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Space Between Us, The
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The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar's poignant novel about a wealthy woman and her downtrodden servant, offers a revealing look at class and gender roles in modern day Bombay. Alternatively told through the eyes of Sera, a Parsi widow whose pregnant daughter and son-in-law share her elegant home, and Bhima, the elderly housekeeper who must support her orphaned granddaughter, Umrigar does an admirable job of creating two sympathetic characters whose bond goes far deeper than that of employer and employee.

When we first meet Bhima, she is sharing a thin mattress with Maya, the granddaughter upon whom high hopes and dreams were placed, only to be shattered by an unexpected pregnancy and its disastrous consequences. As time goes on, we learn that Sera and her family have used their power and money time and time again to influence the lives of Bhima and Maya, from caring for Bhima's estranged husband after a workplace accident, to providing the funds for Maya's college education. We also learn that Sera's seemingly privileged life is not as it appears; after enduring years of cruelty under her mother-in-law's roof, she faced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, pain that only Bhima could see and alleviate. Yet through the triumphs and tragedies, Sera and Bhima always shared a bond that transcended class and race; a bond shared by two women whose fate always seemed to rest in the hands of others, just outside their control.

Told in a series of flashbacks and present day encounters, The Space Between Us gains strength from both plot and prose. A beautiful tale of tragedy and hope, Umrigar's second novel is sure to linger in readers' minds. --Gisele Toueg

Each morning, Bhima, a domestic servant in contemporary Bombay, leaves her own small shanty in the slums to tend to another woman's house. In Sera Dubash's home, Bhima scrubs the floors of a house in which she remains an outsider. She cleans furniture she is not permitted to sit on. She washes glasses from which she is not allowed to drink. Yet despite being separated from each other by blood and class, she and Sera find themselves bound by gender and shared life experiences.

Sera is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage. A widow, she devotes herself to her family, spending much of her time caring for her pregnant daughter, Dinaz, a kindhearted, educated professional, and her charming and successful son-in-law, Viraf.

Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. Cursed by fate, she sacrifices all for her beautiful, headstrong granddaughter, Maya, a university student whose education -- paid for by Sera -- will enable them to escape the slums. But when an unwed Maya becomes pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, Bhima's dreams of a better life for her granddaughter, as well as for herself, may be shattered forever.

Poignant and compelling, evocative and unforgettable, The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world. Set in modern-day India and witnessed through two compelling and achingly real women, the novel shows how the lives of the rich and the poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and vividly captures how the bonds of womanhood are pitted against the divisions of class and culture.

Customer Reviews:

  • An Easy Read
    This book came out in 2005 and was Umrigar's second published novel. It described the relations between two women in Bombay: an educated, middle-class Parsi housewife and her illiterate Hindu servant. The time was assumed to be the near-present, though the author hasn't lived in Bombay since the early 1980s.

    The book was strongest for me in the first half, when it focused mainly on how the two women got along with each other. The book alternated between their points of view; each had problems and disappointments and drew sustenance from the other. Also usually well done was the interplay between past and present, showing their interior lives, with attention paid to differences of class and caste. Toward the end, the servant's point of view took over, shutting out the housewife. The ending seemed realistic, and the woman's reaction at the end seemed right and even uplifting to a degree, despite the bleakness. But it wasn't as moving as I'd expected; maybe part of the problem was my inability to identify closely enough with the servant.

    Among the least interesting elements for me were a melodramatic revelation in the last third of the book, the over-abundance of evil men, and the author's occasional going on too long with the interior description. Also, the servant's daughter never seemed to come alive.

