by Sahar Jaafar Al-Keshwan
Frank and Ellie, Indian immigrants to America, are shattered when they lose their child to a sudden illness. They return to India, where they believe that they will find healing and consolation. However, they have great difficulty surviving in and re-assimilating into the culture of India. In America, theysuffered discrimination, but in India they are faced with a culture shock that makes them question their own identities. Thrity Umrigar’s novel The Weight of Heaven (HarperCollins, 2009), delves into the complicated world of people who feel like immigrants in their own country.
When Frank gets a job managing a factory, he thinks that he will help improve the villagers’ lives. But he is challenged by, and eventually comes to hate, the culture of the town. The Indians around him, meanwhile, dream of America as the land of promises and opportunities. Frank knows that America is not what they imagine, but he is helpless convincing them otherwise. As a result, Frank “finds himself floundering in a country that seems increasingly foreign to him.” He feels that he has more in common with the American soldiers in Iraq, who also think that they are coming to another country to save its culture and life, but who end up with a “contempt and hatred for a culture they had come to save but was destroying them.”
Ellie also suffers from a clash with Indian culture. She volunteers as a therapist for women “trapped in a cycle of violence,” hoping that she can improve their lives. She had envisioned a bright and exotic life in India, while the truth was that the Indians suffered and struggled to earn their bread. “What could she ask these women to do?” wonders Ellie. “Go to the gym to combat depression? Take Prozac when they could barely afford wheat for their bread?” Ellie thinks that her experience in America could help the Indian villagers in her home country, but the Indians do not appreciate her purpose and dream of going to America, as it represents India’s “suitor” for them.
One reviewer, Sandip Roy, says, “Umrigar does not provide pat answers. Instead, to her great credit, she presents India, not as some passive, helpless victim, but as its own agent, smiling at its rich American suitors and manipulating them at the same time.”
The reader might consider the theme of this novel to be the cultural and psychological clash between two cultures. However, Umrigar also implies that, like Frank and Elie, Americans invade other countries under the guise of offering assistance. Indeed, this happens to Frank and Ellie, who are both victims of American colonialism. They emigrate to America to seek a better life, then return after their son dies to recover and heal, but again they fail. Their loss of their son could represent the loss of their identities, which they can find neither in America nor in India.
Umrigar also successfully shows the conflict suffered by Asian Americans when they return home. They are haunted by their culture and their memories of their home countries, but they are also haunted by their newly adopted culture in America.
Sahar Jaafar teaches English in Baghdad and is pursuing a Ph.D. in American Literature.