In The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar explores class divisions and gender bonds in Indian society, as well as universal themes, such as love and loss, marriage and family, and the ghastly problem of spousal abuse.
Umrigar portrays two women, one from the privileged upper-middle class and the other, her servant, from the lowest class. Sera is rich, living in an affluent neighborhood, whereas Bhima is dirt-poor, living in filthy slums. So by birth, they stand as far apart on the societal scale as they can possibly be, but they have something in common—the shattered dream of a happy marriage—and they are more friends than employer and servant.
Bhima has been faithfully and self-sacrificially devoted to Sera for decades, and Sera reciprocates with kindness, treating her with lenience and paying for Bhima’s granddaughter’s college education, despite the criticism of such “indulgence” coming from her social circle.
Having lost her husband and daughter, Bhima has endured hardships throughout her life, and now she’s facing another plight, the pregnancy of her unmarried granddaughter whom she has raised alone. This pregnancy is not only Maya’s disgrace in the eyes of the community, but it is the end of her college education, which means the end of their dream to ever rise above their wretched lives in the slums. Bhima considers education as the only way to succeed in life, so she (with Sera’s approval and help) insists on an abortion.
Sera, a well-educated woman from a well-to-do family of intellectuals, is married to an abusive, egotistical, controlling tyrant. She realizes that she has made a disastrous mistake very early in her marriage, yet she keeps taking abuse from him and his cruel mother, and she keeps it secret even from her parents. Her weakness and meekness, her subservient position in marriage, her servitude and sacrifices, and most of all, her humility, made me sick to my stomach, and to a point that I wanted to stop reading the novel. And when this husband of hers, this brute, who used her as a punching back throughout their marriage, dies, Sera laments, “My husband! I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. Forgive me for being such a poor wife….”
Argh! I wanted to scream.
Well, as I said before, that’s what good writing does to you–it evokes all kinds of strong emotions in you the reader.
Thrity Umrigar has chosen a good title for the novel. The Space Between Us is about desired breathing space (by Sera, from her domineering and oppressive mother-in-law), the safeguarded space (Sera preserves distance between herself and Bhima, as tradition requires), and fortified space (between the castes and classes).
The Space Between Us is a beautifully-written, realistic depiction of the life in India, which many readers may find fascinating.