Thoughts on The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Content warning: Sexual assault, abortion trauma, domestic violence

You know, before I go into talking about the book, which is commendable even as I critique it, I will say it’s been a hard week. In the United States, there have been a number of really depressing developments, which I wrote about in a previous post. The newest is the #MuslimBan. I cannot overstate how dehumanizing a move that is. At the same time, though, it has sparked some pretty spectacular protests all over the country. While I personally doubt the administration cares much about why people protest, I do think protests hinder normal operations. I think this is actually where our strength lies. Hinder the normal operation of things. Throw a wrench in the gears. If things are slowing down, that means the effects of capitalism and colonization come to at least a temporary halt. That means we can buy time to do more strategic planning.

tsbuSo I recently finished The Space Between Us, published in 2005which could actually provide some insight into the turmoil that is under way. If I’m being really honest, the plot is not unlike that of The Help, except the role of Skeeter Phelan is played by Umrigar herself. That is probably my biggest critique of the book; Umrigar’s role is not unlike those of well-intentioned anthropologists who think they are “saving” Native Americans by collecting data on their lives and presenting it to the world. In reality, they take from the community without really giving anything in return. Just as Skeeter plays white savior to Aibilene, Umrigar plays upper-middle-class hero to Bhima. Umrigar claims that the character of Bhima is based on a real person who served her family when she lived in Mumbai. If that is the case, did the Bhima of Umrigar’s life ever receive any compensation for basically being her inspiration? Was she given any credit for providing the details to fill the pages of this book? While I can understand Umrigar and the person she is writing about may not keep in touch due to social taboos in India or because of the passage of time, nothing is explicitly stated about the process by which this story was told in the interview that follows the text. I prefer a little more transparency.

In addition, the “message” of the novel is a little heavy-handed if you ask me, though perhaps understandably so. The experience of poverty (which, it should be noted, is neither mine nor Umrigar’s) is to have the effects of sexism and classism compounded in everyday life. Thus, Bhima’s family experiences AIDS, an industrial accident, alcoholism, separation and displacement, sexual assault trauma, and abortion trauma. The character Sera Dubash also experiences domestic violence. You’ll notice a lot of these are phenomena that disproportionately impact women. It does feel like every few chapters, Umrigar hits us over the head with the message “INDIANS NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE STATE OF ITS WORKING CLASS WOMEN.”

By contrast, what makes this book radical is Umrigar’s descriptions of Bhima’s thoughts. The process is frequently laced with a humor that only the Previously or Currently Colonized will understand. In one example, Bhima describes her encounters with white people:

Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies…She felt sorry for them then and, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them some money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying…one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor. (2005, p.93)

Bhima has clearly never been around white people before, and her worldview reflects this reality. The beauty of her lack of (Western) education is that she does not think that structures of power apply to her (and in fact, they don’t!). Thus, she does not follow the narrative of being “less fortunate” or inferior to the white people she encounters. If anything, she truly believes she could be of help–to them! In spite of Bhima’s stubbornness, Umrigar’s description of her won me over with this passage.

Furthermore, Umrigar’s greatest strength is her ability to describe rare moments of humanity, especially those shared or experienced by women. The strength with which I relate to some of these moments is eerie. For example, this is a moment when Bhima is massaging Sera’s arm, after Sera has been beaten by her husband:

Sera recoiled. Bhima had never touched her before…Although Bhima’s thin but strong hands were only massaging her arm, Sera felt her whole body sigh. She felt life beginning to stir in her veins…Even at the sweetest moment of lovemaking with Feroz, it never felt as generous, as selfless as this massage did…When you got right down to it, sex was ultimately a selfish act, the expectations of one body intrinsically woven into the needs of another. (p. 108)

I am bemused by how Umrigar seems to know the inner workings of my head. Perhaps this is a common experience among Desis? Among women of color? Among all women, even? I am not sure, but this moment embodies the eroticism described by bell hooks, the kind that is not sexual, but life-giving. It is a kind of human connection I have only felt with other women. My tendency to intellectualize causes me to connect with people on more of a conversational level rather than a physical one. Even then, my discussions with other women make me feel more connected to them than I ever have during sexual encounters with men.

