THE SPACE BETWEEN US by Thrity Umrigar
She worked in the house I grew up in, year after year, a shadow flitting
around our middle-class house, her thin brown hands cleaning furniture
she was not allowed to sit on, cooking food she was not allowed to share
at the family dining table, dusting the stereo that mainly played
American rock and roll, music that was alien and unfamiliar to her, that
only reminded her of her nebulous presence in our home, our world, our
I wrote about Bhima and that stereo in another book—told the story of
that glorious day when, after a year of cajoling, wooing and seducing
Bhima, after trying to excavate her life and story bit by bit, I finally
tasted success. I was an earnest, well-meaning teenager and I loved
Bhima for reasons that today make me proud as well as make me cringe,
for reasons that were vain as well as honorable: I loved her because
even at 15, I could sense her essential goodness and dignity and stoic
heroism. I loved her because she was amused by me and my eager,
puppy-dog need to prove to her that I was different; that unlike the
adults around me, I was uneasy being a card-carrying member of the
middle class. I loved her because she cooked me rice everyday, even if
it meant defying the authority of my aunts and mom. I loved her because
I had just declared myself a Socialist and Bhima was my own private
laboratory, my personal experiment, on whom to try out my newly
discovered theories of social justice and the proletariat and the
And on one breakthrough day it all came together, the day when Bhima and
I were alone at home and she plopped down next to me on the forbidden
couch and demanded that I replace the music I was listening to—it was
The Beatles’ Let It Be—with an old Marathi folk song that I had played
the previous day. And the authority in her voice thrilled me, made me
feel that we were equals at last, that the cursed roles of servant and
mistress had shattered for one fragile, shimmering instant.
And yet, even in the midst of my adolescent disdain for the middle-class
adults in my life, I saw enough complexity in the transactions between
servant and homeowner to soften that disdain, to make me realize that
reality is always harder than caricature. I saw servants trusting their
meager savings to their mistresses as a way of protecting their money
from the grasping hands of drunken husbands; I saw Bhima and the females
in my household working peaceably together in the kitchen in a kind of
domestic shorthand; I watched as my aunts cooked an egg for Bhima every
morning while she was recovering from malaria.
Above all, I was fascinated by 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.
Thus was Sera born—kindly, well-meaning Sera, who must nevertheless
choose between the bonds of gender and the divisions of class.
It is a theme that has interested me—haunted me, even—for as long as I
can remember. One of the reasons I have always loved Bombay is because
it is a city riddled with contradictions and paradox. In an apartment in
a small corner of the city, I grew up experiencing a microcosm of this
larger paradox—this strange tug-of-war between intimacy and
unfamiliarity; between awareness and blindness.
THE SPACE BETWEEN US is an attempt to understand, through the
illuminating searchlight of fiction, paradoxes that I could never make
sense of in real life. I began the novel in the spring of 2003. But in
fact, I have been writing this book forever.
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