March 27, 2012

The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar

March Book Club Pick

In The Space Between Us, Sera, an upper-middle-class Parsi woman and Bhima, the woman who has worked in Sera’s home for more than 20 years, weave a heart-breaking and powerful story of how two women can have such a strong bond, yet are unable to bridge the gap that social standing and influence place upon them.  It would even be fair to say that Sera and Bhima are each other’s closest confidants, best friends even. They spend all day together, cleaning, cooking, and tending to household chores, all the while chatting and ultimately knowing all that goes on in each other’s lives, like true friends would. 

But Bhima is Sera’s servant and they come from different social classes. And there are rules to be followed, rules that societal norms place on mistresses and their servants. For example, Bhima is not allowed to sit on any of the furniture in Sera’s house, resorting to crouching when having a break for lunch. Bhima must also use her own dishes and utensils, which she keeps tucked away in her own corner of a cupboard. It does not matter that Sera and Bhima get along so well, or that either woman would do almost anything for the well-being of both each other and each other’s family members. The social disgrace that would be bestowed upon Sera were her friends to find out that these aforementioned rules were not followed by Bhima, would ostracize Sera from her peers and be downright unacceptable in their eyes. Sera and Bhima are both painfully aware of this divide throughout the book.  No matter how close they get, this space between them - the social divide, can never be bridged.  

This book deals with so many delicate issues, but in a very thought-provoking way: Is blood thicker than water? Would you do anything to stand up for your family’s pride, even if it meant risking your job? Do you stand by an abusive or alcoholic husband, or do you leave? How can people who work so hard, day after day, year after year, still struggle to put food on the table? Is literacy and education the ultimate wealth and power? Without sounding too cliché, this book made me take a look at my own life and acknowledge how fortunate I am to be a young, educated woman with so few barriers to my life goals and dreams. 

While this is a sad story, with what felt like tragedy after tragedy occurring, I truly loved this book. I loved that the author was able to describe so well, the slums of Bombay; at times I felt I could smell the stench of the streets and feel the filth on my own skin. I love being exposed to another world and culture when I read, and The Space Between Us did just this. I don’t want every book I read to be happy and light-hearted; sometimes the serious, dark novels are just as memorable and just as worth recommending to fellow book-readers.

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