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The World We Found

     As university students in late 1970s Bombay, Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita, and Nishta were inseparable. Spirited and unconventional, they challenged authority and fought for a better world. But over the past thirty years, the quartet has drifted apart, the day-to-day demands of work and family tempering the revolutionary fervor they once shared.
     Then comes devastating news: Armaiti, who moved to America, is gravely ill and wants to see the old friends she left behind. For Laleh, reunion is a bittersweet reminder of unfulfilled dreams and unspoken guilt. For Kavita, it is an admission of forbidden passion. For Nishta, it is the promise of freedom from a bitter, fundamentalist husband. And for Armaiti, it is an act of acceptance, of letting go on her own terms.
     The World We Found is a dazzling masterwork from Thrity Umrigar, offering an unforgettable portrait of modern India while it explores the enduring bonds of friendship and the power of love to change lives.

R E V I E W S:

The Washington Post [read...]

In her previous and highly successful novel, The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar examined how two women of different backgrounds in India were capable of carrying on in the face of despair. Her latest novel, The World We Found, is set in India and the United States. It examines choices made by a group of friends and the consequences that must be borne because of each choice.

Four young women—Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita and Nishta, bound by friendship and idealism—were university students in Bombay during the late 1970s. The novel starts about 30 years later but resonates against memories of this youthful past, shared during a period of political and social upheaval in India. It had been a time when the four friends, all from different family backgrounds, had faced the world with optimism and marched into what they thought would be a future improved by their ideals and well-meaning actions.

Now, each of the women is nearing 50. Armaiti, the only one of the four who lives in the United States, learns that she has a brain tumor and six months, at most, to live. The narrative is set in motion by her wish to see her three closest friends before she dies.

But time and circumstance have separated their lives in unexpected ways. Nishta, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim, has not been heard from in many years. In Bombay, Laleh and Kavita set out to find her so that she can be told about Armaiti's illness and invited to go with them to the United States.

They don't know that after the Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1992-93, Nishta and her husband left their residential area and moved to a Muslim part of the city where their circumstances have become strained and difficult. Nishta has had to adopt a Muslim name and is forbidden to communicate with her former friends. This story takes over the narrative and provides the intrigue and tension of the latter half of the novel.

Umrigar is skilled at intertwining the compelling stories of her characters within the setting of political and religious forces that dominate present-day India. Who has the power? Who has the money? The lives of these women and their partners again intersect, but questions and revelations arise. Each is forced to examine some aspect of loyalty, of guilt, of shame, of forgiveness and love.

"What's the clarifying principle here?" Kavita asks her friends. "Remember how we used to try and solve all political arguments by asking that question? It's amazing how we were ever stupid enough to think there was a single answer. Because there isn't one. What happened? Life happened. In all its banality, brutality, cruelty, unfairness. But also in its beauty, pleasures, and delights. Life happened.' "

Indeed, the clarifying principle that was once at the core of their discussions has become murky. The past has not, after all, been "beaten down, like cotton stuffed inside a mattress." The past will be carried within them, and they must all be responsible for decisions they are about to make. The situation becomes more frightening and the moral questions more complex as the story reaches its thrilling climax.

It takes courage to explore the idealism and hopes of youth and to compare these with the realities of lives lived three decades later. What has been compromised? What has been gained or lost? And the always unanswerable question: What might have happened if other choices had been made?

Umrigar handles these important themes with expertise and without judgment. A storyteller through and through, she ensures that her characters face up to the costs and consequences created by their choices, right or wrong, principled or unprincipled. As Laleh observes: "I'm saying that it all matters. Everything matters. Our virtues and our sins."

Huffington Post [read...]

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar is a sparkling and sharp slice of life that, in presenting four personal stories, reflects and illuminates universal truths. Four women have been friends since their student days in Bombay, during the heady but dangerous years of the 1970s when protests and marches dominated university life and parents looked on, confused and horrified. Now thirty years have passed and one of the four, Armaiti, has been diagnosed with cancer. She asks for a reunion of the four friends—she, Nishta, Laleh, and Kavita. Her simple request sets off a cavalcade of events, not only back in time but irrevocably forward.

Umrigar uses the intertwined stories of the four women to tell the history of India in the past thirty years, buoyed in so many ways financially and politically, and yet still rife with prejudice, corruption, and inequality. Divisions of class, religion, and generation are all brought to painful and very personal life: through Umrigar's characters we see the individual burdens and costs borne by abstract bludgeons of denigration and denial, along with the guilt and excuses brought on by material comfort and success.

As in all her novels, Umrigar is a beautiful genius at presenting the intimate side of large-scale (and widely accepted) practices of discrimination and bigotry. In this novel, she turns her focus to religion and to the scorn—and much, much worse, as in the mass murders and beatings in Bombay in 1993 and at Gujarat in 2002—heaped on the Muslim population of India. One of the women, Nitsha, converted to Islam to please her previously sectarian husband but now finds herself increasingly isolated, both from within and without the Muslim community. Will the reunion with her friends ease her isolation—or set her apart forever?

