THE SPACE BETWEEN US
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.