If Today Be Sweet: A Novel

If Today Be Sweet: A Novel

by Thrity Umrigar


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061240249
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/27/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 647,431
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 11.02(h) x 0.78(d)

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

If Today Be Sweet
A Novel

Chapter One

Tehmina "Tammy" Sethna sat on a lawn chair next to her daughter-in-law, Susan, and basked in the warmth of the hot sun that she had brought with her all the way from Bombay.

It was a week before Christmas and Ohio was enjoying a virtual heat wave. The two women sat in a companionable silence on their front lawn, Tehmina wearing a navy blue sweater over her batik-print shalwar-khameez. Her gray hair was held down with two bobby pins, so that the slight, lazy breeze that ran its fingers through the grass on the front lawn could not do much to ruffle it. There was not a lick of snow anywhere.

"Seventy degrees," Susan said, for the fifth time. "December in Cleveland and it's seventy degrees. This is unfrig—unbelievable."

Tehmina beamed. "I told you," she said.

Susan pushed her sunglasses down her nose and peered at her mother-in-law. "Well, you've made a believer out of me," she said lightly. "Importing all this sunshine from India. Heck, Mom, if this trend continues, there's no way we'll let you go back to India. The mayor of Rosemont Heights will pass a proclamation or something, forbidding you from ever leaving."

Something inside Tehmina melted and turned to honey at Susan's words. She looked at the younger woman at her left. The sunshine had massaged and lifted Susan's mouth, which usually curved downward, into a smile. Susan's hands—Tehmina still remembered the first time she'd seen those hands and marveled at how large and masculine and raw American women's hands were—Susan's hands were resting limply by her side, unclenched, relaxed. The harried lookthat she wore most of the time, that made Tehmina jumpy and nervous around Susan, that look was replaced by contentment and happiness.

Tehmina remembered how Susan had been during her past visits to the United States—relaxed, fun-filled, happy. Something was different this time around, something was missing, and Tehmina knew exactly what—who—was missing. Her dearly departed Rustom was not with her this time. Rustom with his big laugh and boundless confidence; Rustom who could step foot anywhere—in a new restaurant, a new apartment, even a new country—and make himself and the people around him feel at home right away. Rustom who could make his white, blond daughter-in-law giggle and blush as if she was a schoolgirl again. Rustom, who could make his serious, earnest son, Sorab, burst with pride over his old man.

Tehmina pulled on her lower lip with her thumb and index finger. Unlike me, she thought. My presence only burdens Susan and Sorab now. Not like the old days. So many times Rustom and she had visited the children in America and always it had been a good time.

The light shifted in the trees across the street and it reminded Tehmina of something. An incident from last year. "You know what we're doing?" Rustom had bellowed at all of them from the pool at the hotel in San Diego. "We're making memories, for the future. Something happy for you kids to think of, when we oldies are no longer around."

Sorab had immediately thrown one arm around his father's neck. The two men were standing knee-deep in the water, while Tehmina and Susan lay poolside in lounge chairs. Little Cavas, whom everybody called Cookie, had been napping next to Susan. Tehmina looked at the blue water and at her husband and son. Water glistened off their brown faces and chests. She noticed idly that Rustom's belly was firmer than his son's. Too many years of this pork-beef diet for Sorab, she thought. I need to remind him again about his cholesterol.

"What're you talking about, when you're no longer around?" Sorab said, tightening his grip and bringing down Rustom's head so that it rested on his son's shoulder. "The way you're going, Dad, you'll outlive all of us."

Rustom shook his way out of his son's grip. "When it's your time, it's your time." He grinned. "'The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on,'" he added, swimming away from Sorab.

Sorab groaned. "You and your Omar Khayyám," he said. He turned to Susan. "I swear, my dad has an Omar Khayyám poem for every occasion."

Tehmina now shifted in her chair to look at Susan. "Remember our trip to California last year?" she said. "Remember what my husband said in the pool? About the moving finger writes and then moves on? Do you think he had a—a feeling or a sense—about his death?"