Nitsha is not the only one imprisoned by circumstances and choices. All the characters are in some form of imprisonment, whether it be of poverty or prejudice or illness, or in nostalgia for the past. There is no denying, however, that some imprisonments are worse than others, and at least one holds a death sentence. And yet, Umrigar cautions her readers, we all will die. All the obsessions of politics, regrets, or rancor will mean nothing, eventually. All that remains, in the end, is the beauty we've managed to create from wherever we are, with whomever we are, in the world we find ourselves in.

In youth, we believe we can create a new world, shape a better place and future. This is the correct and proper sentiment for energized, intelligent, ambitious youth (like Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh, and Nitsha), and I hope my own children feel it as passionately as I did, thirty years ago (Umrigar's characters lament their own children's seeming obsession with unimportant things—is that not every parent's worry?).

As we grow older, we understand that through our struggles to create a better place, what comes out is the world we find. Umrigar's four women are reuniting in this found world and discovering the truth behind its beauty: that it is the people in their world that matter most of all. And because of the fluid mastery of Umrigar's writing, all four of her women will matter to readers (and resonate and disturb and inspire) and the world they found (equally disturbing and enlightening) will be known, and discussed, and remembered.

Cleveland Plain Dealer [read...]

January 2, 2012

Thrity Umrigar's latest novel, The World We Found, is rich in character.

Review by Lindsay Baruffa

In her newest novel, acclaimed Cleveland writer Thrity Umrigar presents us with four women and the world they inhabit 30 years after they meet. "The World We Found" is absorbing and resonant, a backward-looking coming-of-age tale.

We meet the characters in middle age and see, through their conversations, memories and reflections, how they were shaped by the experiences of their youth.

As university students in what was then Bombay (Umrigar's birthplace), Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh and Nishta were inseparable. Enmeshed in the activism and unrest of the late 1970s, and emboldened by feelings of invincibility, the young women fought for a "New India," where they would enjoy social, economic and sexual equality.

Instead, the conditions they worked so hard to transform seem largely the same.

Once the quartet was on fire against U.S. imperialism; now Armaiti lives in the United States, divorced from an American. As the book opens, she has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and told she has perhaps six months to live. Armaiti's Ivy-League-educated daughter has no feel for her mother's beginnings, and cannot fathom her decision to forgo treatment.

Armaiti longs to see her old comrades and urgently invites them to the States (Umrigar never gives a more specific location). The dying woman must see them "now, only now, while her body was still hers. Still hers, most of the time. Not later, when things would get ugly, when her diseased brain would be calling the shots."

As she assembles her characters, Umrigar tackles mortality, regret, class, feminism, relationships and religion. Her storytelling is deft, so we see not abstractions, but piercing instances of how the universal affects the individual.

Kavita, for instance, is a successful Bombay architect in a happy relationship, agonizing over whether to come out of the closet to her friends.

And Laleh, who enjoys a happy Bombay marriage to Adish, another former rebel, still nurses the rebellious impulses of her youth. Now, her own class privilege and her children's apathy remind her of all that was not achieved.

The fourth woman, Nishta, is cut off. Initially envied for her bold decision to marry a Muslim, Nishta now lives in a squalid section of Bombay with her husband, Iqbal. Once a fellow traveler, Iqbal was traumatized by the Hindu-Muslim rioting in 1992-93 and became a conservative man. He insisted Nishta convert, wear a burqa and adopt a Muslim name:

"Even in his all-Muslim neighborhood it was impossible to escape the madness of a world thirsty for Muslim blood. How wrong their analysis in college had been. Back then they had seen the fight as between rich and poor, a global class struggle. Maybe the world had changed since then, or maybe Allah had seen fit to drop the scales from his eyes, but everywhere he looked these days, someone was out for Muslim blood. Iraq. Afghanistan. Chechnya. Kashmir. Sudan. Gujarat. Even on the streets of this cursed city. Hadn't he seen it firsthand?"

As Kavita and Laleh struggle to bring Nishta back into their fold, Umrigar asks tough questions: How can one counter religious fundamentalism? When is economic inequality acceptable? What happens when we break our promises?

"The World We Found" is alive with finely drawn and richly developed characters. Each of the principals -- Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh, Nishta, Adish and Iqbal -- narrates in turn, each in a distinct style. We sympathize with their disparate agendas: Iqbal may keep Nishta a virtual prisoner in their home, but Umrigar makes plain his good, if misguided, intentions. She avoids the cliche of writing him as a fanatic, and absorbs us into his struggles.

That the novelist can make such subjects not only palatable but enjoyable is a key joy of this book. "The World We Found" is affecting but not cloying, thoughtful but not preachy.

Movements we support often accomplish little. Friendships fade. And even our once- powerful bodies fail. Here is Armaiti:

"It was an illusion, all of it—this life that they clung to, this earth that they battled over—a collective exercise in self-deception. The world was perishable. She wasn't the only one who was dying. Even love, that great, cherished human commodity, even love was not forever or immortal. It was stupid and dishonest to pretend that it was."