Thrity Umrigar: If Today Be Sweet

A Disquieting Clash of Cultures

In a wintry suburb of Cleveland, a recently widowed Parsi named Tehmina has come from her apartment in Bombay to visit — maybe to live with — her only son, Sorab, and his American wife, Susan. The couple have a 7-year-old child nicknamed Cookie, on whom Tehmina dotes. If this were India, it would be a given that Tehmina would live out her life with this small family, but this is America, and Susan has been complaining about the gray hairs her mother-in-law has been leaving in the shower. It’s unclear just how long Tehmina has been visiting, but the premise of the novel depends on whether she’ll return to Bombay — where she has no family and very few friends — or decide to stay in this sterile and isolated American suburb. It’s the middle of December, and she needs to decide by the New Year.

It seems like a straightforward idea for a novel, an opportunity to explore cultural differences and so on, but things don’t go right in this story. Thrity Umrigar, born and raised in Bombay, moved to Ohio to go to college. She was a journalist for many years and has a PhD in English. She should be thoroughly versed in both Parsi and American culture, but these characters — major and minor ones — seem just a bit hesitant, even sketchy. At one point, out on the couple’s front lawn, Tehmina remarks, “I think I’ll go inside for a few minutes.” Twelve lines later, her daughter-in-law suggests, “Listen, why don’t you go inside for a bit?” Repetitive, disconnected speech like this was employed by Stephen Crane in “The Red Badge of Courage,” and certainly by Pinter in some of his plays, but it seems strange in a conventional, domestic novel of manners.

Tehmina and Susan’s afternoon outside is interrupted by a difficult neighbor, a single mom with two little boys, Josh and Jerome, whom she abuses. When the brothers come home to an empty house — Tehmina and Susan are still on the brink of going inside for a bit — Jerome looks at Susan and says, “You’re pretty.” (Later in the narrative, Cookie, just Jerome’s age, will size up the wife of Sorab’s boss and say to her, “You’re pretty.”) When the boys’ mother finally comes home, she says to Susan, “Look, lady, I don’t need anybody monitoring my comings and goings. I’m thankful and all that, but next time just let my kids wait.” Again, there’s a tentative quality to this spoken dialogue. A woman who says “Look, lady” is not quite the same kind of person who uses “monitor” as a verb. Umrigar is exceedingly considerate of her characters, which keeps them just a bit out of focus for the reader.

The plot, too, is tentative, delicate. Three questions are asked: Will Tehmina return to India? Will Sorab lose his job to a woman named Grace who, in a parody of ad-agency jargon, uses words such as “fabtastic,” “wondersonic” and “fantabulous”? What’s going to happen to the abused children next door? While it’s fairly clear how these questions will be answered, the characters seem shy in the actions they take (until the high point near the end of the book).

Sorab goes to work but is only seen in conversation with his nutty superior. Susan and her mother-in-law go Christmas shopping. Tehmina goes grocery shopping with a neighbor who says, “We’d take care of all the young uns, wouldn’t we? Me and my siblings, we were poor as New Jersey dirt, but I tell you — we had each other and we were happy.” Sorab and Susan make love while Tehmina is in the next room. Tehmina gets a phone call from Bombay in the middle of the night that wakes up everyone in the American household. More shopping for more Christmas presents. And all is not well in the house next door.

Tehmina should be what we used to call the normative voice here, but she seems curiously paralyzed and busy at once, called upon to feel, for instance, “instinctive resolution,” “shocked hurt,” “coldness,” “disappointment,” “grief,” “guilt,” “sadness” and “revulsion,” all in one 13-line paragraph.

Fourteen days will pass in this novel. Tehmina performs an astonishing good deed for the little kids next door, a deed to which Sorab and Susan display such an abominable, cowardly, disloyal reaction that if I were Tehmina, I’d be on the next plane to Bombay. But the last pages here are a meditation on what it means to be famous in America and how Tehmina conquers all those around her by the power of her good nature, managing to get the odious Grace ousted from her job, safeguarding her own son’s career and even getting him a promotion.

Umrigar has undertaken to show us the cultural divide between Indian and American cultures, but in comparing these cultures she’s hampered by what may be an abundance of good manners, and even — in the case of the vocabulary-challenged Grace — a reliance on convenient stereotype. Finally, however, she makes an interesting point, one she’s mentioned in other works: We make up our own families wherever we are; we choose our circumstances; we are capable of becoming heroes anywhere.

Original article in the Washington Post

By Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com