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The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar.

August 18, 2014

The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar.  Harper Perennial (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 400 pages.

SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS

A powerful novel about an American couple, devastated by the death of their young son, who move to India in hope of a new beginning only to be confronted with the real world that others inhabit.

Thrity Umrigar grew up in India and now lives in the United States. She has a unique talent for probing into her characters’ inner conflicts. Significantly, the characters about whom she writes are often ones involved in bridging cultural and economic gaps: servants and their employers or people living outside their native lands. Like many of us, some are people who want to “do right” by those less fortunate than themselves only to discover the complex, unpleasant motivations underneath their efforts. And they must also deal with the fact that their efforts may do more harm than good to those they set out to help.

In The Weight of Heaven, Frank and Ellie Benford are shattered by the death of their seven-year-old son, Benny. Although they had previously been very close, their attempts to deal with their grief has driven them apart. For no rational reason, Frank blames Ellie for the loss of Benny.

…It was as if a beautiful blue bowl, no, it was as if the world itself had fallen and broken into two halves. Try as he might, Frank couldn’t help but feel toward Ellie how he imagined Adam had felt toward Eve after the Fall—hostile and compassionate. Sad doomed and resentful. Above all, lonely. Above all, unable to regain that lost broken thing.

Seeking to regain their closeness, the couple moves to India where Frank becomes manager of a factory belonging to an international corporation, located in a small town near Mumbai. Ellie had been hopeful about the move but she soon discovers that India itself is not simply a passive setting for them to work out their problems, but a force that would impact their lives.

India, she had found out, was a place of political intrigue and economic corruption, a place occupied with real people with their own incessantly human needs, desires, ambitions, and aspirations, and not the exotic, spiritual, mysterious entity that was a creation of the Western imagination.

Ellie is determined not to let her grief harden into bitterness. “She would not shrivel, not become a snail living in her shell.” She loves India and has a close India woman friend, Nadita, who is very much her peer. Their conversation allow Umrigar to explore cultural differences. For Nadita, the contrasts are not just culture or race, but about who has access to power. Both of their nations are to be blamed for the problems the poor of India face. Meanwhile Frank relates to Indians primarily as a recalcitrant work force he must direct and control. Some of his problems are personal, but his is a global company, taking resources valuable to the resentful people of the community. The only real joy that Frank finds is in his growing friendship with Ramesh, the bright, nine-year-old son of the couple who are live-in servants at the couple’s house. Ramesh’s father, however, jealously determines to keep his son for himself.

After introducing her characters and their plight, Umrigar goes back to tell the story of Ellie and Frank’s romance, of how Beeny’s birth had brought them closer, and of the period around Benny’s death. Then she returns us to India and Frank’s growing obsession with Ramesh. The couple briefly share loving moments such as the festival of Diwali where the dancing “celebrated the paradoxical of joy and restraint, of delirium within a structure.” They were not able to sustain their times of closeness, however. I found the book’s ending surprising and troubling, but given the story, I could not imagine an alternative. Her description of Bombay/Mumbai is particularly moving.

I love Umrigar’s sharp probing writing and her strong descriptions of places and people. I trust her complex descriptions of India and its contradictions.

Bombay. Such a deceptive word, so soft sounding like a sponge cake in your mouth. Even Mumbai, the new name for the city, carries that round softness, so a visitor is unprepared for this giant, bewildering city, which is an assault, a punch in the face.

I am even more impressed by her ability to depict her characters’ internal contradictions.

The Weight of Heaven is a fine book that I recommend heartily to a wide range of readers. This is a darker book than the others of hers that I have read, but I respect her knowledge that life sometimes shows its darker aspects. Like Frank and Ellie, we need to face the fact that bad things happen to good people. While I didn’t find this book as compelling as her two more recent ones, The Space Between Us and The Story Hour (See my reviews), I will continue to read as much of her writing as I can find.

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