by Thrity Umrigar
Reader’s Choice 9/06
After reading the 2005 novel “The Space Between Us” written by Indian-born journalist and professor, Thrity Umrigar, I’m convinced that there’s no better way to learn about a foreign culture than to read a story that focuses on just a few individuals from that land. Umrigar’s book shares some similar themes with Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling 2004 novel, “The Kite Runner”, that tells the tale of two Afghani boys, sons of a servant and his employer. Umrigar’s novel also features two people one in the service of the other, but here they are two women living in modern-day Bombay.
Bhima is a poor, illiterate woman who shares a mattress on the floor of her shack with her granddaughter in a filthy Bombay slum. She has worked for many years as a servant in the household of Sera, a well-to-do Parsi woman. The joy and hope of Bhima’s difficult life rests in her bright granddaughter Maya who attends college. Yet as the story opens the aging woman learns that young Maya is pregnant and has withdrawn from the university and Bhima’s plans for a way out of the slums are dashed.
Bhima’s employer, Sera Dubash, a young widow, lives in her bright, elegantly-furnished apartment with her beloved daughter Dinaz and new husband, Viraf. The young couple delight in each other and anticipate the birth of their first child. The members of this privileged family are kind and considerate to their faithful servant who spends each day cooking and cleaning at their home. It is Sera who has financed Maya’s college education and Sera who comes up with a resolution to Maya’s situation. The drama concerning these two interconnected families builds until their relationship is blown apart by a shocking discovery.
“The Space Betwwen Us” is enriched by frequent flashbacks to the married lives of the two women. Bhima and Sera tell each other their stories over the tea-time they share each day—Sera sitting at the dining room table and Bhima squatting on her haunches on the floor nearby. Despite the obvious differences, they share stunning disappointments within their marriages. Bhima’s husband Gopal, once a kind and loving man, fell into a period of drunken depression after a freak accident cost him his job. He left her for good one night and took with him their beloved son. Bhima was aware that the outward appearance of Sera’s comfortable marriage to Feroz was a cover because over the years she had cared for Sera’s unexplained cuts and bruises. These glimpses into the past show us the extent of their involvement with each other.
Umrigar’s novel is filled with raw details of such things as explosive actions and physical abuse within families and the smells and sights that surround the poor. A powerful moment in the story is when Sera goes to the shack of Bhima who is sick with typhoid fever. “Although her apartment building was located less than a fifteen-minute walk…Sera felt as if she had entered another universe.” It was one thing to drive past, she thinks, but an entirely different one “to watch your patent leather shoes get splashed with the murky, muddy water that gathered in still pools on the ground; to gag at the ghastly smell of [feces] and God knows what else; to look away as grown men urinated in the open ditches…”
Umrigar emphatically chose to create a life-like scenario for her readers. She told an interviewer, “For fiction to be startling and fresh, I think that [the] posture of telling the unpopular truth is almost essential.” With her newest dramatic novel, Umrigar has given readers the opportunity to take a hard look at the realities of the class system that exists in India today.