How to start talking about Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us? This whole book blogging thing is so new to me that I feel like I’m floundering about, grabbing haphazardly for whatever words that march across my mind, wrestling them to the page before they have the chance to flee.
Which is what writing is, of course.
Honestly, I bought the book because it was on sale. It was some sort of Kindle deal and occassionaly I fall prey to the sort of bargain-buyer’s thinking that is thrilled at the thought of paying $ 2.99 for 400 pages. Sort of like cost-per-wear for you budget savvy fashionistas out there, except mine is infinitely geekier. I realize that at this point I’m not coming off so well as a book-worshipper, but hey if you can’t be honest in an anonymous blog, where can you be honest? Certainly not in real life.
Which is one of the (many) issues that the characters in Umrigar’s book struggle with. Friends? This book has some heavy stuff, y’all. Secrets, domestic abuse, infidelity, abortions, unwanted babies, social injustice, crushing poverty, gender inequality, monster mother-in-laws. There isn’t much happiness to be found in Umrigar’s world, and what there is is only an illusion.
The story itself revolves around Serabai Dubash, an upper middle-class Parsi widow who lives in Mumbai with her daughter, Dinaz, and her son-in-law, Viraf. The dark to Serabai’s (supposedly) light is her servant, Bhima. Bhima lives in a slum with her grand-daughter, Maya, who is a college student. Bhima once had a whole family — a husband named Gopal and two children named Pooja and Amit. A substantial structure of the book revolves around a slow reveal of what happened to take Bhima’s family away from her.
At this point in the plot summary, I feel the need to stop and wonder why Serabai even needs a daily servant. Surely a grown woman and a couple don’t make that much mess? And yet, Serabai stops at one point in the novel to contemplate the fact that there is ‘too much housework’ to do.
Anyway, for me, what I really liked about Umrigar’s writing was her dialogue. It was brilliant and lively and as someone who grew up in a country filled with a myriad of accents, I think I did a good job of reproducing in my head how Umrigar wanted her dialogue to be heard. I also had a fun time asking my boyfriend what things like ‘Arre bai’ and ‘accha’ meant (half of which he didn’t know).
When you get down to it, the things I didn’t like about this book have nothing to do with the quality of Umrigar’s prose, which is vivavious and descriptive, at times over-ly so. In fact, so dreamy is Umrigar’s writing that even though the plot twist is predictable from the first chapter, it’s thunderclap effect is still impressive because of the way she pulls off the big reveal.
It’s more that the book highlighted to me how angry it makes me feel to read about injustice. What happens to Gopal, what happens to Bhima, what happens to Serabai — these things set my heart on fire. I found myself wanting to reach into the book and slap the persons who were each in turn responsible for the injustices that were done to these three characters.
As I read, I also became increasingly conscious of my growing irritation at Serabai Dubash. Although she’s a domestic abuse survivor (this is not a spoiler, since it’s made clear in the first chapter or so) who has done a great job at, well, surviving, I couldn’t help comparing her misfortunes to Bhima’s. Because while Serabai was an educated full-grown woman with loving, supportive parents, Bhima was nothing, had nothing, even from the very start. Bhima lost everything through no fault of her own. Serabai stayed in the shitty marriage she had consented to because she was too proud to tell anyone what was happening.
I feel that the misfortunes of Serabai were something she was well-equipped and had the power to escape and that considering that all the bad shit that happened to Bhima was out of Bhima’s control, Serabai had a duty to get out of the shit she was in.
By the time the last few climactic pages of the book came, I had absolutely no sympathy left for Serabai. What I couldn’t stand was that right to the end, Bhima worries about whether she has shattered the illusion of Serabai’s happy little family.
Given the nature of that illusion, I say shatter it. Shatter it hard.