The Space Between Us: A Novel

by Thrity Umrigar

Hardcover, 2006

Call number




William Morrow (2006), 336 pages


The author of Bombay Time, If Today Be Sweet, and The Weight of Heaven, Thirty Umrigar is as adept and compelling in The Space Between Us-vividly capturing the social struggles of modern India in a luminous, addictively readable novel of honor, tradition, class, gender, and family. A portrayal of two women discovering an emotional rapport as they struggle against the confines of a rigid caste system, Umrigar's captivating second novel echoes the timeless intensity of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible-a quintessential triumph of modern literary fiction.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jennyo
One day someone's going to write a Happy Indian Novel. This one's not it. But it is a powerful and moving story about prejudice and poverty in modern day Bombay. Sera, a middle class Parsi woman, and Bhima, her servant, are the main characters. And it's their relationship that most clearly shows
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how ingrained prejudice can be. This example is going to be used over and over again when talking about this book, but it's perfect. Sera and Bhima take tea together every day. Sera sits at the table; Bhima squats on the floor. Bhima has her own cup so she doesn't dirty those of the family. Yet Bhima feels blessed to work for Sera. Even sees her as a benefactor. It makes your heart break.

Umrigar's writing is precise and beautiful. She tells Bhima's story simply, but with incredible emotion. I think this book is going to be very popular in book groups next year not just because of the cultural focus, but because it's about mothers and daughters, about friendships between women, and about relationships between husbands and wives. Even though it's got an exotic setting, its focus is personal and tells a story with which we are sadly all too familiar.


This is one of the quotes I wrote in my quote journal:

Or perhaps it is that time doesn't heal wounds at all, perhaps that is the biggest lie of them all, and instead what happens is that each wound penetrates the body deeper and deeper until one day you find that the sheer geography of your bones--the angle of your head, the jutting of your hips, the sharpness of your shoulders, as well as the luster of your eyes, the texture of your skin, the openness of your smile--has collapsed under the weight of your griefs.
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LibraryThing member countrylife
The story centers on two families – of Sera, the mistress, and of Bhima, the servant. On gender and class distinctions in Indian culture; on some issues touching not just India, like aids and abortion; and on universal personal problems like loneliness, marital upheavals and mothering. The
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author’s descriptions of Bombay put you there, and give you a peek into the goings-on inside the homes of two kinds of Indian families. I thought she handled both ladies with equal dignity for their strengths and weaknesses in their respective roles in society. The story is touching and the writing is beautiful.

Upon the death of a volatile relative: ”Sera went through the purse of her memory, hunting for gold coins.”

To a daughter who was having problems: ”I carried you in my stomach for nine months. I know every inch of your skin. If a mosquito lands on you, I feel the sting.”

As the author says in the notes at the end of the book, ” At its most basic, The Space Between Us is a book about what brings us together and what divides us as human beings.” “…this intersection of gender and class – how the lives of women from the working class and the middle class seemed at once so connected and so removed from each other.” “…– this strange tug-of-war between intimacy and unfamiliarity; between awareness and blindness.”

Loved it!
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LibraryThing member ssubudhi
I just finished this book the day before yesterday and can honestly say that it was one of those books that I could not put down. I came home from school, told myself I would read one chapter and then start my homework, only to end up reading for about three hours. The language was so authentic and
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so real that I found myself engrossed in the world of Sera and Bhima. The story is a stark look into the world of class differences in India; despite the caste system being abolished, there are still invisible guidelines of how certain classes are to act. This is one of those books that you want other people to read just so you can discuss the beauty of it with them.
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LibraryThing member Eye_Gee
I was disappointed by this book. I usually enjoy the work of South Asian writers, and the reviews of this one were quite positive, so I looked forward to starting it. This book never grabbed me. I finished it, and the story engaged me more towards the end, but it wasn't the kind of book I wanted to
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pick up every time I had a spare minute. The subject matter -- about how class has the power to separate people even when they wish to be close -- seemed obvious, and the story didn't teach my anything or give me new insights into the subject.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
In this novel, Thrity Umrigar explores issues of social class and the ways in which class impacts life experience and relationships. Sera is a wealthy Indian woman who suffered in an unhappy and violent marriage. Bhima is her servant, living in extreme poverty with her orphaned granddaughter Maya,
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who she has cared for since early childhood. Bhima has worked for Sera for years; the two women understand and care deeply for each other. Many times Sera has come to Bhima’s aid, using her status to secure better healthcare for a family member, arrange for Maya’s education, and help Bhima navigate government beaurocracy. And Bhima provided Sera with much-needed emotional support throughout her marriage.

