Trapped within the confines of class and gender, the struggle between two women to balance their need for each other with their need to adhere to social mores is at the heart of Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us. Living in poverty in a modern-day Bombay slum where "even tears are a luxury," Bhima tells her pregnant, unmarried granddaughter Maya that crying about her problem is simply not something they can afford to do. And Bhima should know, because she’s paid a high price just to survive ever since her husband disappeared with their young son years ago and left Bhima to fend for herself. Since then, she has had to live amidst the filth and disease of the slum, witness her daughter and son-in-law die of AIDS, and work her aging body to the bone in order to provide for her beloved granddaughter. Employed as a servant in the upper-middle class home of an educated Parsi woman named Sera, Bhima has struggled to keep alive the dream of a better life.
A few miles away, in her lavish home, Sera often cries in the morning, but she can well afford her tears, the result of peeling onions for the delicious omelets she prepares for her daughter Dinaz and son-in-law Viraf. Dinaz is pregnant with the couple’s first child, and Sera, unlike Bhima, has every reason to be overjoyed about her expanding family. Sera’s privileged life could not be more different than that of her servant Bhima, but the two still share a bond. Over the years, each woman has been the saving grace in the life of the other when family, friends, or the world betrayed them. When Sera’s husband used to beat her, it was Bhima who would comfort her and treat her wounds. When her granddaughter came to live with Bhima, Sera took a special interest in "our Maya," and even paid for the girl’s college education.
But, despite the close bond Bhima and Sera share as women, their class differences loom like a giant wall between them, an ingrained prejudice, which never allows the two to truly be friends. Although Bhima has been privy to the most intimate details of Sera’s abusive marriage, she is not good enough to sit at the family dinner table. A part of Sera wants Bhima to sit with her and share her food just as they have shared their happiness and sadness over the years, but at the same time, she is horrified at the thought of Bhima using the family’s utensils. Their already delicate balance is stretched to its limit as Bhima sets out to repair Maya’s life with Sera’s help.
Umrigar is an exquisite writer, painting the stark contrasts of the women’s lives in vivid, evocative strokes. When Bhima waits in line at the slum’s communal bathrooms or public water tap, we feel the oppressive Bombay heat on our skin, breathe in the dry dirt that swirls in the air, the choking stench of the streets, in contrast to Sera’s clean, well-stocked kitchen, complete with running water, pots and pans that sparkle in the sunlight as the savory aroma of her meals fill the room. These everyday differences have shaped each of them from birth. Their lives are filled with compelling characters, husbands, and in-laws, who played pivotal roles in each woman’s destiny, as well as several minor characters who influenced their lives for better or worse. Bhima’s memories of a seaside balloon seller haunt the novel, as she often recalls how the man seemed to possess the secret to happiness despite his aloneness. She calls upon his memory to help her when, in the end, the last person she would expect to abandon her delivers a devastating blow.
The Space Between Us is a powerful and intensely moving story about the resiliency of the human spirit, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and how remaining true to yourself—despite the sometimes high price that must be paid for it—can ultimately set you free.
Reviewed by Joan Higgins