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'The Space Between Us,' Thrity Umrigar

About the author
Barira Limbada is mid-way through a MA in Islamic Cultures & Societies at SOAS, having completed a BA in History and Politics. Her particular field of interest is identity politics - more specifically politics of religious and ethnic identities and the politics of violence. Before coming to openDemocracy Barira completed a research internship with the Islamic Human Rights Commission. Outside of politics and academia her passions include literature, food (eating rather than cooking), photography and jewellery.

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"The Space Between Us "

Thrity Umrigar

HarperPerennial | February 2007 | ISBN 000721233X

Being a first generation Indian born and brought up in the West I have cultivated an ongoing love affair with Anglo-Indian authors. Thrity Umrigar is my latest discovery.

Her novel, The Space Between Us, is a tale about gender and class. Told through the lives of two wonderfully vivid characters, Bhima and Sera, the novel explores the space between them as governed by birth, education and wealth. Set against the bustling and chaotic backdrop of present day Mumbai, where shocking poverty festers alongside opulent wealth, Umrigar shows how the lives of the rich and poor are vastly removed from each other yet also intrinsically connected.

Sera Dubash is an upper-middle-class Parsi widow, who devotes herself to her family, spending much of her time caring for her pregnant daughter, Dinaz, a kind hearted, educated professional, and her charming son-in-law, Viraf. Bhima is poor, old and worn out: "dried out, scooped out, as hollow and wrinkled as a walnut shell". She is a stoic illiterate, taking care of her orphaned grand-daughter Maya.

Each morning Bhima leaves her mud-floored hut in the squalid slum to cook and clean at Sera's house where she is coyly referred to as "one of the family". Bhima has worked in the Dubash household as a domestic servant for more than twenty years washing utensils she is not permitted to use and cleaning furniture she is not allowed to sit on.

Told in a series of flashbacks and present day encounters, we encounter Bhima's struggle to navigate an alien world of officialdom for which she is ill-equipped. At these moments of crisis we learn how the Dubash's have used their money, and the crude power afforded to privileged, to help Bhima and her family. When Bhima's husband, Gopal, is hospitalised after a work place accident it is Sera's husband, Feroz, who intimidates the doctors into prioritising Gopal's medical care. Bhima's grand-daughter, Maya, has been attending college under Sera's benefaction - an education that Bhima had hoped will be Maya's rite of passage away from the drudgery that has marred the lives of generation women in their family.

But the privileged and opulent surroundings of Sera's life hide the shame and disappointment of her marriage. It is a marriage disfigured with haunting memories of domestic violence and emotional abuse suffered at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law, a marriage of tabooed realities which Sera has kept veiled from family and friends alike.

Through the failures of her married life Sera recognizes her affinity to Bhima: "They are alike in many ways, Bhima and she. Despite the different trajectories of their lives-circumstances ... dictated by the accident of their birth-they had both known the pain of watching the bloom fade from their marriage." One of the most moving moments in the novel comes when, after yet another beating, Bhima gently rub's medicinal oil on Sera bruised body; a mute act of instinctive empathy and compassion, a touchingly human moment that fleetingly bridges the space between them.

Having taken refuge in blaming her husband, Feroz, for the undignified boundaries that see Bhima having to use a separate glass and soap bar which are "kept aside for her", we see the widowed Sera battling with conflicting opinions on whether she should treat Bhima as an equal. Umrigar's portrait of Sera as a woman "unable to transcend her middle class skin" is valiantly candid and she skillfully presents a range of contradictory thoughts, emotions and realities.

While the weight of history has forged and carried the bonds of trust and friendship between Sera and Bhima, present day encounters pivot around two pregnancies: that of Dinaz and of Maya. Through these pregnancies the two older women live out their future hopes and fears. When an unwed Maya becomes pregnant Bhima's dreams of a better life for her granddaughter, as well as for herself, may be shattered forever.

Umrigar's language is rich and lush and her keen eye for details is evident in her portrait of Mumbai's everyday street life. She provides a compassionate commentary on the prevalent social problems facing India today: Aids, education and engendered poverty, the crude disparity between the privileged and powerful, and the poor and powerless. The novel may have all the hallmarks of Bollywood melodrama but for the most part Umrigar manages to avoid the decent into painless pathos and easy cliché.

Instead The Space Between Us draws a rich and complex portrait of two convincingly flawed but dignified women and deftly captures how the bonds of womanhood can unify individuals against the divisions of class.

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