    I enjoyed the interplay between the main characters in this book more than that between the ones in Mistry's A Fine Balance, maybe because of Umrigar's ability to get inside her main characters' heads. On the other hand, Mistry had a gift for metaphors -- like the one about a quilt -- and setpieces to do with things like a political mass meeting and the destruction of a slum, that appeared only rarely in The Space between Us. ...more info
  • Poignant exploration of social injustice and much more.
    "The Space Between Us" is a very moving exploration of social injustice and much more. Set in the modern day India, its lessons are very much applicable to any society. The main story line is interplay between Bhima, house servant, and Sera, her mistress. Belonging do different classes and religions they both develop, on one hand, close proximity and understanding of each other, and on the other, the inability to cross the invisible space separating them, set by society and habit. For Sera even "... The thought of Bhima sitting on her furniture repulses her. The thought makes her stiffen, the same way she had tensed the day she caught here daughter, then fifting, giving Bhima an affectionate hag. [snip] , but also feeling of revulsion, so that she had to suppress the urge to order her daughter to go wash her hands." And yet Sera does help Bhima with her grand-daughter education and treats her, in many ways, much better, that some other family would. That is the main conundrum of the story. Being generally a good hearted person, Sara is unconsciously unable to consider her servant as equal.

    Passing through the life, these two human beings experience cruelty of their relatives set in their ways of prejudice. For Bhima the life's journey is set of steps from bad to worse. It is a continuous manifestation of treachery by the people around her, who are looking to take advantage of illiterate woman. Her husband, Gopal, who is to abandon her in the slum, exclaims "Woman, don't you see? [snip] It does not matter. One way or the other they would've tricked us. Because they own the world, you see. They have the machines and the money and the factories and the education. We are just the tools they use to get all those things. [snip] Well, they used me as a hammer to get what they want. That is all I am to them, a hammer." The fate play its own part in the life of both woman, freeing Sera from dominance of her vengeful and violent husband, and truly vile mother in law, and punishing Bhima by the death of her daughter, alcoholism of Gopal and finally unwanted pregnancy of her grand-daughter. The last one, perpetuated by Sara's son in law, as she is to eventually to learn, leads her to a final break up with Sara's family and a vision of freedom on the ocean shore.

    Yes, there is some element of the soap opera in this book, but the truth be told, there are plenty of people, whose life is very much as described in this book. One can only hope that less and less people will suffer such indignity. This is a book with a mission and a very well told one. It offer a glimpse of Indian society and many universal and poignant observations of human condition. Bhima's ability to persevere and stay sane, perhaps the only sane person at the end, in the face of all things conspired to defeat her is a true testament that not all lost on us and indeed that there might be a reason for our frail existence.

    Now why not five stars then. I am sorry, but those are reserved for writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leo Tolstoy or Chekhov. ...more info
  • Space Between Us
    This is a great book. Enjoyed the culture and content. Could hardly put it down....more info
  • Poignant and Provocative
    In The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar, novelist and professor of Creative Writing at Case Western University, pushes the boundaries of traditional narrative and establishes an independent style, just as her characters push class boundaries and enter into each other's worlds. Revealing the story of Bhima and her granddaughter, Maya, as they endure the brutality of poverty, Umrigar presents scenes in a seemingly random order, each scene revealing some aspect of life for Bhima and her employer, Sera Dubash, a Parsi housewife, both in the past and the present. Moving back and forth, around, and inside out through Bhima's and Sera's recollections, Umrigar gradually unfolds Bhima's story to the reader, it's raw pain increasing as the reader makes the connections which turn disconnected scenes into a powerful and heartbreaking chronology.

    As the novel opens, Bhima and Maya live in a small hut in a Bombay slum colony. Bhima struggles with feelings of rage directed at her granddaughter because Maya is pregnant. Most painful to Bhima are the deaths of Pooja and Raju, her daughter and son-in-law, though the reader doesn't know for many pages the tragic manner in which they die. As Bhima gradually discovers the truth behind Maya's rebellious behavior, the sorrow which has burdened Bhima seems close to breaking her.

