Disengaged Descriptions Mar Emotional “World We Found”

"The World We Found" by Thrity Umrigar (Harper)

How strong are the bonds of college friendship after decades of separation? Armitai, the protagonist of Thrity Umrigar’s “The World We Found,” finds herself contemplating this question at the onset of the novel. Afflicted with an incurable brain tumor, Armitai realizes what she wants most from the world: the company of her three best friends from college. Or, rather, the three women who are something more than that: “Her words were so weak, her description of Lal, Ka, and Nishta as ‘friends’ so inadequate and small…. Laleh and the others had not just been friends, they had been comrades.” Though Armitai immigrated to America years ago, her friends still live in Mumbai. To see them and fulfill her dying wish, Armitai pays for her three friends to undertake a transnational journey, an experience that will ultimately weave together the strands of lives that had parted 30 years ago.

But extracting the three women from their lives in Mumbai to witness the end of hers becomes more of a challenge than Armitai ever imagined. In particular, one of the three, Nishta, is trapped in a dangerous and controlling marriage to her college sweetheart. As Armitai’s life draws to an end, the pressure mounts for the friends to help Nishta escape from her husband and his family. The story that unfolds between Armitai’s diagnosis and Nishta’s freedom stretches from Mumbai to Florida and contrasts their mutual past with the dissolution of their present situations. Despite this wealth of dramatic potential, however, the story promises sparks that it fails to ignite.

Umrigar’s premise is interesting; her characters span generations and cultures, from the stereotypical American childhood of Armitai’s daughter, Diana, to the unconventional Muslim-Hindu marriage of Nishta and her husband Iqbal. Umrigar contemplates youthful radicalism, its evolution from generation to generation, and how people can painfully outgrow their earlier passions. She enlivens the story through the variety of narratives, from Kavita’s journey towards self-acceptance to Laleh’s surrender to a practical husband and a comfortable life.

Yet flaws in Umrigar’s descriptions and characterizations impair the emotions of the novel. The lack of a developed background creates an unfortunately two-dimensional story; recollections like Armitai staring down a line of policemen with Laleh at her side are only briefly explored, and the processes behind the dissolution of the friendships—a dissolution so complete that they’ve barely spoken in 20 years—come to light only very late in then novel. Umrigar’s storytelling is inadequate for the drama and passion of the events she suggests. Too often, she relies on her readers’ familiarity with archetypes in place of giving them a tangible sense of character and scene. Instead of exploring why the four friends were impassioned about the issues behind the demonstrations—issues that she never clearly indicates—Umrigar relies on stereotypes about college radicals and tacitly encourages readers to paint in their motivations along with all the other requisite details. “The Iqbal they knew wore bright floral shirts over tight jeans,” she writes, “and usually had his sunglasses perched on top of a headful of long hair.”

In addition, Umrigar vaguely uses traumas like police brutality and molestation as justifications for what her characters have become. Her authorial tendency to suggest characters instead of acquainting the reader with them can make the violence seem rather heavy-handed; Laleh and Kavita recall brief snapshots of brutality, and Laleh is torn up with guilt over something that happened to Armitai, yet neither seems to feel the violence vividly enough to reveal her deepest feelings to the reader or to justify the event’s existence in the story.

In a similar way, Umrigar has an inclination to suggest, rather than reveal, the places she travels in her narrative. “Bombay!” Armitai recalls. “The cool, tranquil rooms of Jehangir Art Gallery. The crazy, colorful exuberance of Fashion Street….” We never learn, however, what lies within the Jehangir Art Gallery or what exactly characterizes the nature of Fashion Street’s exuberance. Rather, Umrigar’s descriptions rely on profusions of adjectives, which seem to invite recollections of National Geographic photographs rather than establish an original space for the story. Ultimately, “The World We Found” becomes a frustrating novel to read, because it leaves the reader in the realm of what is already public. Instead of learning how Mumbai became meaningful to Armitai or why she recalls, near the end of her life, “a solitary squirrel racing on the smooth, white skin of a snowy lawn of a ski lodge in Colorado,” Umrigar leaves the reader with a sense of the beauty of beauty but none of the meaning of it. Her characters are clearly moved by what they remember, but it is nearly impossible to share or understand those memories.

And so, though it is a work of impressive narrative reach, “The World We Found” finishes without getting off the ground—at least, in a figurative sense. As Nishta leaves Mumbai on a plane in the final pages, she reflects on the “weak constellation” of the lights of the city. This image is an apt embodiment of the story—anyone can see constellations in city lights, but Umrigar never quite manages to explain which stars she’s looking at and why.

—Staff writer Aisha K. Down can be reached at aishadown@college.harvard.edu.

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