The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Thrity Umrigar
A novel of privilege and poverty, of love and betrayal.
I was on the MAX, where I spend a good bit of my time, nearing my station, and I still had about five pages to go. I briefly considered staying on the train until I’d read those last few pages. I abandoned that in favor of sitting on a bench in Holladay Park, in the shade. There was no way I could wait until I got home. Breaking the spell with the bike ride and dinner just wasn’t an option. I had to know what choice Bhima would make.
Umrigar sets her story of love and betrayal in Bombay (Mumbai), India, a vast coastal city, in a country that has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years. This portrait of two Indian women is evocative and moving; written with grace, humility, and compassion. Sera is a Parsi, descended from Persians who immigrated to India a thousand years ago and have become a wealthy and powerful class. What matters about her servant, Bhima, is that she is not Parsi. She is a lower-caste Hindu woman whose circumstances have gone from poor to miserable. Bhima is clearly the more sympathetic character even though she often reacts to turmoil by physically and emotionally attacking those she loves the most. She fears for them, and her fear causes her to punish them, because she truly doesn’t know what else to do. She reacts like a trapped animal, chewing at her own flesh to obtain freedom.
Umrigar’s novel deepened my undertanding of oppression and how very much prejudice is a vehicle for cruelty; an excuse for it. Deeply internalized prejudice distances the abuser from the object of abuse and this is the case with the antagonists in The Space Between Us. They cannot help knowing that they are being cruel, but they believe it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t because they are the “ruling” class. Ruling in the sense that their privilege gives them power over the classes beneath them. A power so nearly absolute that it may as well be such. Certainly the classes beneath them have a part in supporting the illusion of relative intrinsic worth. But their collusion is hardly voluntary. It is how they survive. They cling to the edge of life and anything can sever their hold.
Societal taboos are among the tools the ruling classes use to differentiate themselves from others and subjugate the workers. Since being a poor subject is generally a miserable way to live, poor subjects try to conform to the ostensible behavior of the ruling classes. But these efforts only succeed in the poor binding themselves more certainly into virtual slavery. Rejecting the social taboo and refusing to define oneself by the terms of the ruling classes is a step seldom taken without education. Ignorance has a deadening effect on the accomplishment of freedom.
Sera, the Parsi woman, wants to believe that she regards Bhima as no less human than herself, but finds herself unable to allow the servant to sit on her furniture or use her utensils to eat or drink. Yet, she does not see the contradiction in the fact that Bhima is the one who prepares the food the Parsi family eats and washes the utensils they eat it with. Nor does Sera fully recognize that paying Bhima is not an act of generosity.
Though devestating in its portrayal of oppression and exploitation, this is a story, not a diatribe. The Space Between Us is skillfully and vividly rendered. Simply, quite powerful.