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The New York Times

January 22, 2006
'The Space Between Us,' by Thrity Umrigar

The Clash of Caste

In the classic upstairs-downstairs story, you always have a sneaking suspicion that downstairs, freed of corsets and etiquette, the servants are having a lot more fun than their prim, monocled masters. But no such palliative exists in the world of Thrity Umrigar's second novel, which examines the class divide in Bombay (as Umrigar continues to call Mumbai) through the relationship of a mistress and her servant.

In a city where the densest slums have a population of one million per square mile, "downstairs" is fairly grim. It's hardly surprising, then, that Bhima, the longtime housekeeper of a middle-class Parsi widow named Sera, has had a life of woe: her once loving husband was crippled in an industrial accident, took solace in alcohol and eventually absconded with their only son; her daughter and son-in-law both died of AIDS. At the novel's start, her orphaned granddaughter, the first in the family to get a proper education, has dropped out of college because she's pregnant.

Fortunately, Bhima's employer is generous. Sera has sponsored Bhima's granddaughter through school, and she now proposes to help the girl obtain an abortion. (Which, Bhima muses, is preferable to the way "some other" Indian grandmothers might deal with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy: "a quick shove down an open well, a kerosene can and a match, a sale to a brothel.") Meanwhile, Sera's friends tease her for treating Bhima "like she is the Kohinoor diamond" and warn that her charitable efforts will end badly. ("Did you see that story in last week's Times of India? . . . Poor woman, stabbed in her bed by her own servant.")

But Sera is well aware of the limits on her relationship with her housekeeper. In Sera's home, Bhima drinks from a special glass "that is kept aside for her," and she squats on the floor rather than use a chair. "The thought of Bhima sitting on her furniture repulses her," Sera admits to herself. When she spies her daughter hugging Bhima, she must "suppress the urge to order her . . . to go wash her hands."

The irony is that Sera herself has been shunned in the past for being "unclean." As a young woman, she married a seemingly urbane Parsi who became a viciously abusive husband. While living with his parents, she was forced to abide by her mother-in-law's rule that a menstruating woman must be quarantined, using separate utensils and eating meals alone in her bedroom. Now, years later, she fails to recognize the parallel between her mother-in-law's superstition and her own physical aversion to Bhima, whom she imagines to be covered in a "sheen of dirtiness."

Umrigar is a perceptive and often piercing writer, although her prose occasionally tips into flamboyant overstatement. (Walking to visit Bhima in the slums, Sera can't avoid "the flies, thick as guilt.") Umrigar's last book was a memoir about growing up in a well-off Parsi family in Bombay, and her 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, without making any explicit reference to the assault, 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 is on the staff of The New Yorker.

The Economist

January 28, 2006 - U.S. Edition

Distance and intimacy;

OUT of India's seething hotch-potch of humanity Thrity Umrigar has created two vivid female characters, each representative of thousands of real-life Indian women.

Sera Dubash is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife. She lives a privileged life in an affluent Mumbai household with her happily married daughter and son-in-law. Bhima Gopal is Sera's servant. She is old, poor, tired: "dried out, scooped out, as hollow and wrinkled as a walnut shell". Each morning she leaves her mud-floored hut in the squalid slum where she lives to cook and clean at Sera's house.

At the heart of this novel is the symbiotic relationship-the essence of distance and intimacy-between Sera and Bhima which, after 20 years, remains defined by their differing class, education and wealth. Although she is thought of as one of the family, Bhima polishes furniture she is forbidden to sit on and washes cups she may not use. She has her own utensils and a private bar of soap. When the two women drink tea together Sera sits at the table while Bhima squats on the floor.

In spite of these differences their lives have many parallels. Both have watched "the bloom fade from their marriages", both have supported one another in times of hardship, and both have pinned their future happiness on the younger generation, a dream that splinters like a shattered mirror when their loyalty to their families and to each other is cruelly tested.

This ultimately tragic story is told against the vibrant backdrop of modern Mumbai, an exuberant metropolis of 12m, which Bhima now barely recognises: "something snarling and mean and cruel had been unleashed in it." The book's pages glow with descriptions of the city. Iridescent colours, noise, the smell of frying bhelpuri and everywhere people, people, people-office workers, street urchins, legless beggars, nut vendors, slum dwellers, balloon sellers, call-girls in high heels, brash T-shirted teenagers-the common currency of the developing world.

The author prevents her story from descending into emotional soup by tackling, across the span of her characters' lives, many of the issues affecting India today: poverty engendering poverty; the power of privilege and wealth; domestic violence; class; education; women's rights; AIDS. This adds richness, making "The Space Between Us" far more than an analysis of fate and a portrait of the bonds of womanhood. It is also a powerful social commentary on the glorious and frustrating jigsaw puzzle that is modern India.

The Montreal Gazette


After reading Thrity Umrigar's The Space Between Us, I felt as if I had just returned from a trip to Bombay. Although I was happy to be home again, I regretted leaving the people to whom Umrigar had introduced me during my imaginary sojourn. Especially Bhima, faithful servant, devoted grandmother and determined survivor, a character based on the housekeeper who facilitated household maintenance during Umrigar's childhood in Bombay. Guilt may have introduced Bhima to the page. But affection and admiration have made her whole, a character so vibrant she carries the Bollywood drama of this book beyond itself, into potential bestseller heaven.

There's nothing new about literary exploration of the servant-employer relationship. Memorable underlings have been around for centuries - mainly in supporting roles. But allowing them to narrate (as the butler did in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day) or to become central to the action has been a more recent innovation attributable to the rise of democracy and the prevalence of television (Hazel, Beulah,The Nanny).

As the title suggests, The Space Between Us is a story of two solitudes, that of Bhima, an illiterate, lower-caste Hindu, and her employer, an educated, aristocratic Parsi widow.

