Umrigar’s latest (The Space Between Us, 2006, etc.) offers a tender portrait of a Bombay widow and her Americanized son, and the culture clash that ensues.
Tehmina Sethna has been emotionally adrift since her beloved, charismatic husband Rustom died. She was hoping to find some solace with her only child Sorab in Cleveland, but the long bleak winter and Sorab’s disapproving wife Susan has made the stay awkward at best. Sorab and Susan have invited Tehmina to leave Bombay for good, move in with them and start life anew, but there seems little on offer in America but bland opulence. Though her family is in America (including seven-year-old grandson Cavas) and Tehmina has a good friend in the spirited Eva Metzembaum, the lure of India and the memories she shared there with Rustom may prove more powerful than the ties of family. Umrigar shifts nicely between Tehmina and her son Sorab, who’s having problems of his own: In India there would be little question about Tehmina moving in with the family, but can the same deference be expected of an American wife? Acutely aware of Susan’s subtle complaints about Tehmina (she doesn’t rinse out the tub after each use, she’s too emotional about her dead husband), Sorab finds he’s becoming slightly afraid of his wife’s thin-lipped grimace. Furthermore, while his wife is suggesting they buy a larger house if Tehmina decides to stay, Sorab’s awful new boss is hinting his position is in jeopardy. Though Sorab and his Indian friends make for a vivid picture of assimilated life in the American Midwest, the story belongs to Tehmina, who must very soon make a decision about returning to Bombay (and all the vibrancy it represents) or staying with her remaining family. Though the ghost of Rustom is advising her, it is Sorab’s next-door neighbor who inadvertently helps Tehmina with her decision—a mother who is abusing her two young sons spurs Tehmina into action, helping her become the robust, independent woman she was before her husband’s death.
Though less expansive than her last novel, Umrigar’s intimate portrayal of a mother and son divided by culture is a convincing testament to the enduring power of place.