By Aslam Kakar
Perhaps, very few forms of writing dare to speak vividly and justly of the lives and miseries of common people in an unjust world, such as ours, than a great novel does. Published in 2006, Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us is one such brilliant attempt at explaining the entrenched norm of unbridgeable class difference and the despairs it brings upon the poor in India. And if one were to ponder, this novel can also be an example of true reflection of deep societal fissures in some segments of the present-day Pakistani society. And, likewise, it also speaks to unjust social, cultural, and institutional mores in other societies across the globe.
Set in the modern-day Bombay, Umrigar tells a graphic and devastating tale of Sera Dubash, a woman from an upper-class Parsi family, who hides the failures and shame of her marriage, and a poor outcaste slum Hindu woman Bhima, who works at the former’s house. Bhima is completely heart-broken, and lives a life of loss, pain, and helplessness. Extreme poverty and slum life, rejection by society, and her inability to read and write to better understand life that the Dubash family knows and leads so well, makes her misery unbearable, her loss irreparable, and worse with no hope in sight of better future. Bhima’s misery is caused, among her family misfortunes, by deep-rooted systemic social and economic inequalities and injustices in the overpopulated developing world where people, and so many of them, at the lowest ebb of society have little or no access at all to better living spaces, jobs, education, and health.
After reading the novel, one also feels like there is no such thing as absolute individual human freedom from, if not one’s own but, the woes of those in one’s relationship. Bhima’s freedom from pain and sadness, of her husband Gopal’s alcoholism, his abandoning home taking their son Amit with him, the deaths of her daughter Pooja and son-in-law Raju from AIDS, and the untimely pregnancy of her granddaughter Maya, the eventual abortion, and her withdrawal from college, just seems impossible. Maya is impregnated by Dinaz’s husband Viraf in an act of venting his sexual desires. When the truth comes out, he, with his unfettered social power and ‘prestige’ and corrupt mind and heart, defends himself, disgracing Maya and Bhima in the eyes of Sera. Bhima surely looses in Sera’s eyes, but in her own eyes she wins. And she knows it well too that deep down Sera’s heart, Viraf’s sin is too dark for forgiveness.
Though deeply connected by common bonds of womanhood and its shared miseries in a patriarchal society, the two women are also world apart from each other, as Sera does not transcend her upper-class skin. Highly respected as she is by Sera and her daughter Dinaz, Bhima, in the Dubash household, still can not use utensils for her food and drinks, and she is not allowed to sit on furniture like rest of the members of Sera’s family do.
What is most worrying and painful though is that the shallowness and hate in their behavior towards people of lower class like Bhima are used as a tool for shielding the ‘dignity’ and ‘highness’ of upper class. The novel shows how the upper class in India, through an impregnable ‘holy’ wall, sets itself apart from those it does not consider worthy of equal social standing. And, thus, how the defined ‘space’ between the Dubash family and Bhima is deemed an endless inevitability to its societal honor and greatness.
The Space Between Us is also a story of terrific humanism. Like in her other novels, here too, it is the ‘human heart that beats at the center’ of the story. Grappling with darkness of griefs and agony in relations in their respective worlds, both Sera and Bhima are trying to find light. For Umrigar, that light and hope come from the transformative power of love, which is not only an antidote to hate and social segregation, but also allows for greater human communication.