Umrigar offers equality of consideration to both, shifting the point of view from one to the other as she interweaves the stories of their parallel lives.

Bhima is dirt poor.

Sera lives comfortably, sharing her home with her cheerful daughter, Dinaz, and charming son-in-law, Viraf.

Yet both of these women have proven themselves able to endure what we suspect we could not. Sera's late husband, Feroz, physically abused her while his insane mother, Banu, drove her to the brink: "Sera felt that she was up against something insidious; that Banu was assaulting both her body and her mind. So this is evil, she thought to herself. Before, she had always imagined that evil played out on a large canvas - wars, concentration camps, gas chambers, the partitioning of nations. Now, she realized that evil had a domestic side, and its very banality protected it from exposure."

At least Bhima never had to live with a mother-in-law from hell. But her husband, Gopal, injured on the job and deprived of compensation, sank into alcoholism and deserted her, taking their son with him. After raising her daughter alone, she now finds herself living in a putrid slum with the granddaughter she was obliged to raise after her daughter and son-in-law died of AIDS.

The friendship of between servant and mistress rings true, grounded in daily domestic routine and shared heartbreak. But when they sip tea together, Bhima must crouch on the floor, like a pet, forbidden to use Sera's furniture. Class and culture conspire to deny the validity of their complicity.

Hope for the future keeps Bhima going. Her granddaughter, Maya, has been able, with the financial help of Sera, to enroll in university. But these dreams are dashed when Maya is impregnated by an elusive suitor whom the girl refuses to name. Sera accompanies Maya to a private abortion clinic that caters to the rich. Bhima struggles to revive her granddaughter's broken spirit, urging her to pick up and move on. But another explosive plot twist lies ahead, one that deprives Bhima of her only safety net.

Umrigar, who left Bombay for the United States at the age of 21, is a seasoned journalist turned college professor, living in Cleveland. The Space Between Us is her second novel, a follow-up to Bombay Time. She has also penned a memoir, First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood. Of Parsi background, she has said she is fascinated by the "insider-outsider" status of her ethnic minority within India.

Gifted with a fine ear for dialogue and an uncanny ability to transport the reader to another time and place, Umrigar has created an engaging work of women's fiction, as opposed to chicklit.

The Space Between Us is a worthy read as well as a juicy one, offering clear-eyed social commentary as it dishes up delicious flavours, pungent odours and glorious seaside vistas.

All it lacks is a glossary to clarify the meaning of those frequently used Hindi expressions sprinkled throughout. Just a quibble.

Thrity Umrigar
William Morrow Fiction
ISBN: 0060791551

THE SPACE BETWEEN US is a musing on the bond between two modern-day Bombay women: Sera and her long-time servant, Bhima. Their union is tested again and again, frayed by Bhima's servile role, by Sera's educated, middle-class Parsi upbringing, and by the deeply-sown seeds of bigotry and class prejudice that rank Bhima as less than human.

We see Sera struggle to overcome her class bias and we grit our teeth with frustration when she admits that the thought of Bhima sitting on her furniture, sleeping in her house and using her utensils makes her shudder. Umrigar masterfully depicts the paradox of Sera's desire to strengthen her bond with Bhima --- to help her and her family --- with her uneasiness as Sera is dragged further and further down into the muck and bog of Bhima's life, her world of filthy slums and political indifference.

From the moment Bhima awakens on her thin mattress and Sera smiles tearfully over the onions on the chopping block of her sun-lit kitchen, we are absorbed in the polar, harshly contradictory lives of these women. There is clarity and simplicity in Umrigar's style as well as a devotion to detail. Each description, murmur of dialogue and turn of phrase rings sharply. We can see the worlds she describes through each woman's distinctive gaze.

The parallels of Bhima's and Sera's life are dealt with subtly; indeed there is nothing heavy-handed or melodramatic about this novel. Despite the weight of the themes --- race, class, gender, sexuality and culture --- Umrigar never lets the prose slip into tired clich¥s or familiar sentiments. We see the squalor of Bhima's existence; we feel her rage and helplessness as she stands over her pregnant, doomed granddaughter as acutely as we smell Sera's onions simmering in the hot oil of the frying pan. The lives of these women are rendered vividly, without bias, by a narrator who easily slips behind the curtain of her words. Umrigar the author virtually disappears, achieving a kind of omniscience that only the best writers can hope for, allowing readers to witness the flaws and beauty of both these women and make their own judgments.

Strong and startling images punctuate the text --- from the charred black rope, woven with bitterness and resentment, that uncoils itself within Sera as she looks on her stepmother, to the face of the balloon seller who once delighted and fascinated Bhima and her husband, the memory of whom haunts her still.

We see Bhima betrayed time and time again --- by her family, by the government, by men who claim authority and take advantage of her trust and lack of education, by her aging body and her once-trusting spirit. Yet she possesses a dazzling, almost blinding conviction that there are sparks and pockets of pure goodness in the world, and Sera shines brightly in her eyes.

That is why the final climactic betrayal of the book is wrenching. Bhima has risen above so much and yet this final betrayal may be the wound that will not heal, festering and infecting her body with a vile, justified rage at the unfairness of her life --- a rage that will destroy her in the end. This book will keep readers up nights, absorbing them in the sights and sounds of Bombay, the struggles of its central characters, and the flashes and glints of the peripheral characters: Sera's daughter Dinaz, her son-in-law Feroz, Bhima's granddaughter Maya, and the ghosts of both women's husbands that still haunt their memories.

Readers will turn the last page reluctantly and remember the turns of Umrigar's prose long after they have retired the book to their bookshelves, both for its expertly woven narrative by a writer with a masterful ear for dialogue and description and its meditation on attraction and friendship, no matter how seemingly insurmountable the differences are. THE SPACE BETWEEN US reveals the power of coming together and the tragedy of breaking apart.

