First Darling of the Morning

     First Darling of the Morning is the powerful and poignant memoir of bestselling author Thrity Umrigar, tracing the arc of her Bombay childhood and adolescence from her earliest memories to her eventual departure for the United States at age twenty-one. It is an evocative, emotionally charged story of a young life steeped in paradox; of a middle-class Parsi girl attending Catholic school in a predominantly Hindu city; of a guilt-ridden stranger in her own land, an affluent child in a country mired in abysmal poverty. She reveals intimate secrets and offers an unflinching look at family issues once considered unspeakable as she interweaves two fascinating coming-of-age stories;one of a small child, and one of a nation.

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The Washington Post [read...]

Thrity Umrigar's mother was abusive, her father often absent. She communicates her childhood longing for a cohesive family in deeply felt portraits of those she loves: Mehroo, the selfless aunt who provided nurturing and gentleness in an otherwise bleak household; her beloved Uncle Babu, who came up with the endearment that gives the book its title and whose death provides its most poignant moment.

Umrigar, who grew up among the remnants of colonial culture of Bombay (now Mumbai) has thought about what it means to be "a cultural mongrel, the bastard child of history." She read Enid Blyton and listened to Western pop music, usually years out of date. She attended a Catholic school. Asked to write a composition using Indian instead of English names, she was puzzled: "Until now, my characters have eaten scones and blueberry tarts instead of chutney sandwiches and bhel puri, and to make that culinary and cultural leap seems impossible." As an adult, she discovered Salman Rushdie and was fascinated by the Bombay he saw as an Indian writer.

Even as a child, Umrigar was troubled by the poverty she saw around her and worried about the beggars who clustered around her family when they purchased food from a stand. She felt affection and respect for one of her father's factory workers and anguish when he joined a group of angry strikers; she tried to discern what he was thinking, questioning her former blindness and sentimentality in believing they could be friends, and finally understood the gulf that prohibited real communication between them. It is this combination of personal revelation and empathetic observation that makes Umrigar's memoir so appealing.

Boston Globe [read...]

Thrity Umrigar has a knack for capturing people's quirks. In her second book, "First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood," she unflinchingly takes on her own, as well as those of her family, giving readers a vivid glimpse into an unfamiliar part of India's population.

Even now, the popular view of India is one of dusty villages, fiery curries, and religious struggle. But India is much more than that, and Umrigar focuses on the part into which she was born: the Parsi community, descended from people who fled Persia to avoid religious persecution under Alexander the Great. Though many of them today live in diaspora, Parsis form a curious and obscure middle class in Bombay that prides itself on its education and exclusivity.

In her memoir, "First Darling of the Morning," Umrigar details the clash of cultures and contradictions that surrounded her as she grew up in 1960s Bombay, now known as Mumbai. "I am a Parsi teenager attending a Catholic school in the middle of a city that's predominantly Hindu," she writes. "I'm a middle-class girl living in the country that's among the poorest in the world. I am growing up in the country that kicked out the British fourteen years before I was born but I have still never read a novel by an Indian writer."

Growing up steeped in Western books and music, Umrigar is confounded when a teacher tells her to write a story using only Indian characters. Though she struggles with the assignment, she is never in doubt of her own identity -- this book does not document a search for self as much as it details a teenager's discovery of the world around her. Her memoir is studded with bits of Indian history and colorful descriptions of Bombay. She captures perfectly the singsong mixture of English and Gujarati spoken in many Parsi households, so different from the butchered grammar of stereotypical Indian stories. Umrigar candidly portrays herself as a selfish, petulant only child, and recounts a childhood that is at times lonely and brutal -- her mother invents sadistic punishments for the smallest infractions, nuns discipline their charges by digging their fingernails into the girls' throats. She lives in a modest apartment with her extended family: a devoted maiden aunt who sacrifices herself for her relatives; a loving but harried father who escapes each day to the office; a harpy of a mother who is scarred by her shattered dreams; an aunt and uncle who are surrogate parents; a cousin who is like a sister; a handful of servants. Meddling neighbors and gossipy aunts abound, but no matter how viciously they turn on one another, to the public they present a facade of calm gentility.

The Bombay of Umrigar's memories is a place where privilege is supposed to bring with it the ability to ignore poverty -- only she never quite manages to do so. She invites the beggars of the neighborhood to lunch at her father's pastry shop. She throws the family out of balance by insisting on calling one of the servants "aunt." Visits to her father's factory and trips to a popular city beach force her to acknowledge the inequity: "At home it is easy to ignore them but here, out in the open, there is no turning away from these dark and hungry eyes and from the questions about the accidents of birth and the randomness of privilege that they arouse in me."

The key events in her life are not the typical milestones of a typical girl. Her doomed romance is with activism, not boys. Her idol is a nonconformist older girl named Jesse, who shocks Umrigar by saying she doesn't believe in God, then leads her to worship at the altars of Vincent van Gogh, Don McLean, Hermann Hesse, and, finally, an Indian writer, Salman Rushdie. Her coming of age centers on politics and the death of a beloved uncle. She finds it more and more difficult to conform to her society's idea of a respectable girl "who accepts without question the authority of their priests, parents, and teachers," and she rebels, first by cultivating her image as the "Mad Parsi" at her Catholic school, smoking and drinking with flunky friends, and later by joining the protests against Indira Gandhi's country-cleansing emergency rule.

Her epiphany comes as she is sitting on the steps at Bombay University, two weeks before graduation. After a college career dedicated mostly to fighting the establishment, "I am nowhere close to being ready to be anything but a college student," she realizes. Economics and social convention mandate that she live at home as long as she is unmarried, a prospect that fills her with dread. Salvation comes in the form of a dream and a Joan Baez song -- "Banks of the Ohio." Umrigar decides to apply to graduate schools in America, "the land of self-invention," gaining admission to Ohio State University and leaving India and its complexities behind. She is now a journalist, still based in Ohio.

Filled with poignant stories and awkward moments, Umrigar's memoir may seem a little melodramatic at times, but "First Darling" offers readers a rare glimpse at life in a country that is constantly changing, and a look at a little-known culture.

Booklist (starred review) [read...]

A melancholy mood suffuses Indian author Umrigar's eloquent coming-of-age memoir (after If Today Be Sweet, 2007). Born in Bombay to middle-class Parsi parents, smart, precocious Umrigar spent much of her childhood feeling out of place. She was very close to her gentle father and her beloved aunt, but her mother was menacing and cruel, frequently mocking her and beating her with a switch. Umrigar's life changed when she met Jesse, a forward-thinking-and rebellious-young woman five years her senior, who introduced her to the wonders of literature and art. Umrigar soaked it all in, even shunning her family's privileged existence after reading Irving Stone's Lust for Life (1934), a novel based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Umrigar's upbringing in an apolitical family left her unprepared for the passion she felt after participating in a demonstration against the government. A sense of restlessness, combined with relentless family discord, fed her desire to escape to the U.S. The memoir ends with Umrigar at 21, departing for America, where she now works as a journalist and associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. But she has never forgotten her native land, brilliantly rendered in three critically acclaimed novels and now in this latest bracingly honest and bittersweet memoir.