“The only pressure I felt was self generated by my conviction not to write the same book twice,” Umrigar said. “I wanted to write a book that was very different in tone and subject matter than ‘The Space Between Us.'”
Judging from early reviews, Umrigar succeeded in her goal, and then some.
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