The Space Between Us

If you’ve seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you might have an impression of life in India – one with a happy ending.  Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us offers another look at class differences in India, this time through the relationship of Sera, a wealthy Parsi woman who lives with all the modern conveniences, and her maid, Bhima, who lives fifteen minutes away in a mud-packed hut and stands in line for water from the well. Umrigar focuses not only on the differences in the women’s lives, but also on their emotional support for each other – with each keeping her place and her distance.

As the story opens, both women are older, with Bhima caring for her unmarried young pregnant granddaughter whose parents have died of AIDS, and Sera visiting her sickly cruel mother-in-law.  Sera uses her influence and money to help Bhima and her family, but separates herself as one in a class above; she is horrified when her daughter touches Bhima (with a hug).  This is not Stockett’s The Help; Bhima is stoically resigned to her lowly life.

In flashbacks, Umrigar reveals that neither woman has had an easy time: Bhima’s husband abandons her after he has an accident that keeps him from working; Sera’s husband regularly beats her and uses his mother to humiliate her.  But money clearly gives Sera an advantage; no matter how hard her life, she still has indoor plumbing.

The story is hard to read not only for the difficulty in understanding Umrigar’s forced dialect in the dialogue but also for the realization that Bhima’s life will never improve. She pins her hopes on a better life for her granddaughter, Maya, and uses Sera to help fund her college education, later realizing that Sera’s son-in-law, Viraf, has ruined Maya.  Like most men in Umrigar’s world, Viraf is selfish and brutal.

Privately, the two women survive their own personal horrors; at times, they help each other cope: Bhima massaging Sera’s bruises from her husband’s beatings; Sera using her influence at the hospital for Bhima’s husband and later for Maya.  Throughout, Sera never manages to overcome her distaste for Bhima’s position in life.

“The smells and sights she had encountered in the slum were…as if they had gotten caught in her own hair and skin.  Each time she thought of the slum, she recoiled from Bhima’s presence, as if the woman had come to embody everything that was repulsive about that place….Sera had marveled at how clean and well-groomed Bhima was…{but} when it was time to give Bhima her pills, Sera made sure that she plopped them in Bhima’s open palm with making contact.”

At times, the story is too much to bear, but Umrigar’s social commentary on the caste systems is clear, and her descriptions can be jarring as well as sensory…

Balancing gingerly on the rocks, feeling the rising water tonguing her feet…

The space between the two women’s lives expands and contracts with their personal battles, but that space never disappears.  Sera’s life is disappointing and miserable, and you’ll wonder how much worse life can get for Bhima – but it does, and she goes on.   In the end, Umrigar offers a Scarlett O’Hara moment, when Bhimba – having lost her job and her relationship with her old employer – mutters that she will think about it “tomorrow.”

But tomorrow seems bleak.