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Umrigar, Thrity 1961- (Thrity N. Umrigar)

Umrigar, Thrity 1961- (Thrity N. Umrigar)

PERSONAL:

Born 1961, in Bombay (now Mumbai), India; immigrated to United States, 1982, naturalized citizen. Ethnicity: "Parsi." Education: Ohio State University, M.A., 1983; Kent State University, Ph.D., 1997. Politics: Liberal.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Cleveland Heights, OH. Office—Case Western University, Guilford Hall, Cleveland, OH 44106.

CAREER:

Journalist, author, critic, and educator. Lorain Journal, journalist, 1985-87; Akron Beacon, Akron, OH, journalist, 1987-2002; Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, 2002—, became assistant professor of English, 2003.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Nieman fellowship, Harvard University, 1999; awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Press Club of Cleveland.

WRITINGS:

Bombay Time, Picador (New York, NY), 2001.

First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, HarperCollins Publishers (New Delhi, India), 2004.

The Space between Us, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2005.

If Today Be Sweet, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Boston Globe.

SIDELIGHTS:

Thrity Umrigar was born in India but moved to the United States when she was twenty-one to study journalism at Ohio State University. She then worked as a journalist in Ohio for seventeen years before joining the staff of the English Department at Case Western Reserve University. Umrigar was an only child, but she grew up in a large extended family with several aunts and an uncle, as well as her parents. In an online interview included on her Web site, she stated: "I never felt I belonged only to my parents but to this larger group of people." The experience, she said, taught her to get along with many different kinds of people, and it also gave her an expanded definition of family. "So," she said, "I keep ‘adopting’ new family members along the way."

Umrigar noted in the online interview that she came to the United States because she realized that if she remained in India, "I would never be totally independent and would never discover who exactly I was as a person. I wanted to live in a place where I would rise or fall based on my own efforts and talents." Her father encouraged her to follow her dream. She chose Ohio State University because, as she explained it: "I was sitting in my living room in Bombay, checking off a list of American universities that offered an M.A. in journalism when my eyes fell on ‘Ohio State University.’ There was a Joan Baez record playing … her song, ‘Banks of the Ohio.’ … I looked up and thought, ‘It's a sign,’ and decided to apply there."

Umrigar writes every day. She explained in the interview on her Web site that "it helps to take the mystique out of fiction writing—which I think is a healthy thing—and to approach it as a job, with a more roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work kind of attitude." She has always been interested in stories "that buck the trend, that take the minority position. And for fiction to be startling and fresh, I think that posture—of telling the unpopular truth—is almost essential."

Umrigar's novel Bombay Time depicts the lives of people in the closely knit Parsi community of Wadia Baug. The Parsis, a minority in India, are the descendants of people who fled Persia a thousand years ago. Set at a wedding, the book allows the reader to observe each of the guests arriving and hear their disparate stories of love, loss, and betrayal. In the Washington Post, Helen C. Wan wrote: "Umrigar is at her best when imagining each character's colorful history and circumstances, and vividly portraying jealousies, passion and unfulfilled ambitions," and that she "displays an impressive talent for conceiving multidimensional, sympathetic characters with life-like emotional quandaries and psychological stumbling blocks." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book "an impressive debut offering a glimpse into a cultural world … that most Westerners know only in its barest outlines." In Booklist, Bonnie Johnston described the book as "sweet, frightening, poignant, and chaotic." Library Journal reviewer Michelle Reale wrote that the novel "poignantly explicates" the Parsi community in a "startling contemporary portrait."

The Space between Us takes a look at life in two different households in Bombay, showing how even in modern times the nation is ruled by class and social structure firmly rooted in traditions and in the perceived difference between the sexes. One example is the relationship between Sera Dubash, who is an upper-class Parsi homemaker, and her servant, Bhima. The two may share a cup of tea and chat as if they are close friends, and yet, Sera is seated in a chair while Bhima is left to sit on the floor and must use her own cup for her tea. However, Umrigar also illustrates that, while class separates the women, they are united in their treatment at the hands of men, who consider all women inferior. Joy Humphrey, in a review for Library Journal, wrote that "Umrigar beautifully and movingly wends her way through the complexities and subtleties of these … relationships." A reviewer for the Economist commented that "the author prevents her story from descending into emotional soup by tackling, across the span of her characters' lives, many of the issues affecting India today."

In If Today Be Sweet, Umrigar depicts the painful choices before grieving widow Tehmina, who following the death of her husband goes to visit her son and his family in their home in Ohio, where her son moved following graduate school in the United States. Tehmina must determine if she should also move to Ohio and stay with her son, or if she should return to Bombay, her true home and the place where she lived with her husband, to continue her life alone. Booklist reviewer Allison Block called the book "a sublime, cross-cultural tale about lives driven by tradition and transformed by love."

Umrigar told CA: "Indian-American writers have a wonderful canvas to draw on. A larger-than-life city like Bombay is a fiction writer's dream come true because the city throbs with drama and pathos and humanity and passion and tragedy and comedy. There are stories around every corner in a place like that. And we are lucky enough to live in an age where at last there is an interest in hearing the stories of people living on the other side of the globe. My purpose in writing Bombay Time was to make sense of the lives of the people I grew up with because, like the main character Rusi, many of them believe that their lives have ended in failure. And I refuse to believe that. So I saw the book as the act of gathering in all their stories like flowers, and turning them into art, into a bouquet, if you will, and handing it back to them."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 15, 2001, Bonnie Johnston, review of Bombay Time, p. 1734; May 15, 2007, Allison Block, review of If Today Be Sweet, p. 20.

Economist, January 28, 2006, "Distance and Intimacy: New Fiction," p. 82.

Library Journal, June 1, 2001, Michelle Reale, review of Bombay Time, p. 219; December 1, 2005, Joy Humphrey, review of The Space between Us, p. 117.

New York Times Book Review, January 22, 2006, Ligaya Mishan, "The Clash of Caste," p. 14.

Publishers Weekly, July 2, 2001, review of Bombay Time, p. 51.

Washington Post Book World, July 22, 2001, Helen C. Wan, review of Bombay Time, p. T05.

ONLINE

Thrity Umrigar Home Page,http://www.umrigar.com (January 21, 2008).

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