I have recently found myself imagining a fourth grade social studies “regions” unit centered on immigration, so it was only natural that I picked up Thrity Umrigar’s Sugar in Milk while recently browsing the library shelves. Drawn in by the dream like cover of seafaring travelers, vibrantly patterned flowers, and a peacock spirit emerging from the waters, the story beautifully illustrates a retelling of a Parsi legend of how the Parsis were allowed to settle in India.
Sugar in Milk draws its title from a parable of how the Parsi people (meaning from Persia) immigrated to India only to find their entrance blocked by the local king who, in the face of a language barrier presented a cup of milk filled to the brim to indicate there was no space for the weary travelers. Unfettered, the Parsi leader approached the king and added a handful of sugar, sweetening the milk without causing the milk to overflow. Charmed by this clever gesture, the king allows the Parsi people to enter and settle his land.
Centuries later, Umrigar tells this tale in connection to her own upbringing in India and an Iranian. The legend is weaved into the contemporary story of a young immigrant, joining her Auntie and Uncle in a new country, longing for home, with her own perspective turned by the telling of the tale.
While the legend cites a forceful departure for the refugees, there is no explanation for why the main character in the story has separated from family, nor much depiction of how she is received in her new homeland. Instead, the author centers on the immigrants’ own perspective and the way changing the frame of one’s own outlook can have a positive impact on one’s perception of a new place.
I read this with my own boys (six and four), who initially did not grasp the parable. It was only until we performed an ‘experiment’ the next day before a re-read with some sugar and milk that the connection was made (“they made the world sweeter, dad!”) Their interest in the boat illustrations led us to the rug map in their bedroom where we traced the likely journey along the coastline between present-day Iran and India.
Enjoy Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar and illustrated by Khao Le for yourself at your local library or bookstore. Bring it into your classroom as a part of a unit on immigration, legends and myths, or paired with a dissolving demonstration in your science class! It’s bound to sweeten your day.