Thrity Umrigar: thri-tee oomrigar
Thrity Umrigar discusses her life and her books, Bombay Time and The Space Between Us, and the reality of servitude in India.
Tell us a little bit about your growing up years.
Well, I was born in Bombay and lived there until I was 21, when I came to the U.S. I was raised in a joint family, which meant I grew up around very loving aunts and uncles. And since I was an only child, it helped to have all those extra adults in my life, for love and guidance. I've always had many sets of parents and even today, have a knack for "adopting" parents.
What do you remember most about growing up in Bombay?
I have two overriding childhood memories or impressions: One, was always being excruciating aware of the poverty around me. Now, as a middle-class kid, you're not supposed to be that aware of--or certainly not supposed to be tortured by--the poverty around you. It's a defense mechanism of sorts, to be able to ignore it. For whatever reason, I was never able to ignore it and to some extent, it really affected my childhood, made me a hypersensitive child.
Two, I always wrote. Writing was my way to make sense of the world outside and inside my home. Despite the recollections of the adults in my life, I don't think I was a terribly articulate child. Writing was a way to give wings to the inchoate emotions and feelings inside of me.
When did you know you were a writer?
Well, I was writing poems at a very young age. As a child, I would write 'anonymous' poems to my parents whenever I felt wronged by them and then secretly pin them on their closet door. So I learned early on that writing was a good way to get rid of pent-up feelings.
All through my teen years I wrote poetry and short stories and essays. I think I knew I was a writer--not that I was necessarily a good writer, just that I was a writer--one evening when I was 14 or so. I remember sitting in my living room and writing this long poem called The Old Man that came out of me as if someone was dictating it. It was a terribly sappy poem but I felt compelled to write it and when I was done, I was exhausted but I knew something about myself that I didn't before.
Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?
I've never had an easy answer to that question. In some sense, my whole life prepared me for moving to the U.S. I was a product of an educational system that was very colonial and very Western in its orientation. I still remember my fourth-grade composition teacher telling the class not to create characters who were blond and blue-eyed. Her statement came as a shock because that was all we knew, you know? When I was a child, I read everything ever written by the British children's writer Enid Blyton and later, the Billy Bunter and William series of novels. And as I got older, all I was reading was Western literature. American pop culture was a big influence, also. I mean, until I picked up Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, I had hardly ever read a novel by an Indian writer. Rushdie was a revelation for me.
So that's the "sociological" answer. But of course, there were also a hundred personal reasons--wanting to travel, wanting an adventure, wanting to be independent, wanting to get away from certain aspects of my life, not knowing what the heck to do with myself after I'd finished college. 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. And I was very lucky to have a father, who, despite his immense sadness at having me so far away from home, always encouraged me to reach for my dreams and never held me back. . . But I'm not even sure it was this complicated. Remember, I was 21. Weird as it may sound, not much thought went into it.
So you came to Ohio State? Why Ohio State?
Well, that's a funny story. It's indicative of how so many major decisions in my life have been made. I was sitting in my living room in Bombay, checking off a list of American universities that offered a M.A. in journalism, when my eyes fell on "Ohio State University." There was a Joan Baez record playing on the turntable and right then, her song, Banks of the Ohio, came on. I looked up and thought, "It's a sign", and decided to apply there.
Hmmm. Well, I hope the experience there was worth it.
Oh, OSU was a blast. Two of the happiest years of my life. Within days of being there, I made friendships that have lasted till today. Those two years taught me that one can make new families at any point in one's life. I had such positive experiences there that it made me want to live in the U.S. forever. That one line in Bombay Time, where Jimmy Kanga feels like he loved Oxford so much he felt he could've gone to war for it, that's what it used to feel like to me. I'll always be grateful.
After OSU, I worked for two years at the Lorain Journal, a small but feisty little paper near Cleveland. It was a grueling experience, long hours, all that, but when I left there, I knew I could tackle anything that daily journalism threw my way.
So you came to the Akron Beacon Journal when?
In 1987. The Beacon had the reputation of being a real writer's paper and had just won yet another Pulitzer. It was a great paper to work at. Still is.