The Washington Post


A wealthy woman and her servant endure parallel challenges in India.

Reviewed by Frances Itani

Sunday, January 8, 2006; BW04


A Novel

By Thrity Umrigar

Morrow. 321 pp. $24.95

Artists know very well that a good way to depict overwhelming social problems is to tell the story of an individual who represents many others. One set of political circumstances might blur into another on the large scale, while the human story, well told, will be long remembered. India 's complex struggle with poverty, class and overpopulation amid political change poses special challenges in this regard, but Thrity Umrigar has created two wonderfully sympathetic characters who do much to make that country's complex nature comprehensible.

Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi, lives a privileged, urban life, but her comforts largely depend upon her domestic servant, Bhima, who arrives every day to cook and clean for her. Bhima (based on a real-life Bombay housekeeper known to Umrigar when the latter was a child) lives in extreme poverty, under appalling circumstances in a city slum. She needs the job to survive. The lives of the two women are parallel in striking ways, but it is Bhima who quickly takes over the emotional thread of the story. Although she lives in a crowded, stinking place where fresh water is scarce and there are abysmal, communal toilets and open drains, what Bhima allows herself to want is, on the surface, simple: a better life for her beloved granddaughter, Maya.

But the opening pages tell us that this dream is already dashed. Maya, who has been attending college under Sera's benefaction, is pregnant and is forced to abandon the education that offered hope of a better life. Bhima is so upset by this that she drifts between conflicting emotions: rage at Maya for ruining her chance to break the chain of poverty, and love for the child she has raised as her own. Umrigar is particularly good at this constant, internal and external railing.

"Bhima wants to take the sobbing girl to her bosom, to hold and caress her the way she used to when Maya was a child, to forgive her and to ask for her forgiveness. But she can't. If it were just anger that she was feeling, she could've scaled that wall and reached out to her grandchild. But the anger is only the beginning of it. Behind the anger is fear, fear as endless and vast and gray as the Arabian Sea, fear for this stupid, innocent, pregnant girl who stands sobbing before her, and for this unborn baby who will come into the world to a mother who is a child herself and to a grandmother who is old and tired to her very bones, a grandmother who is tired of loss, of loving and losing, who cannot bear the thought of one more loss and of one more person to love."

Sera, a widow, and Bhima, abandoned by her husband, have a strong bond, but the differences are recognized by both. Every day, Bhima takes a break from the housework she does for Sera, and the two elderly women have tea and discuss their lives. Sera sits at the table, while Bhima squats on her haunches on the dining-room floor. There is always, as the title implies, a "space between." But Bhima knows more about Sera than the educated Sera will ever know about her. Sera's pregnant daughter and son-in-law live in her home, and her personal happiness now depends upon them. As the background stories unfold -- and these are told with as much immediacy as the ongoing, main story -- it is Bhima who is central to the events that play out in the lives of every member of the two families.

Both Sera and Bhima have lived with fear and disappointment, but Umrigar ensures that they always live with dignity. Both have suffered at the hands of the men they once loved. One of the many disturbing threads throughout the book is the way male power is directed at others in cruel and abusive ways. And Sera has also suffered while living with a vindictive mother-in-law who is now ill and can no longer hurt her.

This is a story intimately and compassionately told against the sensuous background of everyday life in Bombay. 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's novel "Deafening" was shortlisted for the 2005 IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award.


San Francisco Chronicle

With child, within class in Bombay

- Reviewed by Lynn Andriani

Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Space Between Us

By Thrity Umrigar

MORROW; 320 PAGES; $24.95

In many ways, Bombay-born writer Thrity Umrigar's second novel covers common literary terrain. Its theme is familiar: Two characters from opposite sides of the track become inextricably intertwined. Its literary devices aren't unique: Metaphors and similes appear on nearly every page, and flashbacks reveal characters' backgrounds. Its characterizations are, on the surface, rife with recognizable dramas: The rich live in luxury, while the poor exist in squalor, and there appears to be no in-between.

Yet for all the tale's familiarity, to read it is to become absorbed in the goings-on of two families whose habits may be startlingly like our own, despite their being halfway across the world. And even if "The Space Between Us" does invite comparisons to stories we've heard before (for instance "The Kite Runner," which takes place largely in Afghanistan, near the India of "The Space Between Us," and also puts together people of different classes), that doesn't take away from the blunt realism and beauty of Umrigar's book.

Part of what makes "The Space Between Us" so engrossing is its ability to make readers feel empathy for its subjects. Initially, it's easy to feel for Bhima; she's a 65-year-old servant living in a Bombay slum with her granddaughter, Maya. Her children and alcoholic husband are either dead or absent, and every cent she earns goes toward Maya's college education, which she hopes will be their ticket out of poverty. But when Maya gets pregnant, those dreams evaporate and it appears the girl is doomed to repeat her grandmother's fate. It would be easy to pity poor Bhima, but Umrigar makes us feel something more: understanding. For Bhima is not just hopeless; she's also human. She feels "hard, merciless ... rage" as she watches the shamefully pregnant 17-year-old sleeping peacefully. In another scene, a flashback, Bhima lashes out against her son when she knows he doesn't deserve it. Umrigar's ability to give Bhima such a realistic personality is remarkable and one of the book's high points.

Bhima's wealthy counterpart is her employer, Sera Dubash, a younger, upper-middle-class Parsi housewife. Like her servant, Sera has carried on without a husband (she is a widow) and has a young woman to watch over (her daughter, Dinaz, and Dinaz's handsome husband, Viraf, are expecting their first child). But unlike Maya's pregnancy, Dinaz's is a happy one -- just one of the book's examples of how members of different classes experience similar circumstances. Every day when Bhima goes to work at Sera's house she must listen to the family cooing over Dinaz's growing belly. Yet it's difficult for her to begrudge them, as Sera, a generous employer who objects to India's strict class distinctions, uses her clout to bring Maya to a private abortion clinic rather than allow the girl to go to a dirty, public one. Bhima feels nothing but appreciation for Sera and her family, although the book's denouement later finds her in a horrid struggle with her beloved boss.

