THE SPACE BETWEEN US by Thrity Umrigar
Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi, lives a privileged, urban life, but her comforts largely depend upon her domestic servant, Bhima, who arrives every day to cook and clean for her. Bhima (based on a real-life Bombay housekeeper known to Umrigar when the latter was a child) lives in extreme poverty, under appalling circumstances in a city slum. She needs the job to survive. Although she lives in a crowded, stinking place where fresh water is scarce and there are abysmal, communal toilets and open drains, what Bhima allows herself to want is, on the surface, simple: a better life for her beloved granddaughter, Maya. But the opening pages tell us that this dream is already dashed. Maya, who has been attending college under Sera’s benefaction, is pregnant and is forced to abandon the education that offered hope of a better life. “Bhima wants to take the sobbing girl to her bosom, to hold and caress her the way she used to when Maya was a child, to forgive her and to ask for her forgiveness. But she can’t. If it were just anger that she was feeling, she could’ve scaled that wall and reached out to her grandchild. But the anger is only the beginning of it. Behind the anger is fear, fear as endless and vast and gray as the Arabian Sea, fear for this stupid, innocent, pregnant girl who stands sobbing before her, and for this unborn baby who will come into the world to a mother who is a child herself and to a grandmother who is old and tired to her very bones, a grandmother who is tired of loss, of loving and losing, who cannot bear the thought of one more loss and of one more person to love.”
Sera, a widow, and Bhima, abandoned by her husband, have a strong bond, but the differences are recognized by both. Every day, Bhima takes a break from the housework she does for Sera, and the two elderly women have tea and discuss their lives. Sera sits at the table, while Bhima squats on her haunches on the dining-room floor. There is always, as the title implies, a “space between.” But Bhima knows more about Sera than the educated Sera will ever know about her. Sera’s pregnant daughter and son-in-law live in her home, and her personal happiness now depends upon them.