In this gorgeous novel, Umrigar focuses on time and place, moving effortlessly from Ann Arbor of the 1990s
to chaotic present-day India occupied by real people with their incessantly human needs. The new deregulated and globalized India proves to be fertile background for this dramatic story beginning with a young American couple and the heartbreaking fallout over the death of their seven-year-old son.
On assignment in Girbaug
for the multinational corporation NaturalSolutions, Frank Benton and his wife, Ellie, are desperate to save their troubled marriage. Even though their son, Benny, once the pride and joy of their life, is now gone, Ellie hopes that India will be a fresh start, a chance to start clean in a new place and perhaps put the troubles of Ann Arbor behind them. But as both frantically try to salvage the vestiges of a broken love, the move
does little to assuage the couple’s bitterness and unspoken accusations.
When Ramesh, a dark-haired and sharp-eyed Indian boy, the “sunshine to Benny’s moonlight,” precipitously
enters Frank and Ellie’s lives, Frank’s heart once again awakens to the proclivities of paternal love. Ramesh, the son of Edna and Prakash, who cook and clean for the Bentons, lives in a ramshackle hut next door, and every day they are reminded of all the trappings of wealth and privilege just across the courtyard that can never be theirs.
Frank and Ramesh begin to form a bond. Morning runs on the almost deserted beach, monthly haircuts,
helping with Ramash’s math homework, and then a trip to Bombay with a lavish July 4th picnic at the American Embassy only increase Frank’s naked need for the young boy; he begins to harbor thoughts of taking Ramesh to America and creating a new life for him. Ramesh is the only thing in Frank’s life that gives him any solace and any sense of normalcy in this chaotic country.
While Ellie hopes that the boy “will be the silken thread and the rope that pulls her drowning husband out of his grief,” Edna is secretly thrilled at the prospect of her son being mentored by the wealthy Americans. Not so Prakash, who threatens to derail Ramesh’s newfound friendship. Spending his days seething with bitter jealousy, similarly envious and ashamed, Prakash is obtuse to the point of blindness in matters involving the welfare of his son.
When a popular union leader dies in prison, NaturalSolutions is blamed. The labor dispute proves to be too much for the embittered Frank. The author casts her unique and sweeping saga against the backdrop of Frank’s bourgeoning paternal feelings for Ramesh, his inability to find a way around an uprising by the villagers, and his animosities towards Ellie.
In the novel’s heart-stopping climax Frank’s obsessions over the boy are carried to the extreme.
Umrigar’s cacophony of India abounds, the songs and phrases, the sights, sounds and smells, the lyrical turns of phrase in a country filled with overlapping images as the author plays out her dueling notions of fate and destiny. The frailty of human need is at the core of this novel even as we witness the growth of a young boy caught up in the selfish needs of two men. In the end, a classic struggle of cultures defines the story as Frank sets himself on an amoral path of destruction. His tragedy is almost transcendent as Umrigar brings her quite beautiful story to its devastating and poignant conclusion.