I NEVER thought much about Bombay, India, until I read Thrity Umrigar’s most recent novel, The Space Between Us. When I was done, I couldn’t help but realize that while she infuses her book with the real Bombay, in all of its color and contrasts — the red hot chili peppers and squalid water running through the streets, the dark slums and the gleaming luxury buildings — in truth Umrigar really wants to take the reader past her native city to a mental space we all occupy, the space we put between ourselves and each human being; the class distinctions we perpetuate.
Set in the renamed Mumbai, we meet two women whose lives and misfortunes intertwine.
One woman, Bhima, is a 65-year-old servant and the other, Sera Dubash, is her Parsi, upper-class employer. Bhima lives in a slum with her pregnant granddaughter, and the Dubash family occupies a beautifully upholstered apartment awash in sunlight.
While this can sound like the typical story of the haves and have-nots, in many ways that’s where the differences end. Umrigar, through her talent for local dialogue and her familiarity with the cultural nuances of these characters, is able to create two very real women who share the bonds of life and suffering, even as there remains a clear yet invisible line between them.
Bhima and Sera talk about the olden days, when Sera’s abusive husband sucked every ounce of happiness out of their marriage. But while they talk, Bhima must sit on her “haunches” on the floor and Sera sits upright on a piece of furniture.
IT all seems typical of class distinction, except the upper-class Sera isn’t comfortable treating Bhima like a lesser human. Or, at least, she is conflicted about it. She wants to help Bhima out of poverty by paying for her granddaughter’s college education. At another point Sera pays for Bhima’s granddaughter’s abortion in a posh clinic and takes her there herself on the appointed day. Yet, Sera doesn’t think twice about Bhima having eaten on separate dishes in her kitchen for the last 20 years, or her refusal to buy a dishwasher, insisting that nothing competes with “my Bhima’s” ability to shine her gleaming pots.
There are many voices in each woman’s head as each treads the years and subtleties of their relationship. Sera always hears from her neighbors and friends, who warn her that she is treating a servant too well. They superstitiously speculate that one day this relationship will come back to bite Sera. Bhima, on the other hand, always wonders what thoughts an upper class woman has, which is Umrigar’s way of showing the psychological depth of class distinction.
Through flashbacks, Umirigar takes you to both Bhima’s and Sera’s pivotal points when they chose to marry — colorfully hopeful moments when neither knows what challenges are wrapped in their saris.
For Sera more quickly, and for Bhima more slowly, Umrigar unfolds each woman’s life and shows how it diverges from each woman’s dream. While both experience betrayal, Sera’s life finally seems poised for some golden years: a wonderful daughter and son-in-law who have moved in with her, awaiting the first grandchild, and a certain settled peace: her abusive husband gone and a wicked mother-in-law almost gone.
But Bhima’s betrayals seem to have a domino effect on her life. Her rage at the players — the gods and all other forces — is made so palpable that at times it is a brutal read.
“Maybe Pooja’s illness was her punishment for not having invited Gopal to the wedding. After all, hadn’t she known that it was bad luck to marry off a daughter without her father being present to give her away? Pooja . . . what did she know about the trickery of the gods, about how vengeful fate could be?”
BHIMA’S betrayals test her again and again, reminding the reader how deeply wired class prejudice is. The unfairness of the life she lives, largely due to class distinctions, will have the reader gasp in horror at times. Bhima’s life will not feel distant, due to Umrigar’s ability to create a character who feels hopeless, who feels her human limitations, her rage, but also feels her sense of duty to family.
Because Umrigar’s voice as an omniscient narrator guides the plot, the reader is left with a sense of hope that perhaps Bhima will be able to get over the searing, final betrayal.
This is a novel that pulls the reader not only into the plot but into the language. Umrigar’s use of similes is so frequent that in another novel they might seem tiresome; but here they elicit the reader’s full gamut of senses.
The reader can smell the stinging onions in Sera’s kitchen, can see the desperate line snaking into the communal, slum bathroom, and can hear the abusive silence in Sera’s mother-in-law’s home.
Finally, this is a novel whose color and characters one will not quickly forget. More important, Umrigar leaves the reader to chew on the unfairness we ultimately create for all people because of our insistence of maintaining classes.
Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News