Sunday, March 17, 2013

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar's The World We Found caught my eye because it's on the longlist for lesbian fiction in the current Lambda Literary Awards. It's about the lives and relationships of four Hindu women who were best friends throughout their Bombay childhood and university years.

Armaiti left India to continue her studies at Harvard, got married in America and stayed there. Kavita never admitted her attraction to Armaiti, but now, thirty years later, has a satisfying relationship with a German woman she met through work. Laleh married a rich man and they have two teenaged children. Nishta married a Muslim who has become more rigid in his views over time.

Three of the women maintain loose connections, but they've lost touch completely with Nishta. When Armaiti learns that she has a brain tumor and six months to live, she is determined to see her old friends one more time.

I felt cheated that the women in this character-driven story were not given more to do besides work through some emotional pain they'd held since they were political activists as students. Kavita also needs to find courage to live her life more openly, and they have to track down Nishta and figure out what to do when her husband won't allow her to go. But those things didn't feel substantial enough. The brief scenes between Nishta's husband, Iqbal, and Laleh's husband, Adish, are the most poignant. They're what I think about now that I've finished the book.

There's a lot of interior stuff going on with the four women, which is something I normally like. Umrigar's style, however, is overly dramatic for my taste.
"The lyrics to 'The Boxer' were burnt into [Laleh's] soul, were part of her DNA, and after all these years they still got to her, a testimonial to a battered, bruised resilience that she was beginning to understand better and better the older she got. It was a wonder that they had loved this song so much in their teenage years -- what part of it could have possibly spoken to them? [...] After Armaiti had left for America, Laleh would think of her when she heard the lines about the bleeding New York City winters and the pocketful of mumbles, and worry about her friend. But today, in the car, she heard the song differently, and thought of Armaiti in a new way, as a survivor - But the fighter still remains -- hanging on, waiting for them to reach her.
The song reached its soaring climax, the lyrics giving way to the Lai La Lai's, a rising tidal wave of sound that gave the song its anthem-like power. Laleh imagined it [...] a whole generation, soaring, transported, being lifted on the shoulders of those Lai La Lai's, marching together, resisting, fighting back, defying death together. Her melancholy was so pure and acute it tipped over and became joy."
I adored Simon and Garfunkel, and 'The Boxer' in particular, when I was a teenager too. But burning lyrics into one's soul is going too far, never mind being part of one's DNA. Also, I can't believe that melancholia can be distilled into joy. So I felt torn between identifying with Laleh and my dislike of Umrigar's writing style.

The sections having to do with Kavita were enjoyable, but didn't take up much of the story. The other things that resonated had more to do with the contents of an Iranian memoir I happened to be reading at the same time: Nylon Road by Parsua Bashi. The two books share a background of political upheaval and religious intolerance. Also:

1. Umrigar's character Armaiti and Bashi were both militant communists who later became disillusioned with the ideology.
2. Bashi and Umrigar both address the issue of "brain drain" and loyalty to one's country; resisting the pull of money and personal safety drawing educated people towards immigration to Western countries.
3. Laleh's husband is Parsi, a member of a cultural group forced from Iran centuries ago because of religious persecution by Islamic invaders.
4. Both books portray recent historical periods of extreme violence in the streets.
4. Bashi and Umrigar both write about what it's like to wear a burka in hot weather. As does Nicola Barker in another book I read recently, The Yips.

I was disappointed with The World We Found, but I know that other readers will enjoy it. Sometimes I'm just too fussy.

Readalikes: Ya-Yas in Bloom (Rebecca Wells); Six of One (Rita Mae Brown); The Weird Sisters (Eleanor Brown); and various works by Ann Brashares, Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks. If you are looking for a whole lot of lesbian content in contemporary (or rather, 1980s) India, I suggest Babyji by Abha Dawesar.

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