    The imperious, ignorant attitude of the upper class, the selfishness of men, and the desperate measures of the poor to protect themselves and provide for their loved ones come fully alive here, the sadness growing as the reader gradually discovers the real source of Maya's torment. By forcing the reader to make connections instead of spelling out the details in a traditional narrative, Umrigar strengthens the impact of the novel and its brutal revelations. Symbols of water and the city of Bombay connect the disparate scenes and keep the reader turning pages until the action is eventually resolved. A powerful, poignant and ultimately elegant tale, The Space Between Us is also a searing indictment of poverty and the damage it has done to the fabric of life, damage that cannot be repaired until it is fully acknowledged by all of us. ...more info
  • The Space Between Us Large Print
    The book arrived in good fashion. It is great to get a Large print edition for a reasonable price....more info
  • An Accurate, Yet Bleak Portrayal of Modern Indian Life
    The divide between the rich and poor is portrayed wonderfully in this brilliant novel.

    Written through the eyes of an elderly servant living in the slums of Bombay, and an upper middle class Parsi woman, the past and the present of borth women are interwoven as the story unfolds.

    Through the novel, the trials and tribulations of the past, present, and future of both women come to light. The fact that the author manages to make seamless transitions into flashbacks that offer an adequate background into what these two women have experienced. This helps the reader better understand the two women and how their current states of mind were sculpted. It also shows how talented this author truly is.

    This book was certainly a page turner, and the ending adds realism to what is really a tragic portrayal of how punishing life can be.

    This was recommended to me by my mother, who is a Parsi, and I was delighted to see that her name shows up as one of the characters in the book. It offered a nice tutorial on the Parsi culture as well, for those who are interested. ...more info
  • There is no hope, there are no good people!
    The characters are pathetic. The women downtrodden and victimized. People are so consistently mean, devious, and self-absorbed that reading it was painful.

    There is no redemption, no hope, no moment of peace or forgiveness. I am not sure what the author's intent was.

    I do not recommend this book and only gave it one star - because you have to give it at least one....more info
  • The Space Between Us
    A beautiful book about friendship and the social classes. The character development of the two main characters was wonderfully done. The reader can empathize with both of their situations. The author did a beautiful job of looking at a "glass" from two sides....more info
  • excellent character study -- although sad
    This was a book club choice and I didn't know what to expect. Beautifully written, evocative, the writing made me see and experience Bombay -- in its richness and depressing poverty. You come to know and appreciate the women in this story -- even as you grieve for their character flaws. We have not discussed this book yet but I expect it will be a rich discussion as the book is both deep and wide.

    I am not sure I enjoyed the book but I certainly appreciated it and it made me really think -- and that, I believe, is what good literature should do....more info
  • The Space Between Us: A Novel
    This is a very well-written book. The story line is captivating, keeping me engrossed. A good introduction to Indian culture. I'm glad I picked this one up. ...more info
  • Mesmerizing
    This is a poignant and provacative novel, perfectly written. I found myself re-reading entire pages to do justice to the powerful prose! Bravo, Dr. Umrigar!!...more info
  • Imitation of Life
    Set in modern-day India and told through two women, the movel shows how the lives of the rich and the poor are intrinsically connnected yet vastly removed from each other, and captures how the bonds of womamhood are pitted against the divisions of class and culture. Reminded me of the Lana Turner movie Imitation of Life. An interesting book that makes you thik about how fortunate we in America really are....more info
  • Creators (and destroyers) of life
    This is the story of an mid/upper class Bombay woman and her servant; the relationship between them, the similarities in their lives amidst living in such distinct social classes. For the bulk of the story, the "space" between the two women is small; they spend most of their days together and the servant, Bhima, witnesses all the happenings of her mistress.

    What makes the book so rich is the plot (which keeps getting thicker as the story goes on); and the uncomfortableness. It makes you think about the relationships in your life that resemble master/servant; people who work for you, people you work for, etc. As a reader you want to pretend that you don't have these types of caste systems or boundaries, but we all do. You also have so much hope for Bhima, and want her to break out of her slum (literally) but the author does a great job of depicting the barriers to doing so.

