Sera is a Parsi woman and Bhima is her servant. They have run a household together for many years and Bhima has been like a second mother to Sera’s daughter, Dinaz, from the time of her birth. Yet, due to cultural norms, there is a “space” between Sera and Bhima that cannot be bridged. An intimacy and an aloofness that coexist.
The relationship between Sera and Bhima is but a starting point for Umrigar’s exploration into Mumbai life. With Bhima, she illustrates the curse of poverty and the struggles it brings. There is a harshness to her portrayal that I have not experienced in other novels. Rohinton Mistry wrote eloquently about the Mumbai slums in A Fine Balance, and more recently, Danny Boyle revealed the same in Slumdog Millionaire. Those descriptions, while vivid, seem more poetic now after reading this book.
Umrigar’s former life as a journalist serves her well here. Her descriptions of Bhima’s home, her chawl – even the balloon vendors on Chowpatty beach – are so real that I could almost feel myself there.
With Sera, we see behind the curtain of middle-class life. Every family has their secrets, and beyond Sera’s elegant sarees and antique furniture lies a world that is even uglier than Bhima’s slum. Both women face the challenges of raising children in an upredictable world and similarly they face the realities of marriage and heartache.
Mumbai is one of my favourite cities, and my heart rose with the loving descriptions of that vibrant metropolis. Umrigar captures the “life” of the city and its dark underbelly too.
Beyond the cultural perspectives, Umrigar shares a universal theme of hope and perseverance. Humans have an instinctive ability to continue in the face of adversity and this force is distinctly explored in this eloquent novel.