Published by Harper
Publication date: June 26, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Social Issues
By the end of Thrity Umrigar’s novel, The Space Between Us, Bhima had been fired from her job as Sera’s household servant, after being accused of stealing money from the family. For Bhima, living alone while trying to raise her granddaughter, Maya, in one of Mumbai’s many slums, this was a catastrophic event. She had worked for Sera for over two decades, relying on Sera’s kindness and interest in Maya’s education to help them stay afloat, only to see that life shattered by the lies of Sera’s family. Umrigar is back with a sequel, The Secrets Between Us, which begins three days after Bhima has been dismissed. What little safety net there was is now gone. Umrigar takes the reader on another harrowing journey through a world foreign to most of us—numbing in its depiction of abject poverty and discrimination, but fiercely alive in its characters’ determination to survive.
Since losing her job Bhima has found two others working but the combined income is hardly enough to get by. Maya is excelling in college and Bhima refuses to let her get a job, even if the money is desperately needed. When an opportunity presents itself for Bhima to earn money selling fruits and vegetables in the nearby marketplace she takes it. In doing so meets Parvati, a hostile, homeless, older woman who’s experienced even more hardship and brutality than Bhima can imagine.
At her age, time has stopped flowing in a linear fashion; rather, it ebbs and swirls, creating a whirlpool at its center that on most days swallows her whole.
Together, these two women—one illiterate and the other with a mind for numbers, one social and one with the warmth of a snapping turtle—find a way to bind their strengths together and finally take control of their lives.
The Secrets Between Us is set in modern-day India, but it is an incomprehensible world. Bhima and Maya live in a one-room hut. Parvati pays money to sleep on a piece of cardboard in a hallway. Forget water, electricity, or plumbing. They must carry a pail to a water tap that only works for a short time each day. The slum’s bathroom for women is one large, open room. But the indignities don’t end with their surroundings. Both Bhima and Parvati are Dalits—the Hindu word for untouchable—the lowest designation in India’s caste system. And yes, to some degree, it still exists. For as kind as Bhima’s former boss had been to her she was still never allowed to eat or drink from their dishes, sit on their furniture, or even be touched by them.
All of this could make The Secrets Between Us important but bleak reading, except that Umrigar offsets the misery of her characters’ outer lives with the complexity of their inner ones. Bhima and Parvati have both been subjected to degradation and mistreatment all their lives, but there is no moaning and wailing about injustice or what is unfair. Instead, there is a resigned acceptance on the surface with a steely determination underneath. The indomitable will of these two women determined to make a better life for themselves and those they love gives the novel its depth and heart. The Secrets Between Us is reading that, while it shocked my entitled mind, also brims with a richness that made me value every page.