If Today Be Sweet
Thrity Umrigar
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Buy *If Today Be Sweet* by Thrity Umrigar online

If Today Be Sweet
Thrity Umrigar
Harper Perennial
320 pages
May 2008
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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"But where my home is, I am no longer sure," says sixty-four-year-old Tehmina "Tammy" Sethna, who has just arrived in suburban Cleveland from India to spend a wintry Christmas with her son, Sorab, his wife, Susan, and their young son, Cookie. The last few months haven't been easy for Tehmina; she recently lost her beloved husband, Rustom, and is reeling with grief, set adrift in a sea of loneliness.

In past years, Tehmina has been the architect of her own life, proud of her independence, her determination, and also her sheer instinct for survival. Now ensconced in the relative seclusion of Rosemont Heights with the cloudy grey winter constantly on her doorstep, Tehmina is torn between staying permanently in America or returning home to her independent life in Mumbai.

Without her dearly departed Rustom to help lighten the blows, Tehmina can't help feel like an ornament and a sort of decoration, even though Sorab and Susan have been encouraging her to stay and make a home here. Lately she's been jumpy and nervous around Susan, always conscious of doing the "wrong thing."

Tehmina has a strong moral compass, like a "roaring heart of a giant," and it begins to show, 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. While Susan expressly forbids her mother to have anything to do with these troublesome people, Tehmina's innate sense of right and wrong eventually get the better of her, and she ends up taking matters into her own hands.

As the story unspools, Tehmina travels through space and time from Ohio to Bombay and back to Ohio again, from the land of the living to the land of the dead, where her adored Rustom resides. All the while she thinks longingly of her large apartment in Bombay, an apartment that sits empty while she decides in which country she wants to live out her days.

Meanwhile, Sorab has to cope with the brittle superficiality of Grace Butler, the new manager of the high-powered advertising agency where he has built his lucrative career. Thrust into a position in which he can least afford to be, Sorab begins to question his job and his commitment to his life in this country where, until now, all of his dreams have been made.

Certainly Susan and Cookie are a safe harbor and refuge from all of the gaudiness of the world, a land apart from the thin needle of worry that is making its way into Sorab's slender fabric of contentment. For her part, Tehmina could never imagine in her wildest dreams that she would have to make the same choices that Sorab made all those years earlier.

If Today Be Sweet breathes with the smells, sights and sounds of India while 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 also feels fresh because of Thrity Umrigar's ability to dig deep into the sticky morass of love and family as she highlights all of the ways they connect, or fail to.

Can Tehmina ultimately gather up her courage to jump the fence and freefall into the beautiful flight of her new future? Certainly the situation is a gamble, but there's always the ghost of Rustom to encourage her, and eventually it is the very values she holds dear - the love of her family and the authenticity of her faith - that enables her to make her final decision.

For Tehmina, the world has many turns and detours, even challenges, the fence leading to Tara's backyard and to her front door acting as a type of symbolic dividing line between Tehmina's past and her future, between India and America. It's an allegorical reflection of her need to belong and to feel at home with herself, and also to make peace with the choices that she has made throughout her life.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Michael Leonard, 2007

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