Sunday, 12 August 2007

Outrageous writing (Thrity Umrigar: The Space Between Us)

There are writers primarily motivated by beauty and other writers by social justice. There are writers burning with desire to explain their unknown culture to the outside world, and other writers writing from within that culture, focusing rather on what can be universally understood as social. Thrity Umrigar (b. 1961) is a social writer, who in an interview claims to write mainly of issues that cause in her rage and fury. The first such issue in The Space Between Us is class, which even in highly divided India remains an unspoken territory.

Although it took her only six months to complete The Space, Thrity Umrigar started writing her second novel in her mind already as a teenager. She was a self-proclaimed socialist since early teenage and rebelled against her relatives' ways to treat the servants. The first novel, Bombay Time, seems to be thematically interrelated, as a saga of the life of a middle-class Mumbai apartment building and its inhabitants. The Space is also situated in Mumbai, as a story of a mistress and maid. The protagonist is an elderly slum-dweller, Bhima, who travels daily to work for Serabai, a middle-aged widow living with her married daughter and son-in-law. Serabai's family belongs to the Parsi minority of India, an ethnic group originating from Persia, who escaped Muslim religious persecution, settling down in India ca. a millennia ago. Umrigar, herself a Parsi, does not write from a particular Parsi perspective as her more inward-oriented Parsi colleague, Bapsi Sidhwa, does. As a writer, her voice is more worldly than Sidhwa's; she seems to have worked out the issues of communal memory and belonging for herself before setting out to write. In a refreshing way, The Space Between Us, is not about minority rights or identity politics.

The protagonist Bhima is a lower-caste Hindu, which is not really a group denominator in India - Bhima's position in society is rather marked by the facts of her slum residence and lack of education. The space between the two women is not a gap both are eager to fill, but rather a space determined by hierarchical power relations and social distance. Umrigar portrays the mistress Serabai as the most benevolent and understanding employer, who even goes to the extreme of paying Bhima's granddaughter's college fees. However, this does not translate as an easy friendship across class. The notion of gratitude automatically steps in. The donor is not expected the same kind of loyalty as the recipient should express; the one who feeds can bite the hungry hand.

As class and caste are always intertwined in the Indian context, Umrigar tries to find more nuanced words to speak about the hierarchies. The keyword that feminist theorists nowadays cultivate, intersectionality, seems to be also on Umrigar's agenda. Brought to narrative, it becomes more than a mere political slogan. It becomes a way of studying details, such as why a domestic servant who has become a kind of family member is not allowed to sit on the sofa and is given separate utensils to eat with. Intersectionality helps us discover the content of "kind of, but not quite". It describes distance in people's bodies, how someone who through speech champions human rights can be disgusted by the lower class subject's ways of chewing tobacco or using foul language. Lack of hygiene, lack of sanitation. Universally, slums smell of shit. That's the bottom line.

Umrigar's "social" contains leftist messages, inasmuch as a writer based in the US and publishing through a high profile mainstream publishing house (HarperCollins) can do. She studies the possibilities of class struggle from the system within by asking, what are the limits of domestic servants' loyalty, where the loopholes for rebellion and opting out can be found. If in a country like India, there in fact are alternative jobs for illiterate elderly women like Bhima - the question is raised, but not answered. She also covers themes that are not particularly media-sexy in the neoliberalist literary marketplace: trade unionism (or its lack in India), literacy, domestic violence, abortion and HIV/AIDS (how many many HIV/AIDS-related novels or films have you come across since the higher availability of medication for patients in the West?). Her characters are not particularly politicized, not obvious change agents in their community, but people who perhaps in more ideal circumstances would have the power to mobilise others. Umrigar does not want to provide the reader easy characters, Hollywood heroines for white women to shed tears with, rather she gives us complexity, people with surprising edges. The political, then, is not demagogical, populist building of ideal types. It begins from what the reader makes out of such a novel, what kinds of afterlives it has "out there" at the street level.

As an ethnographer working with literacy issues, I admire Umrigar's courage to write from the perspective of an uneducated slum dweller. I would argue that the language she gives to Bhima is too fluent. However, the observations about class and power become crystallized, when Bhima examines her own helplessness with papers and language. Umrigar creates a pre-literate figure who is fully aware of her limitations as a worker and citizen, someone who monitors her speech in front of the more powerful and analyses her own difference from the educated in advanced ways. By living daily with the rich and powerful, she has the spectacles of reading power relations: her employers know exactly what to ask from the doctor, whereas she has never before heard the simple word "infection". The morning paper is one of the daily spaces that separates Serabai from Bhima; although Serabai sometimes reads the news out to her servant, it is the difficult words that build the gap. Bhima has, however, the meta-language to deal with her own situation. Many adults struggling with literacy problems don't.

If I were to include The Space Between Us in my teaching (which might indeed happen), it would not be a course on Indian women's writing. I find many affinities in Umrigar's writing with the African-American feminists (or some would prefer to be identified as "womanists"), who also write strongly about mixed emotions across race and class. Texts such as Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and bell hooks' various autobiographical works, would be excellent company for Umrigar's prose, with similar narrative force and political power beyond emotional identification. What happens beyond tears, what other force good literature has than to make us weep, these are the questions I would like to ask from my students. If Umrigar writes outrageously and makes also the reader outraged while reading, what is the afterlife of our emotions, where does rage lead us? Good literature never leaves us with mere phantom pain, it gives us tools to cope with everyday life and similar problems in our locality. Umrigar does this, she brings the reader from the box of tissues and boxing gloves to political analysis.