Thrity Umrigar Shares Persian Folk Tale Of Immigration In 'Sugar In Milk'

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In the early '80s, Thrity Umrigar moved from her home in India to study in the U.S. 

Umrigar said she "lost [her] heart to this country," and she decided to put down roots in Northeast Ohio.

Thrity Umrigar [EK]

Decades later she shares an ancient folk tale, by way of a new children's book, as a love letter to the immigrant experience.

The tale is one Umrigar learned as a little girl growing up in India and she often tells in on book tours for one of her many novels. 

Thrity Umrigar reads at Brews + Prose event. [Hilary Bovay]

From those events, she noticed a similar response from the audience.

"I would sense this softness that would come over the audience, people would smile, they would sigh, they would clap their hands in delight," Umrigar said.

Audience members listen to Thrity Umrigar at Brews + Prose event. [Hilary Bovay]

One morning Umrigar realized she was telling the story to the wrong audience, adults, and instead she should share the Persian folk tale with children.

She wrote the story that would become her children's book, "Sugar in Milk," later that afternoon.

"Sugar in Milk" by Thrity Umrigar, Illustrated by Khoa Le [Running Press]

The book begins with a young immigrant girl who is sad and lonely living in a new home in America.

"Sugar in Milk" by Thrity Umrigar, Illustrated by Khoa Le [Running Press]

So her auntie takes her for a walk, and as they stroll she tells the ancient story of a group of Persian immigrants arriving on the shores of India.

They are greated by the Hindu king who tried to tell them that there is no room for them in his country.

"Sugar in Milk" by Thrity Umrigar, Illustrated by Khoa Le [Running Press]

But the language barrier was too great, so instead he used a visual metaphor.

"The story goes that the king asked one of his men to bring him an empty glass, and he proceeded to fill it all the way to the top with milk. And he pointed to it as a way of saying, 'Look, I'm sorry, but we are full up to here. We have no room for strangers. We have no room for more people to come into our country,'" Umrigar said.

"Sugar in Milk" by Thrity Umrigar, Illustrated by Khoa Le [Running Press]

As the story continues, the man leading the Persian immigrants was a smart and quick-witted priest.

"And he proceeded to take out some sugar and he dissolved it very, very carefully into that glass of milk. And then in turn, he pointed to it as a way of saying, 'Look, if you do let us stay, not only will we not disrupt your way of life, but we will actually add sugar to it. We will sweeten it with our presence,'" Umrigar said.

"Sugar in Milk" by Thrity Umrigar, Illustrated by Khoa Le [Running Press]

The Hindu king was so impressed and delighted by the Persian's clever response that he wrapped the man in his arms and welcomed him and his people into his nation after all.

The story of "Sugar in Milk" comes from the folk lore of Zoroastrianism or Parsi culture.

"This is indeed the story of my ancestors who came from Persia and were led into India almost a thousand years ago now, as what we would today refer to as refugees," Umrigar said.

Illustrated by Vietnamese artist Khoa Le with traditional Persian imagery, Umrigar hopes her book reaches an audience beyond children and maybe changes a few minds as well.

When Umrigar immigrated to the U.S. herself, the lesson of this story of contributing to her new community was something that she took to heart.

"And I thought if ever there was a moment to retell a story about kindness and goodness and the benefits that both sides get when cultures intermingle with one another. I just felt like this was the right moment to tell this story," she said.

"Sugar in Milk" is one of two new children's books out from the Cleveland Arts Prize-winning writer.

The other is "Binny's Diwali," about a young, Indian-American girl who tells the story of the Hindu holiday to her grade-school class.

"Binny's Diwali" by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani [Scholastic Inc.]

Diwali is also known as "The Festival of Lights," and Umrigar has fond memories of celebrating it in her home of Mumbai, India, as a child.

"It's a very visually-beautiful holiday," Umrigar said. "People light these beautful little oil lamps all around their apartments, on the floor or outside their apartments to usher in good luck."

"Binny's Diwali" by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani [Scholastic Inc.]

Umrigar was struck by the fact that so few people in America know about the holiday which led her to write the book.

"I came up with the character of Binny who's just this little Indian-American girl," Umrigar said. "Her teacher, Mr. Boomer, has asked her to tell the whole class about Diwali."

"Binny's Diwali" by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani [Scholastic Inc.]

But when young Binny gets up to share the story of her holiday her nerves get the best of her and she freezes.

"And then she remembers the story of these little oil lamps and how Diwali itself is a holiday that celebrates the triumph of good over evil," she said. "And this gives her the courage to control her own fears and her own stage fright and stand before the class and tell this story."

"Binny's Diwali" by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani [Scholastic Inc.]

Thrity Umrigar's "Sugar in Milk" is published by Running Press while "Binny's Diwali" is published by Scholastic Inc.

 

 

 

 

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