The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar (2006)

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I’m always a little wary of novels written by teachers of creative writing; Dan Brown is an example of why one may need to be. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, a teacher of creative writing in the US, exhibited that slightly forced, something-less-than-organic type of writing that I believe characterises a lot of literature by such professionals. This was evident from the opening lines: 

“The thin woman in the green sari stood on the slippery rocks and gazed at the dark waters around her. The warm wind loosened strands of scanty hair, pulling them out of her bun. Behind her, the sounds of the city were muted, shushed into silence by the steady lapping of the water around her bare feet.”

The woman is thin, the sari is green, the rocks are slippery, the water is dark… Reminds me of a high school creative writing assignment, where we were told to add adjectives to make our images more vivid. This opening got The Space Between Us off to a formulaic start that it doesn’t quite recover from. But neither does it try to.

Umrigar’s novel revolves around the character of Bhima, an elderly maid who has served a Parsi family in Bombay for many years. At the beginning, Bhima’s seventeen year old granddaughter Maya, who she has brought up and, with the generosity of her employers, educated, is pregnant. Not only is this shameful to Bhima, but it looks to disrupt Maya’s education, a heartbreaking loss for an illiterate grandmother who wanted to see her family move out of the slums into a middle-class existence. The other life that The Space Between Us follows is Sera, Bhima’s middle-aged Parsi employer. Though benefiting from wealth and privilege in ways that Bhima never could, Sera’s life has not been happy, with an abusive husband and manipulative mother in law. Despite the enormous gulf in experience and opportunity between the two women, a kind of friendship has developed between Bhima and Sera over many years, forged through common gender-based struggles. The Space Between Us looks at how all of this unravels.

Like Umrigar’s prose style, the characters, too, were rather formulaic. I do not doubt that people exactly like Bhima, Sera and their offspring exist in Bombay and elsewhere. But it was all too obvious. Bhima was naive, and though not ignorant, her decisions were too blindingly stupid to be of much interest. Similarly, Sera’s middle-class angst over the treatment of servants, but at the same time her complete inability to behave ethically, was so obvious as a literary trope that it was boring. The Space Between Us was not without its positive points, and some scenes were certainly poignant, particularly when Bhima lamented the inability of those without money, education, and connections to ever really drag themselves out of poverty, no matter what they do. But some subtlety, or unpredictability, would have made this a better novel.

I don’t generally like to enter into that strand of pseudo-criticism that admonishes Indian English language writers for writing to a foreign audience. I think it’s futile, unproductive, and beside the point. But Umrigar’s blatant writing for a US audience became grating. For instance, in a government hospital that Bhima visits, she is verbally abused by the arrogant doctor on duty:

“”It’s a hopeless situation,” he said to himself but just loud enough that Bhima heard him. “This whole hospital–everything–it’s all hopeless. Should’ve gone to ‘M’rica when I had a chance. At least they have respect for human life there.”” (p. 150)

Of course, this could be added ironically by Umrigar, a comment on how the grass always seems greener on the other side. But the lack of a tone of irony elsewhere leads the reader to suspect not.

At other points the over-the-top cultural commentary almost prompted me to put this novel down and not pick it up again:

“”This joint family system is a curse on India, I tell you,” Jehroo said. “Countless women have been sacrificed to its cause.” She looked out of the restaurant to where a young white man wearing baggy, floral pants and printed, loose-flowing shirt, stood talking to a woman in a cotton skirt carrying a backpack. “You know, we Indians talk about these Westerners and how they kick their children out of their homes when they turn eighteen, how they put their elders in old people’s homes, how they don’t have the same love for family that we do. But sometimes I wonder if we’re really as superior as we think we are. What’s the point of everyone living together if all it does is cause kit-pit at home? Better to go your own separate ways than always fighting-fighting.” (p. 190)

Granted, this passage depicts a minor character in conversation, and does not necessarily represent the author’s views. And the critique is largely of Indian cultural norms, not “western” ones. But these types of unnuanced generalisations about cultural practices are completely unhelpful, as well as being generally very wrong. Reading parts of this book reminded me of a friend’s anecdote about reading in a Chinese student’s essay that when a “westerner’s” child falls over, they (we) are likely to just leave it there, because they (we) don’t care about family. I am not suggesting that Umrigar’s novel endorses these types of damaging falsehoods, but there could have been a more sophisticated way of exploring issues around modernity and changing conceptualisations of the family in contemporary, urban India. 

Similarly, the characters themselves are frequently just vehicles for social messages, and rather blunt ones at that. Bhima is meant to be an illiterate slum-dweller. Sometimes she expresses knowledge and opinions that are entirely out of keeping with her educational status, and yet at others she expresses ignorance beyond belief for any grown woman with a degree of innate intelligence, uneducated though she is. For example, Bhima is thinking about the “white-skinned ferangas” in Colaba, the south Bombay neighbourhood where tourists congregate:

“Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies and how they had to come to warm places like Bombay to darken their skin. She felt sorry for them then, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said that they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying to her because one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor.” (p. 93)

No doubt the ignorance of the world required to generate these types of comments certainly exists, but I’m not convinced that the character of Bhima needed to express them. The inconsistencies in her worldview ultimately make her into a caricature of a lower class, lower caste, urban slum dweller.

There is another layer of The Space Between Us that is more potentially interesting, and that is its representation of Bombay. Like so many other works of fiction that the city features in, Bombay is more than just a setting, it is an active presence that influences and interferes with the characters’ lives. But, this novel’s contribution to this sub-genre (if we can even call it that) is perhaps more interesting as one of several, as an example within a larger body of contemporary work, than as a singular piece of work. Rashmi Varma’s The Postcolonial City and its Subjects: London, Nairobi, Bombay that I reviewed for the academic journal Modern Fiction Studies earlier this year uses The Space Between Us as one if its Bombay case studies, and after having read the novel I am inclined to revisit that chapter. This is certainly a flawed novel in many ways, but perhaps one of enduring interest because of its faults.

(The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2007)

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Elen

Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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