Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Secrets Between Us - Thrity Umrigar

The Secrets Between Us is my first experience with one of Thrity Umrigar’s novels. I have always found it difficult to imagine what daily life must be like for India’s poorest, those people forced to spend all their time and energy on finding enough food and shelter to survive for just one more day. Always one day at a time…and always knowing that cultural constraints make it next to impossible for them to escape their lot. I was hoping that The Secrets Between Us would help me understand what that kind of like must be like - and it did exactly that.


“This is what I believe. There is only one true evil. And it is being poor. With money, a sinner can be worshiped as a saint. A murderer can be elected chief minister. A rapist can become a respectable family man…Understand?”


The story revolves around two main characters, Bhima and Parvati, two women who do not know each other as the story begins. Bhima, poor and illiterate, has spent the last two decades cleaning and cooking for a middle class family in Mumbai. Her duties often take her to the  rambling, open-air vegetable market where she has noticed Parvati, an old woman selling her sparse good from a rug spread on the ground. The two women, however, have never acknowledged each other’s existence. Bhima thinks that Parvati is beneath her notice, and Parvati believes Bhima to be a snob who overestimates her own worth.


Both women will soon begin to learn how wrong they have been about the other. It will take some time, but time is just about all either of them has anyway. Bhima is the sole provider for Maya, her teenaged granddaughter, and after Bhima is unfairly fired from her cleaning job without warning, she is desperate to replace the lost income before she and Maya end up living on the streets of the slum. Parvati has no one to call family anymore, other than the young man she thinks of as a “nephew,” even though he only allows to have her sleep outside his apartment door every night as long as she does nothing to offend the neighbors. 


Largely because there are no better options for either of the women, Bhima and Parvati come to an unlikely business arrangement with the potential to save both their lives if only they can learn to stand each other’s company. Both women have secrets about their past that they have sworn to share with no one, but they will come to learn just how much they have in common with each other - as well as with most every other Indian woman. 


She is aware that every mother in this basti has deposited her unrealized hopes into her children because not one woman believes that she will live long enough for her own Age of Darkness to end. It is for their children’s sake that the women put up with the bad tempers of bosses, the humiliations and assaults too numerous to count, the arbitrariness of their hirings and firings, the grind of public transportation designed for a city one-third the size of what Mumbai has become.”


Bottom Line: The Secrets Between Us is a story about the surviving strength of women in a society in which they are clearly second-class citizens. It is a story about women who are willing to do whatever it takes to give their own children, especially their daughters, the chance for a better life than the one they themselves have endured. What the novel has to say about the plight of women even today in parts of the world is horrifying, but in the end it leaves the reader with the hope that it will not always be this way. 


“I am like this paper. People can write on me, spit on me, tear me up, it makes no difference. One strong gust of wind and -“ she releases the scrap of paper - “bas, I’m gone. And no one will even know I was here.”


Thrity Umrigar 


8 comments:

  1. India is such a different culture from ours! I like reading books set there because I always learn so much. I think my favorite book set in India is Partitions by Amit Majmudar. But I also really liked Umrigar's The Story Hour. :)

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    1. The culture fascinates me, Lark. I got to know several Indian families when I lived in London for a few years, and was impressed by the way they raise their children and strive so hard to make sure that the children have the tools they need to succeed in whatever life they choose.

      I've read quite of bit of fiction set in India, but The Good Girls - a book I hope to start sometime this week - will be the first nonfiction book on India that I can recall reading. It's a look at the other side of that culture - the one where rape is so common and so seldom prosecuted.

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  2. Reading your review made me remember a doorstopper of a book I read about slums in Calcutta, titled City of Joy. I would like to read that again. And maybe this one too.

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    1. The only criticism I have of this one - and it didn't bother me enough to mention it in the review - is that the ending is a little too sugarcoated to seem entirely real. But it's that kind of book, so I'm sure that didn't surprise readers already familiar with her work.

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  3. I've read at least a couple of Umrigar's books and really like her writing. The Space Between Us is waiting on my shelf and for a minute I thought that was the book you were reviewing. I looked this title up on goodreads and found it listed as a sequel. Either way, I hope to read The Space Between Us this year and possibly follow up with this one.

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  4. It is a sequel, JoAnn, and I didn't realize that until I was already committed to reading it. But honestly, it works just fine as a standalone, too, because the author provides a lot of summarized backstory that seamlessly works its way into the plot.

    I'm curious enough now to go back and read the first book, supposing that as long as I look at it as a "prequel" to what I already know about the ultimate fate of the characters, it will still work well for me.

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  5. I read The Space Between Us years ago and was impressed. I just looked, it was 2006. Loved the writing and found the poverty unbelievable. I intended to read more by Umrigar, but haven't yet.

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    1. She is a very good storyteller, and I plan to read more of her stuff, too.

      By the way, I just watched a Netflix series from 2019 called Delhi Crime that was filmed in India and it portrays that poverty, the class system, the justice system, etc. in a way I could have never imagined it, I think, from reading novels set in the same place. It tells the story of a truly horrible crime suffered by a young woman in 2012 (true case), but if you have the stomach for that, I highly recommend this series. I watched the original version where most of the dialogue is in Hindi with English subtitles, but I was surprised at how often, in the same conversation, the characters broke into English. I could not always understand the accent when they were speaking English, but I found it fascinating.

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