Susan stared straight ahead. Even behind her dark glasses, Teh-mina could feel her daughter-in-law stiffen. The suddenly cold silence buzzed around them. When Susan spoke, her voice was tight as a ponytail. "Mom, you remember what Sorab told you? About how you're not to keep thinking about the past? What's the point of thinking about—the sad stuff—if it just brings you down?"

Tehmina started to reply. She wanted to say: When you have known Sorab and loved him for as long as I'd known my husband, then you will know what it's like to miss someone so badly it's like your own organs betray you. Your heart, your skin, your brain, all turn into traitors. All the things you thought belonged to you, you realize you shared with the other person. How to explain to you, Susan, what the death of a husband feels like? Such a shock it is, like experiencing your first Ohio winter, with that bitter wind slapping you on your numb face."

She also wanted to say: That's what's wrong with you Americans, deekra, you all think too much of laughter and play, as if life was a Walt Disney movie. Something a child would make up. Whereas in India, life is a Bollywood melodrama—full of loss and sadness. And so everyone rejects Bollywood for Disney. Even my Sorab was seduced by your Disney life—all this pursuit of happiness and pursuit of money and pursuit of this and . . .

If Today Be Sweet
A Novel
. Copyright © by Thrity Umrigar. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

A stunning new novel from Thrity Umrigar, the bestselling author of The Space Between Us, which explores the trials one woman faces after the death of her husband. If Today Be Sweet is rich with emotion, beauty, texture, and, of course, the magnificent prose that is Umrigar's trademark.

Questions for Discussion

Question: 1. The topic of immigration has dominated the news this past year. Of course, most of the debate has been about the hot topic of illegal immigration. In If Today Be Sweet, Tehmina Sethna is wrestling with the issue of whether to immigrate legally to the U.S. Still, did this novel make you understand better the personal issues that immigrants have to wrestle with? Did it give you a behind-the-scenes insight into the newspaper headlines?

2. The novel gives us a view of American suburban life through the eyes of an outsider. Basically, Tehmina is repelled by the sterility of the suburbs. How accurate is Tehmina's view of contemporary suburban life? What observations do you agree and disagree with?

3. What did you think about the bickering between Sorab and Susan? What did you attribute that to? Cultural differences? Character flaws? Is Susan too picky or Sorab too thoughtless? Or are these the kind of issues that flare up between all couples, regardless of culture and race?

4. Compare Sorab's and Susan's marriage to Tehmina's and Rustom's. Why does the older couple have a seemingly more perfect marriage?

5. Discuss the scene where Tehmina holds Tara to a higher parental standard just because she is an American. Do you agree with Tehmina's rationale for this? Do you think it's an accurate representation of how the rest of the world sees America?

6. How did you read Rustom's occasional appearances in the novel? Do you think he really appeared before Tehmina? Or did she imagine him? In any case, what role does he play in the book?

7. Tehmina seems to lament her son Sorab's lack of civic engagement and compares him unfavorably against his younger self. Is that fair? Has America changed Sorab or has he simply grown older? Do you find yourself identifying and sympathizing with him or being critical?

8. The novel is also a wry look at American celebrity culture and the cult of hero-worship. As an immigrant herself, do you think Umrigar gets this right? Would a native-born writer have portrayed this differently?

9. Despite Tara's obvious faults, Tehmina on occasion seems to feel a flash of sympathy for her. Is that sympathy justified? What are your own views on Tara?

10. Sorab often comments on the fact that few American women would tolerate having their mother-in-law live with them, as Susan has. Do you admire Susan for this? Or think she's crazy? Can you picture yourself in this situation?

11. Do you agree with the choice Tehmina makes at the end of the novel? What kind of a future can you imagine for her?

12. The novel talks about some of the tensions inherent in inter-racial marriages. Is the novel optimistic, pessimistic or neutral in its beliefs of how people from different nationalities can bridge their differences?

13. Umrigar's portrait of Sorab's boss, Grace Butler, is clearly satirical. However, what does Grace represent? What is the underlying point Umrigar is trying to make with this caricature?

14. Toward the end, Joe Canfield recounts the story of the Parsis' arrival in India. How does this story fit in with the main themes of If Today Be Sweet?

