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The Space Between Us

     The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar's poignant novel about a wealthy woman and her downtrodden servant, offers a revealing look at class and gender roles in modern day Bombay. Alternatively told through the eyes of Sera, a Parsi widow whose pregnant daughter and son-in-law share her elegant home, and Bhima, the elderly housekeeper who must support her orphaned granddaughter, the two women have a bond that goes far deeper than that of employer and employee.  But Sera’s seemingly privileged life is not as it appears; after enduring years of cruelty under her mother-in-law's roof, she faced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, pain that only Bhima could see and alleviate. Through their triumphs and tragedies, Sera and Bhima always shared a bond that transcended class and race; a bond shared by two women whose fate always seemed to rest in the hands of others, just outside their control.
     Told in a series of flashbacks and present day encounters, The Space Between Us gains strength from both plot and prose. A beautiful tale of tragedy and hope, Umrigar's second novel is sure to linger in readers' minds.

R E V I E W S:

The New York Times [read...]

In the classic upstairs-downstairs story, you always have a sneaking suspicion that downstairs, freed of corsets and etiquette, the servants are having a lot more fun than their prim, monocled masters. But no such palliative exists in the world of Thrity Umrigar's second novel, which examines the class divide in Bombay (as Umrigar continues to call Mumbai) through the relationship of a mistress and her servant.

In a city where the densest slums have a population of one million per square mile, "downstairs" is fairly grim. It's hardly surprising, then, that Bhima, the longtime housekeeper of a middle-class Parsi widow named Sera, has had a life of woe: her once loving husband was crippled in an industrial accident, took solace in alcohol and eventually absconded with their only son; her daughter and son-in-law both died of AIDS. At the novel's start, her orphaned granddaughter, the first in the family to get a proper education, has dropped out of college because she's pregnant.

Fortunately, Bhima's employer is generous. Sera has sponsored Bhima's granddaughter through school, and she now proposes to help the girl obtain an abortion. (Which, Bhima muses, is preferable to the way "some other" Indian grandmothers might deal with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy: "a quick shove down an open well, a kerosene can and a match, a sale to a brothel.") Meanwhile, Sera's friends tease her for treating Bhima "like she is the Kohinoor diamond" and warn that her charitable efforts will end badly. ("Did you see that story in last week's Times of India? . . . Poor woman, stabbed in her bed by her own servant.")

But Sera is well aware of the limits on her relationship with her housekeeper. In Sera's home, Bhima drinks from a special glass "that is kept aside for her," and she squats on the floor rather than use a chair. "The thought of Bhima sitting on her furniture repulses her," Sera admits to herself. When she spies her daughter hugging Bhima, she must "suppress the urge to order her . . . to go wash her hands."

The irony is that Sera herself has been shunned in the past for being "unclean." As a young woman, she married a seemingly urbane Parsi who became a viciously abusive husband. While living with his parents, she was forced to abide by her mother-in-law's rule that a menstruating woman must be quarantined, using separate utensils and eating meals alone in her bedroom. Now, years later, she fails to recognize the parallel between her mother-in-law's superstition and her own physical aversion to Bhima, whom she imagines to be covered in a "sheen of dirtiness."

Umrigar is a perceptive and often piercing writer, although her prose occasionally tips into flamboyant overstatement. (Walking to visit Bhima in the slums, Sera can't avoid "the flies, thick as guilt.") Umrigar's last book was a memoir about growing up in a well-off Parsi family in Bombay, and her portrait of Sera as a woman unable to "transcend her middle-class skin" feels bracingly honest. But Umrigar never makes a similar imaginative leap with Bhima. The housekeeper seems exaggeratedly ignorant and too good-hearted to be true.

Yet this novel does allow for one moment when Sera and Bhima close up the space between them. In a flashback, Bhima sees the results of a savage beating the young Sera has received from her husband and, without making any explicit reference to the assault, gently rubs medicinal oil over her mistress's bruises. At first, Sera recoils from Bhima's touch, then tearfully submits. It's a powerful scene, with an uncomfortable echo of the age-old way the social classes have come together: furtively, in silence, in the dark.

