Thrity Umrigar was born in Bombay and came to the U.S. when she was 21 for graduate school. She’s worked as a journalist, is the best-selling author of numerous novels, and is a Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. I had the pleasure of interviewing Thrity about her new novel, The Secrets Between Us, a sequel to her critically acclaimed bestseller, The Space Between Us, from 2006. The Secrets Between Us continues the story of Bhima, Maya and Sera Dubash, and brings Parvati, a minor character in the first novel, to the forefront with Bhima. The result is a poignant story as they and other women in the novel bridge the space across the intersections of class, privilege, power, gender and sexuality to forge friendships that transcend societal boundaries. Below are excerpts from our conversation Spenta Cama had with Thrity
SC: I know you grew up in Bombay, going to a Catholic school. Who or what were your strongest influences growing up?
TU: My father was a huge influence on me. He was not a very educated man, but a great storyteller and philosopher. Another strong influence was my family’s servant, Bhima (also the name of the protagonist in The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us). I was devoted to her. I felt I saw her for who she truly was, beneath the impoverishment. She had grace, dignity and class and I loved her.
SC: How does being a Parsi Zoroastrian woman influence your writing?
TU: Maybe because we’re a minority community and told every few years we’re on the verge of extinction that I think there’s a thread of melancholy running through my writing when writing about the Parsi community. There’s also an aspect of paying tribute, of commemorating a community that is pretty damn special and that may one day cease to exist. It’s subconsciously affected my writing.
SC: How did you initially decide on the characters of Sera Dubash and Bhima?
TU: The character is based on the real Bhima though the events in the novels are made up. The origin of the book comes from me wanting to tell the story of domestic servants in India. It’s such a great rich, textured story that is important to tell about middle class India.
SC: It seems important to you for the poor to be seen. A passage from the book reflects this: “[Bhima] understands now what Maya finds unbearable about their life together – not the poverty, not the horror of slum life, but the dreadful isolation . . . She and Maya are disposable people, and if they disappeared tomorrow, no one would mourn them or miss them.” Tell me about the messaging behind this.
TU: There’s a tendency we all have to define poverty as a lack of economic means. But people can be very poor even if they have money. Government programs or social workers don’t give enough thought to the internal mechanisms of poverty – the dreadful loneliness, isolation and the not being seen. The Space Between Us is an external novel that deals with the physical hardship of being poor through descriptions of the slum and the lack of money. The Secrets Between Us is more internal, dealing with the social isolation of poverty. Bhima constantly stumbles throughout her life because of her illiteracy and pays a tremendous price for that – in pragmatic ways as well as her own lack of surety and confidence.
SC: As many of your readers may never set foot in India, is writing about the class distinctions political, educational or both?
TU: It’s not meant to be sensationalistic or to spread a political message. (Regardless of which country we belong to) we’re all on the same planet and we all have a responsibility to other people. I want every word I write to be a service to the story itself, and, if I write an honest book, there will be recognition by the readers of a part of themselves in the story – they may not see themselves as a slum dweller in Mumbai necessarily, but there will be a recognition in some part of their heart in what Bhima is thinking. By telling a particular story, a connection is formed, born out of empathy, and the story becomes universal and I have done my job.
SC: Violence plays an unfortunately large role in the female characters’ lives. The adversities some of them face would crush even the best of us. But there is a glimmer of light. You write, “Even in the depth of their despair, hope runs like electricity throughout the basti. It is what makes the woman with no legs weave wicker baskets that she sells to a fancy shop. What makes the blind boy’s mother spend her days picking rags to pay his school fees.” How do you provide hope to women in such circumstances? Is it part of your personality or what makes great fiction?
TU: It is part of my personality. The characters are providing hope to me and not the other way around. The evidence of this hope is everywhere in India – the joyousness and hopefulness takes my breath away. People are living for and through their children, and thinking, “I didn’t make it, but my kids will.”
SC: Who is your favorite character you’ve ever created?
TU: I loved writing about Parvati. I understood that despite her abrasive exterior, she is wounded from inside. I enjoyed writing about the duality.
SC: Who is an author you’d like to have dinner with and what would you like to discuss?
TU: I’d like to make it two authors: Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. I’d love to have them over my house, serve them wine and listen to them talk.
SC: Thank you for your time and representation of Parsi Zoroastrians in American literature with thoughtful, strong characters.
I find that in exceptional fiction, while the story may be made up, the characters are people true to life with their complexities, strengths, faults, desires and passions. When you’ve completed such a story, its reach goes beyond your heart in penetrating the depths of your soul and you will be enriched because of it. Dear readers, go out and get a copy of The Space Between Us and its remarkable sequel, The Secrets Between Us, to share in this intense exploration of the human heart.
Spenta Cama is an attorney, living and working in New York who is passionate about social justice issues. She is an active member of her local Zoroastrian organization, Zoroastirian Association of Greater New York. She loves reading Parsi Khabar so she can keep up with the interesting news and events of the Parsi and Zoroastrian community, particularly abroad.