If Today Be Sweet
A novel that celebrates family and community, If Today Be Sweet is a poignant look at issues of immigration, identity, family life, and hope.
The recent death of her beloved husband, Rustom, has taken its toll on Tehmina Sethna. Now, while visiting her son, Sorab, in his suburban Ohio home, she is being asked to choose between continuing her old life in India and starting a new one in this unfamiliar country with her son, his American wife, and their child. Her destiny is uncertain, and soon the plight of two troubled young children next door will force the most difficult decision she has ever faced. Ultimately the journey is one that Tehmina must travel alone. This is a novel that shows how cultures can collide and become better for it.
R E V I E W S:
The Charlotte Observer [read...]
Like Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, Thrity Umrigar's latest novel, If Today Be Sweet, depicts the immigrant experience of Indians in America.
Its central character, Tehmina Sethna, is recently widowed and a woman on the fence. Dwelling in the dark days of December and her grief, she must decide whether hope means creating a new life with her son's family in suburban Cleveland or returning to her old life among the Parsi community in Mumbai.
As Tehmina compares the two cultures she is poised between, the novel also shows her choice as it has been experienced by immigrants who have preceded her, particularly her son, Sorab.
Unlike Desai, Umrigar does not seem to regard the intersection of East and West as inherently destructive; both the opportunities—and costs—of forging a new life in America are thoughtfully explored. Ultimately, the novel reflects on what makes an individual part of a community, and movingly depicts the heartaches, responsibilities and rewards of family life—among one's own blood relatives as well as one's "family of choice."
In an important subplot, Tehmina weaves herself into the American community by rescuing two abused neighbor children. Yet it's also here that the novel falters. For all its empathy elsewhere, the novel perpetuates some classist attitudes about the American poor; the abusive mother feels like a stereotype rather than a complex character. Nor is the book as descriptively sumptuous as Umrigar's The Space Between Us.
Still, its meditation on the complex process of building a new life balances these limitations out.
Tehmina becomes the "architect of her own life" in a way that suggests worlds can intersect and inform one another in a way that enhances each.
India Currents [read...]
The American Dream and the hope for a better life beckon the young to this country. It is another story when you are middle-aged and faced with the choice of giving up a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in India and starting anew. Assimilation is not easy when you have lived in India for more than half-a-century. As you grow older, you are increasingly reluctant to meld into the melting pot and lose your cultural identity.
In her latest novel, If Today Be Sweet, Umrigar presents the dilemmas confronting Tehemina Sethna, a middle-aged widow faced with the choice of going back to her beloved Bombay or settling down in the United States with her only son Sorab, who is all the family she has left. It is a difficult choice for her but time is running out. Things have not been the same ever since she came to Cleveland to live with Sorab. All her life she had been totally dependent on her protective husband to make all the decisions for her. The sudden loss leaves her unequipped to lead life on her own.
Sorab brings his mother to suburban Cleveland to live with him, his American wife Susan, and son Cookie soon after his father's fatal heart attack in Bombay. Susan exudes good old American optimism, a can-do spirit and Midwestern pragmatism. But their idyllic life is ruffled with the arrival of Tehemina. There is a growing rift between Sorab and Susan.
Lately, Sorab is also facing problems with his mean-spirited boss, Grace Butler. Ambition propels him in one direction, while homesickness pulls him towards the land of his birth and upbringing, especially after the loss of his father. It's a clash of two value systems-the isolated nuclear family and the gregarious joint family.
In her authorial essay, Umrigar points out the price of immigration: along with the excitement, the optimism, the belief, there is doubt and loss and mourning.
We see the impersonal efficiency of American suburbia through Tehemina's grieving eyes. She must pull herself out of her memories of Bombay, overcome her isolation, and move on.
The ghostly conversational link between Tehemina and Rustom, her departed husband, is a clever narrative device that portrays Tehemina's gradual severance from her dependent past and passage to an independent existence in America.
Publisher's Weekly's The Book Maven [read...]
I have a confession to make. Since the first time I picked up Midnight's Children, I've been a pushover for anything Anglo-Indian in fiction. It's not just the joys of Bollywood references and the mad fun that is Hinglish; it is, of course, the fact that Anglo-Indian authors (Rushdie, Lahiri, Divakaruni, Seth, Chandra) actually do new things with novels without sacrificing good stories.
Even when those authors, whose multicultural heritages and lives have steeped them in language play, choose to "play it straight" and write a simpler narrative, the result is often richer than it might be in the hands of an American or British novelist. One of the American Anglo-Indian novelists whose work I like best is Thrity Umrigar. Umrigar is a serious journalist with a Ph.D. in English whose 2001 debut, Bombay Time, has stayed with me for years, like the memory of a truly delicious and satisfying meal. The description of a long-married couple leafing through their satin-covered wedding album together remains one of the most tender looks at nostalgia I've ever read.
"Tender" is a good word to apply to Umrigar's books, as one critic did in a recent review of her latest novel, If Today Be Sweet. Tehmina "Tammy" Sethna is a recent Parsi widow who has landed in suburban Cleveland because her beloved and very successful son settled there with his American wife after finishing college. For decades she relied on her gregarious, decisive husband Rustom; now that she has lost him and left their Bombay home, she feels more dithering and ambivalent about everything than she ever did. Although her son Sorab and his WASPy wife Susan try to make her feel at home, she gets on their nerves (and puts a damper on their lovemaking). Although her grandson Cavas, or "Cookie," adores her, he is an American child with our culture's casual indifference towards societal elders. Her closest friend and boon companion turns out to be the immensely large and comforting Eve Metzenbaum, whose own grown son's casual American indifference towards his mother infuriates Tammy.
What angers Tammy much more, however, is the cruelty and abuse she sees going on next door, where the owner's trashy sister-in-law mistreats her two young sons past the point of Tammy's ability to turn the other way. On Christmas Eve, she takes matters into her own hands, leaps the tall suburban fence between the two houses and rescues the children from their sad situation. Once that occurs, the novel's resolution is swift and nearly glib: Sorab's boss recognizes Tammy's authentic spirit and decides to promote her son, the rescued boys are happy with their aunt and uncle, and Tammy not only asserts her identity but her independence as well.
That doesn't matter one bit. In fact, despite its glibness, the conclusion doesn't feel tacked on but rather natural. That's because Umrigar is not playing for plot; she's writing to explore the nuances of life on the margins. What does it mean to lose your partner? Can a single elderly woman make a difference? Is it better to be honorable, or successful? And tell me—where is the Amer-Anglo-Indian border? In Umrigar's beautifully evoked universe, it's shifting all the time.