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FIRST DARLING OF THE MORNING
Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood.
By Thrity Umrigar.
Harper Perennial, $14.95.

This self-portrait of the writer as a young woman has a familiar outline: the child of upright but uncultivated middle-class parents rebels against convention after falling under the influence of Van Gogh and Dylan. The setting of Bombay in the 1960s and '70s adds a postcolonial overlay to this memoir, originally published in India in 2004, but most of Umrigar's experiences are typical of childhood everywhere: mourning a pet rabbit who died, playing schoolgirl pranks, falling in with a bad crowd that drinks and smokes, sulking at the senselessness of family quarrels. Umrigar, the author of "The Space Between Us" and two other novels, writes in an earnest, quiveringly passionate language that may accurately reflect the sensibility of a teenager but often seems overwrought. ("My own pathetic poems shrivel and die anonymous deaths," she writes, describing her reaction to the lyrics of a Don McLean song.) But Umrigar's depiction of her tight-knit family is moving. Her father is an affectionate and indulgent parent, but he is too weak to contain the damage caused by the violent rages of his wife. Umrigar agonized over her decision to continue her education in America, leaving behind this troubled but deeply loving family, and the book acts as an extended apology to them. "Here's my explanation," she writes. "Perhaps you will forgive."

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First Darling of the Morning: A poignant and brave exploration of childhood's less lovely spaces, First Darling is a sensitive, vividly-relived memoir that captures the innocence and confusion of a small Indian girl struggling against the paradoxes that rock her life. Told with startling honesty, the memoir paints an unforgettable picture of middle-class life in contemporary Bombay.

Recent Reviews:

THE WASHINGTON POST

Longings That Never End
By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page BW11

FIRST DARLING OF THE MORNING Selected Memories Of an Indian Childhood By Thrity Umrigar | HarperPerennial. 294 pp. Paperback, $14.95

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.

BOOKLIST (STARRED REVIEW)

*First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood.

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.

- Allison Block

KIRKUS REVIEW

FIRST DARLING OF THE MORNING: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood

Indian-born journalist and novelist Umrigar (English/Case Western Reserve Univ.; If Today Be Sweet, 2007, etc.) rekindles the emotional contradictions that affected her childhood as a "cultural mongrel" in the '60s and '70s.

Umrigar paints a stunningly detailed portrait of her multifaceted Bombay milieu. A Parsi minority in a Hindu-majority country, she attended Catholic school, where Hindi was taught as a foreign language. She defines her upbringing as middle class and captures the sadness of the excruciating poverty below her in India , specifically in her vivid descriptions of the starving child beggars at Chowpatty Beach . Umrigar's home, a small, spare apartment with a joint-family living arrangement and nosy Parsi neighbors, was the source of much emotional turmoil and recrimination. In animated, anguished prose, the author depicts her mother as an unstable, angry and violent woman "with a tongue that can sting as hard as the cane she uses on me." Umrigar found refuge in the kindness of her live-in spinster aunt, Mehroo, whose limited status as an unmarried woman is implicitly evoked. Although Umrigar was close to her father, she was too terrified to reveal her mother's hidden beatings and abuse. The author evokes her volatile emotions in language that conveys the intensity of her pain, yet which may be too flowery for some readers: "My love feels so thick and heavy, it tastes like blood. Or grief." Stifled at home, Umrigar, "restless and defiant," sought an unconventional friend who broadened the author's horizons with such gifts as the Irving Stone biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life. Eventually she decided to give up her family moniker of "First Darling in the Morning" and immigrate to America , noting that the desire to resettle was driven mainly by frustration and yearning.

Heartfelt memoir about the significance of origins and self-identity.

LIBRARY JOURNAL

Umrigar's fictional works (Bombay Time; The Space Between Us; If Today Be Sweet) evoke nostalgia for a particular moment in India: the postcolonial but still pre-liberalization 1960s and 1970s, the period of Umrigar's childhood in Bombay. Persuasively re-creating voices and scenes, this memoir (first published in India in 2004) could almost be read as another novel. Umrigar builds a literary bridge between personal and historical truths. As she traces her over-the-top Parsi family life, complete with sadistic mother and Anglophile convent school against the backdrop of Bob Dylan ("the biggest influence on my life") and disillusionment, Umrigar is narrating not just her personal heartache but also that of a global middle-class cohort. American readers may not understand the Indian political context, but the underlying chords in this story about growing up and going away will certainly resonate. Recommended for all large public libraries as well as academic libraries that collect women's memoirs. -Lisa Klopfer, Eastern Michigan Univ. Lib., Ypsilanti

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Freelance journalist Umrigar alternates between sweet and biting accounts of her middle-class Parsi upbringing in 1960s and 1970s Bombay. With a mixture of rawness and warmth, she recalls moments from her tumultuous childhood through her teenage years, and finally into her early 20s when she leaves India for the U.S. She describes her mother's strictness with her and other children (her mother doesn't think twice to strike disobedient kids with a cane), tempering these scenes with memories of the tight bond with her father as well as her Aunt Mehroo's unflappable love. As she encounters worker strikes and student protests, she begins to understand class differences and the gap between her privileged, private school background and India's poverty. In the end, Umrigar's memoir is colorful and moving. (Nov.)