On the surface it would appear the two women have overcome class differences and forged a deep and lasting friendship. Yet Sera will not allow Bhima to sit on her furniture. There are many other small indications along the way, until the novel’s climax fully exposes the chasm between the two women. In the final analysis, class differences reinforce one woman’s privilege and the other’s destitution.

While this novel takes place in India, where much has been written about the role of social class, supposedly egalitarian societies fall victim similar traps. Just this week I had a conversation with a colleague who was struggling with the importance of developing a diverse workforce. “I think we should just hire the best people,” he said. I was reminded of an article I read years ago: White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. The author writes, “Obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated [sic] in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”

Food for thought.
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LibraryThing member BooksCooksLooks
Before I start on the review of the book I want to express that this is one of the nicest books I have received lately in regards to the cover, binding and pages. It has an old-fashioned feel to the pages; they are not smooth on the ends, they have that rough finish you used to find on older books.
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The cover is stunning in person - I can't begin to express how the flat picture does nothing to convey the depth of the book you hold in your hand.

Now on to the story. It was amazing. A book I found myself still thinking about days after I had turned the final page. It is not a happy or light or breezy book by any definition but it is a book where the writer's way with words enters into your thoughts and you find yourself thinking about some of life's big questions.

In the novel we meet Bhima, a woman of the slums of Bombay who has not had a very good life. She has worked for years for Sera and her family and feels like part of their family despite not being allowed to sit on the furniture or drink or eat from their dishes. Sera, an upper class woman from a progressive family married into an old fashioned family and found herself being abused by both her mother in law and husband but did nothing about it. Bhima knew all of Sera's secrets and Sera helped Bhima through some of the worst times of her life - including Bhima's current crisis when her 17 year old granddaughter comes home pregnant.

These two women are intimately entwined yet worlds apart. When those two worlds meet they realize just how far apart they truly are. And the fallout is devastating for both of them.

I had a hard time putting this book down and if it hadn't been garden season I think I would have read it all in one sitting. Then I would have read it again. Despite the sadness that pervades the book I was still left uplifted at the end because of the strength of Bhima's character. Don't get me wrong - she is a very hard to like woman but she was formed that way by the forces of her life. I had less sympathy for Sera because the way to change should have been much easier for her being educated and wealthy. She made small inroads but she couldn't make the big ones.

Ms. Umrigar's writing is lyrical. Whether describing the beach or the communal toilet in a slum you get a true feel for where you are in the story. She weaves her words and takes you directly into the lives of her characters; the good, the bad and the ugly. I did see the big ending coming long before the end but it did not detract from the story at all. I would so love to see the follow-up to the lives of Bhima, Sera and Maya.
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LibraryThing member PiperUp
I'm sad & depressed. this book left me feeling hopeless about Bhima & Maya' s futures. No one person should have to suffer as much as Bhima has during her lifetime.
LibraryThing member -Cee-
excellent book!
Set in Bombay and based on a real person, this novel explores the impact of gender and class on women and the struggle to reconcile the differences. The relationships between generations, employer/servants, spouses are explored with sensitivity and heartbreak. The characters are
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strong and well defined. Their lives swirl around strong desires and attempts to break free of long established social barriers.

