If Today Be Sweet, by Thrity Umrigar.
If Today Be Sweet, by Thrity Umrigar. William Morrow (2007), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 296 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A compassionate book by an Indian woman about a widow from Bombay visiting her son’s family in Ohio and trying to decide whether to stay with them permanently or to return to her familiar life.
Thrity Umrigar grew up in Bombay, or as it is now known Mumbai. Like some of her characters, she is a Parsi, from a Zoroastrian religious tradition. She came to the United States to attend college, to work as a journalist, and, more recently, to write creative novels about how people relate across cultural and social divides. I think that her book, The Space Between Us, is most insightful account of the tensions implicit when a woman employs another woman as her domestic servant. She has become one of my favorite writers for her ability to display the contradictions that all of us carry within.
In this book, Themina is the recent widow of a forceful and loving husband. After his death, she leaves Bombay to visit their only son, his white, American wife, and their seven-year-old boy in a suburb of Cleveland. They have welcomed her into their spacious home, but she has to decide if she wants to remain with them or to return to the vibrant city where she has lived most of her life. Through her eyes we see and understand the problems and the appeals of both alternatives. Her son and his family are loving, and she tries to fit in, but tensions arise between the generations and between Indian and American practices and values. Eventually her own actions make her decision feel inevitable, but the process changes her and those around her.
If Today Be Sweet is one of Umrigar’s early novels. While enjoyable, I felt that in it the author was only beginning to develop the ability to write about the complexity of her characters, a skill I admire in her more recent writing. Her characters seem a little stilted, and her plot improbable. A few character are one-dimensional villains, despite Themina’s pity for them. Complexity comes across as internal contradiction, not something external to be addressed. Themina’s criticism of my nation’s ways of living seems totally valid to me, but her complaints weigh down the story.
Even if this is not Umrigar’s best writing, I would still recommend this book to readers interested in the Indian/American experience and why individuals, not driven by external circumstances, decide to come to the USA or to remain elsewhere.