Review: The Secrets Between Us

After nearly 20 years working as a maid for a wealthy Mumbai family, Bhima has been abruptly dismissed. Though she did the right thing in speaking out about a shameful situation, she is left with no income to support herself and her college-age granddaughter, Maya. As Bhima struggles to adjust to her new reality, she finds an unexpected business partner in Parvati, a sharp-tongued elderly woman who ekes out a living selling cauliflower at the nearby market. Both women have spent their lives on the knife edge of poverty. Their bitter experiences, professional and personal, and their fierce pride make them wary of trusting others, but they set up a vegetable stand together and gradually come to rely on one another. Thrity Umrigar's eighth novel, The Secrets Between Us, traces the intertwined journeys of Bhima, Parvati and their loved ones in acutely observed prose.
Readers of Umrigar's 2006 novel, The Space Between Us, will recognize Bhima and Maya, as well as Bhima's longtime employer, Sera, and the circumstances of Bhima's dismissal. But The Secrets Between Us stands alone: its focus is squarely on Bhima, who must confront not only her financial worries but her long-held prejudices related to class and other social divisions. Umrigar takes readers inside the Mumbai slums, vividly evoking both the cramped living conditions and Bhima's deep shame at having to live there.
While she longs for Maya to escape the neighborhood's crushing poverty, Bhima also fears the day her educated granddaughter will disappear from her life. She knows that social codes are changing rapidly in Mumbai, but she is also unsure how to navigate a new world where the rules are different. A subplot involving a client and her artist partner shows both Bhima's deep discomfort with shifting norms and her eventual willingness to open her mind to new ideas.
Umrigar also gradually reveals more of Parvati's background, including her experiences as a young woman and her unhappy marriage. Both women have been hardened by difficult events in their lives, but they find surprising tenderness and strength in their tenuous friendship. Umrigar draws her characters with a keen and compassionate hand--not only her protagonists but her supporting characters as well, like Rajeev, who makes deliveries for the vegetable stand and watches over both women like a devoted son. Even Maya, despite her tendency to act like a spoiled child, is more complex than she first appears.
Packed with sensory details and tart dialogue, Umrigar's novel deftly evokes the complicated realities of poverty, love, hard work, guilt, grief and friendship in modern-day Mumbai. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Shelf Talker: Two women living in the slums of Mumbai form a tentative business partnership and friendship.
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