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Thrity Umrigar takes readers from Ohio to India in new book

Book cover with Thrity Umrigar leaning against the trunk of a tree wearing a jean jacket and colorful striped scarf. On the right side is the title, "The Museum of Failures."
Laura Watilo Blake
Thrity Umrigar
Thrity Umrigar's new book, "The Museum of Failures," follows an Indian man as he travels from Columbus, Ohio, to visit his elderly mother in India.

From Ohio to India and back again: That’s where the similarities end between Thrity Umrigar’s life and that of the characters in her new book, “The Museum of Failures,” released Tuesday.

The Cleveland Heights author did not choose the title as an allusion to the traveling museum collection of failed products from New Coke to Google Glass. Instead, she found that the subject matter just seemed to fit.

“It’s the story of an Indian American man who visits his elderly mother in India, but has always had a very sort of turmoil-filled relationship with her and also with the city of his birth,” she said. “In his mind, he sees the city of his birth as a kind of ‘museum of failures.’”

One similarity is that the characters and Umrigar are all Parsi, followers of the ancient Persian faith called Zoroastrianism. The author calls it a “dying religion.”

“All the projections seem to be that the community is going to be extinct in a generation or two,” she said. “It felt particularly important to me to do something that kind of remembers this community in print.”

Despite the occasional similarities, Umrigar said she did not have to put distance between herself and the book.

“I feel exactly the opposite,” she said. “I want to immerse myself so completely and so deeply into the lives of my characters that I don't want a distance between. I want to get to a point where you're so lost in the writing that you don't know where you end and your characters begin.”

The finished work is one that Umrigar hopes conveys a message of kindness and forgiveness, especially in the face of life-altering betrayals like the ones in the book. Yet she said there’s also a somewhat less obvious message that grew out of the book’s setting during the Trump administration and its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Umrigar points out that her main character, Remy, comes to the U.S. with “all imaginable opportunities and privilege, and yet he is still a divided man.”

“He still [has] a sense of not knowing where he belongs,” she said. “If even a legal immigrant with every opportunity on Earth struggles, what must life be like for those poor, hungry, desperate people who are coming here with nothing?”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.