As Umrigar relates the present and past events in the lives of Bhima and Sera, she reaches for similes and metaphors to describe feelings and actions. Her frequent use of them could become grating if they didn't color her scenes with such intense, convincing descriptions of Indian life. Sera's memory of her husband's death still stings years later, "as if someone sprinkled chili powder in my eyes." Revealing a terrible secret about one character allows Bhima to "destroy [that person's] current happiness as swiftly as a wind can knock down a house." And when the uneducated Bhima learns that the AIDS virus can be in one's body for years before manifesting itself, she likens the sickness to a curse: "Someone does some jadoo on you -- like they put cut fingernails under your mattress or they hide chilis and lime in an old rag and put it in your path -- and years go by and you think you are safe. And then one day, something bad happens and you realize that the curse was with you all these years."

Such devices render lifelike the characters' predicaments, while drawing Western readers into a far-away culture. To read these comparisons is to understand that Umrigar's Bombay is a place where robust foods figure prominently, elements like wind and sea are driving forces, and religious beliefs underscore everything. She takes the cultural infusion one step further with her use of slang in dialogue. "What is this, baba? So-so much money," Bhima's son remarks upon seeing the payoff Bhima's husband received when he injured himself at his factory job. "Ae, Bhima mausi," one of Bhima's slum neighbors calls out from the water tap line, "Come over here, na. For you only I've been holding a reservation here." These singsong phrases steep the narrative in local flavor.

To read Umrigar's novel is to catch a glimpse of a foreign culture, for better and for worse. Yet while the class divide between Bhima and Sera provides much of the conflict in "The Space Between Us," it isn't the only source of disagreement. Class colors everything, but in the end, Umrigar shows, every one of life's ups and downs are available to us all.


Booklist Starred Review

Umrigar, Thrity. THE SPACE BETWEEN US.

Sera Dubash is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife in modern-day Bombay. Bhima is her domestic servant. Though they inhabit dramatically different worlds, the two women have much in common. Both married men they alternately love and loathe: Sera's moody husband frequently beats her, and Bhima's betrothed falls into an alcohol-drenched depression after losing his job. Sera's civil treatment of her servant—she overlooks Bhima's frequent tardiness and treats her like an equal—dismays her neighbors and friends. She also offers to fund the college education of Bhima's granddaughter, Maya, whom Bhima adopted when the girl's mother died of AIDS. The bond between the two women deepens when Sera (whose own daughter is happily wed and expecting her first child) arranges an abortion for unmarried Maya. Veteran journalist and Case Western Reserve professor Umrigar (Bombay Time, 2001) renders a collection of compelling and complex characters, from kind, conflicted Sera to fiercely devoted Bhima (the latter is based on the novelist's own childhood housekeeper). Sadness suffuses this eloquent tale, whose heart-stopping plot twists reveal the ferocity of fate. As Bhima sits at her dying daughter's side, a fellow hospital visitor speaks the simple, brutal truth: “Here, we have all hit the jackpot for grief.”

•  Allison Block


The Plain Dealer

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. William Morrow, 321 pp., $24.95.

Drawing reader close in tale of two disparate women

Karen R. Long

Soon, Bombay - now called Mumbai - is expected to out strip the continent of Australia in population. Already among the largest cities on the planet, with some 18 million urban dwellers, Bombay and its stories represent who we are becoming.

New York journalist Suketu Mehta took a big, masculine bite of Bombay in "Maximum City," his celebrated 2004 work of nonfiction.

Now another American journalist, Thrity Umrigar, circles back to the city of her first 21 years, which she left to attend Ohio State University. Her second novel, "The Space Between Us," is a quieter, more intimate slice of Bombay than Mehta's, layered with keen, feminine insight into class and family, betrayal, guilt and love.

Umrigar's central character is Bhima, an aging, illiterate domestic servant who lives without electricity, a toilet or running water. She works for a kind but aloof upper-class Parsi woman named Sera, who has plenty of sorrow of her own. The focal point of "The Space Between Us" is the space between Bhima and Sera. They share the intimacy of years and alternate the narrative perspectives of this book.

In Sera's household, Bhima is not allowed on the furniture. She has a separate glass and utensils, a private bar of soap. When Sera's son-in-law offers to buy a dishwasher, Bhima's hope leaps, but Sera quickly refuses. The matriarch brags about the 65-year-old Bhima's ability to make the pots and pans shine, overlooking the bent back and arthritic hands.

"The Space Between Us" is a ruminative novel, told from inside the heads of these close-but-distant women, with their dual histories back-filled in flashbacks. The book's structure deepens the reader's attachment to the characters but slows the reading pace.

The novel's narrative pulse is set beating in the first chapter's fourth paragraph, when the reader discovers that Bhima's smart, beautiful teenage granddaughter is pregnant. The father's identity remains a mystery until the story is almost over, and that revelation - with more than a touch of Bollywood melodrama - carries tragedy for both Sera and Bhima.

Umrigar understands the way love mixes with cruelty and loneliness. She is a connoisseur of guilt - and knows how to describe it. As Sera drinks a sweet liquid in front of a parched slum child, she feels like she is swallowing "a bloody clot." At another moment, Bhima is fighting shame, exposed to the gaze of her neighbors: "Like vultures these people are, she thought. Peck, peck, pecking away at one another's lives, feasting on one another's misery, circling over other people's dead marriages."

