Acclaimed author Thrity Umrigar deftly explores lost youth and opportunity in her coming-of-middle-age novel, The World We Found. Susan Soon He Stanton reviews her latest work.
ISSUE: Winter 2011-12
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
Thrity Umrigar, the internationally renowned author of The Weight of Heaven and The Space Between Us, returns with a powerful rumination on the lives of women in contemporary India. In their reign as politically active students in 1970s Bombay, Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita and Nishta created a pact to carve out a brave new India. Their parents scoff, “darlings, if there is to be a new India, it will be built by the politicians and the businessmen … not by a couple of little girls pretending to be revolutionaries.” Undeterred, the women attended dangerous protests with fresh-faced idealism. Twenty years later, the women have drifted apart in their adult lives. The narrative, divided between the four women and some of their partners, reveals that each friend quietly believes her life has become a compromise of her earlier ideals. The estranged friends ruefully mull over the choices that transformed their radical and glorious youth into a dull, middle-aged existence.
Armaiti, now living in the U.S., is gravely ill and requests a reunion. Separated by decades, religion and continents, Laleh and Kavita fight to make this improbable summons a reality. Unlike her wealthy childhood friends, Nishta lives a humble and increasingly isolated life, controlled by her Muslim husband, Iqbal. Deeply traumatized by the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1993, Iqbal has transformed from a fellow revolutionary to a devout Muslim and forbids Nishta to travel to America.
Umrigar spends much care dramatizing the two sides of the troubled union. While Nishta comes across as a more sympathetic character, both in her desperate need to break free from a stifling marriage and her desire to reunite with her friends, Iqbal is a tragic and complex man. Although every character battles their remembrances, the most powerful debate between past and present self lies in Iqbal’s struggle. Bitter and broken down, but not evil, he defies performing the role of a simple villain. His unlikely friendship with Laleh’s Parsi husband is intriguing and nuanced. More than any other story, Iqbal haunts the novel, as if he wills his own fears of prejudice and religious intolerance into reality.
Iqbal, a poor Muslim, is contrasted with many of the Hindu or Parsi characters suffering from middle-class guilt. After Laleh speaks out at a dinner party, her husband dispenses a harsh reality check. “Take a good look at yourself. You spend money as your heart desires, who the hell do you think you are? The proletariat?” Despite her grand notions and high ideals, Laleh finally comes to terms with her own hypocrisy.
Umrigar builds her novel with a slow and subtle deliberation. According to her characters, their youth is so interesting and their present so dull, a reader may question why Umrigar did not begin her tale in the thick of the action in the 1970s. Even Armaiti responds to her declining health with listless melancholy and not the passionate anger of her former self. But Umrigar’s decision to deny her characters and her readers access into the past, endows that era with an unattainable quality. The characters long to revisit the past as much as the reader may want to learn about it. This longing infuses the novel with bittersweet notes that add depth to this coming-into-middle-age story.
Although The World We Found is a good read from top to bottom, the novel gains momentum as the friends prepare for their trip. As the characters are motivated to leave their respective ruts, the stakes grow and the final chapters of the novel are breathtaking and suspenseful.
Although this is a story that builds strength as it goes, The World We Found is an engrossing novel about friendship and the intricacies of human nature. Moreover, it is an impressive work of fiction by a stunningly gifted writer.