Indian-born journalist and novelist Umrigar (English/Case Western Reserve Univ.; If Today Be Sweet, 2007, etc.) rekindles the emotional contradictions that affected her childhood as a “cultural mongrel” in the ’60s and ’70s.
Umrigar paints a stunningly detailed portrait of her multifaceted Bombay milieu. A Parsi minority in a Hindu-majority country, she attended Catholic school, where Hindi was taught as a foreign language. She defines her upbringing as middle class and captures the sadness of the excruciating poverty below her in India, specifically in her vivid descriptions of the starving child beggars at Chowpatty Beach. Umrigar’s home, a small, spare apartment with a joint-family living arrangement and nosy Parsi neighbors, was the source of much emotional turmoil and recrimination. In animated, anguished prose, the author depicts her mother as an unstable, angry and violent woman “with a tongue that can sting as hard as the cane she uses on me.” Umrigar found refuge in the kindness of her live-in spinster aunt, Mehroo, whose limited status as an unmarried woman is implicitly evoked. Although Umrigar was close to her father, she was too terrified to reveal her mother’s hidden beatings and abuse. The author evokes her volatile emotions in language that conveys the intensity of her pain, yet which may be too flowery for some readers: “My love feels so thick and heavy, it tastes like blood. Or grief.” Stifled at home, Umrigar, “restless and defiant,” sought an unconventional friend who broadened the author’s horizons with such gifts as the Irving Stone biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life. Eventually she decided to give up her family moniker of “First Darling in the Morning” and immigrate to America, noting that the desire to resettle was driven mainly by frustration and yearning.
Heartfelt memoir about the significance of origins and self-identity.