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Fast Forward: Now they are approaching 50. Their ties have loosened. Their worlds are different from each other’s. And they never expected the unexpected.While the love and friendship forged during college remains undiminished, the big question that confronts them is: How do their actions, decisions, and beliefs of 30 years ago square with their lives today? In The World We Found, best-selling author Thrity Umrigar takes us on a journey that will persuade even the reader to take a personal inventory.Armaiti, who moved to America for graduate school, lights the fire of reunion when she is diagnosed with a brain tumor and has six months to live. She wants to see her three dearest friends again before she dies. However, the request isn’t as simple as it seems. They haven’t seen each other for years, and the others still live in India.
Laleh married her college sweetheart, Adish, who once shared her politics, but because he works hard to provide for their family, success allows them to live the life they once disdained. Kavita, still in contact with Laleh, is a successful architect, but she keeps her lesbian lover a secret just as she always hid her feelings for Armaiti. Nishta and Iqbal, the brave, liberal couple who defied everyone’s cautions about a Hindu-Muslim marriage, have seemingly disappeared.
Duty-bound to deliver Armaiti’s appeal, Laleh and Kavita manage to locate Nishta in a squalid section of Bombay. Iqbal, once a free spirit but now a devout Muslim, keeps her on a short, conservative leash. Nishta converted and took the name Zoha, wears a burkha in public, and is forbidden contact with those from her non-Islamic past.
Adish—once known as “Mr. Fix-It”—is asked to step in and facilitate Armaiti’s wish, which will then quietly set Nishta free of the life neither she nor Iqbal had imagined for themselves. In a thrilling down-to-the-wire series of events, Adish finds himself in a position that requires him to decide whether it is right and good to do something wrong and cruel in order to bring about the desired results.
The World We Found is a novel for anyone who has stood up for what they believe in. Umrigar, one of the finest authors writing in America today, was an activist in Bombay during her younger days, as told in her memoir, First Darling of the Morning (India Currents, September 2004). But the spark for this novel came from a very different place.
“The bare outlines of the story took shape after a chance meeting in India with a college friend I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years,” Umrigar relates in an e-interview. “We were catching up on our lives, and she mentioned that she had moved away from the activism of her college days after the Hindu-Muslim riots that tore apart Bombay in 1992-93. It marked the end of her innocence in a way. And although I was living in the U.S.by then, I remembered how the riots had affected me at a very deep level. It was almost as if the secular, easy-going, tolerant city we had grown up in didn’t exist anymore. So I could relate to her feelings, even though I disagreed with her conclusions. And then I asked myself questions about lost idealism and whether something of value still lingered from that era.”
The result is one of Umrigar’s most introspective offerings yet. All of her characters are obliged to take good, hard looks at who they were and whom they’ve become. Adish and Iqbal size up each other as contemporaries and the men they once were. By making her characters reach deep inside themselves, they are forced to reconcile the world they once fought for with the world in which they now live.
There is no question that Umrigar hands us a complex character in Iqbal. She creates his character with compassion and reason. The ability to convey complexity without the reader judging Iqbal in “post-9/11 terms” is quite an accomplishment. Did the author see it as a risk to handle Iqbal in such a way?
“I didn’t see it as a risk. I saw it as an obligation,” Umrigar replies. “My role as a writer is to take readers behind clichés, behind stereotypes, to places they would normally not travel to. I wanted to weigh in on this question of why a deeply devout Muslim is automatically equated as sympathizing with terrorism. I wanted to tell Iqbal’s story from a non-American lens. Iqbal is not transformed because of 9/11 but rather, because of a home-grown tragedy, which is the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93.”
On the other side of the world and as the first reunion occurs in India, Armaiti resists treatment that might extend her life. Having watched cancer slowly and painfully eat away at her mother, she refuses to allow that same anguish to burden her family. I asked Umrigar how she decided on Armaiti’s diagnosis. Her answer was short and heartbreakingly true:
”I gave Armaiti a brain tumor because that is the illness I found would give her the least amount of time and was basically unresponsive to treatment.”
In her short time left, Armaiti finds a new perspective. Spending time with her ex-husband and her college-age daughter, she comes to the realization that life is for living and that every life action has meaning.
It is energizing that there is so much life in a book that deals with one character’s imminent death and another’s looming freedom. Umrigar possesses the remarkable ability to tell stories that time after time ring true and clear. Like American novelist Anne Tyler, she has the gift of creating ordinary characters that become special when thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Umrigar makes us love her characters, cry and laugh with them, feel their pain and sorrow, rejoice and celebrate with them because we know each one well enough to not be embarrassed by our own emotions.
During their college discussions and debates, the novel’s characters focused on identifying “the clarifying principle,” their guide to the truth. Armaiti’s impending death at 50 is the stimulus by which many things are clarified for her and her friends. The truest scene of all is when Armaiti tells her daughter why her three friends are so important to her:
“What matters is … that … these three women gave me something. A sense of belonging in the world, but more than that. A sense that the world belonged to me … A belief that is was my world—our world. To shape it as we wanted. That we never had to settle for things as they were, you know?” I sure do, Armaiti. I sure do.