    I just finished reading Slumdog Millionaire: A Novel; both are great books taking place in India. Someone in my bookclub found a quote from The Space Between us that I think is wonderful:

    "Women create life; men destroy it."

    ...more info
  • Interesting book
    I enjoyed reading this book although I was confused at times with the switching of stories of Bhima and Sera. Poignant, believable characters living tragic, intertwined lives. It has motivated me to learn more about India and its culture....more info
  • I couldn't put it down
    I liked this book very much because it gave me insight into the culture of India. I wish the book had been longer. I loved it. Very indepth with respect to the feelings of the characters....more info
  • Haunting...
    Thrity Umrigar's The Space Between Us focuses on the quiet strife suffered by the main character, Bhima, and the disparity between Bhima's difficult life and that of her long-time employer Sera. The incredible social dichotomy between the two women is interesting, yet sad - Sera considers the slum-dwelling Bhima to be her close friend and confidante, yet she still will not allow Bhima to sit on her furniture or use her utensils. Umrigar succeeds in making the reader feel uncomfortable as the strange (to us) relationship between the two women unfolds. Both women know tragedy in their own lives - Sera, while wealthy, privileged and educated, suffers an abusive marriage and responds to situations with caste-appropriate knee-jerk reactions that are not necessarily in her own best interest; while Bhima has endured blow after blow, landing her and her daughter struggling in a stinking slum. As the story progresses, we learn of the devastating chain of events that led to Bhima's low station in life - a sad, painful situation that she feels powerless to fight against financially, caste-wise, and as a woman. Her beloved daughter, for whom she toils in order to provide her with a chance at a better life, is quickly on her way to undoing everything Bhima has managed to achieve for her. Bhima bears her pain and the injustice leveled at her with stoic resignation, while feebly clinging to hope. As the story progresses, Sera's selfish devotion to her caste overrides her loyalty to her friend, delivering a final condemnation to Bhima and her daughter, and forcing Bhima to realize the futility of her situation. The reader feels Bhima's emptiness - and at times it is infuriating that Bhima does not appear to stand up for herself. Umrigar has succeeded in writing a touching story that explores the sad implications of loyalty, friendship and social standing. The story is thought provoking, vivid and heartbreaking - I think about it often, even though at this point I read it over six months ago. "The Space Between" makes you wonder why certain things happen to some people and not to others....more info
  • Important Fiction
    A beautiful, absorbing, heartbreaking glimpse into the world of the invisible ones. A chance to shed your own shoes and walk in the world in another person's chappells. Have you ever thought about how lucky you are to be born in to a privileged life and what it is like to be less fortunate? If so, read this book. Reading this has made me a more compassionate person and compassion is much needed in this world of ours....more info
  • Realistic
    This is a realistic portrayal of the life on an Indian maid..many times they lead this kind of life..the caste discrimination is nicely portrayed. I have seen these things happen..also good references to honor and culture