The Economist [read...]

OUT of India's seething hotch-potch of humanity Thrity Umrigar has created two vivid female characters, each representative of thousands of real-life Indian women.

Sera Dubash is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife. She lives a privileged life in an affluent Mumbai household with her happily married daughter and son-in-law. Bhima Gopal is Sera's servant. She is old, poor, tired: "dried out, scooped out, as hollow and wrinkled as a walnut shell". Each morning she leaves her mud-floored hut in the squalid slum where she lives to cook and clean at Sera's house.

At the heart of this novel is the symbiotic relationship-the essence of distance and intimacy-between Sera and Bhima which, after 20 years, remains defined by their differing class, education and wealth. Although she is thought of as one of the family, Bhima polishes furniture she is forbidden to sit on and washes cups she may not use. She has her own utensils and a private bar of soap. When the two women drink tea together Sera sits at the table while Bhima squats on the floor.

In spite of these differences their lives have many parallels. Both have watched "the bloom fade from their marriages", both have supported one another in times of hardship, and both have pinned their future happiness on the younger generation, a dream that splinters like a shattered mirror when their loyalty to their families and to each other is cruelly tested.

This ultimately tragic story is told against the vibrant backdrop of modern Mumbai, an exuberant metropolis of 12m, which Bhima now barely recognises: "something snarling and mean and cruel had been unleashed in it." The book's pages glow with descriptions of the city. Iridescent colours, noise, the smell of frying bhelpuri and everywhere people, people, people-office workers, street urchins, legless beggars, nut vendors, slum dwellers, balloon sellers, call-girls in high heels, brash T-shirted teenagers-the common currency of the developing world.

The author prevents her story from descending into emotional soup by tackling, across the span of her characters' lives, many of the issues affecting India today: poverty engendering poverty; the power of privilege and wealth; domestic violence; class; education; women's rights; AIDS. This adds richness, making The Space Between Us far more than an analysis of fate and a portrait of the bonds of womanhood. It is also a powerful social commentary on the glorious and frustrating jigsaw puzzle that is modern India.

The Washington Post [read...]

Artists know very well that a good way to depict overwhelming social problems is to tell the story of an individual who represents many others. One set of political circumstances might blur into another on the large scale, while the human story, well told, will be long remembered. India 's complex struggle with poverty, class and overpopulation amid political change poses special challenges in this regard, but Thrity Umrigar has created two wonderfully sympathetic characters who do much to make that country's complex nature comprehensible.

Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi, lives a privileged, urban life, but her comforts largely depend upon her domestic servant, Bhima, who arrives every day to cook and clean for her. Bhima (based on a real-life Bombay housekeeper known to Umrigar when the latter was a child) lives in extreme poverty, under appalling circumstances in a city slum. She needs the job to survive. The lives of the two women are parallel in striking ways, but it is Bhima who quickly takes over the emotional thread of the story. Although she lives in a crowded, stinking place where fresh water is scarce and there are abysmal, communal toilets and open drains, what Bhima allows herself to want is, on the surface, simple: a better life for her beloved granddaughter, Maya.

But the opening pages tell us that this dream is already dashed. Maya, who has been attending college under Sera's benefaction, is pregnant and is forced to abandon the education that offered hope of a better life. Bhima is so upset by this that she drifts between conflicting emotions: rage at Maya for ruining her chance to break the chain of poverty, and love for the child she has raised as her own. Umrigar is particularly good at this constant, internal and external railing.

"Bhima wants to take the sobbing girl to her bosom, to hold and caress her the way she used to when Maya was a child, to forgive her and to ask for her forgiveness. But she can't. If it were just anger that she was feeling, she could've scaled that wall and reached out to her grandchild. But the anger is only the beginning of it. Behind the anger is fear, fear as endless and vast and gray as the Arabian Sea, fear for this stupid, innocent, pregnant girl who stands sobbing before her, and for this unborn baby who will come into the world to a mother who is a child herself and to a grandmother who is old and tired to her very bones, a grandmother who is tired of loss, of loving and losing, who cannot bear the thought of one more loss and of one more person to love."

