The Weight of Heaven
Devastated by the loss of their child, an American couple try to rebuild their lives in India.
(Page 2 of 2)
(Ellie can’t face Frank’s disappointment, but is immediately horrified by what she’s done – unable to imagine a single situation at home in Michigan where she would override a parent’s decision about his own child.)
The colonial echoes are clear and incredibly uncomfortable for Ellie, who has come to love her life in India, and volunteers at a clinic run by her best friend, Nandita. (Nandita, by the way, is a fabulous character – a worldly former journalist who combines warmth with a dry sense of humor.)
“Most of the time, Ellie was at a loss as to what advice to give [the women at the clinic]. All the things that she had suggested to her mostly white, middle-class clientele in Michigan seemed laughable here. What could she ask these women to do? Go to the gym to combat depression? Take Prozac when they could barely afford wheat for bread? Join Al Anon to learn to accept the things and behaviors they couldn’t change? These women were masters of acceptance – already they accepted droughts and floods and infections and disease and hunger.”
Frank, meanwhile, is floundering at work. In addition to protests sparked by the union organizer’s murder (the police helpfully label him a “terrorist”), the villagers have been denied access – in the name of global trade – to the trees they used for centuries for healing. It doesn’t help that Ramesh is the only person for whom Frank has any kind of unmixed affection.
The adults befuddle him with a mix of too-invasive personal questions and obsequiousness, and he finds it hard to operate in “the absence of the sheen of politeness that covered all interactions in America like Saran Wrap.” His dealings with everyone else become tainted by “feeling that lethal combination of pity and aggravation that India always seems to arouse.”
Umrigar, a journalist for the Boston Globe, is a descriptive master. Take the Bentons’ entrance to Bombay with Ramesh: “Bombay. Such a deceptive word, so soft-sounding, like sponge cake in the mouth. Even the new name for the city, Mumbai, carries that round softness, so that a visitor is unprepared for the reality of this giant, bewildering city, which is an assault, a punch in the face. Everything about the city attacks you at once, as you leave the tranquility of the surrounding hills and enter it – the rows of slums that look like something built for and by giant, erratic birds rather than humans; the old, crumbling buildings that have not seen a lick of paint in decades and many of which are held up by scaffolding; the new, tall buildings that rise from the wretched streets and point like thin fingers toward a dirty, polluted sky; the insane tango of auto rickshaws and cars and bicycles and scooters and bullock carts competing for their inch of space....”
It soon becomes apparent that India, teeming with life, is not going to be the scenic “wallpaper” for a loving, soft-focus reconciliation, but instead a witness to something more devastating. Umrigar delays the final descent with two flashbacks that show how much the Bentons have lost, but when it comes, the knockout ending is enough to convince anyone of the value of Ellie’s usual advice to her clients: Don’t make any big decisions for at least a year after a life-altering event.
If only she and Frank had listened.
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Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.