It’s a call that changes everything. Not the one to author Thrity Umrigar’s home in Cleveland—where she is associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University—but the one her character Armaiti makes in her compelling new novel, The World We Found. It’s a call across continents that launches a group of friends on a transformative journey.
The story begins when Armaiti, divorced and living in America, reaches out to her college friends after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Her last wish is to be reunited with Laleh, Kavita and Nishta, all still in Bombay. During the late 1970s, as idealistic students and Communists, they’d been inseparable, but have since lost touch. The women are as diverse as India itself. There is Kavita, a successful architect, who struggles to live openly as a lesbian; Laleh, married to Adish (a Parsi) and a mother of two, who enjoys a life of privilege at odds with her activist past; and Nishta, whom none of them have heard from in years. When they finally find her, Nishta is clad in a burqa and living in a strict, impoverished Muslim neighborhood. It soon becomes clear that Nishta’s husband, Iqbal, a fellow university idealist turned fundamentalist, will be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling Armaiti’s final request.
Umrigar’s new novel tells the powerful story of a friendship that transcends politics and religion.
Now far from the exotic locale of her birth, Bombay, Umrigar explains how a chance meeting with an old friend became the genesis of the novel. “I spent a few months in India in 2008 and while there, ran into a friend whom I had not seen in 25 years. During our conversation, she mentioned how the Hindu-Muslim riots that occurred in Bombay in 1992-93 changed her forever. She realized the limits of political activism, after that event, and turned inward,” the author recalls. “The accidental meeting and conversation lingered with me, and it reminded me of what a seminal event those riots were.”
Umrigar returned to her life in the U.S., ruminating on political and religious fundamentalism and how the young are particularly susceptible to it.
Born to an affluent and close-knit Parsi family, Umrigar herself was a student at a time of political and social upheaval and remembers a different Bombay. “In the Bombay that I grew up in the ’70s, it was a beautiful time. It was very secular, very intellectually challenging; it was a good time to be a Bombayite. There was a lot of good energy. The Hindu-Muslim riots ended that for many of us.”
Spurred by the memory of those events, Umrigar hoped to write about fundamentalism from the perspective of her homeland. “In the West, we often conflate Islamic fundamentalism with terrorism,” she says. “I wanted to write a novel that spoke of religious conservatism from a non-American, non-9/11 perspective, but one that still captured the anxieties of our age.”
She does just that in The World We Found, exploring a divided India with great insight and tracing those fissions through history.
Umrigar came to the U.S. in 1983 at the age of 21 to attend Ohio State University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism. She spent 17 years working as a journalist, first at a small newspaper near Cleveland and later at the Akron Beacon Journal. After winning a Nieman fellowship in 2000, she completed her first novel, Bombay Time, and has since written three more critically acclaimed novels about the experiences of Indians and Indian-Americans, including The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven, as well as a memoir of her childhood in India, First Darling of the Morning.
Her new novel, The World We Found, is above all else a character-driven narrative, the story of friendship that transcends politics and religion. Though some aspects of the novel are uniquely Indian, many others are universal—the intimacies between couples, the vagaries of youth, the love of a mother for her child.
Umrigar says, if that’s the case, she has succeeded. “I always share this advice with my writing students: Tell the story of one person so deeply and completely, that in the act of going deep into that one person, something magical happens, and it becomes a universal story.”
Take Iqbal, for instance. It would have been easy to paint him one-dimensionally as an oppressive Muslim husband, but Umrigar portrays him as both deeply flawed and sympathetic. “[Iqbal] happens to be Muslim in this book. He could have been anything—Parsi, Christian—and the same forces might have worked on somebody else,” she says. “For me as a writer, the most important thing is to get the emotional life of a character right and to make it as true to form as possible.”
The novel’s essence is perhaps best captured in a conversation between the dying Armaiti and her college-aged daughter, Diane. Armaiti tells her daughter, “These women gave me something. A sense of belonging to the world, but more than that. A sense that the world belonged to me. Do you understand? A belief that it was my world—our world. To shape it as we wanted.” Asked if she still believes she can change the world, Armaiti responds, “I don’t know if the world we dreamed of is an illusion . . . but I do know this—that my desire for that world was true. It was the truest thing I’ve ever felt, as true as my love for you. And—and I’d like to believe that means something.”
Umrigar muses, “In a sense, Armaiti is trying to connect with the friends from her past, but she’s also trying to reconnect with that part of herself—that in some ways was the best part of her, was the best part of all of them. I don’t know if nostalgia’s the right word, but there’s this real yearning to go back to that pure self.”
Each woman plots her own course in that search as she readies herself for the trip to America, and all arrive at life-changing revelations. In her melodious voice, Umrigar says, “This book is about journey. It’s about process. It’s not about destination. [At the book’s end] the revolution has already happened. The reunion has already occurred.”