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|The questions that
follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of
THE SPACE BETWEEN US by Thrity Umrigar.
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.
A Conversation with Thrity Umrigar
How long did it take you to write The Space Between Us?
Well, I wrote the book—or at least, a solid first draft—in about six months
But as I always say, I’ve been writing this book forever.
What do you mean?
I grew up in a middle-class home in Bombay where we always employed
servants. And even as a child I was always aware of what a complicated,
emotionally charged relationship it was between the mistress
of the household and the domestic servant—who was almost always a woman. I
mean, it is impossible to have two human beings work and live in a contained
domestic space all day long and not form some kind of a bond or human
connection. And I thought that this was rich literary territory to explore.
So in some sense—in the sense of being aware of these issues and thinking
about them, I’ve been writing this novel at least since I was a teenager.
The whole issue of employing servants is so alien to most contemporary
Americans. Can you talk about this some?
Sure. The first thing to understand is that, unlike, say, the aristocrats of
England or something, in India, you don’t have to be terribly rich to have
servants. Almost every middle-class home employs someone to come
in to help with the cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. Sometimes it’s more
than one person. And the reason for this is simple—labor is cheap in India.
And until very recently, most people didn’t have washers and dryers, vacuum
cleaners—all the labor-saving devices that we take for granted in the West.
So the way it works is that someone comes into your home early in the
morning and basically spends the day performing household chores. And if the
mistress is a housewife like Sera Dubash, if she’s not a working woman, she
will work alongside the servant. For instance, she may cook while the
servant is chopping up the vegetables or washing the dishes. And the women
talk. Often, the servant may unload her burdens onto the mistress—tales of
wayward husbands, children who refuse to attend school, oppressive
mothers-in-law—you know the normal things that women all over the world talk
about. And the servant is in the home for seven, eight, nine hours a day—she
is a witness, she observes everything that happens in the home. She knows
the family secrets, all the hidden things about relationships, problems,
things that even the family’s neighbors or friends may be unaware of. And so
a kind of unlikely friendship, a trust, an unspoken language of
understanding, springs up between the women. But there is always the
elephant in the room, and that elephant, of course, is class. There is
always a formality, a ritualized “space” that can never quite be bridged.
Each woman is governed and restricted by class divisions.
In the novel, Sera won’t let Bhima sit on the furniture or drink out of
the family’s glasses. Is that because of the caste system that one hears
about in India? Is Bhima an untouchable?
Sera Dubash is a Parsi, not a Hindu. And the caste system that you refer
to—you know the system where there are four different castes and each caste
is governed by its own rules and traditions—is something that’s unique to
the Hindu faith. And no, Bhima is not meant to be an untouchable—that is, a
member of the lowest caste.
I don’t think this is a book about caste at all. Rather, it’s a book about
class divisions. All the things that you noticed—Bhima not being able to use
the family dishes, sit at the table—are simply manifestations of how class
issues have polarized people in India and how those polarizations have
gotten codified into traditions. Do you know what I mean? In that sense,
it’s not so different from the American South fifty years ago, when the
black maid always had to enter from the back door and took all her meals in
the kitchen. I was doing a book reading in California earlier this year when
a woman who grew up on the Upper West Side in New York said the book
reminded her of how her family treated the nanny who had raised her. So
these strange, dehumanizing traditions are not unique to India.
How have Western audiences reacted to the book?
You know, when the book came out, my biggest concern was that Western
readers would read The Space Between Us as a book about a distant, faraway,
alien culture with weird customs—you know, the usual
“exotic East” syndrome—and not get that the themes of the book are
universal. At its most basic, The Space Between Us is a book about what
brings us together and what divides us as human beings. So it has
been particularly gratifying to have smart, thoughtful, insightful readers
make their own connections and apply the themes of the book to their own
conditions and lives. So many of them have talked about their own encounters
with the kinds of issues that Bhima and Sera face.
