Transplanted in American Suburbia



The American Dream and the hope for a better life beckon the young to this country. It is another story when you are middle-aged and faced with the choice of giving up a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in India and starting anew. Assimilation is not easy when you have lived in India for more than half-a-century. As you grow older, you are increasingly reluctant to meld into the melting pot and lose your cultural identity.

In her latest novel, If Today Be Sweet, Umrigar presents the dilemmas confronting Tehemina Sethna, a middle-aged widow faced with the choice of going back to her beloved Bombay or settling down in the United States with her only son Sorab, who is all the family she has left. It is a difficult choice for her but time is running out. Things have not been the same ever since she came to Cleveland to live with Sorab. All her life she had been totally dependent on her protective husband to make all the decisions for her. The sudden loss leaves her unequipped to lead life on her own.

Sorab brings his mother to suburban Cleveland to live with him, his American wife Susan, and son Cookie soon after his father’s fatal heart attack in Bombay. Susan exudes good old American optimism, a can-do spirit and Midwestern pragmatism. But their idyllic life is ruffled with the arrival of Tehemina. There is a growing rift between Sorab and Susan.

Lately, Sorab is also facing problems with his mean-spirited boss, Grace Butler. Ambition propels him in one direction, while homesickness pulls him towards the land of his birth and upbringing, especially after the loss of his father. It’s a clash of two value systems—the isolated nuclear family and the gregarious joint family.

In her authorial essay, Umrigar points out the price of immigration: along with the excitement, the optimism, the belief, there is doubt and loss and mourning.

We see the impersonal efficiency of American suburbia through Tehemina’s grieving eyes. She must pull herself out of her memories of Bombay, overcome her isolation, and move on.

The ghostly conversational link between Tehemina and Rustom, her departed husband, is a clever narrative device that portrays Tehemina’s gradual severance from her dependent past and passage to an independent existence in America.

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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