IF TODAY BE SWEET by Thrity Umrigar
is the most enduring and beloved Parsi legend: Fleeing religious
persecution in their homeland of Iran, a small group of Zoroastrians
land on the shores of Sanjan, India, seeking political refuge. The local
Hindu ruler eyes the foreigners warily, loathe to grant them entry.
Unable to speak a common language, he takes an empty glass and fills it
to the brim with milk. The symbolism is clear—the land is full and
cannot accommodate newcomers. But the Zoroastrian head priest is up to
the challenge. He drops sugar into the glass and dissolves it in the
milk, careful not to spill a drop. His message is clear, also— if you
let us stay, we will sweeten your local culture, without displacing or
disrupting it. Thus, the Zoroastrians—or Parsis, as they came to be
called—find a home in India and true to their word, become a model
community, their contributions enhancing the culture of their new
This story, drilled into the head of every Parsi child, was part of my
subconscious and became especially poignant after I came to the U.S. as
an immigrant. For years, I had an ongoing fantasy which I was too
embarrassed to share with friends: that somehow, someday I would do
something large, grand—rescue a child from a burning house, maybe—to
justify America’s faith in me, to thank America for taking a chance on
me, to pay back a country that had taken in a confused, lost 21-year-old
and shaped her into an adult. I wonder how many countless immigrants
harbor some variation of such a fantasy in their minds.
But along with hopes and fantasies, immigrants also carry something
else: they carry a hole in their heart. Along with the promise of a new
country, there is the wound of giving up the comfort of the old; along
with the excitement, the optimism, the belief, there is doubt and loss
and mourning. The old saying is true—in order to gain something, you
have to give something up. But this giving up is costly, hard, and
extracts a price.
And in all the political debates about immigration, in all the easy,
glib mythologies about America being a nation of immigrants, this loss,
this toll, this terrible giving up, often goes unmentioned. The popular
media focuses on what is gained: freedom, liberty, material wealth,
opportunity, independence, the ability to recreate yourself. But here’s
what is lost: identity, language, family, lovers, friends, pets,
routines, hobbies, the names of streets you grew up on, the rhythms of
your old neighborhood, your favorite family foods, the color of the sky
at dusk. Sometimes, even your name.
In If Today We Sweet, I wanted to tell the story of Tehmina Sethna, a
woman, who, because of circumstances she has no control over, is being
asked to undergo the traumas of immigration. In middle age, she is being
asked to give up everything that she once knew and called her own—home,
hometown, neighbors, friends. Her son has gone through a similar process
many years earlier but even he cannot help her. It is a journey she has
to travel alone.
But while faced with the larger choice of whether to stay in America or
not, Tehmina is confronted with another, more urgent choice: whether to
live in America as a stranger or as a citizen. Citizenship implies
connection, participation, joining in. Destiny beckons in the form of
two young, troubled children next door. It is the plight of these two
boys that forces Tehmina to chose. To decide whether she will forever
straddle the fence, live in a no-man’s land. Or whether she will jump
into the fullness of her new life in America.
Tehmina jumps. And in doing so, she fulfills the long-ago promise of her
forbearers, to sweeten the life of the people in her new country, with
her presence. The irony is that she expands the fabric of community in
suburban America by stubbornly holding on to her own Indianness.
But Tehmina’s jump also lands her on the front page of the local
newspaper and into celebrity culture. She is now a local hero as America
accepts her with open arms.
The novel’s other theme is a tongue-in-cheek look at how the media
shapes our culture. As an outsider, Tehmina has a lot to learn about how
fortunes can turn on a dime in America.
If Today Be Sweet is about many things: it is a novel that celebrates
family and community and critiques the sterility of suburban life and
the tinsel of celebrity culture. But if it is about any one thing, it is
about movement—about moving forward. And about the importance of getting
off the fence. Of making a choice, taking a stand.
Tehmina learns this lesson in the end. America teaches it to her.
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