Dhwani Swadia’s Book Review of the Between Us Book Series by Thrity Umrigar
In India, the relationship between the lady of the house and her maid, especially if the maid has been with them for several years, is quite special. Often, they are the only two people who talk to each other during the day. Both are privy to things that go on in each other’s homes. And yet, there is a space between them. They have tea together and chat about the goings-on, yet one sits on the sofa and the other on the floor; one sips hot tea from a mug and other from a ‘special’ steel glass.
The maid cooks food for the entire family, takes care of the children, yet the family avoids directly touching her. She is a part of the family; the lady would gladly pay for the schooling of her children, any hospitalization for her and her family members and ensure that they get proper treatment. But, would not allow the maid to sit on their furniture. The kids that she loves and helps to raise, grow up and learn from their surroundings and the distance start to creep in this relation as well.
The first book of the Between Us series that is written by Thrity Umrigar, “The Space Between Us” highlights this unique relationship between Bhima, the maid, and Serabai, the woman who has hired her. Since the story is narrated from Bhima’s point of view, we, the readers, are acutely aware of this kind-yet-distant relationship between these two women and their families.
The second book of this series, “The Secrets Between Us”, follows Bhima as she leaves her Serabai and we see her dealing with the pangs of separation akin to losing a family member. It is when Bhima meets a cranky old woman, Parvati, who earns her living by selling six cauliflowers in the market. Initially, both Bhima and Parvati are wary of each other. Bhima thinks of Parvati as being extremely rude and Parvati thinks of Bhima as a “woman with her nose in the air”.
Circumstances and make these two women sit together for days, and their initial hostility gives way to conversation. By reluctantly sharing details of their past, both are able to lighten their burdens and truly understand who they are as real people underneath the demeanour they show to the world. As Thrity Umrigar puts it, “It isn’t the words we speak that make us who we are. Or even the deeds we do. It is the secrets buried in our hearts.”
The Between Usseries, on the surface, is a story of a poor woman. Yet, when reading these books, we are forced to question ourselves and our behaviour. How are the women who work in other’s homes treated? Many of us clamour for equality of sexes…but do we treat people who are socially “below” us as equals?
Along with this, we also have a reference to the discrimination faced by the LGBT in India, as Bhima tries to come to terms with working for two women who treat her with respect and love, and are “together”. In Bhima’s journey of coming to terms with this knowledge, we see how society reacts to people who just wish to be themselves.
It is said that fiction often shows us the aspects of reality that we would generally not want to avoid. Between Usseries is one such book. The writing is exceptional and the storyline has all the elements of drama and emotions. Trinity Umirgar is an author who successfully delivers an interesting storyline while making us question our actions with respect to how we view class and genders in India. The books in this series are meant to be read in order as the second book contains spoilers for the first.