The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
2006 William Morrow
Finished on February 13, 2016
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Devastating in its power, remarkable in its achievement, The Space Between Us is a searing, addictively readable novel that vividly captures the delicate balance of class and gender in contemporary India--witnessed through the lives of two compelling women.
They are sitting in the dining room, sipping tea, Sera out of the blue-gray mug Dinaz had bought for her from Cottage Industries, Bhima out of the stainless-steel glass that is kept aside for her in the Dubash household. As usual, Sera sits on a chair at the table while Bhima squats on her haunches on the floor nearby. When Dinaz was younger, she used to prod her mother about the injustice of Bhima not being allowed to sit on the couch or a chair and having to use her own separate utensils instead of the ones the rest of the family used.
"Now, Dinaz," Sera would say mildly. "I think there's a slight difference between burning a Harijan and not allowing Bhima to use our glasses. Do you want her lips to touch our glasses?"
Now, watching Bhima sip at her tea, Sera shifts uncomfortably in her chair. Since Feroz's death, she has occasionally toyed with the idea of asking Bhima to join her at the table. Sure, some of her friends would be scandalized at first, and the next time a servant in the building asked her mistress for a raise, the woman would automatically blame Sera Dubash for setting a bad example. But what difference did it make to her what the neighbors said?
And yet... The thought of Bhima sitting on her furniture repulses her. There is this reluctance, this resistance to let Bhima use the furniture. As they sit in companionable silence sipping their tea, Sera tries to justify her prejudice.
I had the ARC of The Space Between Us for over a decade before I finally decided it was time to give it a try. I'm so glad one of my friends kept encouraging me to read this book. It was outstanding! The details of Umrigar's story create a strong sense of place and I had no problem envisioning Sera and Bhima's lives in Bombay. It's been years since I read Rohinton Mistry's excellent novel, A Fine Balance, but as soon as I began reading The Space Between Us, I had the same reaction and fell deep into the world of India.
In the old days, at least the women were spared the elbowing and jostling that occurred each time a bus appeared like a mythical beast at the stop. But in today's Bombay, it was everybody for himself, and the frail, the weak, the young, and the old entered the overflowing buses at their own peril. Bhima felt as if she barely recognized the city anymore--something snarling and mean and cruel had been unleashed in it. Bhima could see the signs of this new meanness everywhere: slum children tied firecrackers to the tails of the stray dogs and then laughed and clapped with glee as the poor animals ran around in circles, going mad with fear. Affluent college students went berserk if a five-year-old beggar child smudged the windows of their gleaming BMWs and Hondas. Every day Serabai would read the newspaper and tell Bhima about some latest horror--a union organizer being bludgeoned to death for daring to urge factory workers to agitate for a two-rupee wage raise; a politician's son being found not guilty after running over three slum children on his way to a party; an elderly Parsi couple being murdered in their beds by a servant who had worked for them for forty years; young Hindu nationalists writing congratulatory notes in their own blood to celebrate India's successful test of a nuclear weapon. It was as if the city was mad with greed and hunger; power and impotence; wealth and poverty.
I love this passage about the ocean:
And now she finally understands what she has always observed on people's faces when they are at the seaside. Years ago, when she and Gopal used to come to here, she would notice how people's faces turned slightly upward when they stared at the sea, as if they were straining to see a trace of God or were hearing the silent humming of the universe; she would notice how, at the beach, people's faces became soft and wistful, reminding her of the expressions on the faces of the sweet old dogs that roamed the streets of Bombay. As if they were all sniffing the salty air for transcendence, for something that would allow them to escape the familiar prisons of their own skin. In the temples and the shrines, their heads were bowed and their faces small, fearful, and respectful, shrunk into insignificance by the ritualized chanting of the priests. But when they gazed at the sea, people held their heads up, and their faces became curious and open, as if they were searching for something that linked them to the sun and the stars, looking for that something they knew would linger long after the wind had erased their footprints in the dust. Land could be bought, sold, owned, divided, claimed, trampled, and fought over. The land was stained permanently with pools of blood; it bulged and swelled under the outlines of the countless millions buried under it. But the sea was unspoiled and eternal and seemingly beyond human claim. Its waters rose and swallowed up the scarlet shame of spilled blood.
This was an excellent read! I didn't want it to end and found myself slowing down as the ending drew closer. This certainly isn't a mystery, but at one point near the end of the book, I was dumbstruck after a detail was revealed. "Wow! I never saw that coming," I thought.
Umrigar is a great storyteller and I look forward to reading more of her novels. As luck would have it, I own a copy of The World We Found, which was published in 2012 and sounds quite enticing!