Space Between Us (Umrigar)

The Space Between Us 
Thrity Umrigar, 2006
HarperCollins
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060791568


Summary
Each morning, Bhima, a domestic servant in contemporary Bombay, leaves her own small shanty in the slums to tend to another woman's house. In Sera Dubash's home, Bhima scrubs the floors of a house in which she remains an outsider. She cleans furniture she is not permitted to sit on. She washes glasses from which she is not allowed to drink.

Yet despite being separated from each other by blood and class, she and Sera find themselves bound by gender and shared life experiences.

Sera is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage. A widow, she devotes herself to her family, spending much of her time caring for her pregnant daughter, Dinaz, a kindhearted, educated professional, and her charming and successful son-in-law, Viraf.

Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. Cursed by fate, she sacrifices all for her beautiful, headstrong granddaughter, Maya, a university student whose education—paid for by Sera—will enable them to escape the slums.

But when an unwed Maya becomes pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, Bhima's dreams of a better life for her granddaughter, as well as for herself, may be shattered forever.

Poignant and compelling, evocative and unforgettable, The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world.

Set in modern-day India and witnessed through two compelling and achingly real women, the novel shows how the lives of the rich and the poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and vividly captureshow the bonds of womanhood are pitted against the divisions of class and culture. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Where—Mumbai, India
Education—B.A., Bombay, University; M.A., Ohio State
   University; Ph.D., Kent State University
Awards—Neiman Fellowship to Harvard
Currently—lives in Cleveland, Ohio, USA


A journalist for seventeen years, Thrity Umrigar has written for the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and other national newspapers, and contributes regularly to the Boston Globe's book pages. She teaches creative writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University.

The author of The Space Between Us; Bombay Time, the memoir First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, and The Weight of Heaven, she was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. (From the publisher.)

Learn more about Umrigar from an interview on author's website.



Book Reviews 
Umrigar is a perceptive and often piercing writer, although her prose occasionally tips into flamboyant overstatement....[H]er 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...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.
Ligaya Mishan - New York Times Book Review


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.
Frances Itani - Washington Post


Umrigar's schematic novel (after Bombay Time) illustrates the intimacy, and the irreconcilable class divide, between two women in contemporary Bombay. Bhima, a 65-year-old slum dweller, has worked for Sera Dubash, a younger upper-middle-class Parsi woman, for years: cooking, cleaning and tending Sera after the beatings she endures from her abusive husband, Feroz. Sera, in turn, nurses Bhima back to health from typhoid fever and sends her granddaughter Maya to college. Sera recognizes their affinity: "They were alike in many ways, Bhima and she. Despite the different trajectories of their lives—circumstances...dictated by the accidents of their births—they had both known the pain of watching the bloom fade from their marriages." But Sera's affection for her servant wars with ingrained prejudice against lower castes. The younger generation—Maya; Sera's daughter, Dinaz, and son-in-law, Viraf—are also caged by the same strictures despite efforts to throw them off. In a final plot twist, class allegiance combined with gender inequality challenges personal connection, and Bhima may pay a bitter price for her loyalty to her employers. At times, Umrigar's writing achieves clarity, but a narrative that unfolds in retrospect saps the book's momentum.
Publishers Weekly


Journalist Umrigar (Bombay Time) evocatively describes daily life in two very different households in modern-day Bombay, where the traditions that separate the classes and the sexes still persist. The relationship between Sera Dubash, an upper-class Parsi housewife, and Bhima, her servant, is full of contradictions. They talk over cups of tea like girlfriends, but Bhima must squat on the floor using her own cup, while Sera sits on a chair. Bhima is loyal to Sera, but sometimes has to talk herself through minor humiliations and slights from her employer by reminding herself how generous this woman has always been to her. While money and class keep these two from fully bridging the gap between them, they remain closer than either of them can fully see, for as women, they suffer equally the abuse of men, the loss of love, and the joys and sorrows of motherhood. Umrigar beautifully and movingly wends her way through the complexities and subtleties of these unequal but caring relationships. Recommended for all fiction collections. —Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
Library Journal


