First Darling of the Morning is the powerful and poignant memoir of bestselling author Thrity Umrigar, tracing the arc of her Bombay childhood and adolescence from her earliest memories to her eventual departure for the United States at age twenty-one. It is an evocative, emotionally charged story of a young life steeped in paradox; of a middle-class Parsi girl attending Catholic school in a predominantly Hindu city; of a guilt-ridden stranger in her own land, an affluent child in a country mired in abysmal poverty. She reveals intimate secrets and offers an unflinching look at family issues once considered unspeakable as she interweaves two fascinating coming-of-age stories—one of a small child, and one of a nation.
About the Author
Thrity Umrigar is the author of seven novels Everybody’s Son, The Story Hour, The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time; a memoir, First Darling of the Morning; and a children’s picture book, When I Carried You in My Belly. A former journalist, she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard and was a finalist for the PEN Beyond Margins Award. A professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, she lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
First Darling of the Morning
I am of that generation of middle-class, westernized, citified Indian kids who know the words to Do-Re-Me better than the national anthem. The Sound of Music is our call to arms and Julie Andrews our Pied Piper. It is 1967...Hollywood movies always come to India a year or two after their American release...and the alleys and homes of Bombay are suddenly alive with the sound of music. No matter that the movie has reached us over a year after it is a hit all over the Western world. All the piano teachers in Bombay are teaching their beginner students how to plunk Do-Re-Me until it seems as if every middle-class Parsi household with a piano emits only one tune.
I am six years old and suffer from an only child's fantasy of what life with siblings would be like. The Sound of Music gives flight to that fantasy, provides it with shape and colour. The laughter, the camaraderie, the teasing, the close-knittedness of the Von Trapp family ensnares me, forever setting my standard of what a perfect family should be. The Von Trapps are as light and sunny as my family is dark; they whistle and sing while the adults in my household are moody and silent; the children are as shiny and healthy and robust as I am puny and sickly and awkward. To see those seven children up on that large screen, standing in descending order of age and height, is to see heaven itself. My heart bursts with joy and longing; I want to leave my seat and crawl into the screen and into the warm, welcoming arms of Maria. Take me in, I want to say, give me some time and I will be as witty and playful and musical as the rest of you.
I havealready seen the movie once but now I want to go again. Dad and his brother Pesi, whom I call Babu, decide that the entire family should go see the movie together. As always, my reclusive aunt, Mehroo, refuses to accompany us. 'Come on, Mehroo, it's a nice, wholesome family movie. You will enjoy it,' says my aunt Freny, Babu's wife, but to no avail. Pappaji, my grandfather, has recently had a heart attack and Mehroo refuses to leave him home alone even though he is perfectly mobile.
Mehroo is my dad's unmarried sister who lives with us. The oldest of my dad's two siblings, her childhood ended on the day her mother died. Mehroo was then eleven. Not only were there two younger brothers to raise (my dad, the youngest, was only four) but there was a father to protect from the razor's edge of his own grief. She took over the family duties as though she had been born for that role. Her father was a kindly man but he was so wrapped up in his own sorrow that he failed to notice the sad look come into his daughter's eyes, a sadness that would stalk her for the rest of her life. I suppose that from her father's lasting grief and devotion to his dead wife, from his endless mourning, Mehroo formed her own notions of what love should be. And what family became for her was a profession, a job, a hobby, an avocation. Family was all. Outside of its protective borders lay the troubled world, full of deceit and deceptions and broken promises and betrayals. It was an astonishingly limited worldview but it made her irreplaceable within our family structure.
Mehroo's love for me is legendary throughout the neighbourhood. So are her eccentricities.
She won't go to the movies...an amazing feat in a movie-crazy family.
She won't buy new clothes for herself. If someone in the family buys her material for a dress, she will save it for years before she will take it to the tailor.
She uses the same comb even after three of its teeth fall out, until my father finally throws it away in a pique of anger. But she frequently slips money to me when I leave for school.
She is a vegetarian in a household where chicken and meat, being as expensive as they are, are treats. If a spoon that's been in the chicken curry accidentally touches her potato curry, she will not eat it. And yet, she will cook meat for the rest of us.
She will eat food cold from the fridge without warming it up, although she will spend hours in the kitchen cooking for the family.
She refuses to pose for pictures, covering her face with her hands to avoid the camera. When she is compelled (by me, when I'm older) to be photographed, she refuses to smile. Every picture of her shows a serious, unsmiling woman. In some of them, her lips even curl downward.
She is miserly, cheap, teary, sentimental, thin-skinned, fiercely loyal, eccentric, indifferent to the world outside her family and devoted to her loved ones.
How do you solve a problem like Mehroo?
My cousin, Roshan, once mutters that if Mehroo was the next door neighbour, she wouldn't like her very much. The remark tears me up. I fancy that I understand Mehroo, in all of her contradictions, better than anyone else; that somehow I have X-ray vision that allows me access to the innermost chamber of her warm and soft heart. There is something elemental and primitive about my love for Mehroo and when I think of her, I think of her in animalistic terms as a dog or a horse or a giraffe or a zebra, animals with sorrowful, kind eyes.
Now I decide that the movie situation calls for my brand of lethal, irresistible charm. 'Please, Mehroofui, please come,' I beg her. 'Just once, please, for my sake. I love this movie the best of all. You will, too, I promise.'
She shakes her head no, her brown eyes looking at me pleadingly. I sing a few lines from the movie, hoping to entice her that way. But she will not budge.First Darling of the Morning
. Copyright © by Thrity Umrigar. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another wonderful book by this author. I have found her storytelling so intimate that I feel as though I am part of the story. This is her memoir of life in India. It is knowledgable, enlightening but not preachy. I have enjoyed several other books by this author and look forward to many more books from her.
I thoroughly enjoyed Thrity Umrigar's memoir. I met her a the Sioux Falls Book Celebration and it was great to read about what this quiet, well spoken professor was like as a child in Bombay.
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