This book kept me going in the wee hours.
Because The Space Between Us was just such a wonderful read. The story of these two women made me read on and on during the night feeds, a time usually reserved for activities that use up less brain power, like watching Netflix, because at 2am, there are droopy eyes and scrambled brains and a hungry wailing baby.
But Umrigar’s tale of life in Bombay struck a chord, intrigued me. I wanted to read more about Bhima and her life in the slums – and the hints of a better life that she used to have.
And Umrigar throws it at you. She isn’t afraid of assaulting the senses. Right at the beginning, we meet Bhima as she rises in the morning and heads to the slum’s communal toilet.
“The open drains with their dank, pungent smell, the dark rows of slanting hutments, the gaunt, openmouthed men who lounge around in drunken stupors – all of it looks worse in the clear light of the new day. Despite herself, Bhima’s mind goes back to the old days when she lived with her husband, Gopal, and their two children in a chawl, where water gurgled through the tap in her kitchen and they shared the toilet with only two other families.”
So we are informed that Bhima, who lives with her pregnant granddaughter, hasn’t always lived in these unfortunate surroundings. But her mind is preoccupied these days with Maya’s swollen belly, father unknown.
“Maya – the granddaughter whom she had rescued from death’s door; Maya, who had come to her as an orphan and grown up to be an intelligent, ambitious young woman; Maya the only flesh-and-blood family member she still had near her; Maya, who had been the sole bright spot in Bhima’s bleak life; Maya, who was to make up for all of Bhima’s own unrealised hopes and aborted dreams, who was the golden focal point of all of Bhima’s fantasies and daydreams”
Bhima works for Sera Dubash, cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping, and has been doing so for many years. And they have grown close over the years:
“This is what Sera appreciates most about Bhima – this unspoken language, this intimacy that has developed between them over the years.”
While the two women have become confidants (Bhima for instance is the only person outside Sera’s family to know that she had been abused) , there is still a chasm between them, between their starkly different lives, and their place in society.
“They are sitting in the dining room, sipping tea, Sera out of the blue-gray mug Dinaz had bought for her from Cottage Industries, Bhima out of the stainless steel glass that is kept aside for her in the Dubash household. As usual, Sera sits on a chair at the table while Bhima squats on her haunches on the floor nearby. When Dinaz was younger, she used to prod her mother about the injustice of Bhima not being allowed to sit on the couch or a chair and having to use her own separate utensils, instead of the ones the rest of the family used.”
Bhima is loyal. Fiercely so. She knows she owes plenty to Sera and her family. For her job, for lending her money, for helping an uneducated woman in many different ways. But then she learns the truth and it nearly, just nearly, breaks her.
The Space Between Us is a compelling story of this great divide between the classes in India, filled with atmospheric details describing the sights, sounds and smells of life in Bombay. Umrigar fills her dialogue with colloquialisms and slangs which permeate and add to the authenticity of the story.
“Arre, ustad, you are too much. Our slum’s own court poet. With your movie star looks, you should be writing and singing your own songs. Imagine, the physique of a Sanjay Dutt and the voice of a Mohammad Rafi. On Filmfare awards night, there would be no other winners, I tell you.”
Despite herself, Bhima smiles. “Okay, you altoo-faltoos,” Bibi says with a grin. “Leave us alone now.”
Thrity Umrigar is an Indian American writer, who was born in Mumbai and immigrated to the United States when she was 21. She is a journalist and the author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven. She has written for the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other newspapers, and regularly writes for The Boston Globe ‘s book pages. She is currently assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University where she teaches creative writing and literature. She was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Bombay Times (2001)
First Darling of the Morning : Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood (2004)
The Space Between Us (2006)
If Today Be Sweet (2007)
The Weight of Heaven (2009)
The World We Found (2012)