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First Darling of the Morning, by Thrity Umrigar.

December 21, 2013

First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, by Thrity Umrigar.  Harper Perennial (2008), Paperback, 294 pages


A vivid memoir by an Indian author of her childhood and adolescence in Bombay’s Parsi community.

Thrity Umirgar was born in Bombay (as Mumbai was still called) after India became independent.  She left after she had graduated from college.  Her memoir offers readers insight into how her early years shaped the woman she became and the values that continue to influence her writings.

The household in which Thrity grew up was complicated, containing her mother and father, his brother and his wife and daughter, and her unmarried aunt.   Her aunt, Mehroo, had raised her two younger siblings after their mother died.  Remaining single, she continued to be responsible for them, and their families.  Thrity learned of love from her “sad-eyed, excessively sentimental, self-sacrificing, hypersensitive, spinster aunt.”  In contrast, Thrity’s mother was an angry abusive woman who constantly beat and degraded Thrity, claiming she was a snake rather than a daughter.  As she grew older, Thrity found companionship with her sad and gentle father.  She felt that they were much alike, both of them are “hungry for the same things—kindness and love and beauty and grace—and that neither of us has found these things in my mother.”  Thrity responded by sharing his pain and feeling guilty when she was happy.   When her uncle died when she was thirteen, Thrity felt the responsibility of taking emotional care of all her family.

For Thrity school was a haven from her explosive household.  When she was an adolescent, Jenny, the college age girl next door, introduced her to art, music and books that offered a glimpse into a world beyond Bombay.  She also exposed Thrity to radical politics.  In college herself, Thrity engaged in the student movements of the sixties, rebelling against Indira Gandhi’s repressive Emergency Measures.  But none of her interests were enough to counter her need to escape her home and the  society in which she was raised.  Taking a journalism job in Bombay after college would mean continuing to live at home where her mother’s “madness” was becoming unbearable.   On her own, Thrity makes the “impossible dream” of going to America come true and goes there for grad school in journalism.

Umirgar writes with sharp humor and insight about her life.  The early section of the book reveals a sensitive girl, depressed and frightened by her mother.  Yet in telling the story, Umirgar is upbeat and positive, obviously not beaten down by the situation she describes.  As she grows up, readers see the strength that she finds within herself and from the love of people around her.  Umirgar acknowledges that “Books were more than a refuge: they were an escape from the realities of my life.”   Words also became a tool with which she could control and transform “the world that was with the world as I’d wanted it to be.”

Readers also see the beginnings of Umirgar’s concerns about inequality and social injustice.  Her family had modest wealth, but she saw the despair around her.  When an employee of the family firm led a strike and left the company, she also the stark gap between classes.  She realizes that they could never have really become friends and that what she feels is simply “liberal guilt.”  Going to the beach, she was overwhelmed by “the contradictions, the inequalities that I live with every day.”    At home she could ignore their existence, but at the beach, “there is no turning away from these dark and hungry eyes and from questions about the randomness of privilege that they rouse in me.”  Despite such an awareness of poverty and pain, Umirgar’s writing is never polemic.

I strongly recommend this book to all readers who enjoy memoirs, to those interested in India, and to those who simply appreciate learning about the life of a strong sensitive woman.  I have added Umirgar’s novel The Space Between Us to my wish list.


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