Sera, a widow, and Bhima, abandoned by her husband, have a strong bond, but the differences are recognized by both. Every day, Bhima takes a break from the housework she does for Sera, and the two elderly women have tea and discuss their lives. Sera sits at the table, while Bhima squats on her haunches on the dining-room floor. There is always, as the title implies, a "space between." But Bhima knows more about Sera than the educated Sera will ever know about her. Sera's pregnant daughter and son-in-law live in her home, and her personal happiness now depends upon them. As the background stories unfold -- and these are told with as much immediacy as the ongoing, main story -- it is Bhima who is central to the events that play out in the lives of every member of the two families.

Both Sera and Bhima have lived with fear and disappointment, but Umrigar ensures that they always live with dignity. Both have suffered at the hands of the men they once loved. One of the many disturbing threads throughout the book is the way male power is directed at others in cruel and abusive ways. And Sera has also suffered while living with a vindictive mother-in-law who is now ill and can no longer hurt her.

This is a story intimately and compassionately told against the sensuous background of everyday life in Bombay. Against terrible odds, Bhima must find the strength and the will to keep going. The tragedy is that there is so little to hope for. Which brings us to the implicit, pivotal question raised at the beginning and end of the book: Why survive at all in the face of continuous despair? The life of the privileged is harshly measured against the life of the powerless, but empathy and compassion are evoked by both strong women, each of whom is forced to make a separate choice. Umrigar is a skilled storyteller, and her memorable characters will live on for a long time.

The San Fransisco Chronicle [read...]

In many ways, Bombay-born writer Thrity Umrigar's second novel covers common literary terrain. Its theme is familiar: Two characters from opposite sides of the track become inextricably intertwined. Its literary devices aren't unique: Metaphors and similes appear on nearly every page, and flashbacks reveal characters' backgrounds. Its characterizations are, on the surface, rife with recognizable dramas: The rich live in luxury, while the poor exist in squalor, and there appears to be no in-between.

Yet for all the tale's familiarity, to read it is to become absorbed in the goings-on of two families whose habits may be startlingly like our own, despite their being halfway across the world. And even if "The Space Between Us" does invite comparisons to stories we've heard before (for instance "The Kite Runner," which takes place largely in Afghanistan, near the India of "The Space Between Us," and also puts together people of different classes), that doesn't take away from the blunt realism and beauty of Umrigar's book.

Part of what makes "The Space Between Us" so engrossing is its ability to make readers feel empathy for its subjects. Initially, it's easy to feel for Bhima; she's a 65-year-old servant living in a Bombay slum with her granddaughter, Maya. Her children and alcoholic husband are either dead or absent, and every cent she earns goes toward Maya's college education, which she hopes will be their ticket out of poverty. But when Maya gets pregnant, those dreams evaporate and it appears the girl is doomed to repeat her grandmother's fate. It would be easy to pity poor Bhima, but Umrigar makes us feel something more: understanding. For Bhima is not just hopeless; she's also human. She feels "hard, merciless ... rage" as she watches the shamefully pregnant 17-year-old sleeping peacefully. In another scene, a flashback, Bhima lashes out against her son when she knows he doesn't deserve it. Umrigar's ability to give Bhima such a realistic personality is remarkable and one of the book's high points.

Bhima's wealthy counterpart is her employer, Sera Dubash, a younger, upper-middle-class Parsi housewife. Like her servant, Sera has carried on without a husband (she is a widow) and has a young woman to watch over (her daughter, Dinaz, and Dinaz's handsome husband, Viraf, are expecting their first child). But unlike Maya's pregnancy, Dinaz's is a happy one -- just one of the book's examples of how members of different classes experience similar circumstances. Every day when Bhima goes to work at Sera's house she must listen to the family cooing over Dinaz's growing belly. Yet it's difficult for her to begrudge them, as Sera, a generous employer who objects to India's strict class distinctions, uses her clout to bring Maya to a private abortion clinic rather than allow the girl to go to a dirty, public one. Bhima feels nothing but appreciation for Sera and her family, although the book's denouement later finds her in a horrid struggle with her beloved boss.

