Interplay of Words and Worlds
Thrity Umrigar’s novels explore the cultural divide between India and the United States through universal human experiences and relatable characters.
I read “The Story Hour” by Indian American journalist and author Thrity Umrigar, when it released in 2014. Reading Umrigar’s books is an immersive experience. Her characters are deceptively simple, but keep their hold on the readers even when the last page is turned. Umrigar is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “I became a writer because I was a reader from a very young age,” she says. “Writing was an outlet for my feelings and emotions.”
Rights and wrongs
With “Bombay Time,” her debut novel, Umrigar says that if she “was trying to change anything, it was, perhaps, to do with perceptions about Parsis. Even if we are a very small, distinct ethnic minority, we are an integral part of the larger fabric of the country.”
There was also a desire to commemorate this community in all its human richness. And it’s here that her work is reminiscent of Rohinton Mistry, an award-winning Indian-born Canadian writer. “I like his work very much,” she says. Umrigar reads a lot of contemporary writers like Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf are among her favorites.
Umrigar has often reflected on the aspect that, in some ways, her early writings weren’t just forms of self-expression, but were also efforts to right some perceived wrongs. “When you are 5, the perceived wrong may be a piece of chocolate you wanted and which your parents gave to someone else,” she says. “As we grow older, our perceptions of what is wrong grows with our expanding world. And, therefore, what we want to change becomes larger.”
Born in Mumbai, Umrigar moved to the United States at the age of 21. “In India, the extreme poverty around me, in stark contrast to my life, forced me to notice how power and privilege work,” she says. “Who uses power against whom, what the strategies of resistance are, especially among those who have very little of it. Because, let’s face it, even the most powerless person does usually try to mitigate the circumstances.”
Through her writing and her characters, she explores the concept of power, especially through the eyes of the “people who don’t usually have power and don’t have a chance to wield power against those who do.”
So, what happens when a poor, powerless woman, under dire circumstances, moves to the United States, where language and other behaviors serve to complete her isolation? In “The Story Hour,” Umrigar explores the uncomfortable questions that moving to a supposed land of plenty like the United States entails for those already on the margins of society. “It was my most difficult book to write,” she says. “Especially the sections on Lakshmi,” one of the protagonists. Umrigar had to struggle to figure out her speech mechanics as well as make her an engaging character. “Despite her poor English and grammar, I wanted her intelligence and humanity to come through,” she adds.
It’s this humaneness that makes Umrigar’s characters transcend borders and touch readers in diverse contexts. For example, in “Everybody’s Son,” a child escapes a locked room only to enter a cage of another kind.
The novel is also an exploration of race, class divide and the thread of isolation. Published in June 2017, it is, perhaps, Umrigar’s most explicit exploration of the power and privilege that race bequeaths in the United States.
Loss and isolation are recurring themes in Umrigar’s works. In “Everybody’s Son,” we see it in the death of children and lost childhoods. In “The World We Found,” we see it in the separation of friends. “These are universal human experiences,” she says. “In a novel, they are more pronounced because they are condensed versions of life. Life, in so many ways, is a journey of loss.”
Umrigar recently started writing for children, with her first book, “When I Carried You in My Belly,” published in April 2017.
Even though Umrigar has no favorites among the characters she creates, she mentions how she enjoyed creating Ellie Benton in the “The Weight of Heaven” and would have liked to have her in the novel for a while longer. But, as she explains, “The plot dictates when you are done with a character.”
Talking about books in general, Umrigar says they are “an interplay, a dance” between the author and readers. “As an author, I believe a book belongs to you until the day it’s published,” she says. “Once a reader picks it up, the reader is engaged in your dance. Then, it’s a duet of some kind.”
Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.