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The Space Between Us - Thrity Umrigar

A concept inherent in South Asian cultures is that of having house help. I see how this is also recreated in South Asian families living abroad where the house help’s tasks are generally limited to cleaning and maybe cooking. These wonderful beings help a family in managing their domesticities and are popularly referred to as ‘maids’ (I personally abhor the usage of the term ‘servants’). The male version of the maid also exists but it would be fair to say that it is more a female dominated area of work.

A popular misconception in the West is that only the rich and affluent have house help. However, this is not the case at all. A simple enough explanation for this is that South Asian cultures benefit from the strength of its populace and labour is more easily accessible and affordable. In fact, this arrangement can also be viewed as a parallel economy that contributes to the employment market in its own way. Now, the relationship shared between family members, specifically the ‘lady of the house’ and the maid is a strange one. The maid is privy to very personal issues of the family she helps because of which establishing a certain level of trust becomes imperative. Therefore, it would only seem logical for the two women to be close; but can they? Would the two distinct social classes they belong to approve of this? ‘The Space Between Us’ addresses this very bond as Umrigar tells us the story of Sera Dubash, an elderly, upper middle class widow and her maid Bhima.

Many parallels can be drawn between the issues that both women independently face in their lives and the implicit understanding of how to respond to each other (even if with silence) is well depicted by Umrigar. After all, as humans we have the same needs and as a consequence fall prey to similar demons. Social class in such cases takes a reluctant backseat.

The narrative also involves the interplay of other characters namely Sera’s daughter and her husband and Bhima’s granddaughter.

The manner in which the story delves in and out of flashbacks to signify specific memories is presented poignantly and at no point does it feel abrupt. There is a generous sprinkling of colloquial terms that helps set the scene for the novel which is contemporary Bombay! For a reader who isn’t familiar with these colloquialisms, this may serve to be a mild irritant. I also found the ending to be rather predictable maybe because I was expecting more given the quality of thought that is evident in the rest of the book. However, the main characters, their story and the manner in which Umrigar depicts human emotions in its rawest form(s) more than make up for this. 


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