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Writer shuns ‘easy’ view of domestic violence
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Writer shuns ‘easy’ view of domestic violence

Indian-born novelist depicts abuse beyond the usual stereotypes

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Author and journalist Thrity Umrigar will address the Rachel Coalition’s annual Women to Women Luncheon on Oct. 12. Photo courtesy Thrity Umrigar
Author and journalist Thrity Umrigar will address the Rachel Coalition’s annual Women to Women Luncheon on Oct. 12. Photo courtesy Thrity Umrigar

An Indian-American novelist who has written on the effects of domestic violence will be the main speaker at the annual Women to Women luncheon of the Rachel Coalition, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.

The luncheon will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Park Avenue Club in Florham Park and will benefit the coalition’s work assisting domestic violence victims and their families.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of four novels set in her native India, including Umrigar’s second novel, The Space Between Us, published in 2006.

It offers a portrait of two Indian women — Sera Dubash, an educated, affluent woman who is the victim of domestic violence, and Bhima, her servant, who lives in the slums.

In a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News, Umrigar said she wanted to explore the idea of class, a recurring theme in her writing. In order to avoid stereotypes, she portrays the affluent Sera as the victim of an abusive home life.

“It would have been cheap and easy to make Bhima the one with an abusive husband. But I’m not interested in perpetuating stereotypes,” she said. “Domestic violence affects women in all strata of society and I was more interested in making Sera the victim.”

Umrigar was also interested in exploring the unique aspects of domestic violence in affluent settings.

“Where women are abused in close quarters, people can overhear; it becomes a public act of violence. But in middle-class homes, wealth protects the abuser,” she said. “They are living in individual houses with no neighbor the next wall over.”

Through Sera, she said she could examine “the kinds of secrecy and shame that surround this issue in the middle class.”

She pointed out that Sera could just as easily have been Jewish or Catholic, if the book had been set elsewhere.

Umrigar said she observed domestic violence second-hand as a child. She was raised in Mumbai (Bombay), moving to the United States in the early 1980s. She lives in Cleveland and teaches creative writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University.

“Growing up in Bombay, I lived in a middle-class apartment building. A neighbor on the first floor used to periodically take a belt to his wife. It provoked great outrage among other residents; people interfered, men rushed downstairs and banged on the door until he opened it,” she recalled. “I remember her coming to our house wailing, getting homespun advice about leaving her husband.”

Umrigar said her goals are not political, but literary; still, she considers it a “gift” when readers say her books have helped them “reframe how I think about these issues,” and when people “find parallels in their own lives.”

“They say, ‘My God, I grew up in a tenement in New York City or in the American South and my mother was a domestic servant and I know the feelings that arouses,’” she said.

As a member of a minority ethnic group known as Parsis, Umrigar said she feels a certain kinship with Jews.

“Both communities value education a great deal. Both are small minority communities within a dominant culture,” she said. “Parsis are a relatively affluent community in a country that is not affluent, with a love for books and education. I have always felt a certain kinship with Jewish audiences.”

Umrigar’s latest novel, The Weight of Heaven, published in 2009, focuses on an American couple that moves to India following the death of their only child in an attempt to heal and save their marriage.

The Women to Women Luncheon is funded by the Florin Education Series Endowment Fund, which allows the Coalition to sponsor a community education program providing different perspectives on domestic violence.

Janice Huff, Chief Meteorologist for WNBC New York, will deliver welcoming remarks at the luncheon as a special guest.

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