The ending is something of a twist and beautifully written.
Just a snippet:

"And now she finally understands what she has always observed on people's faces when they are at the seaside... she would notice how people's faces turned slightly upward when they stared at the sea, as if they were straining to see a trace of God or were hearing the silent humming of the universe... people's faces became soft and wistful... sniffing the salty air for transcendence, for something that would allow them to escape the familiar prisons of their own skin."
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LibraryThing member awriterspen
Warning: some spoilers, but certainly not giving away the ending:
The Space Between Us is a beautiful yet depressing novel that realistically captures the everyday relationship between the Indian social classes. Having lived in a similar situation growing up, Thrity Umrigar breathes life into a
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story lived by untold millions.

In The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar weaves a story between the lives of Serabai, a Parsi middle class widow; and Bhima, her domestic servant for several decades. Serabai's extremely abusive and controlling husband dies suddenly leaving her to finally experience peace and happiness in her family life. In contrast, Bhima's husband loses three fingers on his hand and is left unemployed and unable to support his family. He turns to alcohol and then leaves her taking her only son with him. Bhima is forced to move to a tin shack in the slums without even running water, electricity, or private bathrooms. Her daughter and son in law die of AIDS in a poorly run underfunded government hospital leaving Bhima to raise her granddaughter.

Serabai lovingly cares for Bhimas granddaughter providing her with an education that is abruptly halted and her life possibly forever changed for the worse.

The Space Between Us goes from bad to worse as tragedy, pain, and hopelessness take over. The really depressing part is that this story is just a snapshot of the real situation taking place in many third world countries as well as India.

I highly recommend this book to book clubs because it is so thought provoking and can lead to some serious conversations and observations. I really look forward to reading additional books by this author. Ms. Umrigar has an unusual ability to breathe her characters to life. Her descriptions are rich, colorful, and full of texture. She does not waste a single word in the entire book.
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LibraryThing member lgaikwad
This story is about class systems that separate us – socio-economic, caste, gender—and universal loneliness. The author explores the chasms that cannot be bridged via deep connections and interdependence. Separations are enforced, typically motivated by shame and loss of status. A few people in
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the story almost reach across the great divide, but in the end, are left alone and desolate. The story mirrors class distinctions clear down into the microcosms of a family, revealing the separations between loved ones.

In “the space between us,” there are secrets and stories never fully told or heard, even when the yearning to do so was great.

Throughout, the protagonist is searching for the freedom she saw in a poor solitary man, exiled from his home country and without family, eking out a living by making balloon animals on a dirty Bombay beach. She knew that he had somehow found peace. Her searching occurs quietly in the part of her heart not immersed in the demands of her poverty-laden life. The story ends with her discovery of the balloon maker’s secret of peace and freedom, after I had forgotten she still cared to find it.

Often when I am reading several books at the same time, they speak to one another. Desmond Tutu’s “The Book of Forgiving” was a nice companion for “The Space Between Us.”

A quote:
“Suddenly, she feels the desire to share the past with Maya. This is her inheritance after all, this currency of memories that Bhima carries around with her in an invisible sack. Perhaps the moment has come to share the inheritance with the girl, before the passage of time devalues it completely.
‘There used to be a balloon seller here,’ she says. ‘An old Afghani, a Pathan. A tall, dignified man. The children loved him. He used to make the most wonderful designs out of his balloons for them. Gopal would make chitchat with him—ask him how business was, where he lived in Bombay—but, but I never did. I don’t know why I never spoke to him, but I didn’t. I wish now that I had. I wanted so much to ask him—things.’
‘What things?’ Maya whispers. Her face glistens with anticipation, like it does each time Bhima throws morsels of memory at her.
‘Things like how he could bear to be so far away from his homeland, whether he missed his family, where his wife was. Because I knew he was all alone here in Bombay town. It was in his eyes, you see. Lonely as this sea, they were. I could see that in his eyes but still didn’t say anything.’
… ‘You see, I think he could’ve helped me . . . face what was to come later in my own life. He had the secret, see? The secret of loneliness. How to live with it, how to wrap it around your body and still be able to make beautiful, colorful things, like he did with those balloons. And he could’ve taught it to me, if only I’d asked.’”