In counterpoint to this grimness is the pleasure of the book's musicality, enhanced with a smattering of Hindi words and cadences. The suave son-in-law is described parking his expensive car: "But Viraf is a thanda pani ka matla - an earthenware pot of cold water."

This pleasure is offset by Umrigar's reliance on cliche. Details are sordid; arguments fold like a deck of cards; silence is utter, and the show needs to get on the road. In another awkward bit of writing, Sera decides "that promise lay in the drawer marked Unkept Promises, along with many others."

Umrigar is at her best, however, conveying the small moments that sustain or degrade the minuet of intimacy. She steers her characters into the harshness of domestic violence, abortion, alcoholism and AIDS. Still, we stay with them, partly because they navigate it bravely.

On the final pages, neither Umrigar nor Bhima lets us down.

In the press kit for "The Space Between Us," Umrigar reveals that Bhima is based on the housekeeper of her own Bombay childhood. She dedicates her novel to "the real Bhima and the millions like her."

One of the joys of fiction is it can make visible what we readers recognize but have not seen. With "The Space Between Us," Umrigar narrows the gap between those of us with the education and leisure to enjoy her book and the many, like Bhima, who have neither.



Publishers Weekly THE SPACE BETWEEN US, Thrity Umrigar. Morrow, $24.95 (320p) ISBN 0-06-079155-1

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.


Kirkus Review


Morrow/HarperCollins , Pages: 320 , $24.95, Publication Date: 1/10/2006 , ISBN: 0-06-079155-1

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.



Class difference can't quiet heart

"The Space Between Us" shows relationship between women, India's caste system

By Mary Ethridge

Beacon Journal staff writer


By Thrity Umrigar

(HarperCollins, $24.95, 321 pages)

The relationship between a wealthy woman and her domestic servant isn't a new subject in the world of fiction. Think of Shakespeare's Juliet with her maid and Scarlett O'Hara's ties to Mammy. But by setting such a relationship in India, a culture ferociously bound to class identities, author Thrity Umrigar has infused the story with a particular richness and depth.

The Space Between Us, Umrigar's second novel, traces the relationship between the upper-class Parsi Sera Dubash and her illiterate, slum-dwelling servant Bhima.

Their story unfolds in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), a city of intense contrasts. Hideous poverty festers alongside great wealth.

Entrenched traditions bump up against contemporary ambitions. The astounding beauty of the seaside is marred by garbage and human feces.

Umrigar, a former Beacon Journal staff writer, lived in Bombay until she came to Ohio State University at age 21. As a middle-class girl in India, Umrigar saw many relationships such as Sera's and Bhima's firsthand and was fascinated by their mix of natural intimacy and imposed distance.

"There is a special relationship among women together in a household," Umrigar said.
Sera and Bhima have supported each other over the years. Bhima has witnessed some of the most private moments of Sera's life, including Sera's beatings at the hands of husband Feroz. Bhima helped to raise Sera's child, Dinaz. And the women become even closer after the death of Feroz.

For her part, Sera comes to Bhima's aid many times over the years. She uses her social standing to get top medical care for Bhima's husband when he's injured in an industrial accident. She also pays for the education and care of Bhima's orphaned granddaughter Maya.

When Maya, a promising college student, gets pregnant by a man she refuses to name (we later learn why), it is Sera who takes her to get an abortion.

Both women have suffered at the hands of men (Bhima's husband eventually deserts her), and both struggle to raise strong young women under trying circumstances. But despite their similarities and intimate knowledge of each other, it never occurs to either woman to bridge the class chasm between them. Bhima does not think it odd that she's not allowed to use the furniture or utensils in Sera's house. When the two women share tea, Bhima uses her own cup and sits on her haunches while Sera is perched on a dining room chair. Things are as they are, and both know their place.

The Space Between Us is not meant to be read as a social commentary about race or class, although it certainly has some powerful messages along those lines. Rather, it is an elegant novel of the heart and spirit whose characters are testament to the essential human drive -- to find joy, peace and love where we can.

"I think human beings are hard-wired for hope," Umrigar said in a phone interview from her office at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she teaches English. "The instinct is to pick up and move on."

After Maya has an abortion, she can't seem to move on. She mopes around the filthy hut she shares with Bhima and gives up on the idea of going back to college. But Bhima knows Maya must move on or she'll be stuck in the squalor of Bombay for life. To arouse her senses, she takes the young woman to the beach. There, Bhima begins to offer the gift of Maya's past to her.

Maya's parents -- Bhima's daughter and son-in-law -- died of AIDS when Maya was a child. As Bhima unfolds the story to Maya, she paints the horrific scenes at a public hospital in vivid detail. When Bhima recalls watching the skeletal body of her only daughter eaten by the flames of the funeral pyre, it is hard not to weep for the sweet, illiterate and emotionally ravaged woman.

But somehow telling the story of the past gives both Maya and Bhima strength. It's a strength Bhima will dig to find when she is betrayed over and over by people and circumstances.

In lesser hands, the story of Bhima and Sera could have turned into a soap opera. It has the hallmarks, including domestic violence, untimely deaths, guilt and sexual betrayals. The book's plot twists rival any best-selling page turner.

But the inner workings of Umrigar's characters are so sophisticated and complex, the story never descends into the tawdry. Her rich language and eye for the powerful detail, especially evident in her descriptions of everyday life in Bombay, are transporting.


Living in a class of their own Thrity Umrigar's richly made characters tell the story of regret-filled solitudes in Bombay life

Graham Andrews

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

William Morrow

321 pp, $32.95

Pathos abounds in Cleveland-based Thrity Umrigar's second novel -- a unique and ungilded tale of the ingrained class chasm separating two women living parallel existences in the author's hometown of Bombay, India.

While their differences may be profound, it's the similarities that reluctantly bring together upper-middle-class Sera Dubash and her servant, Bhima. The women share regret-filled pasts concerning their choices of departed husbands. They also share a bottom-line cruelty that stems from blind devotion to their respective families.

