Hired help comes to know a family's dirty secrets, from its soiled laundry to its concealed bruises. While the person who diligently scrubs the pots clean can be a confidante or a witness to what's hidden from the public, there remains that invisible barrier between employee and employer so aptly described in the title of Thrity Umrigar's second novel, The Space Between Us. Umrigar is an assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University.
Her book tells the story of two women—Bhima, a servant who barely ekes out a living for herself and her granddaughter, and her longtime employer, Sera Dubash, who leads a comfortable life with her family.
"From the time I was a young woman living in India, I was fascinated by the closeness shared by female mistresses and the female servants who worked in their homes," said Umrigar, who left Bombay, the setting of her book, to come to the United States to earn a degree in journalism at Ohio State University.
"But these different class backgrounds also kept these people from exploring the fullness of—and the possibility of—friendship," Umrigar added. This was the paradox that she wanted to explore in her novel.
At various points in The Space Between Us, Umrigar places her two women on the brink of friendship. In one scene, they share a cup of tea, with Bhima sitting on her haunches next to Sera in her chair at the table.
Although she sees how neat and clean Bhima keeps herself, Sera cannot abide having her sit on the furniture, and she marvels at her own daughter, who has come to love Bhima and objects to the way the family treats her. Bhima will ultimately sacrifice her own well-being, and her granddaughter's future, for Sera's daughter.
Bhima is her favorite character, Umrigar said, because "of the dignity with which she lives a life where there is little to be dignified about." The writer based her portrait of Bhima on a servant her family employed in India; the novel is dedicated to this servant and to "millions of others like her."
The Space Between Us provides the reader with a glimpse into contemporary Parsi and Hindu life in Bombay. It also examines social inequality, showing how medical care, housing and education are allocated in a system that serves the rich and poor differently.
"I want Western readers to read this book about an unfamiliar world and about unfamiliar traditions and use it to examine their own biases and areas of prejudice," said Umrigar.
Being thousands of miles from her homeland, Umrigar said, has given her "the courage to undertake the kind of social critique that may be harder to make if one was living in the culture."
She believes that one of her responsibilities as a novelist is "to lay down the conditions where it is possible for readers to think about, and feel, these issues."
It took approximately four months to complete the first draft of The Space Between Us. "I had the first and last lines of the book from the start," Umrigar recalled, "and they acted as bookends for the novel." The plot emerged as she developed a story that led from the opening to the closing sentence.
The Space Between Us, released this month, will also be published in India, Canada, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Israel. The possibility of a film version is being explored.
Umrigar, a former reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, easily made the transition from reporter to novelist. "Being a journalist is great preparation for working in different genres, because it takes care of a problem that many creative writers face—finding the discipline to work on a long project that requires a tremendous emotional commitment on the part of the writer. Journalism forces self discipline," she said.
Umrigar is also the author of Bombay Time, a novel, and a memoir, First Darling of the Morning, Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood.
Before the printer's ink dried on The Space Between Us, Umrigar had another novel under way, tentatively called "If Today Be Sweet"—a story set in suburban Cleveland.
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