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 in 2003.
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 another?
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 departure?
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 problem?
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 India?
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 you?