How did Bombay Time come about? Were you writing it in Akron?
I had started the novel a few years ago under a very different plot structure. The first incarnation of the novel was much more 'plot-heavy'. Then, I arrived at a crossroads in that I had to decide between finishing the novel or my Ph.D. dissertation (while working full-time as a journalist) and I opted to finish the dissertation. The novel was discarded but not forgotten. Then, in 1999 I won the Nieman fellowship, which allows journalists a year of study at Harvard. When I found out I'd gotten the Nieman, I promised myself that I would pick up the novel again and I did. I salvaged odds and ends from the abandoned manuscript and wrote some new chapters during the first semester.
But it was during the second semester that the novel really took off. I went home to Bombay during the Christmas break and was struck by how many people there led such sad lives. I remember lying on the couch in my father's apartment one afternoon and vowing to finish the novel. I felt a desperate , burning urge to tell the story of the people I'd grown up around.
I kept that promise to myself when I returned to Cambridge. I was actually grateful for jetlag, because it was easy to wake up at 4 a.m. I would write each morning for a few hours before starting my work day. On some days, the writing flowed so easily--almost compulsively, you could say--that I would skip school and write for eight to 10 hours straight. The bulk of the novel was written in less than two months. I liked having the lonely, solitary experience of writing juxtaposed against the socially hectic and busy life I had as a Nieman fellow. I worked hard and partied hard during this period and that balance was somehow very important.
What's Bombay Time about?
Good question. I'm still trying to figure that out myself. Basically, it's a story about this group of middle-aged people who are residents of an apartment building in Bombay. All the characters are Parsis or Zoroastrians, - which is the religion I was raised in. Parsis are members of a small ethnic minority who came to India as political refugees from Persia over 900 years ago, and who went on to become one of India's most affluent and Westernized ethnic communities.
So, against the backdrop of a wedding reception, I tell the life stories of the individual residents--who they were in their youth, what has made them who they are today--and ask the question of how does one live a middle-class existence in a city of so much poverty? That's it, in a nutshell. Hopefully, the novel is more interesting than my summary of it.
What was the inspiration for Bombay Time?
Growing up in India exposed me to many stories of startling pathos and tragedy. Daily life for so many people 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. 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. In a sense, you can say that that's the story of the middle-class in any city around the world that's besieged with corruption and violence and poverty.
Who are your favorite authors?
I draw inspiration from everywhere. I'm one of those people who even reads cereal boxes. But my favorite authors are Salman Rushdie (I recently re-read Midnight's Children and wept in awe and gratitude), Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. But influence is a hard thing to account for--I think Bob Dylan and Emily Dickinson have probably influenced my writing--in terms of making me crazy about words--as much as anybody.
So how hard was it finding a publisher? It happened during your Nieman year, right?
Although my friends tell me how lucky I was to find a publisher, I tell them that that wasn't the miraculous part. Because that was the result of effort, a cause-and-effect kind of thing. The truly miraculous part was finding an agent.
What happened was, I was attending a lecture at Emerson College in Boston and asked the speaker a question. Based on my question, my agent-to-be approached me and asked me if I was writing anything. Believe me, my question was not terribly brilliant or clever or anything. 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.
Well, I wrote the bookor at least, a solid first draftin about six months in 2003. But as I always say, Ive been writing this book forever.
What do you mean?
I grew up in a middle-class home in Bombay where we always employed servants. And even as a child I was always aware of what a complicated, emotionally charged relationship it was between the mistress of the household and the domestic servantwho was almost always a woman. I mean, it is impossible to have two human beings work and live in a contained domestic space all day long and not form some kind of a bond or human connection. And I thought that this was rich literary territory to explore. So in some sensein the sense of being aware of these issues and thinking about them, Ive been writing this novel at least since I was a teenager.
The whole issue of employing servants is so alien to most contemporary Americans. Can you talk about this some?
