The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Friday, August 3, 2012


The Space Between Us
Maybe the Pathan was right, maybe too much happiness and beauty were not good for humans. Perhaps human happiness had to be measured out in spoonfuls, like the castor oil that Banubai used to pour into a teaspoon and swallow every Sunday. Drink directly from the bottle and it could kill you.

Stoic, illiterate Bhima has worked as a maid for years, just like her mother, grandmother and daughter. While she anticipated her son and granddaughter to have an education and a better future, a series of tragedies set different events in motion. She now wakes up everyday facing a new problem - unmarried Maya, the granddaughter, is pregnant and Bhima cannot help but worry about what this means - no more college education and no decent marriage either, as who would want to marry a girl who is no longer a virgin. The Sera Dubash household, where Bhima works, have their own daughter, Dinaz, who is also expecting, but the circumstances are happier, more celebratory. While the Dubash household helps Maya in "fixing" her situation, Maya isn't that happy about it and as more secrets tumble out, the demarcation between the rich and the poor takes center-stage.

Thrity Umrigar clearly has a lot of fans out there, and after reading The Space Between Us, it isn't hard to understand why. There is a quiet comfortable lyrical quality to her writing that makes you want to pick it up when in need of relaxed reading, despite the ugly nature of the problems and issues she talks about. One of the things that typically worry me about books set in India and written by Indian authors, is that sometimes they are too Westernized for me to be able to relate. Umrigar's book didn't disappoint me - it was well rooted in Indian culture and the characters were well created.

Thrity Umrigar
Bhima has learned the hard way how much a lack of education can change fortunes. Not knowing to read or write, she had been taken advantage of, many times, by people higher up in the social strata, who didn't care too much about how the poor lived their lives. She didn't care to educate her daughter either because no man from her social class wanted an educated wife, he only wanted a wife who could look after his home and children. Her family didn't receive timely medical care, and the usual vices that ailed a lot of the poor dogged her family too. On the other hand, rich assured Sera and her family could command righteous treatment just by their very presence. Sometimes, a few bills changed hands, and sometimes, threats did the job. But they were also one of the few families who actually treated their maids with respect and dignity. Despite that, Sera did feel uncomfortable with the idea of touching Bhima or allowing Bhima to use the same dishes as them.

The first half of The Space Between Us went back and forth between Bhima and Sera, as Umrigar led us through the circumstances that shaped the women's personality and beliefs. Both women have endured similar experiences, involving abusive men and disappointing lives. There is not much forward progress happening in this half, which made the book feel a bit slow for me, but the second half picks up the main thread of the story and lays out the stark difference between the two women. While they debate on what to do about Maya's pregnancy, Maya herself has her thoughts on the matter, which are pretty much not considered.

Umrigar's writing is beautiful. I love how well she has captured the Indianness of the places and the people bordering the story and stayed true to character. Occasionally, it is easy to forget the social divisions among the people as one gets deeper into the character's thoughts. Often, I railed against the injustices of the caste system and wanted the characters to fight for themselves. Sometimes they fought and lost. Other times, they didn't fight at all. The caste system is not designed in their favor and they have learned not to fight it.

Although the first half didn't impress me too much - I'm not one to enjoy too many flashbacks, without any movement in the present - the second half made reading this book so worthwhile. Umrigar doesn't waste her words in sugar-coating the dark underbelly of the Mumbai slums nor does she glorify the richness or poorness of the people. Using a setting such as an Indian household, especially the kitchen, where people of two different classes mingle with each other in common spheres that touch yet do not really touch, she was able to masterfully demonstrate their different circumstances and how that can be the difference between getting preferential treatment and being left to die, or being swindled out of money and getting any job, or getting a college education and being a maid for life.


I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


13 comments:

Tea Time with Marce said...

Sounds like a book many would give up on before enjoying the true experience of the book, great review Aths

Sandra said...

Glad you enjoyed this story. Umrigar never disappoints I find. I highly recommend this one, The Weight of Heaven, and her newly released The World We Found to everyone:
http://freshinkbooks.blogspot.ca/2012/01/readalong-and-discussion-at-s.html

JoV said...

I always wanted to read a book by Thrity Umrigar and this sounds amazing. It seems to be the same theme of Anita Desai's book that I have read last week, "Fasting, Feasting". These kind of books disturb me but I am more eager to find out what the characters do about their desperate situation. If I like this, I will read all of her backlist! Thanks for the reivew Aths.

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I read The Weight of Heaven and just adored it so I'm not surprised this is so good.  I can't wait to read it!

Sam_TinyLibrary said...

Great review!  Umrigar has been on my radar for a while although I am yet to pick up any of her books.  I think I will start with this one :)

K8thebookbuff said...

I've never heard of this author, but this book sounds amazing.  I always love a book that really exploits the differences in classes in other cultures besides my own.   Thanks for introducing me to something I probably wouldn't have found on my own!

-Kate the Book Buff
Recent Post: Holy Backlash Batman! Hunger Games Just got REAL!

Helen Murdoch said...

This sounds good, I enjoy books that compare the lives of two people or two classes.

zibilee said...

This review was simply beautiful, and I love the fact that you shared with us the highlights and the pitfalls of the read, which in this case, didn't deter your enjoyment of the book as a whole. I have had this book on my shelves for what seems like ages, and I need to make the time to read it. Knowing Umrigar, I won't be disappointed. Thanks for the incredible review today, Aths.

Ryan Stonge said...

I have had this book on my radar for some time but for whatever reason, I never pick it up when I have the opportunity. I think your review has convinced me (I'm willing to wait out slow starts).

Alex (Sleepless Reader) said...

I enjoyed the book very much even though it kept breaking my heart into tinier pieces as the story moved along. I felt that men are all bastards and the plot borders on the soap-opera-ish at times, but all was balanced by the wonderful writing. I was fascinated by how a narrative voice so poetic created such a realistic book, and how, being so spare on descriptions, it still managed to convey such vivid images of place. I could smell the slums and hear the chapattis frying. 

Marg Bates said...

I am kind of surprised to see this book going on tour given that it is an older book!

Alyce said...

I very much enjoyed reading her newest book, so I'm not surprised at all to see that you liked this one. I do plan to read it at some point.

HeatherTLC said...

I'm glad that the second half of the book captured your full attention!


Thanks for being on the tour.