As Umrigar relates the present and past events in the lives of Bhima and Sera, she reaches for similes and metaphors to describe feelings and actions. Her frequent use of them could become grating if they didn't color her scenes with such intense, convincing descriptions of Indian life. Sera's memory of her husband's death still stings years later, "as if someone sprinkled chili powder in my eyes." Revealing a terrible secret about one character allows Bhima to "destroy [that person's] current happiness as swiftly as a wind can knock down a house." And when the uneducated Bhima learns that the AIDS virus can be in one's body for years before manifesting itself, she likens the sickness to a curse: "Someone does some jadoo on you -- like they put cut fingernails under your mattress or they hide chilis and lime in an old rag and put it in your path -- and years go by and you think you are safe. And then one day, something bad happens and you realize that the curse was with you all these years."

Such devices render lifelike the characters' predicaments, while drawing Western readers into a far-away culture. To read these comparisons is to understand that Umrigar's Bombay is a place where robust foods figure prominently, elements like wind and sea are driving forces, and religious beliefs underscore everything. She takes the cultural infusion one step further with her use of slang in dialogue. "What is this, baba? So-so much money," Bhima's son remarks upon seeing the payoff Bhima's husband received when he injured himself at his factory job. "Ae, Bhima mausi," one of Bhima's slum neighbors calls out from the water tap line, "Come over here, na. For you only I've been holding a reservation here." These singsong phrases steep the narrative in local flavor.

To read Umrigar's novel is to catch a glimpse of a foreign culture, for better and for worse. Yet while the class divide between Bhima and Sera provides much of the conflict in "The Space Between Us," it isn't the only source of disagreement. Class colors everything, but in the end, Umrigar shows, every one of life's ups and downs are available to us all.

Boston Globe [read...]

The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar's new novel, is set in Bombay, where mistress and servant, Sera and Bhima, are best friends separated by class, money, religion, geography, and politics. The divide between them is certainly vast; but seen in a larger context, their connections are much more powerful. The novel is provocative and disturbing, asking how female friendship might bridge individual isolation and loneliness. Will women support each other in the face of family obligations, powerful husbands, and the desire for upward mobility in a downwardly mobile environment?

Umrigar weaves together the stories of Sera, a wealthy Parsi widow, and her longtime servant, Bhima, a slum dweller whose husband deserted her years earlier. Sera depends on Bhima to prepare lunch for her beloved children and tend to the household's needs, and Bhima expects to work for the family forever. She loves Dinaz, Sera's married daughter, and Dinaz's husband, Viraf.

The friendship between Sera and Bhima is founded on the platform of India's stultifying class separation and looming poverty. Outside, the slums breed despair. Children torture animals, and crowds target Parsis because their bones are famously ''brittle." The doctors in the government-run AIDS hospital are brutal and unsympathetic, swamped by hundreds of dying patients who have failed to heed the instructions of the sex educators. The open drains of the slums reek while, nearby, men sit in doorways, drunk and dozing.

Inside, things are not much better, and both women recognize that they have suffering in common. Each had romantic hopes for her marriage, and each has been bitterly disappointed. Sera's late husband, Feroz, was a bully with a hairtrigger temper. After he courts her and wins her, she discovers that his mother is a nightmarish manipulator who is intent on separating her from her husband. Bhima's husband, Gopal, charmingly courted her by riding his bicycle in pursuit of her bus every morning. The other bus riders were smitten, too. However, after a catastrophic work accident, he becomes drunken and selfish.