15. There is a line in the novel that says, "Rustom obviously believed that an ancient Persian poet had something to teach an elderly Persian woman." The poet in question is Omar Khayyam, from one of whose poems the novel gets its title. Discuss this quote in the light of the novel's themes.

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If Today Be Sweet 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Two2dogs More than 1 year ago
bethyd More than 1 year ago
This is such a touching sweet story. My husband is from India and My mother-in-law visits fro about 6 months every year. So, this book really hits home a ton. It is definately a wonderful read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I discovered one of Thrity Umrigar books while I was shopping at the grocery store. It was the best thing I bought that day, besides the whole watermelon I got for $2.99. The watermelon wasn't that great, but the book was excellent. The characters in the story are going through a tough time because they lost a loved one. I felt myself reassuring them through my own thoughts, having just lost a loved one myself.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A pleasant read. Some of you will recognize the challenges of assimilating a multi-family, multi-cultural household, and enjoy the comparisons. Never underestimate the wisdom of elders. The whole story was a little too sweet, but well worth the time. I've read several books by Umrigar. This one seemed a bit formulaic, and the characters, except for the Mother, were a little thin. But I remain a fan of her work.
Ilse46 More than 1 year ago
This book is worse than "The Weight of Heaven", if that's possible. Perhaps if might be interesting to someone from India, although I find that hard to believe. Every little aspect of daily life is being belabored over and over again. No, I will not read another book by this author, nor would I recommend it for book club discussions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this after reading The Space Between Us. However, I do not like this book at all.It is slow and not an interesting development of characters.Very dull compared to other Indian culture fictional novels.I wish I didn't spend my Nook money on it.
thinkpinkDana on LibraryThing 14 hours ago
I walked by this book for a month before I picked it up. I have tried books written by and about India before (Inheritance of Loss and The God of Small Things) and not been able to connect with them or understand the underlying emotions and motivations well. Perhaps that is my own shortcoming, in expecting a book to bridge cultural differences and be something that I could relate with my own experience. I don't know, but I won't say it hasn't bothered me at times as some form of literary feebleness related somehow to my intrinsic American attitude. However, knowing that the third time's the charm and being unable to resist knowing more about the sliver of the beautiful woman hiding behind the door, I brought this book home. What an absolute delight I had in store for me. Thrity Umrigar has woven universal elements: loss, grief, acceptance, belonging, family, uncertainty, isolation and community, and brought them to the place where cultures retain their identity and are bridged by their commonalities. I was enchanted at the slices of life in Bombay that were revealed throughout the story. I was educated in the cultures of Indian and Parsi peoples. I invested in Tehmina and Sorab and Rustom beyond their ethnicity as individual characters with whom I shared a common tie. I sympathized with the cultural clashes and was encouraged by their solutions. This was a great book, realistically depicting the difficulties in melding individuals within a family and within a culture and compassionately revealing the wonderful humanity of us all. Highly Recommend.
TigsW on LibraryThing 14 hours ago
This book was lovely and the insights into human nature real and touching. The central character was very well developed, her immediate family with who she lives rather less so, and on occasions -- particularly towards the end of the novel -- her son's "transformation" in behavior towards her not entirely convincing. Still, it is a lovely and touching story and very well written. It does not, though, match the touching quality and beauty of the author's more recent book "The Space Between Us".
lizhawk on LibraryThing 14 hours ago
Recently widowed Tehmina moves to Cleveland to live with her son and his family. She's trying to discover where the rest of her life fits best. Her son adamantly wants her to stay. Her life in India tugs at her. Her dead husband's ghost visits her. Issues of racism (her Jewish best friend) and child (next-door neighbor) abuse invade her life
Meggo on LibraryThing 3 months ago
A touching story of an Indian woman struggling with the decision of whether to stay in Ohio, with her son and grandson, or to move back to Bombay, after her husband's death. A surprisingly pleasant read - human and touching. This book was an intimate look at two cultures, struggling to find overlap. I enjoyed this book - just the thing for a summer's read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book an all it’s characters.
Sue5 More than 1 year ago
As I age I can see the relevance of this story. A widow trying to figure out where she belongs after the death of her beloved.
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