I have a confession to make. Since the first time I picked up MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN, I've been a pushover for anything Anglo-Indian in fiction. It's not just the joys of Bollywood references and the mad fun that is Hinglish; it is, of course, the fact that Anglo-Indian authors (Rushdie, Lahiri, Divakaruni, Seth, Chandra) actually do new things with novels without sacrificing good stories.
Even when those authors, whose multicultural heritages and lives have steeped them in language play, choose to "play it straight" and write a simpler narrative, the result is often richer than it might be in the hands of an American or British novelist. One of the American Anglo-Indian novelists whose work I like best is Thrity Umrigar. Umrigar is a serious journalist with a Ph.D. in English whose 2001 debut, BOMBAY TIME, has stayed with me for years, like the memory of a truly delicious and satisfying meal. The description of a long-married couple leafing through their satin-covered wedding album together remains one of the most tender evocations of nostalgia I've ever read.
"Tender" is a good word to apply to Umrigar's books, as one critic did in a recent review of her latest novel, IF TODAY BE SWEET. Tehmina “Tammy” Sethna is a recent Parsi widow who has landed in suburban Cleveland because her beloved and very successful son settled there with his American wife after finishing college. For decades she relied on her gregarious, decisive husband Rustom; now that she has lost him and left their Bombay home, she feels more dithering and ambivalent about everything than she ever did. Although her son Sorab and WASPy wife Susan try to make her feel at home, she gets on their nerves (and puts a damper on their lovemaking). Although her grandson Cavas, or “Cookie,” adores her, he is an American child with our culture’s casual indifference towards societal elders. Her closest friend and boon companion turns out to be the immensely large and comforting Eve Metzenbaum, whose own grown son’s casual American indifference towards his mother infuriates Tammy.
What angers Tammy much more, however, is the cruelty and abuse she sees going on next door, where the owner’s trashy sister-in-law mistreats her two young sons past the point of Tammy’s ability to turn the other way. On Christmas Eve, she takes matters into her own hands, leaps the tall suburban fence between the two houses and rescues the children from their sad situation. Once that occurs, the novel’s resolution is swift and nearly glib: Sorab’s boss recognizes Tammy’s authentic spirit and decides to promote her son, the rescued boys are happy with their aunt and uncle, and Tammy not only asserts her identity but her independence as well.
That doesn’t matter one bit. In fact, despite its glibness, the conclusion doesn’t feel tacked on but rather natural. That’s because Umrigar is not playing for plot; she’s writing to explore the nuances of life on the margins. What does it mean to lose your partner? Can a single elderly woman make a difference? Is it better to be honorable, or successful? And tell me --- where is the Amer-Anglo-Indian border? In Umrigar’s beautifully evoked universe, it’s shifting all the time.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on June 1, 2008
If Today Be Sweet