by Terry Hong
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit so blatantly to literary-personality preferences, but I must confess here: Thrity Umrigar is my very favorite person to run into at (dreaded) literary conferences. I know from experience how irreverently entertaining she can be up on the stage: she made my then-day job that much easier when she was a guest at the Smithsonian some years back. She is also equally, distinctively effective from the audience. Once, when I moderated (under great duress) a lofty panel at one of those interminable multi-hotel übergatherings, Umrigar, who just happened to be there, was fiery, inquisitive, challenging, and threw out some of the most erudite questions ever.
That talent for astute inquiry from the anonymity of a full house is exactly what put Umrigar on the shelves. Over 15 years ago, Umrigar – who was by then already well into a journalism career, and about to become an English professor – was at a lecture at Emerson College in Boston when, of course, she directed queries to the speaker. “Based on my question, my agent-to-be approached me and asked me if I was writing anything,” Umrigar explains on her author website (not revealing to inquiring minds what the question was). “My agent has since told me that she has tried analyzing why she approached me instead of the other people who asked questions that evening but has been unable to come up with an answer. She says it was just a hunch. Anyway, I started mailing her chapters as fast as I wrote them and pretty soon, we had a book.”
Umrigar ‘bloom’-ed with Bombay Time in 2001, the year she hit 40. That debut novel, about the dissolution of decades-long relationships among the longtime residents of a Bombay apartment building, showcased what Umrigar has consistently sustained with each of her subsequent titles: the revealing glimpses of habits, choices, conversations – all the easy-to-overlook details that make up the immensity of our everyday lives.
Bombay’s characters reflected the familiarities of her own background: she, too, is Bombay-born, and was raised Parsi (or Zoroastrian) in a multigenerational home with extended family. “Daily life for so many people [in India] seemed like an endless struggle and yet, I watched these people live their lives with a typically Bombay brand of humor, with bravado and courage,” Umrigar explains about her inspiration for Bombay Time. “I wanted to commemorate their lives with my novel. I am also fascinated by the insider-outsider status of the Parsis of India. I wanted to examine their love-hate relationship with Bombay, torn as they are between disdain and a helpless love for the city of their birth.”
Umrigar left Bombay at age 21. Amidst a myriad of reasons why, what stands out is a searching spirit: “I remember the day when it occurred to me very clearly that if I lived in India, I would never be totally independent and would never discover who exactly I was as a person. I wanted to live in a place where I would rise or fall based on my own efforts and talents.” Although she “always wrote” as a child – “[w]riting was a way to make sense of the world outside and inside my home” – Umrigar credits her immigration as a young adult for making her literary life possible: “I don’t think I would’ve become a writer if I’d never left India. I’m deeply grateful to the U.S. for this gift,” she told me in a 2012 Bookslut interview.
That said, from her first title to her latest, her strong connection to her birthplace is clearly evident, as she creates insightful narratives to examine universal struggles of class, gender, traditions, socioeconomic status, and more: “I think any novelist would have to be fascinated by a city like Bombay,” Umrigar insists. “It’s a madhouse, bursting with color, and noise, and people, and melodrama, and stories. … I think any writer, Indian or non-Indian, could visit Bombay and pluck a story out of thin air. It’s my good fortune that I happen to have grown up in this city and therefore know it well enough to use it in my novels.” Familiarity is important, yes, but perhaps even more advantageous for Umrigar’s writing are her decades of training in journalism (MA from Ohio State, a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard) and English literature (PhD from Kent State, professor-ing at Case Western Reserve University), which enhance her fiction with a subtly acute depth that is all too rare amidst fellow bestselling authors. She’s figured out just how to balance her reporter’s eye for facts, figures, and details, with her intensive training in timelessly gorgeous texts for the most advantageous results.
After Bombay Time, came The Space Between Us (2006), which examines the relationship between a privileged woman and her servant. Their proximity allows for exchanges and intimacies that no one else could ever be privy to, but neither dares to cross the gaping divide even after decades together. Umrigar then moved mostly Stateside with If Today Be Sweet (2007), about an older Indian woman who suffers the sudden loss of her beloved husband; she’s uprooted from all that is familiar in Bombay to live thousands of miles away with her already-immigrated son and his family, and must adjust to the generational, cultural, geographic shocks of Midwest American suburbia.
Umrigar turned to her own childhood in her single nonfiction title, First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood (2008), in which she explores coming of age amidst the cultural clash of a colonial Bombay that privileged her with a middle-class, western-oriented education, even as she was excruciatingly aware of the poverty all around her. She returned to India as her setting in her fourth novel, The Weight of Heaven (2009), in which a grieving, irreparably damaged American couple attempt to break from the grief of losing their young son by beginning afresh in a small Indian town when the husband is offered a transfer by his U.S. employer. She returned to the East/West commute once more in The World We Found (2012), which featured four friends who first meet in their Bombay college days and then reunite decades later in America to fulfill the dying wish of one of their own.
Umrigar’s latest, The Story Hour, which pubbed last August 2014 is, perhaps, her most “American”— starring a young Indian immigrant bride and her African American therapist. It opens with a wish for death, and ends with the promise of renewal; in between are the minutiae of the daily lives of two vastly different women – ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, and so much more – who have more in common than anyone might have realized. Trapped in servitude in the restaurant/grocery store owned by her controlling husband, Lakshmi – already torn from her family and community – attempts suicide as her only means of escape. She cannot be released from the hospital unless she agrees to therapy with Maggie, her assigned psychologist; Lakshmi’s husband has no other choice than to begrudgingly allow Lakshmi weekly reprieves from work to go to her appointments. When Maggie agrees to see Lakshmi in her home office, breaking from professional protocol, Lakshmi misinterprets this as an invitation to friendship. In spite of Maggie’s attempts to keep a distanced client/patient relationship, their weekly hour soon multiplies into many more – Lakshmi’s gifts of food prove so delicious that Maggie offers her a catering job. The work provides Lakshmi with much needed money, but more importantly, encourages her to begin building her own sense of independent self. As more boundaries fall away, misunderstandings, conflicts, and even betrayal prove inevitable … and the women’s ‘story hour’ will need to find a new narrative to survive.
“More than anything else I want to tell a story with integrity,” Umrigar told Cleveland Magazine last August about her latest title. “One issue I am interested in with all of my books is who has the power and how they wield it against others.” And yet she’s also careful never to devolve into simple labels: “My larger point is human beings are such complicated creatures and that even honorable and good men and women act in ways that they wouldn’t if they were perhaps in different situations or had more economic opportunities,” she said in an interview for ArtsATL.com.
For now, with her Story Hour laudably launched in the world – the paperback version hits in July – Umrigar herself remains fluid, moving back-and-forth between the Ivory Tower as the new academic semester begins and into her writer’s haven with her current novel-in-progress. Yes, she’s always got a book in her; given her track record with her previous titles, she’s clearly got anticipating readers ready with waiting hands and open eyes. “There is no question that the eagerness to read stories from different cultures is only going up,” she muses. “Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children began an interest in diverse literature, and then Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner converted that interest in other cultures into a mass phenomenon. I think for people of color and minority cultures here in America, it’s a good time to be a writer.”