This is my review of The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar.
I was hooked from the outset by this well-plotted, moving tale of the relationship between a middle-class Bombay widow Sera and her faithful servant Bhima. The common factor in these two women's lives is their unhappy marriages leading to disappointed hopes. Despite her education, Sera has endured the tyranny of a spiteful mother-in-law and abuse at the hands of a controlling, often violent husband, but now finds happiness in the company of her pregnant daughter and charming son-in-law. Bhima's life was destroyed when her once adoring husband left her, yet she too finds a reason for living in her grand-daughter Maya whose college education Sera has generously supported. The problem is that Maya's bright future is now in ruins since she has somehow fallen pregnant.
This story is certainly very bleak at times, but made endurable by the author's close observation of Bombay society – embracing both the wealthy and slum dwellers – her keen sense of humour and what sounded to me like authentic dialogue: the quirky turns of phrase, often flowery speech and peppering of Indian terms add colour to the writing.
The story is developed through lengthy flashbacks, so that dramatic incidents are implied to arouse your curiosity, with the details gradually revealed. The climax is predictable but the ending is not. At first, I was disappointed by it, but decided on reflection that the author chooses a subtle, clever note on which to close, leaving it to the reader to consider what happens next.
I was interested by the parallels between the way middle-class Indians treat their servants, and the behaviour of white Americans towards their black servants in the South until recently, as portrayed in the bestselller, "The Help" – for instance, requiring maids to drink out of their own separate cups, and not letting them sit at the same table, whilst expecting them to bring up one's children as their own, and also helping them out in a paternalistic way in moments of deep personal trouble.
All the main characters are well-developed as complex people with strengths and flaws. The character of Bhima is particularly interesting. Her illiteracy exposes her to exploitation – apart from limiting her employment prospects – and saps her confidence. Yet her natural intelligence gives her a perceptiveness and ability to analyse others, in a very pragmatic way, which eludes some of her so-called superiors. Despite endless hardship, she maintains a dignity and pride which at times cost her dear, but you have to admire her unbreakable spirit. In contrast, Sera lets her own spirit be broken in order to hang on to material things and respectability, so ultimately perhaps loses more of what really matters than her outwardly povertystricken and downtrodden maid.
I agree that this book is most likely to appeal to women, and may in fact repel some men initially prepared to give it a chance, since the male sex is portrayed in a pretty negative light, as either weak or selfish and vindictive.
This novel covers the same territory as Arvind's "The White Tiger" but in a less wisecracking and cynical, more subtle and introspective fashion, both worth reading in their different ways.