The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar is a sparkling and sharp slice of life that, in presenting four personal stories, reflects and illuminates universal truths. Four women have been friends since their student days in Bombay, during the heady but dangerous years of the 1970s when protests and marches dominated university life and parents looked on, confused and horrified. Now thirty years have passed and one of the four, Armaiti, has been diagnosed with cancer. She asks for a reunion of the four friends -- she, Nishta, Laleh, and Kavita. Her simple request sets off a cavalcade of events, not only back in time but irrevocably forward.
Umrigar uses the intertwined stories of the four women to tell the history of India in the past thirty years, buoyed in so many ways financially and politically, and yet still rife with prejudice, corruption, and inequality. Divisions of class, religion, and generation are all brought to painful and very personal life: through Umrigar's characters we see the individual burdens and costs borne by abstract bludgeons of denigration and denial, along with the guilt and excuses brought on by material comfort and success.
As in all her novels, Umrigar is a beautiful genius at presenting the intimate side of large-scale (and widely accepted) practices of discrimination and bigotry. In this novel, she turns her focus to religion and to the scorn -- and much, much worse, as in the mass murders and beatings in Bombay in 1993 and at Gujarat in 2002 -- heaped on the Muslim population of India. One of the women, Nitsha, converted to Islam to please her previously sectarian husband but now finds herself increasingly isolated, both from within and without the Muslim community. Will the reunion with her friends ease her isolation -- or set her apart forever?
Nitsha is not the only one imprisoned by circumstances and choices. All the characters are in some form of imprisonment, whether it be of poverty or prejudice or illness, or in nostalgia for the past. There is no denying, however, that some imprisonments are worse than others, and at least one holds a death sentence. And yet, Umrigar cautions her readers, we all will die. All the obsessions of politics, regrets, or rancor will mean nothing, eventually. All that remains, in the end, is the beauty we've managed to create from wherever we are, with whomever we are, in the world we find ourselves in.
In youth, we believe we can create a new world, shape a better place and future. This is the correct and proper sentiment for energized, intelligent, ambitious youth (like Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh, and Nitsha), and I hope my own children feel it as passionately as I did, thirty years ago (Umrigar's characters lament their own children's seeming obsession with unimportant things -- is that not every parent's worry?).
As we grow older, we understand that through our struggles to create a better place, what comes out is the world we find. Umrigar's four women are reuniting in this found world and discovering the truth behind its beauty: that it is the people in their world that matter most of all. And because of the fluid mastery of Umrigar's writing, all four of her women will matter to readers (and resonate and disturb and inspire) and the world they found (equally disturbing and enlightening) will be known, and discussed, and remembered.
Follow Nina Sankovitch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/readallday