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The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar.

March 1, 2014

The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar.  Harper Perennial (2007), Paperback, 321 pages.




 A deeply moving novel exploring “the space between” a domestic servant in Bombay and her middle class Parsi mistress.

 Few books have as appropriate a title as this one.  It is the story of two strong women who are bonded together by gender, but remain divided by class.  Bhima has worked for Sera and her family for over twenty years.  Illiterate and mired in poverty herself, she has great respect for the power that Sera and her family have.  Sera is a widow, gracious and generous to Bhima and her family.  Flashbacks in the opening sections of the book reveal the pain both women have suffered and how they have provided help for each other.  Sera has aided Bhima in many small ways and a few larger ones, including getting adequate medical care for her husband and paying for a college education for her granddaughter.  Bhima is the only person who knows about the physical abuse Sera’s husband inflicted and has helped ease its pain.  Yet the closeness of the two women has always been limited.  Sera will not allow Bhima to sit on the furniture or eat out of her family’s dishes.  (Umrigar explains that such behavior is not based on the Hindu caste system, but is typical of middle-class people in India of various faiths toward all those in poverty.)

 Then a series of events threaten the close, but unequal relationship between the two women.  With money from Sera, Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, is going to college and hoping to escape the slum in which they live.  When unmarried Maya gets pregnant, Sera’s family orchestrates an abortion for her.  Afterward, Maya has trouble starting over, especially when others are celebrating the pregnancy of Dinaz, Sera’s daughter.   In an unusually respectful manner, Umrigar treats the issue of abortion without moralizing.  The decision is a practical one; Maya cannot afford to raise a child on her own, much less go to college and live a more fulfilling life than her grandmother.  The grief and resentment she feels is significant, however.  Umrigar’s story gains momentum and depth as Bhima struggles with an impossible decision over what has happened to her granddaughter.

 In Umrigar’s sensitive portrayals, both women have internal contradictions.  Both understand that love and hate can be interwoven.  Their differences are certainly a matter of class as Umrigar notes, but family loyalty is also significant.  Bhima’s granddaughter chides her for loving Sera’s family more than her own.  As I read, I kept thinking of the same question being raised by Toni Morrison in her The Bluest Eye.  Additionally, in many books I’ve read recently, our discussions of family loyalty are framed by the possibility of cross-cultural marriage, but domestic service also raises the issue.  There can also be a cost to the family of a woman who is “almost one of the family” whom she serves.

 At the end of the book, Umrigar explains that Bhima was inspired by the servant in her own childhood Parsi home in Bombay.  She had already described her relationship with this servant in her autobiographical First Darling of the Morning.  Probably Sera’s family bears some resemblance to Umrigar’s own.  Dinaz, Sera’s grown daughter, mirrors Umrigar’s efforts to treat her family’s servant with more equality.  Although Umrigar has used Indian language to create the Bombay of her childhood, her exploration of a woman working as a domestic servant of another woman carries universal overtones for what that practices means around the globe.  This is simply the best book I have read about women working for other women in their home.

 The Space Between Us is a “must read” book for all who have worked as a domestic servant or have had another woman working for them.  Besides it is a wonderfully well-written and engaging book.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    March 1, 2014 11:53 pm

    Beautiful review. I’ve not read this one, but I should remedy that.

    Have you read Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters? Another lovely book about a Parsi family in Bombay.

  2. March 3, 2014 3:32 am

    Yeah! I have read and reviewed it, one well written novel. Very elaborated review you have here.


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