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The Secrets Between Us

Review

The Secrets Between Us

Thrity Umrigar has written seven novels, nearly all of which have been based in Mumbai, India. The same holds true for her latest effort, THE SECRETS BETWEEN US, which is a sequel to 2006’s THE SPACE BETWEEN US. In that book, Umrigar had chronicled the friendship between a rich, privileged housewife named Sera and her maid, Bhima.

The bonds of respect, support and companionship between the two women from very different classes and circumstances made for a compelling read. Most evenings, they would share a cup of tea. Sera would be seated on her living room couch, while Bhima squatted on the floor --- which is the tradition in India --- as they would talk about their day.

Umrigar never thought of writing a sequel, but at book discussions, readers would repeatedly ask about Bhima, the domestic servant (as maids are referred to in India). The disparity in the lives of the two women --- one in an air-conditioned, classy, upscale condominium, the other in a mud hut with meager possessions --- had made readers worried and concerned for Bhima.

Umrigar believed that she already had written a story about domestic help once, and was reluctant to revisit it. However, there had been a minor character named Parvati, who she always thought about because no one ever asked about her. An ugly, disfigured woman with a grotesque growth on her neck, Parvati sat in the corner of the produce market and sold six heads of cauliflower daily. Bhima looked down on her with disgust and contempt. The layers of class system in India ensure that the ones who are above you on the ladder must be treated with respect and the ones below you should be ignored.

"THE SECRETS BETWEEN US is a poignant, emotional and engrossing saga of class, misfortune and poverty, and a triumph of sisterhood... It is a phenomenal story of friendships, sisterhood, second chances and survival."

It occurred to Umrigar that the two poor women who live on the lowest rung of the social ladder could have something in common, more than they would like to admit. And she imagined a storyline linking them in a business enterprise against the background of the 2006-2007 globalization of India when the entire country was upbeat about the possibility of economic prosperity.

And so THE SECRETS BETWEEN US was born. Bhima works two cleaning jobs to have the money to enable her granddaughter Maya to take classes, which she hopes will lead to a job offer and a way out of poverty. Parvati has had a harsh childhood after her father sold her to a brothel owner and a man rescues her, subsequently marrying her only to abuse her. She is bitter and angry but is a tough street survivor. The description of Mumbai’s filthy slums with excrement, vomit, unhealthy living conditions and cruel, merciless streets will take you into a world that you wish never existed, though sadly it does.

The story begins with a crisis. Bhima, the loyal, illiterate servant who has served Sera’s family for two decades, summons up the courage to reveal a horrible crime committed by a member of the family on her granddaughter. Her reward is a cruel firing; it especially hurts because it is done by Sera, whom she has loved and trusted.

Broken, worried and in despair, Bhima looks for alternate employment to support herself and Maya. She ends up working for a lesbian couple and realizes that sexual orientation does not define the character of a person. The two women treat her and Maya with respect and affection, which she had never experienced before.

She then proceeds to join forces with Parvati and begins an unlikely partnership selling fresh fruits and vegetables. In the beginning they don’t trust each other, but they know they have only each other to lean on because they want to earn a decent wage. Bhima secretly envies and marvels at Parvati’s ability to do numbers in her head, while the latter looks up at her new friend’s stoicism and strength. Between these ladies exists a strong society of sisterhood.

Slowly they reveal their secrets, losses and heartbreaks, and with those confessions they forge a friendship and a brand-new life. There is a quote from the book that defines them: “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 SECRETS BETWEEN US is a poignant, emotional and engrossing saga of class, misfortune and poverty, and a triumph of sisterhood, which may have come late in life, but the rewards are worth it. It is a phenomenal story of friendships, sisterhood, second chances and survival. Many Indian authors have chosen to portray modern India with new custom-made marble homes, pristine gleaming skyscrapers, and the wealth of the new generations with their multiple opportunities and choices. They study in prestigious American colleges, work in famous companies, and vacation in Europe with occasional visits to their ancestral homes. But Umrigar prefers to focus on the struggles of the poor and the destitute who need to earn their daily bread.

India still grapples with issues of poverty, gender discrimination, homophobia, illiteracy, ageism and sexual violence against women. It is also one of the most dangerous countries for females, according to reports from the United Nations. And paradoxically, women of power, wealth, privilege and education continue to succeed in arts, entertainment, business, engineering and technology.

India is moving toward its future, but it cannot get rid of its past, and the struggle is woven in the present. Thrity Umrigar does a masterful job of capturing the tension, the progress and the uncertainty through the eyes of her characters.

Reviewed by Sonia Chopra on July 6, 2018

The Secrets Between Us
by Thrity Umrigar

  • Publication Date: June 26, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062442201
  • ISBN-13: 9780062442208