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Memoir details life in a little-seen India

First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood
By Thrity Umrigar
HarperCollins India, 294 pp., paperback, $14

Thrity Umrigar has a knack for capturing people's quirks. In her second book, "First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood," she unflinchingly takes on her own, as well as those of her family, giving readers a vivid glimpse into an unfamiliar part of India's population.

Even now, the popular view of India is one of dusty villages, fiery curries, and religious struggle. But India is much more than that, and Umrigar focuses on the part into which she was born: the Parsi community, descended from people who fled Persia to avoid religious persecution under Alexander the Great. Though many of them today live in diaspora, Parsis form a curious and obscure middle class in Bombay that prides itself on its education and exclusivity.

In her memoir, "First Darling of the Morning," Umrigar details the clash of cultures and contradictions that surrounded her as she grew up in 1960s Bombay, now known as Mumbai. "I am a Parsi teenager attending a Catholic school in the middle of a city that's predominantly Hindu," she writes. "I'm a middle-class girl living in the country that's among the poorest in the world. I am growing up in the country that kicked out the British fourteen years before I was born but I have still never read a novel by an Indian writer."

Growing up steeped in Western books and music, Umrigar is confounded when a teacher tells her to write a story using only Indian characters. Though she struggles with the assignment, she is never in doubt of her own identity -- this book does not document a search for self as much as it details a teenager's discovery of the world around her. Her memoir is studded with bits of Indian history and colorful descriptions of Bombay. She captures perfectly the singsong mixture of English and Gujarati spoken in many Parsi households, so different from the butchered grammar of stereotypical Indian stories. Umrigar candidly portrays herself as a selfish, petulant only child, and recounts a childhood that is at times lonely and brutal -- her mother invents sadistic punishments for the smallest infractions, nuns discipline their charges by digging their fingernails into the girls' throats. She lives in a modest apartment with her extended family: a devoted maiden aunt who sacrifices herself for her relatives; a loving but harried father who escapes each day to the office; a harpy of a mother who is scarred by her shattered dreams; an aunt and uncle who are surrogate parents; a cousin who is like a sister; a handful of servants. Meddling neighbors and gossipy aunts abound, but no matter how viciously they turn on one another, to the public they present a facade of calm gentility.

The Bombay of Umrigar's memories is a place where privilege is supposed to bring with it the ability to ignore poverty -- only she never quite manages to do so. She invites the beggars of the neighborhood to lunch at her father's pastry shop. She throws the family out of balance by insisting on calling one of the servants "aunt." Visits to her father's factory and trips to a popular city beach force her to acknowledge the inequity: "At home it is easy to ignore them but here, out in the open, there is no turning away from these dark and hungry eyes and from the questions about the accidents of birth and the randomness of privilege that they arouse in me."

The key events in her life are not the typical milestones of a typical girl. Her doomed romance is with activism, not boys. Her idol is a nonconformist older girl named Jesse, who shocks Umrigar by saying she doesn't believe in God, then leads her to worship at the altars of Vincent van Gogh, Don McLean, Hermann Hesse, and, finally, an Indian writer, Salman Rushdie. Her coming of age centers on politics and the death of a beloved uncle. She finds it more and more difficult to conform to her society's idea of a respectable girl "who accepts without question the authority of their priests, parents, and teachers," and she rebels, first by cultivating her image as the "Mad Parsi" at her Catholic school, smoking and drinking with flunky friends, and later by joining the protests against Indira Gandhi's country-cleansing emergency rule.

Her epiphany comes as she is sitting on the steps at Bombay University, two weeks before graduation. After a college career dedicated mostly to fighting the establishment, "I am nowhere close to being ready to be anything but a college student," she realizes. Economics and social convention mandate that she live at home as long as she is unmarried, a prospect that fills her with dread. Salvation comes in the form of a dream and a Joan Baez song -- "Banks of the Ohio." Umrigar decides to apply to graduate schools in America, "the land of self-invention," gaining admission to Ohio State University and leaving India and its complexities behind. She is now a journalist, still based in Ohio.

Filled with poignant stories and awkward moments, Umrigar's memoir may seem a little melodramatic at times, but "First Darling" offers readers a rare glimpse at life in a country that is constantly changing, and a look at a little-known culture.

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