These days, lots of American businessmen show up to work with a desk full of worrisome problems. But it’s fair to say that most don’t have to deal with a worker who’s died in police custody, apparently having been to beaten to death.Even fewer would have to face the knowledge that their chief of security ordered the arrest and the beating as a result of misunderstanding a hastily muttered “take care of it” on the way to a meeting.
Suffice it to say, Frank Benton, head of operations in Girbaug, India, for NaturalSolutions herbal remedies, is having a bad day.
“As he jumped out of the vehicle under the protection of the umbrella Satish was holding out for him, Frank felt unreal, had the feeling of being trapped in one of those movies based on a Graham Greene novel,” Thrity Umrigar writes in her powerful new novel, The Weight of Heaven.
Suspecting your life could have been written by Greene would be enough to send me running for the nearest airport, but Frank and Ellie have already fled once. They moved to India after their little boy died of a sudden illness, in an effort to rebuild, or at least to live in a place that wasn’t steeped in memories of Benny.
“The Arts and Crafts bungalow in Ann Arbor was positively shimmering with mockery.” Ellie held out hope that India could provide healing; Frank was mostly looking for “a country where there was no possibility of running into of his son’s teachers.”
Sixteen months after Benny’s death, the change of scenery hasn’t abated the Bentons’ grief or helped them reunite.
“[Frank] knew he was losing Ellie, that she was slipping out of his hands like the sand that lay just beyond the front yard, but he seemed unable to prevent the slow erosion. What she wanted from him – forgiveness – he could not grant her. What he wanted from her – his son back – she couldn’t give.”
There are a few generic opening pages that rely too much on worn out expressions of grief, such as missing “the patter” of Benny’s size four feet. (Note: Not only is this a cliché, but based on daily observation, I’m here to tell you that seven-year-old boys’ feet do not “patter.” Stomp, tromp, skip, run, thunder, splash, kick, and jump – yes. Patter? Not so much.)
But then Umrigar really gets going, and the clichés get brushed off like barnacles on a fast-moving ship. Twisty, brimming with dark humor and keen moral insight, “The Weight of Heaven” packs a wallop on both a literary and emotional level.
Bring along a flashlight – despite the Indian sunshine, you’re going to need it.
Umrigar (“The Space Between Us”) examines the dark moral recesses of one American liberal couple, who can’t seem to cope now that their formerly charmed life has been ripped away.
Frank’s only source of joy is the child of the Bentons’ housekeeper and cook. Nine-year-old Ramesh is bright, athletic, egotistical, and alive, and what starts out as tutoring and basketball lessons slides into a bitter tug-of-war between Frank and Ellie and Ramesh’s father, Prakash.
His mother, Edna, is all for the advantages the Americans can provide her son. Prakash is illiterate and an alcoholic, and Ramesh’s chances for a future commensurate with his intellectual gifts seem dim until Frank comes along.
Umrigar is a master of delineating the ethical lines Frank and Ellie cross, with, at least at first, the best of intentions.
She replaces Greene’s Roman Catholic guilt with secular liberal guilt, and the substitution works just fine. There’s a hideously awkward Christmas celebration – to which Ramesh is invited, while his parents remain in their shack – where Frank gives the boy a new computer. (Prakash can’t even afford a new basketball for his son.)
Outraged by what he sees as the wholesale purchase of his son’s affections, Prakesh takes wire cutters to the machine. Then there’s the scene where Ellie, a psychologist who is usually far more sensitive to the rights of Ramesh’s parents, threatens to fire Prakash if he doesn’t let them take the boy on an already-promised overnight trip to Bombay.
(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.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.