My Indian editor, Nandita Agarwal, coined a fantastic phrase—she said the
novel was about the “Indian apartheid.” She was referring to this
unfortunate attitude that middle-class Indians have toward domestic help
that allows them to not see and to marginalize the people who sweat and work
in their homes. And at each book reading we talk about this and I ask the
inevitable question: what is the American apartheid—what biases, prejudices
do we suffer from, what are the areas of our society that we refuse to face?
And almost always, people tell personal stories or talk about the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina and how that exposed unpleasant truths about our own
culture in America.
You now live in the United States. Does that help or hurt when you’re
writing about India?
I think for the most part it’s helpful. I mean, you have the inevitable
worries about being accurate, getting the details right. I usually solve
that by staying away from what’s current and immediate—you know, what the
latest movies are, what the big hit songs are—and writing about things that
are more timeless. Like the spirit and resiliency of Bombayites. Like the
Arabian sea—which is as polluted and gray and beautiful as ever. Like those
fabulous Bombay skies at dusk.
But I think the distance also helps me gain a certain critical perspective
that’s essential for good writing. It makes it possible to be more truthful
in my writing, to speak some harsh truths. And being an immigrant in
America, always having this outsider–insider thing going on, is such great
training for being a writer. Because that’s what writers are—outsiders
wanting to get on the inside and insiders longing to burst out.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel, my first book set in the United States. It’s a story
about immigration, what it means to be an outsider–insider, to belong to
several worlds all at the same time.
Questions for Discussion
1. At the end of The Space Between Us, Sera has a tough choice to
make. Can you envision a scenario where she could've made a different
choice? What would it have taken for her to have made a different
choice? And what would be the consequences of that choice?
2. The novel deals with a relationship that, despite all the good will
in the world, is ultimately based on the exploitation of one human being
by another. Has this novel caused you to look at any situations in your
own life where you may be benefiting from the labor or poverty of
3. Remarking on the fact that Bhima is not allowed to sit on the
furniture in Sera Dubash's home, or drink from the same glass, it could
be said that the novel is about a kind of "Indian Apartheid." Do you
think that's putting it too strongly? If not, can you identify any
parallels in contemporary America?
4. The novel tracks the lives of two women. Trace some of the ways in
which their lives resemble each other's. What are the points of
5. Neither Sera nor Bhima end up with happy, successful marriages. Why?
Trace the factors that cause each marriage to fail. And for all its
failings, which woman has the better marriage?
6. Sera's mother-in-law, Banu, makes life miserable for the young Sera.
Is Banu the kind of mother-in-law that many American women can identify
with? Examine the ways in which she is or isn't the typical in-law.
7. The Afghani balloonwalla is a minor but pivotal character in the
novel. What is his role? What does he symbolize or represent?
8. The novel is told from the points of view of the two women, Bhima and
Sera. Should it have included more points of view? For instance, should
Viraf have had his own "voice"?
9. How do you read the ending of the book? Is it a hopeful ending? Do
you think the ending is justified, given what awaits Bhima the next day?
10. What is your opinion about Sera, especially given the choice she
makes in the end. Is she a sympathetic character? Or is she part of the
11. This is a novel about the intersection of class and gender. Can you
think of ways in which gender bonds the two women and ways in which
class divides them?
12. Is Gopal justified in being furious at Bhima for having signed the
contract that the accountant puts before her during the cab ride to the
hospital? Would the family's fate have been different if she hadn't
signed that paper?
13. Two characters who help Bhima -- Hyder, the boy in the hospital and
the Afghani balloon seller, both happen to be Muslims. Why? What does
the novel say about the issues of religious and communal divisions in
14. What does this novel say about the importance of education? Think of
some examples where the lack of education hurts a character and
conversely, instances of where having an education benefits someone.
15. In some ways, the city of Bombay is a character in the novel. What
are your impressions of Bombay after having read this novel? Does the
author portray the city with affection or disdain?
16. What societal changes and/or personal choices would need to be
different in order for us to envision the possibility of someone like
Bhima having a better life?
17. The author has said that although the plot of The Space Between Us
is a work of fiction, the character of Bhima is based on a woman who
used to work in her home when the writer was a teenager. Is there any
person in your own life who has inspired you enough to want to write a
book about them? What is it about that person that had a deep impact on