At Sera's insistence, however, the two never share furniture or familiarity.

Through exquisite storytelling interspersed with cultural and class-based insights, Umrigar elicits a range of emotions in the reader regarding all characters in the novel, and particularly the matriarchs of each truncated home. Where Sera is a proud and privileged Parsi widow and soon-to-be grandmother, her illiterate counterpart resides in the squalor of a nearby slum with her orphaned granddaughter.

For many years, Bhima has dutifully (and, in fact, happily) served Sera and her family by hauling groceries, preparing meals, cleaning house and applying a peasant's ointments to the bruises left by Feroz, her boss's unpredictable and abusive late husband. In exchange for Bhima's life of willing servitude, Sera endures the questionably natured taunting of her peers by treating her servant "like family." Bhima frequently receives small gifts of groceries and an educational sponsorship for her granddaughter, Maya -- gifts that are neither unappreciated by the poor woman nor unnoticed by her fellow residents of the fetid slum she calls home.

Within the framework of the story, however, the gift of education is tarnished by Maya, who, during her first year in college, has gotten pregnant.

As evidence of her misdeed grows in her young belly, Maya is subjected to the plotting of Bhima and Sera.

Plans for an abortion also include Sera's daughter, Dinaz, and son-in-law, Viraf, who are anticipating the birth of their own firstborn.

In a stellar fashion typical of Umrigar's craft, the reader is comprehensively taken through the psychology and emotions surrounding each character's tales of hope and betrayal. In the end, only Dinaz escapes the dark light of the author's development, leaving each person to be admired as well as disdained.

While there is no clear protagonist in The Space Between Us, the sufficient antagonist is Umrigar's excellent measure of the human condition. Pettiness and self-importance are present in a bulk of the characters every bit as much as kindness and self-sacrifice (although, in some cases, sacrifice is more relative than in others).

From a purely Western perspective, a reader can't help but question the emphasis placed on class by all parties involved.

And that, most certainly, is one of the book's outspoken strengths.

Umrigar, a self-described middle-class woman who made keen observations during her youth in India, clearly writes about what she knows. Despite the fact that her knowledge of class disparity is apparently more observational than participatory, she has created a convincing and enlightening work rife with emotion and wisdom.

What fills The Space Between Us is the work of an unconventional and accomplished writer. While her story is at points ugly and troubling, her approach is kind and impartial. Despite plentiful opportunity, there is no overt moralizing in this book, which is another strong point, to be certain.

Umrigar's two main characters, although they may never directly speak of their shared hardships, are logical extensions of the author -- all are filled with silent, if not unrealized, promise.

Graham Andrews is a Journal copy editor and writer. © The Edmonton Journal 2006


Trying only to connect, in a place full of barriers

By Judy Budz | February 26, 2006

The Space Between Us By Thrity Umrigar Morrow, 321 pp., $24.95

''The Space Between Us," Thrity Umrigar's new novel, is set in Bombay, where mistress and servant, Sera and Bhima, are best friends separated by class, money, religion, geography, and politics. The divide between them is certainly vast; but seen in a larger context, their connections are much more powerful. The novel is provocative and disturbing, asking how female friendship might bridge individual isolation and loneliness. Will women support each other in the face of family obligations, powerful husbands, and the desire for upward mobility in a downwardly mobile environment?

Umrigar weaves together the stories of Sera, a wealthy Parsi widow, and her longtime servant, Bhima, a slum dweller whose husband deserted her years earlier. Sera depends on Bhima to prepare lunch for her beloved children and tend to the household's needs, and Bhima expects to work for the family forever. She loves Dinaz, Sera's married daughter, and Dinaz's husband, Viraf.

The friendship between Sera and Bhima is founded on the platform of India's stultifying class separation and looming poverty. Outside, the slums breed despair. Children torture animals, and crowds target Parsis because their bones are famously ''brittle." The doctors in the government-run AIDS hospital are brutal and unsympathetic, swamped by hundreds of dying patients who have failed to heed the instructions of the sex educators. The open drains of the slums reek while, nearby, men sit in doorways, drunk and dozing.

Inside, things are not much better, and both women recognize that they have suffering in common. Each had romantic hopes for her marriage, and each has been bitterly disappointed. Sera's late husband, Feroz, was a bully with a hairtrigger temper. After he courts her and wins her, she discovers that his mother is a nightmarish manipulator who is intent on separating her from her husband. Bhima's husband, Gopal, charmingly courted her by riding his bicycle in pursuit of her bus every morning. The other bus riders were smitten, too. However, after a catastrophic work accident, he becomes drunken and selfish.

Both women are devoted to their children. Sera, having experienced the impossibility of living with her own mother-in-law, carefully gives her live-in daughter and son-in-law space for marital squabbles and affection. Dinaz is joyfully pregnant, and Sera anticipates a happy future in the same house as her grandchild. Bhima's future looks worse. She loves her own granddaughter, Maya, and has gratefully accepted Sera's offer to fund the 17-year-old girl's college education. But Maya is also pregnant, and there is no man in sight. Bhima believes that Maya can look forward only to a life of menial servitude, stuck with a child she did not plan. Fearing that she will be responsible for raising the child, Bhima rages at Maya for destroying their future.

The novel initially focuses on Maya's pregnancy. Bhima contemplates ''one swift kick to the belly, followed by another and another"; this would be a ''humane" solution compared to the customary ''quick shove down an open well, a kerosene can and a match, a sale to a brothel." Sera is ''concerned, anxious, and ready to help" by arranging for an abortion. Meanwhile, Maya refuses to reveal the identity of the baby's father.

