What is this book about?
Thrifty Umrigar is the author of the acclaimed novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, and If Today Be Sweet. She grew up in a middle class Parsi family in Bombay (now Mumbai) India. In her coming of age memoir she examines her childhood, exploring what things and people helped contribute to her becoming a writer. In doing so she honors the people who raised her. She lived in a joint household that included her parents, an aunt, an uncle and his wife and her cousin. She opens her life up to us with brutal honesty sharing the pain and embarrassment of living with an abusive mother, her writing influences, her teenage rebellion and finally her decision to leave Bombay to finish her education in America. All of this takes place against the backdrop of Bombay in the 1960’s and 70’s.
It is easy to see why Thrifty Umrigar’s novels are so popular; she is a talented and gifted writer. I particularly enjoyed learning of her early writing influences:
Thrifty attends a private catholic school. Her 4th grade composition teacher turns her writing world upside down when she tells the class, “For once in your life do not make your characters blond and blue eyed. And for heaven’s sake give them real names, that is, Indian names, not names like Mr. Jones and Mr. Henderson. Thrifty and her classmates grew up reading Enid Blyton books. Thrifty had lived so intensely in the fictional world of small-town England that she knew more about this world than the hot crowded, equatorial city of dark haired men and women that she dwelled in. Her teacher’s question helps her realize:
Writing is - can be – a complicated and important thing. And that it is tied to other things, things like culture and nationality and history and where you live. This is a brand new thought that all writing is not the same and that where you live can define who you are and so change the way you write. I am both excited and confused by how a simple request to change the physical descriptions of our characters is taking me down a new path, making me think about these things that I have never thought about before.From a conversation she overhears about the song The Boxer:
And in a flash I understand something new: that just as reading and writing are linked, so are questions and answers. You have to know how to phrase a question to get the right answer. (Pg. 88)
I can’t get over this song even though I’ve heard it a million times. Just listen to the lyrics. They’re like a poem. I tell you, this is the song by which the ‘sixties will be remembered.’Other early writing influences are Demian and Steppenwolf written by Hermann Hesse and Irving Stone's Lust for Life:
I have no idea what they’re talking about. But the hair on my arm stands up and I am filled with a rush of excitement. Where I come from, nobody ever talks this way about music. Where I come from a song, is something to be whistled along with and music is an impractical luxury, like flowers and art and museums. Nobody I know has ever asked me to listen to the words of a song. (Pg. 110)
I read Van Gogh’s biography in two days and learn more about the mysteries of my own life than about his. All the things that have never made sense to me before - why I never felt comfortable when I was with the ‘in” crowd, why I always stuck up for the underdog, why I don’t lust after the things that make most of my friends happy, why the evening sky has made me feel melancholy and lonely for as long as I can remember, why certain songs have a heart-tearing effect on me. All of these suddenly become clearer.Thrifty reminds me so much of myself. I think we are the same age. We both grew up feeling trapped in an unhappy household and we both escaped into the world of books. We both eventually end up leaving home never to return; me from my family's farm in rural Wisconsin and her from her home in Bombay.
I have been a misfit for a long time. Now I have a companion in a crazy Dutch painter who was dead long before I was born. (Pg. 119)
Thrifty, exhausted from trying to keep the peace at home decides to go to college in America. Here she writes about her decision:
America. A way out. If I am to get away from my dead-end life, I will have to find my way to America, land of self-invention. This is the only place I know where one can start anew. As long as I am unmarried, I know that economics and social convention will dictate that I live at home.
All the things I thought would save me – music, books, politics – have befriended me for a while but ultimately I’ve had to come back and face myself. After years of looking forward to a job and independence it would give me. I’m facing up to the facts: I do not feel prepared to enter the work world and as long as I’m living at home, I will never be truly free. I will never find out who I am with all these people around me. (Pg. 260)She decides to move to America and not to another city in India because:
After all Bombay is the glittering jewel in India’s crown. Bombay is the place where the rest of India migrates toward. To leave the city and settle in one of the lesser places would be a slap in my father’s face. As repudiation of the life I have here. (Pg. 261)The book ends with Thrity’s plane leaving for America. For me, this ending feels abrupt. I have so many questions; how did Thrifty pay for her education once she got to Ohio State, did her new life in America meet her expectations and how did it compare to life in India. Fortunately, I was able to find the answer to some of these questions in a radio interview on blogtalkradio.
Thrifty had read so many books set in America prior to her arrival that her expectations pretty much matched reality. She never assumed our streets were paved in gold. Her first two years here were the happiest of her life. When she arrived she hadn't known anyone and had led such a sheltered life in Bombay – she had never even gone grocery shopping before. She was continuously amazed by the acts of kindness and generosity she received from strangers who help her find her way.
As to class differences – America prides itself on being a classless society, but there are class differences here, they are just more hidden. There is also poverty in America. You don’t see it because you don’t venture into those neighborhoods. India has substantially more poor people and you don’t have the option of looking away; the poor are everywhere. She left India in the early eighties, unfortunately based on her observations India’s poverty problem has not improved since then.
This book was a good selection for my Around the World in 80 Countries Nonfiction Reading Challenge. I recommend it to anyone who would like to learn more about Thrity Umrigar, enjoys reading author memoirs or likes a good coming of age story.
Have you read Thrity Umrigar’s book First Darling of the Morning? If so what were your thoughts?
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