January 3, 2012
Discovering The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar
Review by Nina Sankovitch
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
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."
January 4, 2012
Review by Julie P.
Summary: The acclaimed author of The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven returns with a breathtaking, skillfully wrought story of four women and the unbreakable ties they share.
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 much has changed over the past thirty years. Following different paths, the quartet 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 even if her ex-husband and daughter do not understand her choices.
In the course of their journey to reconnect, Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita, and Nishta must confront the truths of their lives—acknowledge long-held regrets, face painful secrets and hidden desires, and reconcile their idealistic past and their compromised present. And they will have to decide what matters most, a choice that may just help them reclaim the extraordinary world they once found.
Exploring the enduring bonds of friendship and the power of love to change lives, and offering an unforgettable portrait of modern India—a nation struggling to bridge economic, religious, gender, and generational divides—The World We Found is a dazzling masterwork from the remarkable Thrity Umrigar. -- Harper
THE WORLD WE FOUND by Thrity Umrigar is one of those books that I've picked up a number of times just because I was so excited to read it. I think Ms. Umrigar is just a remarkable writer and I'm pretty much guaranteed to love her books. And then, I'd sit down to read it and see that it wasn't being released until 2012, and I'd put it down for a later date. I must have done this two or three separate times. You'd think I would have just read it and written my review earlier, but that didn't even dawn on me!
So it was with much excitement that I decided that THE WORLD WE FOUND would be the first novel that I'd read in 2012. I wanted to start the new "reading" year with a bang and THE WORLD WE FOUND was the perfect book. I absolutely treasured this novel and it encompassed everything I've come to know and love about Ms. Umrigar's writing. This novel not only explored the Indian culture, religion, and politics (which I find fascinating), but it also explored relationships, namely women's friendships, like few novels I've ever read. THE WORLD WE FOUND was truly a terrific read and just might remain on my "list" of 2012 favorites. (I know it's a bit early, but this book is really fantastic!)
I have been processing this novel for a few days because I didn't want to jump right into my review; however, I have to be honest when I say that I'm still reeling from this book. I am all over the place with the characters and their actions, and I'm still trying to organize my thoughts. Rather than try to articulate what I'm feeling in words, I just wish I could discuss this novel with my friends. It would make the perfect book club book, but more on that later.
I'm not sure what I loved more about THE WORLD WE FOUND -- the story or the writing. Both were outstanding in my opinion. I think because I always enjoy Ms. Umrigar's characters and their stories so much, I tend to get caught up in the book and forget just what an amazing writer she is. Her prose is beautiful and her dialogue seems so authentic to me. As I read this novel, I felt as if I was right there in India with her characters. In addition, I have to give the author major credit for balancing the four different female characters in this novel. Each one of the women came to life to me with their own distinct personality and voice.
Despite my appreciation of the story and the writing, I think I appreciated just how much THE WORLD WE FOUND make me think. At its surface, this novel was about female friendships and I was touched by the strength of these four women. I absolutely treasured the relationships these women had and was even envious of the extent these women would go for each other. And I also deeply appreciated how this book explored the other relationships in their lives -- from their husbands, to their relatives, to their children.
However, this novel also explored so many other thought-provoking issues including religion and politics. I thought these subjects were presented in an extremely interesting way; and I can't stop thinking about the complexities of these issues especially as they relate to India and its people. I have always been fascinated by anything having to do with this country, and I can't express how much the lives of these four women have affected me.
As I mentioned a little bit ago, THE WORLD WE FOUND would make an excellent book club pick. I don't have the chance to pick a book for my group for another nine months, but you better be sure that I'm considering this novel. There is a reading guide available which touches upon many of the pertinent issues in the novel. Some of the topics you might want to explore include
I apologize that this review is both gushing and unorganized at the same, but I think it just might be the best way for me to express just how much THE WORLD WE FOUND affected me. I highly recommend this book to... pretty much anyone!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.
January 14, 2012
Review by Kevin O'Kelly
Kavita, Laleh, Nishta, and Armaita were students together at the University of Bombay in the 1980s. They were sisters-in-arms: picketing textile mills that paid low wages, facing down police attacks at political demonstrations, talking through the night about how to make a better world. Now they're in their 40s. Kavita and Laleh lead the sort of comfortable lives they used to despise. Nishta is married to her college sweetheart Iqbal, now an embittered Muslim fundamentalist who forbids her to work and makes her wear a burka. And Armaita lives in America, where she's just learned she has an inoperable brain tumor. She doesn’t want treatment. The only thing she wants is the four of them together, one last time.
"The World We Found" is the critically acclaimed novelist Thrity Umrigar's exploration of love and lost ideals. Her four main characters yearn for the zeal of their youth and lament the compromises of their adult lives, but they find the one thing they haven't lost is the most important: their friendship. Armaita's illness and final wish give them not only a reunion, but also provide Kavita and Laleh a chance for one small act of liberation. They no longer think they can save the world, but maybe they can save Nishta - get her out of her prison of a marriage.