Closing quotes:
“All Bhima can hear is the rhythmic sound of the lapping waves and the Pathan’s gentle words, murmuring to her, weaving a melody that’s equal parts loneliness and the recipe for overcoming loneliness; a melody that speaks of both the bitterness of exile and the sweetness of solitariness, of the fear of being alone in the world and the freedom that flaps its wings just below the fear. . . . Soon, the loneliness stops its wailing, and then the fear ceases its numbing drone, and all that is left is freedom—incessant, surging, and powerful. . . . Bhima doesn’t hear them. She is taking orders from a different authority now, following the fluttering sound in her ears, the sound of flapping wings, the sound of learning how to fly. Freedom.”

She searches the beach for a balloon man and when she splurges on a fistful of balloons, “The man looks at her as if he is afraid to trust his good luck. ‘Buying for a party for your mistress’s house?’ he says conversationally as he begins to fill each balloon.

‘I have no mistress,’ Bhima says curtly. And instead of tasting as bitter as aspirin, instead of tearing her mouth like jagged pieces of glass, the words taste sweet as Cadbury’s chocolate éclair in her mouth. ‘Hah. No mistress,’ she repeats.

She stands with the balloons on the edge of the dark sea, releasing them. And she contemplates a new day. “She will face it tomorrow, for Maya’s sake. . . . Tomorrow. The word hangs in the air for a moment, both a promise and a threat. Then it floats away like a paper boat, taken from her by the water licking her ankles. It is dark, but inside Bhima’s heart it is dawn.”
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
The Space Between Us is the story of the unlikely friendship between Bhima, a poor, lower-caste servant, and Sera, her wealthy and well-educated mistress. Writer Thrity Umrigar creates rich, satisfying scenes between the two main characters that demonstrate how their friendship is complicated by
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socioeconomic differences and Sera's limited self-awareness. Overall, however, I found the book weak. Umrigar hasn't figured out what "show, don't tell" means so there are lots of cliches like "she would have walked through fire for her daughter" but few scenes that actually demonstrate how the characters feel.

The book is also poorly plotted. It zigzags between past and present with little motivation. While other books build suspense about the main characters' past, this one reveals their secrets right off the bat, so there isn't much motivation to keep reading. The present-day plot line is so thin it's practically non-existant and I'd guessed the surprise ending in the first 50 pages. The book does go by surprisingly fast, but the awkward writing style and hackneyed metaphors don't make it very much fun to read.

Bottom line: some of this book's ideas about class and friendship will stick with me, but over all it's pretty lackluster.
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LibraryThing member Maggie_Rum
Wonderful story of two women on different sides of the Indian Caste system. One of my favorites!
LibraryThing member flydodofly
I really enjoyed it, especially the glimpse it allowed onto the way people live in India. I believe it to be fairly accurate. I loved the way it was told, for me it made it even more realistic: the emotions described as dramatically as I would expect, words doubled and changed, the deminutives,
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Indian expressions - everything intertwined so lively. An extremely interesting read.
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LibraryThing member starmist
Relationships between women are complex at best—made all the more so by social pressures and family ties. Ms. Umrigar weaves her tale so beautifully that the true, destructive ugliness under the surface sneaks up on the reader. Her characters are people we know or can see in our selves in spite
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of cultural differences. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the story moved me so deeply. Ms. Umrigar tells a simple yet eternal story with grace and palpable emotion within a world that is exquisitely drawn. The first and last line echo each other in a way that makes the entire novel feel like a poetic experience. The Space Between Us has earned a place on the shelf of books that I treasure and read over and over. It's one of the best books I have read in quite awhile.
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LibraryThing member creighley
Beautifully written account of two women in India, one wealthy and one her maid. The difficulties of both of the women's lives is obvious but their every day survival is dramatic. A wonderful read!
LibraryThing member LynnB
This is a story of gender and class, set in India. Sera and her servant, Bhima, have much in common as women in a patriarchial society. They are bound by betrayals by their husbands, by the love of their children...but they are separated by class in a way that never allows them to fully acknowledge
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these ties.

