Sketchbook: Folk Tales with Thrity Umrigar
Thrity Umrigar's new children's book features a folk tale from her childhood. The story teaches an important lesson on immigration that she learned first hand, having moved to America from India to study.
READ THE SCRIPT:
[Thrity] Hello, my name is Thrity Umrigar, and although I mostly write adult fiction in the last few years, I've segued into writing children's books, and I was lucky enough to have two of them come out this fall. One is called "Binny's Diwali," and the other is called "Sugar and Milk."
"Sugar and Milk" I wrote because it's, what I've done in this book is I provide an ancient Persian-Indian legend, and I've sort of modernized it, because it's a story about timeless things, like kindness, and generosity, and hospitality, and immigration, and welcoming people into their new homes.
And frankly, it's a story that I used to tell my adult audiences on book tour very often. And every time I ended my talks by telling that story, I would sense this softness that would come over the audience. People would smile. They would sigh. They would clap their hands in delight.
It was clearly a story that worked with adult audiences. And then one day I woke up, and I thought, my goodness, I think I've been telling this story to the wrong audience, because the people who really need to hear the story, who I imagine will truly, truly get the meaning of the story and respond to it are children. And that same afternoon I sat and I wrote "Sugar and Milk."
"Sugar and Milk" begins by this young child coming to America to stay with her aunt and uncle. We don't know why. All we know is that she's terribly homesick, and she has no friends in this new country. And then one day auntie says, "Let's go for a walk," and they do, and while they're walking, auntie tells her about this ancient legend, and this is a story about how people from what used to be Persia arrived in India.
So when the Persians landed in India, they were met at the seashore by this Hindu king, who had absolutely no reason or no desire to give them refuge and let them in. But of course, there was a language barrier. So the story goes that the king asks 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 here. We have no room for strangers. We have no room for more people to come into our country.
The story continues that the Persian leader of this expedition was a very smart and quick-witted guy 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.
And the story ends by the Hindu king being so moved by this gesture and by the wit of this other guy that he flings his arms open, and welcomed them into the country.
And I should add that this is indeed the story of my ancestors who came from Persia and were let into India almost 1,000 years ago now, as what we would today refer to as refugees.