Thrity Umrigar’s main characters in her novel The Weight of Heaven are American. She writes from their perspective, and although it sometimes comes across as slightly didactic at times, she generally portrays Frank and Ellie sympathetically. It is clear, for instance, that these are two people who find it difficult to truly communicate with one another, and this is reflected in several other couples presented in Umrigar’s novel. Indeed, the first few words of the novel highlight this schism in their marriage engendered by the death of their son Benny. Soon after, the couple finds themselves in India, where Umrigar takes the opportunity to mirror this interpersonal shortcoming in the larger field of transnational understanding. The reflections compound as if the relationships are co-metaphors, with either reflecting the other. As Umrigar introduces more interpersonal relationships, this hall of mirrors becomes more complex, revealing the complexities in transnational relationships in a globalized world.
In one sense, each of the couples presented in the novel offer a different perspective on the effects of globalization. Frank and Ellie comprise the noble yet faulted colonizers, unable to really understand or empathize with the natives, which results in terrible consequences. The immediate foils to this couple are Prakash and Edna, their live-in servants; perhaps because they are uneducated and dispossessed, the position Frank places them in only compounds the problems in their own relationship. Furthermore, while Ellie empathizes somewhat with Edna, Frank begins to view the couple as solely an impediment to his appropriation of Ramesh. The complexities evident in even this small web of relationships mirror a lot of the issues within larger milieu of U.S.-India relations. The lack of close, empathetic interaction, as well as the existence of a highly desirable commodity (Frank commoditizes and fetishizes Ramesh, while the U.S. commoditizes and fetishizes India’s cheap labor), serve to dehumanize relations and cause complex tensions in these relationships.
On the other hand, the moderating influence of Nandita and Shashi on the Bentons represents another facet of the globalization phenomenon. In this case, Umrigar presents the growing influence of Western-educated individuals on their home cultures. Nandita, for instance, clearly believes that one of her primary roles is to mediate the complex relationships between powerful outsiders and cultural natives (80-83, 282-283). At the same time, Nandita works toward bringing health and education (the benefits of her Western education) to those who can benefit most, the poor and dispossessed. In this way, Umrigar places Nandita in a position empathetic to all parties to the relationship, and therefore optimally representative of healthy interactions between the colonizers and the dispossessed.
Though Umrigar leaves many of her characters dispossessed, unredeemed, and fallen, in the end those characters serve to highlight the delta between themselves and Nandita. What does Umrigar mean by doing this? Nandita is a woman with Western education, who serves her community (or at least her constituents), who is wealthy by local standards, and who is friends with both the colonizers and natives. But she is not too friendly with those below her class; she serves them, yes, but rarely is she personally close. Nandita is also a woman who gave up the large-scale proactivity of journalism for the decidedly small-scale proactivity of running a clinic. This may be the crux of Umrigar’s message, that while large-scale involvement is necessary, it is really the small-scale activity of local health and education that results in the best outcomes. Despite all the complexities of interpersonal, heavily laden relationships, and metaphorically, international, heavily laden relationships, it is still possible for both parties to work toward common interests. What this requires is investment in time, empathy, and communication from both sides.
Umrigar, Thrity. The Weight of Heaven. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.