on 3 June 2007
In this beautifully shaped tale of East meets West, the sixty four year old Parsi, Tehmina "Tammy" Sethna has just arrived in suburban Cleveland to spend a wintry Christmas with her son Sorab, his wife Susan and their young son, Cookie. Having recently lost her beloved husband, Rustom, Tehmina is reeling with grief, set adrift in a sea of loneliness; she is torn between staying permanently in America or returning to her cherished independent life in Mumbai, India.
The last few months haven't been easy for Tehmina. In past years, she's been the architect of her own life, proud of her independence and of her determination, and also of her sheer instinct for survival, but now, ensconced in the relative seclusion of Rosemont Heights, with the cloudy grey winter constantly on her doorstep, Tehmina worries whether she can really jump the fence and commit to a new country.
While she has a friend in her kindly shopping partner Eva Metzembaum, she's like the only person in America to whom Tammy can confide just about anything, Tehmina has become jumpy and nervous around Susan - always conscious of doing the "wrong" thing. In previous visits to the United States, Susan was relaxed, fun-filled, happy, and always genial, but something is different this time around, something is missing.
Without her dearly departed Rustum to help lighten the blows, Tehmina can't help feel like an ornament, a decoration, even though the well-meaning Sorab and Susan want her here and are even encouraging her to stay. The two of them - together with Percy, an old childhood friend of Sorab's who had virtually grown up in the Sethna household - lose sleep over their mother, especially Sorab who worries that with Rustom gone there's nobody in Bombay to care for her.
Tehmina certainly has a strong moral compass and the roaring heart of a giant, especially when she and Susan have an early run in with their white trash next-door neighbor Tara and her two adorable children whom Tehmina suspects are victims of physical and emotional abuse. Indeed, Tara becomes a solitary dark cloud in the perfect blue of Tehmina's life, proving eventually to be the poor older lady's blond haired nemesis.
"When you're in my house you follow my orders," is the message that Tehmina continually picks up from Susan when her daughter-in-law expressly tells her mother that she wants nothing at all to do with her troublesome neighbors next door. Yet Tehmina's sense of justice, and of right and wrong get the better of her and she ends up interfering with Tara and her children, the results of which have surprising consequences for both families.
While Tehmina thinks longingly of her large apartment in Bombay, an apartment that sits empty while she decides where she wants to spend the rest of her life and in which country she wants to live out her days, Sorab has to cope with the brittle superficiality of Grace his new boss the mew manager. Up until the arrival of Grace had soared like a rocket, but now he's thrust into a position that he can least afford to be in as he questions his job and his life in this country where his dreams have been made.
As the story unspools, Tehmina travels through space and time - from Ohio to Bombay to Ohio again, from the land of the living to the land of the dead, where her adored Rustom resides. In her wildest dreams Tehmina could not imagine that she would have to make the same choice that Sorab made all those years earlier. For his part, Sorab sees his wife Susan and his son Cookie as "home," a harbor and a refuge from all of the gaudiness of the world, a land apart from the thin needle of worry for his mother that is making its way into the slender fabric of contentment Sorab has woven for himself.
If Today Be Sweet absolutely breathes with the smells, sights and sounds of India, whilst also telling us much about the "treadmill" of life in America where no one ever wants to hit the off button, "where everything is available 24/7, everybody wired and blue-toothed," everyone an "American Idol." The novel always feels fresh because of Thrity Umrigar's ability to dig deep in to the sticky morass of love and family as she highlights all the ways they connect, or indeed fail to.
Umrigar moves smoothly between the voices of Tehmina and that of her son as we witness the heart-wrenching bitterness and frustration that her son has been bottling up. There are also the tears of self-recrimination and sympathy that swell in Tehmina's eyes when she realizes that her presence is perhaps a burden and an inconvenience to her son and daughter.
For his part, Sorab certainly feels the rush of heat in the back of his neck and hears the frustration in his wife's voice, every time Susan says something critical of Tehmina, while Tehmina privately wonders what has happened to her once quietly resolute boy and his clear-eyed way of seeing the world. But can Tehmina ultimately gather up her courage to jump the fence and free fall into the beautiful flight of her new future?
Certainly the situation is an awful gamble, but there's always the ghost of her husband Rustom to see her through, and eventually it the very values she holds dear - the love of family and the authenticity of her faith that enable her to make her final decision. For Tehmina the world has many turns and detours, the fence leading to the neighbors yard the symbolic dividing line between her past and her future, between India and America; it's a allegorical reflection of her need to belong and to feel at home with herself, and her life choices. Mike Leonard June 07.