THE WEIGHT OF HEAVEN by Thrity Umrigar. New York: Harper Collins. April 2009. Hardcover. 384 pages. $25.99.55f829b89dfc496c32a9559b26a0539c-4

In If Today Be Sweet, which I reviewed for India Currents in 2007, Thrity Umrigar presents the dilemmas confronting a middle-aged Parsi woman, Tehemina, when her husband dies of a heart attack in Bombay. Tehemina must choose whether or not to leave a comfortable upper middle-class life in India and move in with her only son, Sorab, in Cleveland, who is married to an American woman. The price of immigration, Tehemina finds out, is doubt, loss, mourning, and a clash of cultural values. But the novel has a happy ending when Tehemina decides to stick it out and live independently in Cleveland.

Umrigar’s latest novel, The Weight of Heaven, portrays cultural conflicts in greater depth and is set against the backdrop of economic imperialism. An American compromises ethical values when he tries to assuage personal grief by seeking a substitute for a son lost to meningitis.

Frank and Ellie Benton are shattered by the death of their seven-year-old son, Benny, and their marriage seems on the rocks. Frank decides to take up a job in a small town, Girbaug, in India with Herbal Solutions, an American company, and Ellie accompanies him. At issue is the company’s claim to the girbal trees, the raw material for the products of Herbal Solutions, on the grounds that it had paid for the legal rights to the land. The people of Girbaug claim their rights the natural resources of the land as sons and daughters of the soil.

It is a clash between legal rights and moral imperatives. Intertwined in this clash is the drama of the breakdown of individual morality in the power play between master and servant. Ramesh, the son of the American couple’s servants, Prakash and Edna, introduces a new dynamic in the life of Ellie and Frank.

Unlike Benny, who united them as a couple, this Indian boy brings a rift between them. Although Ellie is very fond of Ramesh, she realizes that he belongs to Prakash and Edna, and is alarmed at Frank’s open display of wealth and power in claiming Ramesh as his own.

Umrigar’s portrayal of the ambivalence of the westerner towards India is nuanced, far more than just a Kiplingesque “never the twain shall meet.” Ellie is shocked when she sees the dead body of a man, Mukesh, on her lawn; he had killed himself in despair when he was not allowed to pick leaves from the girbal tree.

Ellie, for the first time, sees the two faces of India: “the India of the Divali celebration—the gentle, generous India, the country of red flared skirts and twirling dancers, of the clay lamps and firecrackers that emitted light and beauty” and “India as Frank had grown to see it—corrupt, unpredictable, volatile, and even sinister.”

Umrigar takes a stab at every form of corruption in India: murder for hire, money-laundering, and pervasive bribery. Umrigar also captures the contradictions in the Indian psyche; the calculating murderer, Gulab, has his own sense of honor—he will not betray a man once he has given his word: “it took the randomness of an indifferent universe to have birthed a man who was this immoral and honorable.”

Umrigar equally exposes the hypocrisy of Frank who has a lofty notion of Judeo-Christian values, while in practice, he callously plots murder. Frank says in ironic self-delusion: “We Americans believe in the sanctity of life. I was brought up to believe: Thou shalt not kill.’”

Gulab, the unprincipled murderer, magnifies the irony of American hypocrisy by pretending to agree with Frank: “Yes sir. World over, Americans are known for respecting life.” A riveting book.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.

 

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