Book Review: The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar

Many books about India which become popular in the United States, no matter who writes them, tend to fall into one of three major tropes. It’s really rather annoying, because it means that sometimes I feel like I am reading the same three books over and over again.

The first trope you’ve got is your old “life is so hard in India” book. Poverty porn, of a form, in which the reader is continuously reminded of how dreadful life is in India. Depending on when it was written, it may include a bonus suggestion that what India really needs is more European intervention so that it can be dragged into modern society and become a civilized nation at last.

Then you have your idealized, saccharine version of India. Oh, sure, life is hard, but stop and admire the saris! Meet the slum children with hearts of gold who will overcome hardship and transition into better lives! I think of these as the “colours of India” type books, the ones that leave some readers starryeyed with a vision of India which doesn’t exist more than the relentlessly hard one above, and is just as unjust a depiction.

Finally, you have “India as vehicle for personal discovery,” in which an Anglo travels to India and is filled with wisdom and wonder by the empowering and amazing experience. India is used as a prop, here, to frame the Hero’s Journey, and not all of these books are fiction, alas. These books tend to perpetuate the other two because along the way we see the hero learning that, hey, life in India is not all hard! And, also, life in India is not all colourful silk saris and spices!

According to the author’s discussion in the back of the book, The Space Between Us was specifically written to avoid these tropes, and Umrigar wanted to write a story about India which also managed to be a story about the world in general. About human relationships which can appear anywhere, and about the connections and disconnections between people.

I’m not entirely sure that the book succeeded in this, at least, not everywhere. But I did like it. It was a bit of a departure from the narratives about India that I am used to seeing, and Umrigar did a good job of presenting India in a way which was crisp, and interesting, not overemotional or idealized, but also not hopelessly dry and clinical. One thing which I really liked was the exploration of how people move between social classes, and how tenuous someone’s hold on one class or another can be.

The book touches upon a lot of issues which are relevant everywhere, not just in India. Like a woman being in a deeply unhappy and abusive marriage, and feeling unable to escape because she knows that she has no other options and no chance at financial freedom. And a woman in a happy marriage which turns unhappy when catastrophe strikes and they find themselves against the wall with no money and no place to go.

But there are also some things about the book which have a distinctly Indian flavour, and they provided some interesting insights into Indian culture. The book centers around the relationship between a Parsi woman and her Hindu servant, and Umrigar mentioned that she drew parts of the story from her own life, which really made the story resonate. The description, for example, of the Parsi woman explaining why her servant had to eat from different dishes and could not sit on the furniture, felt very much like an actual conversation which Umrigar had witnessed.

She managed to talk about things like slum life without straying too far into either end of the trope scale, and discussed some of the matter of fact things which I haven’t seen in a lot of other books. Like the fact that lines for water can last for hours, for example, and how people getting up early to prepare for domestic jobs must choose between using the bathroom and getting water because they can’t do both. What it’s like to be a domestic servant shopping in the nice produce market for your mistress and then to go home and have nothing to eat.

Umrigar herself left India at age 21, and this book is in part about the divide between two lives, as well. It makes me curious to read her other novel, Bombay Time, to see if her writing varies and if she can, perhaps, tell more than one story (it’s always a tossup with novelists). I rather hope that she does, because I find her writing voice very interesting. She uses words in some fun and interesting ways, paints vivid and strong pictures without being maudlin or florid, and leaves me rolling thoughts, words, and ideas around in my brainmeats, which is exactly the kind of writing I like.