    ...more info
  • well written
    The author's style takes the reader to a world far different than the one most people would know. Her abilty to shape characters and describe their surroundings creates empathy for the struggles people endure in other cultures. However, the ending of the story felt weak in comparison to the emotional heights and depths throughout this complex tale. I felt cheated at the end-as if the author couldn't quite figure out how to bring the story to a conclusion so she just stopped writing. ...more info
  • Vivid picture reflects true life
    This book is very well plotted. It begins with the shock to Bhima when she learns her grand daughter Maya is pregnant, the whole story develops along this main thread. Then the author skillfully interweaves the stories of the two main characters, Sera and Bhima, revealing the history, events, and reasons why everything has come to this kind of reality, that Sera is a house master, Bhima lives in slum, that Maya has to kill her incoming life while Sera's daughter is celebrating for her baby. The whole story ends with another shock to Bhima, with an even profound impact that only leaves to reader's imagination. But for this shock Sera will be inextricably impacted, again the impact is intentionally left blank. Perhaps those blanks will lead us to the afterthought that we can gain some insight into how generations of life have shaped our character, our behavior, our mind set, our marriage life and the state where we are today....more info
  • Best book
    One of the best books I have read this year! It brilliantly captures the two different worlds of Bhima and Serabai....more info
  • The Past is Always With Us...
    Bombay (Mumbai) is the third most populated city in the world. Umigrar captures its beauty, its poverty, and most vividly its women... Bhima is Sera's servant of many years. They are closer to one another than anyone else, yet unable to ever cross the chasm their distinct social classes create between them. Though they have seen each other through sickness and death and unimaginable grief, Bhima still eats on the floor from separate utensils, so as not to "dirty" her mistresses'. The story is a page-turner, but it is an incredibly difficult story to read; it is steeped in the reality of what Umigrar herself experienced while living in Bombay. The sense is injustice and unfairness her characters face is overhwelming. Umigrar does not write a book about finally getting what is right and fair. She writes about strength of character, perseverance in the face of adversity that I as an American woman cannot fathom. Although it is certainly a story about differences in class, gender, education and religion, it is also a book about reconciling the past with the present. Bhima tells her granddaughter, "The past is like the skin on your hand- it was there yesterday and it is here today. It never goes anywhere." Because she is poor, her memories are her legacy and the inheritance her granddaughter will receive. And somehow we see that because of Bhima's interminable spirit, her legacy is as valuable as tangible riches, and that there may yet be a sliver of hope even in the slums of India.

    Umigar's interview at the end of the book was insightful and interesting. The book also includes her advice for aspiring writers. Her writing is beautiful and raw and true... I eagerly anticipate her next novel.
    ...more info
  • Best book I read in 2007
    From the first page, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. The story is so well written, you fall in love with certain characters and grow to hate others, the plot takes turns you don't see coming and the language is filled with incredible depth. At one point towards the end, I put the book down and yelled out loud. It was a pleasure to read. ...more info
  • Very sad
    This book captured me immediatley. The stories of each ladies life is very interesting, but the more I read, the more depressing and predictable it became....more info
  • At Times, The Writing Is Utterly Beautiful, BUT....
    I was immediately drawn into this book which, at first, seemed so promising. Found Bhima's plight to be very compelling. Sera's situation was awful also, but I was still interested in their stories. I think that, for me, the story fell apart when the truth of Maya's predicament unfolded. I don't really know why, but I simply stopped caring.... This was Bhima's & Sera's story and should have remained as such. Again, the writing -- especially describing Bhima's entire story [the hut, the hospital scenes, etc.] -- was, for me, very real & beautifully rendered. However, the ending was unconvincing, in my humble opinion. Extremely disappointed given such a beguiling & goregous beginning!! [I probably would have rated this book a 2 Star read if not for the writing, as well as for Bhima's story [initially a 4 star which unravelled into soap opera]....more info
  • Is a sequel planned?
    I agree with everyone this novel is very well written. What a testimonial on the caste system, education, poverty, womanhood, motherhood, love and hate. If it is missing anything, I would have liked the guilty to be punished, but retribution might have also ruined the renewed spirit of Bhima, so I guess I understand its absence. You know a novel has gotten to you when you continue to ponder what happenes after the last word is read. Will she find another job, does Sera eventually believe her, will her grand-daughter return to school and escape the surrounding poverty, or wll she herself, learn to read, will her son ever return to her life? So many unanswered possibilities, enough for a followup novel. ...more info
  • The Space Between Us
    This book is very thought provoking. I was hesitant tosay much but it has alot to say about poor/rich, educated/non-educated and how different people deal with life. It turned out to be very inspiring....more info
  • 4.5/5 Stars - A Touching Story
    The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world. Set in modern-day Bombay, India, it is the story of two women. Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. A home where she has separate dishes and utinsils; a place where she eats on the floor alone.