Custom and prejudice are the twin jailers of this society. Sera and Bhima are too tightly locked into their traditional roles to break out. Bhima endures the stench of the public slum latrine, while Sera hates to chop onions because they leave an odor on her hands. Bhima haggles over the price of every vegetable she buys for Sera's table, but Sera refuses the gift of a dishwasher, which would ease Bhima's aching back. Although Bhima, nursed Sera through the pain of her marriage to Feroz and remains Sera's only confidant, the woman cannot be her equal. In one of the novel's most striking images, Bhima sits on the floor during shared mealtime while her employer sits on a chair.

The novel's male characters prefer this separation of the classes; they even encourage it. In a scene shown in flashback, Feroz swoops into the hospital like an all-powerful god after Bhima's husband is hurt and browbeats the doctor into treating the injured man with antibiotics. Bhima wonders if his apparent anger is merely a pose, even a private joke. Her intuition is probably correct, since Feroz frequently reminded Sera to keep the maid in her place. Later, son-in-law Viraf, seemingly so thoughtful and certainly more modern, grumbles about the family's preoccupation with Bhima and Maya. Even the administrator from Gopal's factory takes advantage of Bhima's panic and confusion to cheat the family out of their fair compensation for Gopal's injury.

American readers, liking both Sera and Bhima, will wish to see them sitting at the same table and discussing their common problems. They will wish for an ending in which the mistress rescues the servant from her slum hut, puts the servant's granddaughter through college, and then, together with the beloved servant, lives in the company of a large, unprejudiced family. Alas, Umrigar has not written a Lifetime movie. Better to read the book as a treatment of modern India, where women recognize their sameness but cannot bridge the space that separates them.

Finanical Times, London, UK

Book Reviews: In brief - The Space Between Us By Claudia Webb Published: February 17 2006 20:07 | Last updated: February 17 2006 20:07

The Space Between Us

by Thrity Umrigar

Fourth Estate £14.99, 336 pages

The Space Between Us is a novel of relationships. Bhima lives in a Bombay slum, a place of extreme poverty where dwellers spend hours queuing for water and live amid the constant stench of open drains. Each day Bhima goes to work in the Dubash household as a servant to Sera Dubash, a rich widow. Bhima has cooked, cleaned and looked after the family, as though it were her own, her whole life.

The "space" between the two women is not as wide as it appears initially. Both have loved and been betrayed by their husbands; each feels that their children are their sole reason for carrying on. They are both isolated women confused by their fate. The one element that separates them is money.

Sera Dubash lives a lonely life. Since her abusive husband died she has dedicated her life to caring for her daughter and son-in-law, both Bombay professionals who are expecting their first child. In recent years Bhima has become Sera's main confidante. Sera battles with conflicting opinions about whether she should treat Bhima as an equal - allow her to sit on her furniture and drink from the same glasses - and risk being frowned upon by her neighbours.

Bhima's neighbours in the slum are envious of her boss's generosity. But Bhima also worries about her relationship with Sera. She loves the Dubash family and has watched their daughter grow up as if she were her own child. But a secret now threatens to destroy this closeness.

Thrity Umrigar has a striking talent for portraying pain and suffering and the sheer unfairness of life. She creates sympathetic portrayals of both women, particularly Bhima, who becomes the main protagonist of the story. The result is a vital social comment on contemporary India.


Absorbing novel looks at relationship Sunday, February 12th, 2006

The Space Between Us By Thrity Umrigar HarperCollins, 320 pages, $33 Reviewed by Madeline Coopsammy

THIS absorbing literary novel, set in modern-day India, explores the relationship between an upper-class woman and her faithful servant in Bombay. Concerned with the Parsi community, a prosperous Indian religious sect familiar to readers of Toronto's Rohinton Mistry, The Space Between Us lays bare the psyches of two women who, in spite of their yawning gap of class and education, have forged a bond based on their common unhappy experiences with the men in their lives.

Author Thrity Umrigar is a Cleveland-based journalist and creative writing teacher. She has published one previous novel, Bombay Time, and a memoir, Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood. Here, the stories of two marriages -- that of the rich Parsi employer, Sera Dubash, who realizes too late that her husband's character has a deep and hideous flaw, and the impoverished housekeeper Bhima, whose dashing romantic husband changes personality when he encounters a grave setback in life -- parallel each other. The women's increasing dependence on each other for solace and comfort is touching and well delineated.

The Parsis, who had left Iran and settled in India some generations ago, are now struggling to survive, for the community is a small one and suffering from interbreeding, according to one of the characters in the novel. Some ancient and superstitious beliefs create a culture clash between the older and younger generations. The novel thus touches on universal problems beyond its specific setting.

Umrigar weaves several threads through the fabric of her novel: conjugal relationships, family life, the role of the Indian mother-in-law, who, by tradition makes the life of the daughter-in-law as miserable as possible, and the powerlessness of the Indian working class, whose lack of education allows for blatant abuse by their betters. But it's the problems of Umrigar's two main characters who capture our interest and sustain it to the end.

With consummate skill, Umrigar has carved a gripping tale in which she has juxtaposed the lives of these two vastly different women, while the cleverly designed plot, realistic characters and the crispness of the dialogue guarantee that the reader's interest seldom flags. Sera at first appears almost too good to be real, until we realize that she does not allow Bhima to sit on the furniture nor to drink from the family's crockery. Sera's broadmindedness cannot extend that far.

Umrigar, like Jane Austen and Carol Shields, has worked on the canvas of domestic life. The conflict, crisis and resolution of the novel are deftly depicted in spare, sharp prose, while the city of Bombay with its teeming masses comes alive. The characters move from the highrise apartments of the rich to the slums of their servants, from Chowpatty Beach, where the eternal sea soothes frayed nerves worn down by cruel and unforgiving gods, to the hospitals, where overworked doctors will only give appropriate care to a poor patient if intimidated by someone from the executive class.