It would have been relatively easy - perhaps even unavoidable for some writers - to take this premise and veer into chick lit, but the problems that unfold in the course of the novel are too serious and Umrigar too good a writer. "The World We Found" is stunning in its credibility and nuance. Whether we're reading as Kavita contemplates the secret she’s carried her entire adult life and kept even from her closest friends, or watching another of Laleh's almost daily spats with her husband, we care because of the intense reality Umrigar has given them. Even the closest the novel gets to having a villain - Nishta’s domineering husband Iqbal - becomes pitiable in his flaws. Umrigar unflinchingly takes us through the daily humiliations and intermittent fears that slowly changed a university undergraduate who advocated women's rights into a man capable of treating his wife like chattel. Her skills at creating characters are such that even minor figures, such as Armaita's ex-husband Richard and Nishta's estranged mother, glimmer with reality during their brief appearances in these pages.
"The World We Found" isn’t without its flaws. There are times when poignancy gives way to sentimentality, such as when Laleh conducts a ritual of self-absolution for her abandonment of her youthful ideals: "She narrowed her eyes to follow the movement of the garland as it floated on the water, and as she did so, the first of her tears fell onto her cheeks. 'I forgive you,' she whispered to that idealistic but frightened girl from so long ago." It's almost laughable when compared to Armaita's struggle with cancer and her silent catalog of everything she's losing. Furthermore, the English of the Indian characters is jarring: It seems to have been Americanized for readers. They use words like "friggin'," and Laleh says of an upsetting incident "That freaked me out" (in Indian English "freak out" actually means to have fun or to relax).
Nevertheless, this is a novel that rewards reading, and even re-reading. "The World We Found" is a powerful meditation on friendship, on loss, and all the regrets of middle age, mingled with the recognition that for most of us it's not too late to remake our lives in some way. And even if you're dying, you still have what everyone else does: the here and now.
The Agony Column
February 8, 2012
Slow-Burning Loss of Control
Reveiw by Mario Guslandi
Misdirection is arguably the most powerful technique in the novelist's toolkit. It is the means with which places, people and stories are transformed by the readers' preconceptions and perceptions. It need not be a deliberate ruse used only in genre fiction. When misdirection rises slowly and inevitably from the organic structure of a story and the characters in that story, the sense of discovery is palpable and thrilling. Thrity Umrigar's novel 'The World We Found' ultimately proves to have a very appropriate title. Readers will surely find a very exotic world within, and it proves to be every bit as unpredictable as ours.
As 'The World We Found' opens we meet three grown women who have lived long past their youthful moments of bonding as a quartet of students in an India wracked by change in the 1970's. Laleh, once a sort of socialist firebrand, is now comfortably married to Adish, a well-to-do businessman. She flaunts her activist outlook from the easy comfort of her suburban life with hypocritical flair. Kavita, who is gay, is a quietly withdrawn professional with a lover and a low-key life. Armaiti moved to America, was married and is now divorced with a grown daughter, Diane. Even though none of them have seen one another or talked for many years, Armaiti discovers a reason to bring the Laleh, Kavita, and the fourth in their old group of friends, Nishta, to her in America.
Umrigar immerses readers with great ease in a culture most American readers won't find very familiar. On a prose level, the book is utterly transparent and stripped down. The result is a certain pleasing opacity, a showing without telling. This makes just getting to know these complex characters and their back-stories an enjoyable adventure. Umrigar manages the unique feat of writing prose that is atmospheric and dense, but smooth and enjoyable. She sprinkles in a few Indian phrases here and there in a manner that seems natural but lends real texture to the world she is building. 'The World We Found' is very easy to read, but a bit rough and ready. It may have been tough balancing act for the writer, but as readers we never notice.
Umrigar has a large cast in this book, all with lives that rise up from the history of India over the past fifty years. With no apparent effort, they each become distinct, nuanced and very entertaining to read about. The core quartet; Laleh, Armaiti, Kavita and Nishta, are seen both in their student days and in the present lives that grew from those days. The events of the past shaped their lives in ways that are universal, even if the events themselves reflect the specifics of Indian culture.
Umrigar creates four modern women who now run in different social circles, at different income levels, in different classes and even in different countries. But we can see how what they once were together informs what they are now apart. The variety and veracity that Umrigar brings to these women's lives is at the core of this novel, and the appeal to readers is very universal. Even if you don't think you would like this sort of thing, you're bound to like Umrigar's version of it.
It helps that she gets the men right as well, and gives then powerful arcs of their own. Adish is an understated gentleman, not complicated so much as convincing. Iqbal, another husband, proves to be just as craftily conceived and very well-written. The way these characters play off one another and off the women in their lives is truly engaging.
But for all this great prose, characterization and the impeccably rendered settings — you really get a sense of the cities you visit and the places they live — Umrigar's plot stands out as well. The task at hand seems very simple, almost dismissively so. But Umrigar's got the reader so entrenched and invested in the people she's created that the plot-by-revelation we find is truly compelling. There's something in all of these people, something in their pasts together and apart. What seems simple and safe might prove to be very complicated and dangerous.
As we immerse and invest more and more, a well-earned sense of urgency grows. You might think that you can approach 'The World We Found' casually, but you'd be wrong. Prepare to read this book in one or two sittings, and don't make any plans. The slow burn grows incandescently hot. It would be deliberate misdirection to suggest that this book is a thriller. But 'The World We Found' is certainly thrilling, a discovery of story that grows from characters who feel just as much in control of their world as we do of ours. By the time we discover we are wrong, the world we find, that new world, is clearly one where we have no control. It is not even ours.
Click here to listen to the review.
The Washington Post
February 9, 2012
Book World: Thrity Umrigar's 'The World We Found'
Review by Frances Itani
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."
Itani's latest novel, "Requiem," will be published in the United States in August.