TLC Book Tours: The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

The Story Hour

“I begins.

Dear Shilpa – I writes. Belief me when I say not single day pass in six years that I not thought of you. How are you, my dearest?”

 

When I first began reading The Story Hour, I am a little stunned. It opens with those words above and continues in this broken English for as long as we stay in Lakshimi’s narrative. At first I think, I cannot keep reading this. The former sub-editor in me keeps wanting to correct the language! But Lakshimi grows on me, and as her life story is revealed, my issues with her language fade into the background. And then there is the fact that this is a book written by Thrity Umrigar, whose The Space Between Us I adored. And whose books I am happy to devour.

Lakshimi is a recent immigrant from India. Isolated, cut off from her family, she is sad and lonely and friendless. She has no one except her husband and he doesn’t even treat her like a person (his pet name for her is “stupid”). When a customer of their restaurant, the only one who bothered to know her name, to ask her how she is, tells her he is leaving for California, Lakshimi breaks down and tries to kill herself.

Maggie, a psychologist, is assigned to Lakshimi at the hospital. She reckons it’s because her boss knows that she too is married to an Indian man:

“Did white people presume some primal solidarity between all people of color? Would Cummings be disappointed if she and the patient weren’t soon bonding over cups of tea and trading recipes for samosas while watching Bollywood videos?”

Moved by her situation and identifying with Lakshimi as they both lost their mothers at a young age, Maggie begins to treat Lakshimi at her home office for free and despite her reservations, despite the protocols of Maggie’s profession, they become friends.

Of course it’s not all happy-go-lucky, for they have conflicting expectations of their relationship. And when Maggie learns of Lakshimi’s long buried secret, it shakes their bond, and forces decisions that will change their lives.

The switch between narratives can be jarring. Lakshimi’s broken English reflects not just what she says but also her thoughts. That puzzles me at first as I wonder why the voice in her head would sound that way. But I guess Umrigar wants to keep it constant, so that we reflect on the contrast between the lives of these two women. And it is vast.

It’s not just a cultural and class divide. Maggie reveals everything to us. We feel her fears and worries, stress and unhappiness. We hear her joy and laughter, which sadly is a lot less often. Lakshimi, on the other hand, hides her history and holds tight to her secrets and her story is only gradually revealed to the reader, despite the first person narrative. As a result, we are as shocked as Maggie by her revelations.

It’s effective and affecting. Umrigar’s characters get under the reader’s skin, so real and involved are you in their lives, whether they are likeable or not, that you feel for them.

 The Story Hour is a reflection on the little things, on the stories that are told, the relationships between husbands and wives and friends, and their willingness to forgive.

 

 

Thrity UmrigarThrity Umrigar is the author of five other novels—The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time—and the memoir First Darling of the Morning. An award-winning journalist, she has been a contributor to the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Huffington Post, among other publications. She is the winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard, the 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Seth Rosenberg Prize. A professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, she lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Connect with Thrity Umrigar through her website and on Facebook.

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I received this book for review from its publisher and TLC Book Tours

Check out the other stops on the tour

Tuesday, August 19th: Jorie Loves a Story

Wednesday, August 20th: Booksie’s Blog

Thursday, August 21st: Bibliosue

Friday, August 22nd: BookNAround

Monday, August 25th: Lit and Life

Tuesday, August 26th: Mom’s Small Victories

Wednesday, August 27th: Books on the Table

Thursday, August 28th: Book Addiction

Monday, September 1st: I’d Rather Be At The Beach

Tuesday, September 2nd: Olduvai Reads

Wednesday, September 3rd: The Feminist Texican [Reads]

Sunday, September 7th: Book Snob

Monday, September 8th: A Bookish Way of Life

Tuesday, September 9th: BoundbyWords

Friday, September 12th: Silver’s Reviews

Monday, September 15th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Tuesday, September 16th: Read Lately

Friday, September 19th: Everyday I Write the Book

The Space Between Us

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This book kept me going in the wee hours.