An Indian writer and her homeland struggle together

Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 28, 2003

There's a moment in Thrity Umrigar's memoir, "First Darling of the Morning," when she recalls herself as a child standing in the bathroom, contemplating whether to stab her eardrums out with the pointed edge of a steel compass.

Doing so would allow her to escape the noise of her family's constant fights, but she decides that giving up the joys of her father's voice and music would be too much to lose.

It's a harrowing passage, but it conveys Umrigar's frustration and desire for escape that remain constant throughout the book.

Driving much of the pain in Umrigar's life is her mother, a woman whose cruelty evokes conflicting emotions of revulsion and pity.

She "has long, thin, crooked fingers, and most of the time they are curled around one of her many switches," and although her wrath has no specific target, Umrigar is a frequent victim of her malice.

These stories, along with others about Umrigar's extended family, are engrossing, but they are standard components of a childhood memoir.

She recounts punishments, dreams, her struggles to develop a sense of self and her eventual arrival in the United States, but what makes her account compelling is the way her search for identity parallels that of India.

While Umrigar's anecdotes and stories may be about her and her family, they help reveal the absurdities of a country in transition from colonialism.

Now a writer in Cleveland, Umrigar recalls India as "a country still recovering from the national inferiority complex that was a leftover from British colonial rule," and her experiences only prove this.

In a country of extended families, the Von Trapp family of "The Sound of Music" becomes the ideal, and she finds herself part of a society that knows "the words to Do-Re-Me better than the national anthem."

Perhaps nothing emphasizes this disconnect between her culture and her society as vividly as her school, where she encounters little that reflects the world she knows, to the point where she has a better grasp of quaint fictional English towns than "the hot, crowded, equatorial city of dark-haired men and women" in which she lives.

Thus, in a way, Umrigar's stories of an Indian childhood become much more, as her experiences form the fascinating backdrop of an account reflecting modern India's childhood, as well.

Akron Beacon Journal, Dec. 21, 2003

Thrity Umrigar's First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood is a mesmerizing, vibrant account of a middle-class Bombay upbringing (in a culture where middle class means having household servants).

Umrigar tells of her childhood in a home with a loving father, devoted aunts and uncles and a cruel, often sadistic mother. She joins her fellow students in driving her Catholic-school teachers to distraction, but her rebel posture is only a cover for hypersensitivity.

Interwoven with mundane activities such as a trip to the beach and sneaking cigarettes are insights into the shattering poverty that surrounds the girl. She has epiphanies during a labor strike at her father's lumber factory and when she learns that the family's maid has a first name.

Young Thrity, when given permission to host an after-school party at the bakery her family runs, chooses street children instead of classmates as her guests. Her social awareness grows as she listens to American music, and culminates in a narrow escape at a demonstration that turns violent.

Despite Umrigar's masterful descriptions of her feelings about caste, privilege and guilt, First Darling is not a book about the ills of Indian society. It's a growing-up story about a pet bunny, the death of an uncle and the unrealized longing for a loving mother.

The narrative takes the reader through Umrigar's college years and her decision to further her education at Ohio State University, which she chose because of a song playing on the radio while she studied American college brochures.

Umrigar, of Cleveland Heights, is a former Akron Beacon Journal reporter who has earned a Ph.D. in English literature.

Akron Beacon Journal, Dec. 28, 2003

WORTH A SECOND LOOK

First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood takes readers to the other side of the world, the Bombay of Thrity Umrigar's youth. Some of the references to Indian culture may seem tantalizingly exotic, but much will seem familiar to American readers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. First Darling is available for $14 from some local bookstores and Amazon.com.

Sahara Time, Nov. 2003

EVOCATIVE ACCOUNT: A vividly recounted, poignant memoir of childhood

The songs of the sixties and seventies hum through this poignant memoir of a Bombay child growing up in a cloistered, privileged middle class Parsi family. It is Do-Re-Me that echoes through Thrity Umrigar's rememberances, not the hits of Lata Mangeshkar or Kishore Kumar. This is an urban, Indian childhood replete with Catholic nuns, pink jeans and pop records.

Yet it is also sharply sensitive, as only a child or adolescent can be, to the everyday cruelties of a stratified society where servants eat on separate plates and beggars stretch out scrawny palms to receive small change.

Thrity's return flight to childhood zooms us into life as a six-year-old watching The Sound of Music at the Regal Cinema with the family . . . The flight to university in the USA signals the end of a brilliantly etched, vividly recalled Indian childhood.

INDIA TODAY, Oct. 2003

RAGE OF MEMORY: A return journey to the cries and confusion of an urban childhood

I was drawn into the story of this young, confused Parsi child growing up in Mumbai, trying to understand first the stresses and strains in the family and then those of the great, jostling city outside. Thrity Umrigar's moving account of her childhood begins with a family outing to see The Sound of Music at Regal Theater. It ends with her leaving for Ohio for studies.

Between these two events lie the long and not-always-happy stretches of childhood. With painful honesty, Umrigar tells us about her family.

Memoir details life in a little-seen India
By Lylah M. Alphonse, Boston Globe Staff
May 19, 2004

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.

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