    Despite the weight of the themes: race, class, gender, sexuality and culture, the parallels of Bhima and Sera's life are subtly dealt with. Bhima is the center of the story, and it is through her eyes we see what it is like to be poor woman in Bombay: the sights and smells of the slum where she lives with her granddaughter, the thin mattress where she sleeps on the dirt floor can be visualized.

    There is much much more that Bhima must endure throughout this novel, that will remain unsaid. I don't want to spoil the book for anyone who wants to read it. I will just say the story is powerful, the writing is beautiful, and in the end I did feel somewhat hopeful for Bhima. I look forward to reading more by this "new to me" author.

    from the book.....

    The thin women in the green sari stood on the slippery rock and gazed at the dark water around her. The warm wind loosened strands of her scanty hair. Other than the crabs, she was all alone. She looked to the sky again, searching for an answer. But the only thing she could hear was the habitual beating of her own dutiful heart.

    ...more info
  • The Space Between Is
    This was one of the best books I have read. My interest in India was deepened with this moving, insightful and detailed work of art about the relationship between families and the people who care for them over a life time. The secrets and lies that are carried within a family; and the universal longing for love and sweetness in all our lives. The poverty described in this book and of course in India is heart breaking and sobering. The choices one is forced to make just to be able to barely survive is a reality check for all of us. I applaud Thrity Umrigar and hope you will enjoy it also - it is a special treat....more info
  • Captivating and Moving
    Yet another wonderful and moving novel by Thrity Umrigar. The story vividly unfolds on each page, and I found myself unable to put the book down. It tells the story of Bhima and Sera, two people who's lives are very much different, but in many ways the same. Yes, there is much sadness in this book. However, that sadness is there for a reason and is meant to be thought-provoking. It forces you evaluate your life and your relationships. It also helps you to better understand not only the person you are, but the kind of person you want to be. The character of Bhima moved me the most, and will live on in my heart. ...more info
  • Excellent
    This book gave the reader great insight into the culture of India through its realistic characters and wonderful story. The main characters were so well-developed that I felt as if they were my close friends. Also the book was beautifully sritten, with so many poetic passages that I just wanted to read out loud to someone else. ...more info
  • A study of social class in modern India
    This is a novel about social class in Modern Bombay. It tells the story of two women - Sena, an upper middle class Parsi woman and her servant Bhima, who resides in the slums. The novel starts out with two pregnancies, that of 16 year old Maya, Bhima's granddaughter and of Dinaz, Sena's daughter. Dinaz' pregnancy is cause for celebration but Maya's is tragic because she is unmarried and forced to quit college because of her pregnancy. Bhima sees this as a disaster. Sena had paid for Maya's education through the years and Bhima sees education as the only way out of the slums. Through the years, the novel shows how her illiteracy, lack of education, and poverty have made her life extemely difficult. Although she did not see education as important for her now dead daughter, after a horrible incident where Bhima is taken advantage of because she cannot read, she realizes that even a girl needs to read.

    The novel traces Sena and Bhima's histories. Both have suffered as women in a patriarchal society. Umrigar captures well the bond between servant and mistress, as they know each other's secrets because they are together day in and day out. Yet, Umrigar also captures the distance between them. Umrigar does a fine job of depicting Sena's middle class sensibilities - for example, how she would not permit Bhima to sit on the furniture or use the same plates and cups as her family and her guilt over this or her inability to not project her revulsion for the slums onto Bhima's person. At the end, when the secret of who fathered Maya's baby is revealed, the nvel ends in tragedy, stemming from the complicated class relationship between Bhima and Sena.

    In Umrigar's writing, you can almost smell India - the sounds, sites, and flavors are all in the novel and she has captured the cadence of Bombay voices. Having been to Bombay, I recognized the city, its sounds and its people. The only negative I saw was Umrigar's tendency to over-write. Sometimes, she was too wordy which detracted from the story. This is definitely a dark novel throughout. While Sena and her daughter are kind to Bhima throughout, ultimately, Bhima and her employers cannot traverse class (i.e. the "space between them.")
    ...more info