Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #75: The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
An awesome novel set in contemporary Bombay, which explores the parallel and intertwining lives of two middle-aged Indian widows—Sera, a well-off Parsi woman living happily with and through her pregnant daughter and son-in-law, and Bhima, her Untouchable maid of many years and the long-suffering grandmother to the orphaned Maya.
Sera had been a sensitive, loving, enlightened and intellectually curious woman until she was married to a rage-filled beast of a man and shackled by Indian tradition to both her husband and to her equally insane mother-in-law who, at the opening of this novel, is paralyzed and dying but still manages to strike terror with a glance. Bhima had married for love, until tragic circumstances and the brutality of India’s caste system led to the dissolution of her happiness. Granddaughter Maya is the only bright spot in her life, attending college and pointing to a future away from the slum and the hard life which Bhima has become resigned to. And then the 17-year-old Maya gets pregnant, and that future dissolves, eventually leading to a shocking climax.
The novel presents a devastating portrait of life in modern India, an expose not only of the medieval caste system still functioning in many parts of the country, but of the many religious and cultural traditions which shackle the mind as well. Sera and Bhima have a special bond built over many years of intimacy, and yet Sera—for all her enlightenment–cannot transcend her own “middle-class skin,” in the words of the author. Bhima is never allowed to forget who she is nor to whom she owes her allegiance. Her own enlightenment at the end comes at a terrible price.
Author Umbrigar writes beautifully, painting unforgettable pictures with her words and recreating the unique sights, sounds and smells of India in every sentence. This is a book that squeezes your heart and will keep you up nights long after you finish it.