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by Thrity Umrigar. William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. January 2006. Hardcover, 336 pages. $24.95.,

Thrity Umrigar returns with another compelling novel that is a must-read for those who appreciate first-rate writing, solidly drawn characters, and social commentary that stimulates self-reflection. Her first novel, Bombay Time(2001), introduced readers to an entire Parsi community of longtime friends. InThe Space Between Us, she zeroes in on two dissimilar women and how they relate to each other because of, and in spite of, imposed class boundaries.

“In Bombay Time, I was interested in exploring the bonds of community across time,” Umrigar states. “The focus of The Space Between Us is different. It is a story more about what divides people than brings them together. It is not so much about connection and community as it is about isolation and private space.”

The Space Between Us, an elegantly written story set in contemporary Bombay, takes that focus and examines every nuance of each feeling, thought, and action that shape the path to self-examination in the face of personal crisis.

Sera Dubash, an educated, middle-class Parsi widow, employs Bhima, a slum resident through ignorance of the system and a lack of education, as a domestic servant. Each has suffered disappointment in marriage, including emotional and physical abuse by their husbands. Each has endured loss of loved ones through death or desertion. Because of these parallels, they have developed a degree of caring, but it is one that they cannot openly acknowledge because their respective places in society remain inflexible. Sera is well-intentioned; Bhima is good-hearted. Yet, after 20 years as employer and employee, neither really knows the other.

Sera’s spotless household is courtesy of Bhima’s hard work and attention to furniture that she, herself, may not rest on, dinnerware she may not eat off of, and glasses she may not drink from. Driven by the need to survive with dignity, Bhima does what she has to do in order to provide for herself and her orphaned granddaughter Maya. Maya’s unexpected pregnancy, which required her to drop out of school, and her stubbornness about naming the father of her unborn child destroy all hopes for a better future. In contrast, Sera’s daughter Dinaz, a college graduate, delights in her own pregnancy and marriage. And it is Dinaz who holds Bhima dearest, unlike her mother who constantly struggles with what her heart tells her is right.

Now, watching Bhima sip at her tea, Sera shifts uncomfortably in her chair. Since Feroz’s death, she has occasionally toyed with the idea of asking Bhima to join her at the table. Sure, some of her friends would be scandalized at first, and the next time a servant in the building asked her mistress for a raise, the woman would automatically blame Sera Dubash for setting a bad example …

And yet … the thought of Bhima sitting on her furniture repulses her. The thought makes her stiffen, the same way she had tensed the day she caught her daughter, then fifteen, giving Bhima an affectionate hug. Watching that hug, Sera had been seared by conflicting emotions—pride and awe at the casual ease with which Dinaz had broken an unspoken taboo, but also a feeling of revulsion, so that she had had to suppress the urge to order her daughter to go wash her hands.

“When you add something like class differences to an already complicated situation,” Umrigar explains, “then you can see how the potential for misunderstandings, miscommunication, and incomprehension—the sheer inability to enter another’s world—can grow exponentially.”

A crisis evolves that makes the women choose the next course of their distant-but-entwined lives. Principles of poverty, dictates of society, conflict of traditions force Sera and Bhima to face certain beliefs not only about each other, but, more importantly, about themselves. Questions concerning loyalty and obligation present themselves, and the result is that which neither woman expects. Lies, accusations, and revenge spring from where they are least expected, and with heart-wrenching twists and turns to the story, the ultimate winner is not necessarily fully victorious.

“This story is totally made-up in terms of the plot,” replies Umrigar when asked how much of the story is drawn from her own experiences, “but Bhima’s character is based on a woman who worked in our middle-class home when I was a teenager in India. I was extremely close to this woman, adored her, really felt like I could see her essential goodness and decency. She had a dignity and quiet pride that I thought was admirable.” Umrigar’s respect for that Bhima is tenderly transferred to the fictional Bhima and illustrated when Maya finally confesses to her grandmother that she felt forced to lie to her about the baby’s father:

So this is how a heart breaks, Bhima thought. This is how cold, how delicate, how exquisite it feels, like the high-pitched violin note on the classical music records that Serabai played.

The breath-stealing climax will both stun and satisfy, and The Space Between Us is one literary experience not easily forgotten. From beginning to end, Sera and Bhima are so painfully human, candid, and honest within the confines of their own realities that they generate the obligation to re-evaluate one’s own perspective. Umrigar makes her characters real enough to touch, rendering them as more than mere vehicles to tell a story: they are the story of lives that continue in India despite modernization and education.

“This is really a story about the rich and the poor and the imbalance between them. And that’s a theme that I think any perceptive, socially aware person can relate to. We have our own caste systems in America. And if I had a wild hope,” Umrigar says, “it would be that this novel would make readers examine their own areas of prejudice and discomfort.”

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....