Sure. The first thing to understand is that, unlike, say, the aristocrats of England or something, in India, you dont have to be terribly rich to have servants. Almost every middle-class home employs someone to come in to help with the cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. Sometimes its more than one person. And the reason for this is simplelabor is cheap in India. And until very recently, most people didnt have washers and dryers, vacuum cleanersall the labor-saving devices that we take for granted in the West.
So the way it works is that someone comes into your home early in the morning and basically spends the day performing household chores. And if the mistress is a housewife like Sera Dubash, if shes not a working woman, she will work alongside the servant. For instance, she may cook while the servant is chopping up the vegetables or washing the dishes. And the women talk. Often, the servant may unload her burdens onto the mistresstales of wayward husbands, children who refuse to attend school, oppressive mothers-in-lawyou know, the normal things that women all over the world talk about. And the servant is in the home for seven, eight, nine hours a dayshe is a witness, she observes everything that happens in the home. She knows the family secrets, all the hidden things about relationships, problems, things that even the familys neighbors or friends may be unaware of. And so a kind of unlikely friendship, a trust, an unspoken language of understanding, springs up between the women. But there is always the elephant in the room, and that elephant, of course, is class. There is always a formality, a ritualized space that can never quite be bridged. Each woman is governed and restricted by class divisions.
In the novel, Sera wont let Bhima sit on the furniture or drink out of the familys glasses. Is that because of the caste system that one hears about in India? Is Bhima an untouchable?
Sera Dubash is a Parsi, not a Hindu. And the caste system that you refer toyou know, the system where there are four different castes and each caste is governed by its own rules and traditionsis something thats unique to the Hindu faith. And no, Bhima is not meant to be an untouchablethat is, a member of the lowest caste.
I dont think this is a book about caste at all. Rather, its a book about class divisions. All the things that you noticedBhima not being able to use the family dishes, sit at the tableare simply manifestations of how class issues have polarized people in India and how those polarizations have gotten codified into traditions. Do you know what I mean? In that sense, its not so different from the American South fifty years ago, when the black maid always had to enter from the back door and took all her meals in the kitchen. I was doing a book reading in California earlier this year when a woman who grew up on the Upper West Side in New York said the book reminded her of how her family treated the nanny who had raised her. So these strange, dehumanizing traditions are not unique to India.
How have Western audiences reacted to the book?
You know, when the book came out, my biggest concern was that Western readers would read The Space Between Us as a book about a distant, faraway, alien culture with weird customsyou know, the usual exotic East syndromeand not get that the themes of the book are universal. At its most basic, The Space Between Us is a book about what brings us together and what divides us as human beings. So it has been particularly gratifying to have smart, thoughtful, insightful readers make their own connections and apply the themes of the book to their own conditions and lives. So many of them have talked about their own encounters with the kinds of issues that Bhima and Sera face.
My Indian editor, Nandita Agarwal, coined a fantastic phraseshe said the novel was about the Indian apartheid. She was referring to this unfortunate attitude that middle-class Indians have toward domestic help that allows them to not see and to marginalize the people who sweat and work in their homes. And at each book reading we talk about this and I ask the inevitable question: what is the American apartheidwhat biases, prejudices do we suffer from, what are the areas of our society that we refuse to face? And almost always, people tell personal stories or talk about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how that exposed unpleasant truths about our own culture in America.
You now live in the United States. Does that help or hurt when youre writing about India?
I think for the most part its helpful. I mean, you have the inevitable worries about being accurate, getting the details right. I usually solve that by staying away from whats current and immediateyou know, what the latest movies are, what the big hit songs areand writing about things that are more timeless. Like the spirit and resiliency of Bombayites. Like the Arabian Seawhich is as polluted and gray and beautiful as ever. Like those fabulous Bombay skies at dusk.
But I think the distance also helps me gain a certain critical perspective thats essential for good writing. It makes it possible to be more truthful in my writing, to speak some harsh truths. And being an immigrant in
America, always having this outsiderinsider thing going on, is such great training for being a writer. Because thats what writers areoutsiders want to get on the inside and insiders longing to burst out.
What are you working on now?
Im writing a novel, my first book set in the United States. Its a story about immigration, what it means to be an outsiderinsider, to belong to several worlds all at the same time.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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