Memoir is a funny thing. The genre has been called, in most recent years, “creative non-fiction,” the theory being that actual memory is a slippery thing, hard to grasp, and sometimes unreliable. Readers tend to want the more salient details, hunger for hints of the dysfunctional, the pain, and the angst. Conversely, joyous, hallmark moments don’t seem to make good copy. Novelist Thrity Umrigar (Bombay Time, Picador, 2001) has penned a page-turner of a memoir. First Darling of the Morning is an account of Umrigar’s childhood in her traditional Parsi family from Bombay. What lies within is a riveting story of a shy and insecure childhood, living in an extended family of often-warring factions. Her beloved auntie, Mehroo, her father’s unmarried and long-suffering sister, provided the tireless and selfless duties of a second mother to the young Thrity. She becomes all-important to the young Thrity because Mehroo shields her, to the best of her ability, from a mother who was often cruel and capricious. This displaced devotion fueled her mother’s anger and stoked her jealousy:
… I never think of motherhood as a biological concept; so that I understand that the bonds of motherhood are formed daily, by acts of kindness and affection and devotion. This is Mehroo’s legacy to me and despite her straight arrowed, unwavering devotion, it is a mixed legacy, filled with yearning and ambiguity and longing.
Longing, in fact, is one of the most prominent features of Umrigar’s “selected memories,” a palpable sense of hope being just around the corner. Disappointment, sadness, anger, cruelty, and helplessness variably inhabit every page, keeping the narrative moving straight ahead to the very end. Though Umrigar situates this memoir nicely in time, the scope is, perhaps, a bit too wide. At times it feels as though what Umrigar has written is more of a biography of sorts rather than a memoir. Occasionally, there is a sense of being assailed by the sheer amount of detail and dialogue.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book and the most puzzling, as well, is the one that centers on her mother’s decidedly non-maternal personality and tempestuous place in their family. She portrays her mother through incidents and description as shrill, malicious, and shrewish, the antithesis of her more patient and understanding father and Mehroo. Along with the young Umrigar, this foursome provides a fascinating view of family dynamics in a traditional Parsi household with plenty of incidents in the first 10 years of her life to engage the reader. It is only when we venture into the rebellious teenage years and the somewhat inscrutable and receding role of her mother that interest wanes a bit, in part, because so much emotion that is built up in the book is based on her mother’s often-destructive behavior.
Eventually, the breadth of the book proves a bit too much. Incredibly, too, in her acknowledgements she thanks her parents “for encouraging me to follow my dreams even when they were struggling with fulfilling their own.” One wonders what her mother must think of her own characterization in the book. Still and all, this is a good read for its keen observations and message of emotional survival through the upheaval of both the natural and obligatory loyalties inherent in family life.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS: A DAUGHTER’S ELEGY by Sara Suleri Goodyear. University of Chicago Press. 121 pages.
As scathing as Umrigar’s account of child-hood in a household with an angry and censorious mother is, Sara Suleri Goodyear writes a stylistic and spare account of her father, an answer to her elegy for her mother in Meatless Days (University of Chicago, 1991). Suleri Goodyear’s writing is less accessible than Umrigar’s, providing less tangible details and descriptions evoking a mood throughout the book of looking at the past through a Vaseline-covered lens. Though Suleri Goodyear has penned an “elegy” for her father, refreshingly it is far from hagiography. She plays around with the daughter’s perception of her father as all-knowing, powerful, and heroic, and contrasts those perceptions of a younger woman with that of the wide and gaping eye gazing upon her father with keen adult sensibilities.
That Suleri Goodyear is a stylist of sorts is both intriguing and at times unnerving. Her peculiar use of the English language is often self-conscious and contrived, obscuring, with language, the very image she seems intent on conveying. Alternately, she addresses the reader and her father, himself, giving the writing a rather smug quality, like a private joke, a bit too precious and never meant to be decoded by anyone else: “I have told you Pip, haven’t I, that you were preposterous?”
Pip (patriotic and prosperous), as she and her siblings call her father seemed to be a loving, but imperious father, as much an entertainment and a character to his family as they were to him. One of the founders of the Times of Karachi and the Evening Times, Pip seems, in many ways larger than life and severely missed:
And so it goes. When Pip died, I moaned. I thought some remnant in me had been discarded; I needed you to look at me and say, once again, with your unreplicated disgust, “You children.” Then I turned away and considered different pastures new. Yes, you were in some other valley (Is heaven a valley? I have no idea.) and the rest of us moaning, groaning over your sweet remains.
The reader may be moaning and groaning by the end of the book, but it won’t be for Pip. What we know of Pip, by the end, is precious little. And that, it seems, is quite enough.