Umrigar exposes the raw flesh under the skin of Indian life, where the downtrodden, illiterate and poor are pushed under a swirling maelstrom of water, where their heads are held under until their lives are snuffed out. Perhaps this novel might inspire some social reforms in India the way that Dickens' work created some much-needed ones.

The Scotsman

Bombay mix in the home


The Space Between Us Thrity Umrigar Fourth Estate, £14.99

BOMBAY has a reputation for being India's raciest city; fast, loose and modern. If the ancient barriers of class and caste are to be tentatively chipped at in today's India, you would expect it to happen here first, so the city makes a perfect setting for a novel which seeks to do just that. Umrigar uses her colourful location for a story that is subtle, compelling and convincingly realistic.

The Space Between Us follows the stories of Sera Dubash, a well-to-do Parsi housewife, and her servant, Bhima. Although separated by the conventions of class, the pair have a great deal in common, both having married for love and then suffered as their marriages turned sour. For more than 20 years they have lived through each other's pains and losses, and have been subject to secrets hidden even from their relatives, so that they have become bound by - if not friendship - then kindness, compassion and intimate knowledge. Only when a crisis occurs are they forced to choose their true allegiances.

Umrigar's fairly conventional style of storytelling interweaves the current crisis with flashbacks to both characters' pasts. This may not be innovative, but through understanding Sera Dubash's disappointments, and the tragedies that have dogged Bhima's life, the present is made more poignant.

However, it is a shame that it soon becomes easy to guess how the book will end. If Umrigar had brought that ending towards the centre of the novel, then allowed the consequences to fall domino-like through the rest of its pages, the result could have allowed her to explore themes - only hinted at - such as the human capacity for self-deception.

Sera Dubash and Bhima are vividly portrayed in language that is fresh and fluid, and this is one of the book's notable successes. Bhima is given thoughts that are not always convincing as those of a servant from her background but, that aside, both characters have credible motivations, impulses and regrets.

There is no great dramatisation of the caste issue, nor does it extrapolate to the clashes that have occurred in recent times in India. Instead the novel's contours are soft and its trajectory inward and domestic. This domestic focus, however, is both a strength and a weakness, since it seems to leave so many other dimensions out. While middle-class, insular Bombay is vividly present in this novel, the city's numerous alternative faces are strangely lacking.

The Calcutta Telegraph


Acts of faith


The Space Between Us By Thrity Umrigar, HarperCollins, Rs 350

One of the most compelling presences in Middle India is the domestic help - 'maidservant' to the vast majority of households yet to wake up to the charms of political correctness. She is anything between eight and eighty, married or unmarried or widowed or abandoned or separated. She may have to travel for three hours on all possible forms of transport to reach her place of work, or she may live in the slum two blocks away from the highrise of her employers. She is at once witness to the most sordid of family dramas and keeper of her mistress's secrets. But if there is anything that is constant in these variables, it is that the domestic help is never allowed to forget her station in life.

Nor does Bhima, whose life, and its many points of intersection with that of her affluent Parsi mistress, Sera Dubash, is captured in Thrity Umrigar's second novel. The Space Between Us is set in the new-millennium Mumbai, which, for all its state-of-the-art additions, continues to wear the largest slum in the continent like a badge on its chest. Bhima lives in one of the many shantytowns that dot the city with her 17-year-old granddaughter, Maya. Maya has been her grandmother's responsibility ever since her parents died of AIDS in Delhi. Bhima's once-caring husband took to the bottle after losing three fingers in a factory accident and absconded with their son, unable to face her and the familiar world.

In a world which has let Bhima down time and again, her employer's home is her sole oasis. Sera Dubash is a good mistress, sticking to Bhima even when her friends fill her with horror stories of servants murdering or swindling their employers. Sera's generosity is not confined to paying for Maya's college education. When Maya gets pregnant, it is Sera who pays for an abortion at a private clinic and even accompanies the young girl there. Bhima registers every little kindness, but life has taught her not to take them for granted.

Sera's life has been far from a smooth ride. For the most part of her married life, she has been tormented, both psychologically and physically, by her mother-in-law and her husband. While the world outside is not privy to her sufferings, every blow to her body and mind is picked up by Bhima without so much as a word being exchanged. The most moving moment in the novel comes when, after a particularly bad dose of violence from her husband, Sera's bruises are tended to by Bhima in an act of utmost generosity and selflessness.

The relationship between Sera and Bhima defies all attempts at naming it. Sera knows that no one understands her better than her maid of 25 years, and yet, she cannot explain her resistance to letting Bhima sit on the sofa or drink tea from cups used by the Dubash family. Bhima's little box - containing a soap dish, Pond's talcum powder (her mistress has marvelled many times at her odourlessness), a comb with a tooth missing, a metal glass to drink from and her tobacco tin - seems to mock at the fact that it does not take Bhima even fifteen minutes to walk to her employer's house. For the universe they inhabit are more than lightyears away.

Bhima is alternately a mirror image of her mistress and a perfect foil to her. When Bhima's marriage to Gopal seems to be working out beautifully, Sera fights the twin demons of her mother-in-law and husband. But when Feroz Dubash dies, and Gopal leaves Bhima, both women awake to a feeling of being released from their individual cages. Perhaps this is Umrigar's answer to the question, what is a bigger reality in the lives of women in India - gender of class?

One other truth that the novel lays bare is that the Bhimas of modern India cannot bank on the benevolence of the state. Bhima is repeatedly betrayed by the state - by the hospital when her daughter and son-in-law die, by Gopal's factory which refuses to take responsibility of his accident, and so on. Private generosities, like Sera's, is all that Bhima can count on. Empathy is this novel's greatest virtue - reason enough for the situational clichés and the forced Indianness of the English dialogue to be excused. Perhaps the book will soon be available at a theatre close to your home.

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