Bhima is capable of giving life with her hands. Moreover, Bhima seems to symbolize those whose humanity is still in tact to give this kind of care. She is a simple person–not stupid, but uncomplicated. While she massages Sera, her only concern is to keep the arm from scarring and to make Sera physically better; to stop what she is doing because of class divisions does not even cross her mind, though it crosses Sera’s. This seems indicative of how deeply Bhima, and people like her, knows her own and others’ humanity.

The eeriness does not stop there. Many of Maya and Sera’s experiences are ones that I relate to as well. After her abortion, Maya is described as

…stone-faced, as if the abortion doctor has killed more than her baby, as if he has…scooped out her beating heart, just as Bhima scoops out the fibrous innards of the red pumpkin that Serabai puts in her daal. (p. 129)

Maya refuses to go back to school or take a job after her abortion. Again, I question whether or not this is a universally Desi experience. It cannot be some mistake that I remember this feeling after my own abortion. I was told I would feel relief afterwards. I waited for days, weeks, and months to feel anything. I did not feel anything, and it was not until I found a therapist 9 months later that I understood why. My therapist said that a person who is allowed to mourn publicly will feel relief. This is how people move on after someone they love dies; they grieve, and their community comes together. But for many women who get an abortion, we are not allowed to grieve publicly because we do not want people to know that this is what we have done. Thus, we grieve alone and internally. No one comes to our side to comfort us. People treat us as though nothing has happened, as though we should be the same. It is not the same. Knowing I could have had a 5-month-old child right now is sometimes unbearable. My only consolation is that perhaps if I am lucky enough to give birth in this life, it will be under far better circumstances than the ones I’m in now.

Maya’s experience with sexual assault is also strikingly familiar to me. Viraf asks her to give him a back massage somewhat flirtatiously, but she is unaware of how powerless she truly is.

It felt good to be giving him so much pleasure. As her hands kneaded and caressed Viraf’s back…Maya felt important and strong–and powerful…But then he spun around so fast that for one confusing moment, her hands strummed air…and somehow [she recognized] she was the cause of that tension…And her awe turning to pride and the pride turning to panic…She protested; she did not protest. It did not matter, because it was inevitable what was about to happen…(p.277)

I admire Umrigar for the ambivalence of this excerpt. Sexual assault is rarely the violent, horrific act that Alice Sebold describes in The Lovely Bones. It is frequently much more gray. This passage is immensely complicated. On one hand, Maya seems to discover for the first time that she possesses an immense bodily intelligence–one that people who are more embedded into society’s upper crust or positions of privilege hardly know. I have a theory that because of capitalistic consumption, people in the upper strata of society cannot easily know that kind of intelligence. They listen too much to propaganda about what they are “supposed” to be doing, instead of listening to The Gut, which operates on a far more physical, sensory frequency.

At the same time, Maya’s discovery is not an invitation, and Viraf takes advantage of this moment when she is incredibly vulnerable. This is something men have done to me again and again. The power to unfurl the human body is terribly dangerous, simply because it puts one in close proximity to another person. When I was a much more naive person, men I hung out with asked if I would mind cuddling or if they could sit next to me when we watch a movie in their apartment, and somehow I never saw sexual assault coming. The word “sex” was never explicitly said, so I was never even given a chance to say “no”. And in the end, it was always me who walked away with a reputation for being “easy”. This is the power that men have–with the skills of a lawyer, they trap me in situations I cannot escape from, and then act as though it was my fault.

