BookBrowse Reviews The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

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The Space Between Us

A Novel

by Thrity Umrigar

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar X
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 352 pages

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An intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world set in modern-day India. Great book club choice

From the book jacket: Poignant, evocative, and unforgettable, The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world. Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. A powerful and perceptive literary masterwork, author Thrity Umrigar's extraordinary novel demonstrates how the lives of the rich and poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and how the strong bonds of womanhood are eternally opposed by the divisions of class and culture.

Comment: Even today, almost every middle-class Indian home employs one or more people to come in to help with the housework and cooking, for the simple reason that labor is cheap in India and, until recently, few people had the labor-saving devices most in the West take for granted. Thrity Umrigar grew up in a middle-class Parsi household in Bombay and became aware, at a very young age, of the complicated and emotionally charged relationship between the mistress of the household and the domestic servant—almost always a woman.  It is this relationship that forms the central theme of her second novel, reminiscent of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.

65-year-old Bhima (based on a real-life Bombay housekeeper Umigar knew when she was a child) lives in a Bombay slum colony, where she begins each day standing in line for water and for her time-slot at the communal toilet.  Abandoned by her husband, her hope lies in her granddaughter Maya, and the prospect that Maya's college education will lift both of them out of poverty.  However, in the opening pages we learn that Bhima's dream has been dashed by Maya's pregnancy, which has forced her to abandon her studies.

Every day Bhima goes to work at the house of her long time employee, Sera Dubash.  Like Bhima, Sera is without a husband (having been widowed) and has a daughter who is pregnant, but unlike Maya's pregnancy, the first child of Dinaz and her husband Viraf is anticipated with joy.  Despite the differences in their circumstances, Bhima does not begrudge Sera her wealth and happiness; in fact Sera has been quite generous to Bhima over the years, stretching the established boundaries of the normal employee-maid relationship to allow Bhima to stay in her house while recovering from typhoid, and not only strongly encouraging Maya to go to college but paying for her education.

Sera's life, for all its apparent comforts, has not been easy either, both her husband and mother-in-law were abusive, but Sera hid the bruises from everyone except Bhima, with whom she shares a kinship based on shared powerlessness - even now that her husband is dead and her mother-in-law is too weak to be a threat.   However, despite the fact that there is a real bond that could be called friendship between the two women, Sera's middle-class prejudices form a solid space between them,  Sera is uncomfortable touching Bhima, or even touching items that Bhima has used for her personal use so, despite the fact that Bhima touches everything in the house while washing and cleaning it, when the two women stop for their daily tea and chat, Bhima drinks from the cup set aside for her, and sits on the floor, distanced from Sera in her chair.

This long established equilibrium is disturbed by a crisis that threatens to shrink the established space between the two women, forcing Bhima and Sera to question their loyalties.  Which comes first, friendship or family, gender or class? 

When The Space Between Us was first released, Umrigar was concerned that Western readers would think of it as a book about a distant "exotic" culture and miss that the themes she draws on are universal.  She points out that The Space Between Us is not a novel about caste (Sera Dubash is a Parsi, see sidebar, not a Hindu, and the Parsi's do not hold to the caste system) but the more universal system of class divisions - what brings us together and what divides us. 

As Umrigar says in the interview you can read at BookBrowse, the relationship between Sera and Bhima is "not so so different from the American South fifty years ago, when the black maid always had to enter from the back door and took all her meals in the kitchen."   She says that she has been delighted that so many readers have picked up on the books themes and been able to apply them to their own conditions and lives.

This review is from the March 8, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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