Because The Space Between Us was just such a wonderful read. The story of these two women made me read on and on during the night feeds, a time usually reserved for activities that use up less brain power, like watching Netflix, because at 2am, there are droopy eyes and scrambled brains and a hungry wailing baby.

But Umrigar’s tale of life in Bombay struck a chord, intrigued me. I wanted to read more about Bhima and her life in the slums – and the hints of a better life that she used to have.

And Umrigar throws it at you. She isn’t afraid of assaulting the senses. Right at the beginning, we meet Bhima as she rises in the morning and heads to the slum’s communal toilet.

“The open drains with their dank, pungent smell, the dark rows of slanting hutments, the gaunt, openmouthed men who lounge around in drunken stupors – all of it looks worse in the clear light of the new day. Despite herself, Bhima’s mind goes back to the old days when she lived with her husband, Gopal, and their two children in a chawl, where water gurgled through the tap in her kitchen and they shared the toilet with only two other families.”

So we are informed that Bhima, who lives with her pregnant granddaughter, hasn’t always lived in these unfortunate surroundings. But her mind is preoccupied these days with Maya’s swollen belly, father unknown.

“Maya – the granddaughter whom she had rescued from death’s door; Maya, who had come to her as an orphan and grown up to be an intelligent, ambitious young woman; Maya the only flesh-and-blood family member she still had near her; Maya, who had been the sole bright spot in Bhima’s bleak life; Maya, who was to make up for all of Bhima’s own unrealised hopes and aborted dreams, who was the golden focal point of all of Bhima’s fantasies and daydreams”

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Bhima works for Sera Dubash, cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping, and has been doing so for many years. And they have grown close over the years:

“This is what Sera appreciates most about Bhima – this unspoken language, this intimacy that has developed between them over the years.”

While the two women have become confidants (Bhima for instance is the only person outside Sera’s family to know that she had been abused) , there is still a chasm between them, between their starkly different lives, and their place in society.

“They are sitting in the dining room, sipping tea, Sera out of the blue-gray mug Dinaz had bought for her from Cottage Industries, Bhima out of the stainless steel glass that is kept aside for her in the Dubash household. As usual, Sera sits on a chair at the table while Bhima squats on her haunches on the floor nearby. When Dinaz was younger, she used to prod her mother about the injustice of Bhima not being allowed to sit on the couch or a chair and having to use her own separate utensils, instead of the ones the rest of the family used.”

Bhima is loyal. Fiercely so. She knows she owes plenty to Sera and her family. For her job, for lending her money, for helping an uneducated woman in many different ways. But then she learns the truth and it nearly, just nearly, breaks her.

The Space Between Us is a compelling story of this great divide between the classes in India, filled with atmospheric details describing the sights, sounds and smells of life in Bombay. Umrigar fills her dialogue with colloquialisms and slangs which permeate and add to the authenticity of the story.

“Arre, ustad, you are too much. Our slum’s own court poet. With your movie star looks, you should be writing and singing your own songs. Imagine, the physique of a Sanjay Dutt and the voice of a Mohammad Rafi. On Filmfare awards night, there would be no other winners, I tell you.”

Despite herself, Bhima smiles. “Okay, you altoo-faltoos,” Bibi says with a grin. “Leave us alone now.”

 

Global Women of Color

This is my seventeeth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).

thrity

Thrity Umrigar is an Indian American writer, who was born in Mumbai and immigrated to the United States when she was 21. She is a journalist and the author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven. She has written for the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other newspapers, and regularly writes for The Boston Globe ‘s book pages. She is currently assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University where she teaches creative writing and literature. She was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Bibliography
Bombay Times (2001)
First Darling of the Morning : Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood (2004)
The Space Between Us (2006)
If Today Be Sweet (2007)
The Weight of Heaven (2009)
The World We Found (2012)