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~Waiting for Thrity~
Thrity Umrigar has been one of my favourite Indian-born writers for many years and I've had several of her books as long term residents on my Amazon wish list. She's been living in America for several decades now and whilst her work is quite widely available on that side of the pond, I've really struggled to get well priced copies of her books in the UK or even in India. She doesn't seem to be what you might call 'an Indian's Indian' and despite trekking round 3 or 4 of Mumbai's (allegedly) finest book stores, I drew a blank in my quest for her work which was odd, considering most of her books are set in that city.
'First Darling of the Morning - Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood' was gathering dust on my wish list before a cheap copy came up on the Amazon market place and I snapped it up, despite knowing I'd have to wait for it to make its way from the USA. When it arrived, I let it sit a while, gave it time to settle in, tempting me to read it. I held back, I knew it might be a long time before I found its successor, so I practised self control. And then a few days ago I cracked, popped it in my bag to take on a flight and now it's gone, devoured quickly and with relish. I don't love the book the way I love her fiction, but it gave me a lovely introduction to her, her past and some of the events that shaped her as a writer.
~Vultures and Fire Temples~
Mumbai is a city that exemplifies the over-used term 'melting pot'. It is home to a rich mix of cultures and religions with inhabitants who run the gamut from dirt poor to unimaginably wealthy. One of the things that sets Mumbai apart from your run-of-the-mill cosmopolitan cities is the presence of its minority religions such as the Parsi community to which Thrity Umrigar's family belong.
Historically, Parsis are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who fled Iran when Islam was brought to their country by Muslim invaders. They are perhaps best known for their fire temples and their belief that fire and earth are sacred. Dead bodies cannot be burned because fire is holy and can't be buried in the earth or they'll contaminate it. This leads Zoroastrians to dispose of their dead in so-called Towers of Silence where the bodies are laid out to be eaten by vultures. Today it is estimated that there are probably no more than 150-200,000 Parsis in the entire world with maybe 70,000 of that tiny total living in Mumbai. Despite their small numbers, their influence is significant especially in the field of business and trade. Whilst Umrigar and her family are by no means particularly religious, everything about her childhood is seen through the filter of the Parsi community.
'First Darling of the Morning' is a very personal and no holds barred, no punches pulled account of Thrity's childhood and teens in India's most exciting city during the 1960s and 1970s. This was Bombay before the name change at a time of shocking contrasts. On one hand the book is set against the extreme controls of Indira Gandhi's autocratic 'Emergency' of 1975-77 with its violent slum clearances, detentions and forced sterilisation programmes and the author and her friends listening to imported Bob Dylan records and wearing pink jeans on the other.
This is not a sentimental or rose-tinted tribute to her home city or her family and I can only imagine that friends and family must have cringed to read her words about her abusive, violent and controlling mother or even about Thrity's own teen-aged rebellion at school. Her mother tutored children and there are some very disturbing passages about her slapping her young pupils around after tormenting them verbally. It's also not a memoir that's particularly kind to the author. She tells unattractive things about her past - from childhood bed-wetting through to callous indifference to her family in her late teens. Whilst most autobiographers seek to paint themselves in a positive light, Thrity doesn't indulge in too much self-aggrandisement. It's easy to understand but quite hard to really love the picture she paints of her younger self.
~There's more to Mumbai than Slums and Bollywood~
If your expectation of a Mumbai childhood is built on poverty and physical deprivation, then that's not at all what this book delivers. Conversely if you're expecting Bollywood glamour and multi-millionaires living on Malabar Hill, then it's not that either. The author's life is remarkable for being really rather a lot like many of ours - OK, maybe a bit wealthier and more privileged but not wildly beyond what we might consider 'normal'. As a child she reads Enid Blyton and grows into Mills and Boon. When she tries at school to write stories, she has no idea how to write Indians - all her characters have red hair and freckles, eat scones and cucumber sandwiches and go on very English adventures. Eventually she tells us that she learned about Mumbai from reading a borrowed copy of Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'.
Thrity's family own a factory and have a pretty good income, but their life is more typical of middle-class Europeans than their poorer or wealthier countrymen. With the exception of a few bad patches when times got particularly tough, they were for the most part rather well-to-do. With a violent mother and an often absent father who couldn't or wouldn't stand up to his wife, Thrity's well-being depended on her aunts and her uncle.
If your expectation of an Indian family is that there must surely be dozens of children, then Thrity's family buck that trend too. Whilst she tells us that she yearned to be part of a family like the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music, her life was free from brothers and sisters and she had only a girl cousin to fill their gap. Thrity was an only child and whilst she lived in an extended family, it was a rather small one by local standards. The family home was shared by her father and mother, her father's brother Uncle Babu and his wife and their daughter Roshan, and the brothers' unmarried sister Mehroo. The tensions of the extended family play out throughout the book and there are plenty of examples of the 'can't live with them, can't live without them' variety of family love. Her mother is angry and jealous because Thrity so clearly loves Mehroo more than her. No doubt her mother would be horrified to know that her daughter dreams of her being replaced by the 'Ovaltine lady' who represents perfect motherhood and the antithesis of reality at home. Her married aunt showed the most moving affection for her niece by saying she her own daughter and her niece to be her equal daughters. Goodness only knows that Thrity must have needed her two aunts to compensate for her seriously unhinged mother.
Like most childhood reflections, there are wistful tales of happy days out, trips to the beach, journeys in the family car and family celebrations. There are also lots of stories of Thrity's school days and her bad behaviour. Thrity is sent to a Catholic private girls school where she mixes with girls from a wide variety of backgrounds, religions and income levels. I found some of the misbehaviour at school rather annoying and I'm sure if I'd been her mother (or a nun at the school) I'd have wanted to give her a good slap and a severe talking-to. The tales of teen-aged naughtiness didn't intrigue or impress me although I could see that whilst her level of rebellion was rather tame by European standards, nice Indian girls then and now were supposed to work hard, be respectful and aim for good grades. They weren't supposed to go drinking, smoking, hanging out with the wrong kind of friends and playing their records too loud.
Thrity Umrigar writes fiction that sings on the page and vibrates with emotion. Writing fact she's not quite so strong. Lives of great poverty or great privilege sell autobiographies, not lives remarkable for their apparent ordinariness. Thankfully she resists the temptation to over-egg the 'violent mother pudding' for which she should be applauded, but ultimately just as I wouldn't expect anyone to be interested in my own childhood and teen years, it's not surprising that her own story will struggle to compete with her fabulous fiction. Whilst I enjoyed reading 'First Darling of the Morning', I think it's probably a book that's more for established fans of the writer rather than a book that will appeal to those who don't know her or her work.
First Darling of the Morning - Selected Memoirs of an Indian Childhood, Thrity Umrigar
Published by Harper. Cover price $14.95