Extremely well written; a good story with deep characters.
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LibraryThing member cameling
The relationship between a woman and her servant seems close. The woman believes she is open minded and liberal, that she is not class conscious as others in India. But what this book does is show that class differences do sometimes live in our subconscious and it's only when situations arise that
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threaten the lives of those close to us, that the prejudices surrounding caste consciousness will rise and cloud our judgement.
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LibraryThing member manupaulose
Nice read. This novel is set in modern Mumbai and describes the world through the eyes of a parsi middle class women and her maid. Both has suffered a great deal in their own way and this gives a picture of exploitation and suffering women experience in modern India, Author has a good command on
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the language and has sketched the characters to perfection although I felt some where in the middle the story slowly drifted away multiple times. But all credits to author this a nice and insightful read
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LibraryThing member mcdougaldd
Very good book--the relationship between a servant and her mistress in Bombay. Once again, I love books about India--the culture and the class differences.
LibraryThing member gandycat
I read this one because I really liked Under The Weight of Heaven. Although this one had an interesting plot (about the relationship between the servent and her boss, set in modern day India), it fell flat for me. The writing seemed clunky and there wasn't a lot of depth to the characters. If the
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ending had been different, I probably would have given it a higher rating.
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LibraryThing member Litfan
"The Space Between Us" is the story of a middle-class Parsi woman, Sera, and Bhima, her servant. Bhima's home in the slums sharply contrasts Sera's sparkling, large home. The two women have forged a connection through their years together, their families linked inextricably. The story brings into
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focus the vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots of India, exploring with gorgeous subtlety the meaning of loyalty and of freedom.

Umrigar's language is lush and descriptive but not a word is wasted. She is able to create a detailed world and to place the reader in the shoes of several different characters. A fascinating story carries her timeless message about the need to further question class divisions and the other lines we construct that separate us from each other. A gorgeous novel; highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member ZenPatrice
Novel set in India examining relationship between woman and her woman servant. Uses Indian slang effectively. There is a feeling that all the women in the novel are victims of the men. The men are not portrayed as empathetically as the women.
LibraryThing member npl
Two families in Bombay share a history that is inexorably intertwined, yet the individuals family members could not be more different. Bhima is hard from a long life of toilsome work and crushed dreams. Her only softness focuses for her granddaughter Maya whom she supports. Five generations of the
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women in Bhima’s family have been uneducated domestic servants, but Maya can break that chain, with the help of Sera, Bhima’s employer. Although Sera has never wanted for money, respect, or education, she too has known disappointment, cruelty, and ruined hopes. Bhima has always been by Sera's side, ever faithful and helpful. Even as Sera finds joy in her daughter’s marriage and impending motherhood, Maya’s unexpected and unwanted pregnancy causes Bhima to despair for the future. The pregnancies cause both women to think about their pasts, and the links that have been forged in pain and in the intimacy between them. But in the end, a need to deny the truth will divide them.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This is a stark, moving story of a woman's life and the space which exists between herself and the significant people in her life. She lives in the slums of Bombay, works for a family to whom she is loyal and hardworking. She loves her family, tries always to do what is right, and is repaid with
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sorrow after sorrow, burden after burden. Somehow she continues to put one foot in front of the other.

The themes in this book include: class difference, social norms and pressures for conformity, trust and loyalty, and above all, the space which exists between two people no matter how close they may seem to be: employer/employee, husband/wife, parent/child, and neighbor to neighbor. I did not like the structure of the story as well as the story. I think jumping backward and forward in time was unnecessary and detracted from the effect of the book. However, the character development was done very well.

Just short of being great, but very good!
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LibraryThing member bibliophile26
Fiction books that are set in India have been a favorite read of mine for the past couple of years. I'm a big fan of Rohinton Mistry. This story follows Sera, a middle-class Parsi housewife and her maid, Bhima. The book tackles many issues including AIDS, spousal abuse, adultery and teenage
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pregnancy. It is interesting to read about these issues from a non-Western perspective. Reading about the conditions in which Bhima lives made me grateful for my privileged Western life. I was enthralled by this book and it definitely ranks as one of the best I've read this year. I couldn't recommend it enough.
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