Set in contemporary Bombay, Umrigar's second novel (Bombay Time, 2001) is an affecting portrait of a woman and her maid, whose lives, despite class disparity, are equally heartbreaking. Though Bhima has worked for the Dubash family for decades and is coyly referred to as "one of the family," she nonetheless is forbidden from sitting on the furniture and must use her own utensils while eating. For years, Sera blamed these humiliating boundaries on her husband Feroz, but now that he's dead and she's lady of the house, the two women still share afternoon tea and sympathy with Sera perched on a chair and Bhima squatting before her. Bhima is grateful for Sera, for the steady employment, for what she deems friendship and, mostly, for the patronage Sera shows Bhima's granddaughter Maya. Orphaned as a child when her parents died of AIDS, Bhima raised Maya and Sera saw to her education. Now in college, Maya's future is like a miracle to the illiterate Bhima—her degree will take them out of the oppressive Bombay slums, guaranteeing Maya a life away from servitude. But in a cruel mirror of Sera's happiness—her only child Dinaz is expecting her first baby—Bhima finds that Maya is pregnant, has quit school and won't name the child's father. As the situation builds to a crisis point, both women reflect on the sorrows of their lives. While Bhima was born into a life of poverty and insurmountable obstacles, Sera's privileged upbringing didn't save her from a husband who beat her and a mother-in-law who tormented her. And while Bhima's marriage begins blissfully, an industrial accident leaves her husband maimed and an alcoholic. He finally deserts her, but not before he bankrupts the family and kidnaps their son. Though Bhima and Sera believe they are mutually devoted, soon decades of confidences are thrown up against the far older rules of the class game. A subtle, elegant analysis of class and power. Umrigar transcends the specifics of two Bombay women and creates a novel that quietly roars against tyranny.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. At the end of The Space Between Us, Sera has a tough choice to make. Can you envision a scenario where she could've made a different choice? What would it have taken for her to have made a different choice? And what would be the consequences of that choice?

2. The novel deals with a relationship that, despite all the good will in the world, is ultimately based on the exploitation of one human being by another. Has this novel caused you to look at any situations in your own life where you may be benefiting from the labor or poverty of another?

3. Remarking on the fact that Bhima is not allowed to sit on the furniture in Sera Dubash's home, or drink from the same glass, it could be said that the novel is about a kind of "Indian Apartheid." Do you think that's putting it too strongly? If not, can you identify any parallels in contemporary America?

4. The novel tracks the lives of two women. Trace some of the ways in which their lives resemble each other's. What are the points of departure?

5. Neither Sera nor Bhima end up with happy, successful marriages. Why? Trace the factors that cause each marriage to fail. And for all its failings, which woman has the better marriage?

6. Sera's mother-in-law, Banu, makes life miserable for the young Sera. Is Banu the kind of mother-in-law that many American women can identify with? Examine the ways in which she is or isn't the typical in-law.

7. The Afghani balloonwalla is a minor but pivotal character in the novel. What is his role? What does he symbolize or represent?

The novel is told from the points of view of the two women, Bhima and Sera. Should it have included more points of view? For instance, should Viraf have had his own "voice"?

8. How do you read the ending of the book? Is it a hopeful ending? Do you think the ending is justified, given what awaits Bhima the next day?

9. What is your opinion about Sera, especially given the choice she makes in the end. Is she a sympathetic character? Or is she part of the problem?

10. This is a novel about the intersection of class and gender. Can you think of ways in which gender bonds the two women and ways in which class divides them?

11. Is Gopal justified in being furious at Bhima for having signed the contract that the accountant puts before her during the cab ride to the hospital? Would the family's fate have been different if she hadn't signed that paper?

12. Two characters who help Bhima—Hyder, the boy in the hospital and the Afghani balloon seller, both happen to be Muslims. Why? What does the novel say about the issues of religious and communal divisions in India?

13. What does this novel say about the importance of education? Think of some examples where the lack of education hurts a character and conversely, instances of where having an education benefits someone.

14. In some ways, the city of Bombay is a character in the novel. What are your impressions of Bombay after having read this novel? Does the author portray the city with affection or disdain?

15. What societal changes and/or personal choices would need to be different in order for us to envision the possibility of someone like Bhima having a better life?

16. The author has said that although the plot of The Space Between Us is a work of fiction, the character of Bhima is based on a woman who used to work in her home when the writer was a teenager. Is there any person in your own life who has inspired you enough to want to write a book about them? What is it about that person that had a deep impact on you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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