Both women are devoted to their children. Sera, having experienced the impossibility of living with her own mother-in-law, carefully gives her live-in daughter and son-in-law space for marital squabbles and affection. Dinaz is joyfully pregnant, and Sera anticipates a happy future in the same house as her grandchild. Bhima's future looks worse. She loves her own granddaughter, Maya, and has gratefully accepted Sera's offer to fund the 17-year-old girl's college education. But Maya is also pregnant, and there is no man in sight. Bhima believes that Maya can look forward only to a life of menial servitude, stuck with a child she did not plan. Fearing that she will be responsible for raising the child, Bhima rages at Maya for destroying their future.

The novel initially focuses on Maya's pregnancy. Bhima contemplates ''one swift kick to the belly, followed by another and another"; this would be a ''humane" solution compared to the customary ''quick shove down an open well, a kerosene can and a match, a sale to a brothel." Sera is ''concerned, anxious, and ready to help" by arranging for an abortion. Meanwhile, Maya refuses to reveal the identity of the baby's father.

Custom and prejudice are the twin jailers of this society. Sera and Bhima are too tightly locked into their traditional roles to break out. Bhima endures the stench of the public slum latrine, while Sera hates to chop onions because they leave an odor on her hands. Bhima haggles over the price of every vegetable she buys for Sera's table, but Sera refuses the gift of a dishwasher, which would ease Bhima's aching back. Although Bhima, nursed Sera through the pain of her marriage to Feroz and remains Sera's only confidant, the woman cannot be her equal. In one of the novel's most striking images, Bhima sits on the floor during shared mealtime while her employer sits on a chair.

The novel's male characters prefer this separation of the classes; they even encourage it. In a scene shown in flashback, Feroz swoops into the hospital like an all-powerful god after Bhima's husband is hurt and browbeats the doctor into treating the injured man with antibiotics. Bhima wonders if his apparent anger is merely a pose, even a private joke. Her intuition is probably correct, since Feroz frequently reminded Sera to keep the maid in her place. Later, son-in-law Viraf, seemingly so thoughtful and certainly more modern, grumbles about the family's preoccupation with Bhima and Maya. Even the administrator from Gopal's factory takes advantage of Bhima's panic and confusion to cheat the family out of their fair compensation for Gopal's injury.

American readers, liking both Sera and Bhima, will wish to see them sitting at the same table and discussing their common problems. They will wish for an ending in which the mistress rescues the servant from her slum hut, puts the servant's granddaughter through college, and then, together with the beloved servant, lives in the company of a large, unprejudiced family. Alas, Umrigar has not written a Lifetime movie. Better to read the book as a treatment of modern India, where women recognize their sameness but cannot bridge the space that separates them.

Financial Times, London, UK [read...]

The Space Between Us is a novel of relationships. Bhima lives in a Bombay slum, a place of extreme poverty where dwellers spend hours queuing for water and live amid the constant stench of open drains. Each day Bhima goes to work in the Dubash household as a servant to Sera Dubash, a rich widow. Bhima has cooked, cleaned and looked after the family, as though it were her own, her whole life.

The "space" between the two women is not as wide as it appears initially. Both have loved and been betrayed by their husbands; each feels that their children are their sole reason for carrying on. They are both isolated women confused by their fate. The one element that separates them is money.

Sera Dubash lives a lonely life. Since her abusive husband died she has dedicated her life to caring for her daughter and son-in-law, both Bombay professionals who are expecting their first child. In recent years Bhima has become Sera's main confidante. Sera battles with conflicting opinions about whether she should treat Bhima as an equal—allow her to sit on her furniture and drink from the same glasses—and risk being frowned upon by her neighbours.

Bhima's neighbours in the slum are envious of her boss's generosity. But Bhima also worries about her relationship with Sera. She loves the Dubash family and has watched their daughter grow up as if she were her own child. But a secret now threatens to destroy this closeness. Thrity Umrigar has a striking talent for portraying pain and suffering and the sheer unfairness of life. She creates sympathetic portrayals of both women, particularly Bhima, who becomes the main protagonist of the story. The result is a vital social comment on contemporary India.