Sera’s experience with her abusive husband, Feroz, also reflects the hypocrisy of sexism. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she and her husband shared many friends, and these friends knew very little about the reality of her life. When her best friend asks her if she is missing her “dear husband”, these are Sera’s thoughts:

Sera looks at her oldest friend, unsure of what to say. She envies Aban her innocence, her simple way of dividing the world into love and not-love; good and bad…Does she miss Feroz? She is unsure of the answer. She does not miss the shame-inducing beatings…In fact, what she misses is not the marriage, but the dream of the marriage. (p. 160)

Sera has to deal with a complicated grief after her husband dies. Her friends and family remember him fondly as “loving husband” or “loving father”. She knows a very different reality, and is not able to share this with the people she knows because she has hidden the truth from them for the duration of her marriage. Arguably, the only person who actually knows what has transpired in her marriage are Dinaz, her daughter, and Bhima, her maidservant.

This is also a feeling I can relate to. Abuse can be convoluted when community is involved. I have avoided events, blocked people on social media, and blocked phone calls from people because of the abuse I experienced from men I used to date. I was stupid enough to choose men whose parents are friends with my parents or whose social circles intersect with mine somehow. On rare occasions (because I have mostly left these circles behind at this point) those people come up to me and tell me things like “You and that person seemed like such a great couple! Why did it end?” or “Why weren’t you at this event? We really missed you!” And I know I never give them a satisfying response because dragging the truth out in the open means defending myself against an onslaught. These people would feign confusion, defend my abusers and rapists, or tell me to get over my feelings before they admit to obvious facts–that sexism is a violent structure, that women are frequently abused by the people closest to them, and that I tell the truth.

On a last note, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the Pathan. This is a character from Bhima’s past, a man who used to twist balloons at a stall on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. A Pathan is a person of ethnic Afghan descent, and the word is synonymous with the Pashtun people. Bhima and Gopal would frequently encounter the Pathan when they were younger and went for walks together at the beach. This was one memorable exchange:

Gopal had said, “Compared to our Bombay, with the monsoons and all, your Afghanistan must seem as dried up as an old woman, no? All hills it is, dry as a bone, correct? I saw a picture of it once.”

She had expected the Pathan to be insulted, but he laughed, “Nahi, sahib,” he said in his low, dreamy voice. “My Afghanistan is very beautiful. A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty.” (pp. 199-200)

I think it is no mistake that Umrigar evoked the image of a woman with this exchange. I think it is no mistake that the earth has always been called “Mother Earth”. Just as the Pathan defends his homeland as beautiful, I would like to think this exchange alludes to, in Warsan Shire’s words, “women who are difficult to love”.

I also think it is no mistake that the Pathan symbolizes a number of things, of which the most important are perhaps God (or a Creator of some sort) and diasporic people. He is depicted as a creator of beautiful, colorful things (his balloons) that give children joy. Yet, his life was probably not easy, as he says:

“Everybody in my homeland is a poet, sahib. The country makes you so…That is, everybody was a poet. Now the country is broken. Too many people fighting over the poor land, and the land is sick in its heart. Night and day it is weeping. Now it cannot take care of its sons and daughters…There is a saying in my community…They say that when something is very beautiful, the Gods of Jealousy notice it. Then they must destroy it. Even if it’s their own creation, its beauty begins to make them jealous and they are afraid it will overshadow them. So they destroy the very temples they have built.”(pp. 200-201)

This excerpt made me cry the first time I read it. I’m not sure I can even convey what it means to me, but I can tell you what images come to mind. I think of Natives fighting for their land, and for the right to live, and for a chance at creating a more meaningful life than the one the American dream offers. I think of all the immigrants that come to this country under the illusion that life is going to be better, only to find out being successful in this country is a pipe dream, and perhaps even to be turned away at the doorstep. I think of the land we live on being ravaged for its resources, in order to keep feeding a capitalist existence that allows for a select few to live in luxury that the vast majority of people will never know. I think of the wars of this century and the last, almost all of them started over colonial feuds, and which only colonizers have any hope of “winning” (what does that even mean? To “win” a war? At what cost are wars won? How inhuman do you have to be to want that?).

In short, I admire the depth and reverence that Umrigar gives to her characters. While I wrote a pretty lengthy post here, I still have a great number of thoughts on this novel, things I am still grappling with because I struggle to find the words to describe them.

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