Monday, March 13, 2006

Book Review: The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

# Hardcover: 336 pages
# Publisher: Harper Collins (January 1, 2006)

# ISBN: 0060791551

# Category: Fiction (Asian)

# Links: Author's webspace

A nice 7 min video clip on India, courtesy ABC/sasgirl

(before I begin the review, thanks must go out to
Tiffinbox for making a copy of this book available to me. Tiffinbox is a blog that explores the cultural fabric of the South Asian diaspora through writing, photography, art and design.)

# Review:

She was one of the most fascinating people I had ever seen in my young life. She came to our house every morning on the dot of eight, with the scent of jasmine flowers. Her dusky face had not a stitch of make-up on it except for a bright red bindi and kajal in her eyes. On her slender dark wrist she wore a couple of green and red glass bangles which jingled as she moved her arms, and she always had the most colourful 9-yard cotton saris which she wore in a style that is preferred by Maharashtrian women. To my girlish eyes she looked like an exotic princess and I couldn't wait to grow up so I could dress like she did. Who am I talking about?
She was Subhadra, my mother's maid

Maharashtrian Woman, courtesy IndiaArt

Sadly, I was too young to know that the green and red glass bangles were the only jewelry Subhadra possessed, her saris which seemed so glamorous in my eyes, were made from rough,cheap cotton. She couldn't afford slippers, so she went without them. Her house was just a little hut in the middle of a busy slum...

I haven't thought of Subadhra in years, but when I broke the spine on
Thrity Umrigar's new novel, 'The Space Between Us' she came vividly to mind. Thrity takes us into the world of a domestic servant through Bhima, a maid servant in Bombay. Bhima, a poor Hindu woman works for Sera Dubash, a well-to-do Parsi lady and when the book opens, she has been in Sera's employment for over twenty years, showing up at work everyday, rain or shine to wash the dishes, sweep the floors, chop the vegetables, do the marketing and taking care of Sera's daughter Dinu like it was her own child.

Sera has been more than a fair employer, she is kind to Bhima, pays for Bhima's grandaughter's education and acknowledges that Bhima is an intrinsic part of the family and yet, because of class and culture dictates (and her own ingrained prejudices) , she has never, not once in those twenty years, ever given Bhima a spontaneous hug, or allowed her to sit at the table with the Dubash family or given her permission to eat or drink from any of the family's utensils (Bhima has her own special plate and cup) and the strangest thing is that Bhima doesn't expect Sera to extend this courtesy to her. She realizes that she and Serabai have a 'space between them' which she will never invade.

Although this book can at times read like a social commentary on the haves and the have-nots of Bombay, the caste system and the power that wealth and education can wield in a country where so many people are poor and illiterate, it would be unfair to limit it to that because it is so much more! It's a poignant and touching book about relationships and relating - master to servant; daughters and mothers; husbands with wives and, best of all - friendships between women (despite hailing from different worlds, the two main characters, Sera and Bhima, developed a friendship based not only on their gender but also on a familiarity that enabled them to share a lot of secrets and tragedies)

The characters are just wonderful - flawed but endearing all the same. I loved both Bhima and Sera and while it might be tempting to love (or maybe atleast pity) Bhima more for being poor, one sees that even the poor are not exempt from heaping their own prejudices on their fellowmen.

While this story may have been set in the big bad city of Bombay, the city famous for its slums and equally famous for its flamboyant Bollywood stars and its filthy-rich industrialists, the questions it raises in no way limit it to any one geographical setting because they are universal in nature. It asks: in a situation of conflict, what must come first, blood (family) or friendship? Is loyalty a more valued virtue or is truthfulness? Must the rich always win? If someone is illiterate and cannot read or write, do they automatically lose their voice?

Besides writing a beautiful story, Thrity Umrigar has also given us some wonderful glimpses into the city of Bombay and its people. The scenes depicting the daily struggles of Bombay’s poor - the queue for the communal toilet in the slums and the dismal government hospitals, as well as the atmospheric Chowpathy beach scenes - are by far the strongest. I also love her insights into the fascinating and endearing Parsi community of Bombay and the way she incorporates Indian speech patterns when her characters, especially Bhima, have something to say. The book is peppered with converations like this one:

"Is this ruffian bothering you, miss?"
Immediately Gopal spoke up. "Ae, mind your own business, yaar. Coming between a man and his betrothed, for no good reason. Private family mamala this is, understand?"

The man wilted under Gopal's stern stare. "Okay, sorry. I just was trying to---"

"Trying-frying, nothing." Gopal pressed home his advantage. "That's the trouble with our Bombay, too many people interfering in other people's private matters." pg: 59

I would dearly love to listen to an audio version of this book when they have one. However, I do think western readers would have benefited from a glossary of the Bombay slang words sprinkled liberally through the book.

Interestingly enough,some reviewers have referred to this book as the female version of "The Kite Runner" -might this novel have what it takes to be worthy of that honor? You'll have to let me know.

Highly, highly recommended!