By Joe Tash
Friendship and lies. Idealism and desperation. Tradition and fundamentalism.
These themes swirl through “The World We Found,” the latest novel by author Thrity Umrigar. The story centers on four women who attended college together in Bombay in the 1970s, then drifted apart as they married, had children and pursued careers.
The four friends try to reconnect in middle age when one member of the group is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her dying wish is a final reunion.
Umrigar was the featured speaker at the May 20 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at The Grand Del Mar resort in Carmel Valley. A native of India, she immigrated to the United States at age 21 to attend graduate school at Ohio State University. After college, she worked as a journalist in Ohio for nearly two decades before launching a second career as a novelist.
She now divides her time between writing and teaching creative writing at Case Western University in Cleveland. “The World We Found,” which was published in 2012, is her fifth novel, and she has also published a memoir.
A phone call from America sets the tone of the novel. Armaiti, one of the four friends, had moved to the U.S. long before, but she calls to let her old school pals know of her cancer diagnosis. The other three friends, Laleh, Kavita and Nishta, still live in Bombay.
Laleh and Kavita set out to find Nishta, who has dropped out of their lives, to relay the bad news. The two friends reminisce about their college years, when they sought to change the world and marched in protests and rallies.
“How her father used to scoff at her and Armaiti when they would talk about building a better country,” Laleh recalled. “’A new India?’ Rumi Madan would thunder at the dinner table after listening to the two teenagers talk matter-of-factly about the imminent revolution. ‘What do you girls think this is, a school play? What ‘new India’ are you two going to build? Darlings, if there is to be a new India, it will be built by the politicians and the businessmen. Above all, the businessmen. Not by a couple of little girls pretending to be revolutionaries.’”
Like her character, Umrigar fought her own battles with her father, who owned a factory that made wooden doors and windows. Bowing to her father’s wishes, she studied business in college, but she drew the line when her father wanted her to join the family business. Instead, she headed to America to study and carry out her dream of becoming a journalist.
While her father taught her many valuable life lessons, when it came to her career choice, she said, “I’m very glad that was one battle I won and he did not.” Otherwise, she said, both father and daughter would have been miserable, and probably would not have enjoyed such a close relationship over the years.
The idea for the novel came when Umrigar was on a visit to India in 2010, and she met a college friend she hadn’t seen for 25 years. Umrigar asked if the woman was still politically active, and the woman replied that after a vicious bout of Hindu-Muslim rioting in Mumbai in the early 1990s, she had lost her desire to advocate for social change, and had instead turned her focus on taking care of her family.
The riots had a similar impact on a central character in the novel, a Muslim man named Iqbal, who married Nishta, a Hindu and one of the four friends. Nishta’s family disowned her after the marriage, and Iqbal’s embrace of religious fundamentalism — and accompanying maltreatment of his wife — is one of the key plotlines.
When Laleh and Kavita visit Nishta and ask her to travel to America with them to see the dying Armaiti, Iqbal forbids Nishta to make the trip, and goes as far as to confiscate her cell phone so her friends can’t call her.
Although India is evolving in many ways, from its economic life to its social mores, it remains a traditional culture, where children, even adults, accede to the wishes of their parents, and men hold antiquated ideas about women, Umrigar said.
“India is stuck between modern values and Victorian values,” she said.
Other themes of the book include the willingness of people to violate their own core beliefs to get what they want, and the way that youthful idealism gives way to weary pragmatism as we age.
Umrigar compared the personal evolution of her characters to the fiery struggles of the civil rights and women’s movements in the United States in the ‘60s and ’70s, which transformed to a more inward-looking focus by the ‘80s and ’90s.
“That daily grind of life, what you have to do to earn a living, it begins to wear you down,” she said.
Also at the Literary Society meeting, the winners of the group’s annual essay contest were announced: Kirsten Waltz won first place, Kira Elliott took second, and Annie Goodstein placed third. All three students are juniors who attend San Dieguito Academy. The three students won cash prizes, Kindles and gift cards.
The Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society is sponsored by Northern Trust, the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center and the Rancho Santa Fe Review.