In Thrity Umrigar's humanistic tale of love, loss and betrayal, two very different women struggle to cope with heartache and sorrow, in the process discovering an inevitable commonality, a spiritual unity. Money, opportunity and class, however, irrevocably divide
them. Sera Dubash is a Parsi, educated and wealthy; she lives a privileged, upper-middle class life in Bombay. Now widowed, Sera lives happily with her daughter and son-in-law and looks forward to the birth of her first grandchild. Bhima is poor and illiterate, forced to eke out an existence on the edges of Bombay, enduring the stench and fifth, the open drains with their dank pungent smell, the dark rows of slanting hutments, and the gaunt, open-mouthed men.
Bhima is Sera's housekeeper, and over the years
she has come to respect and love this kindhearted woman, the only person who has bothered to treat her like a human being,
who has been steadfast and true to her and has never despised her for being ignorant or illiterate or weak. Bhima looks at her privileged friend and is convinced that only through education can her granddaughter, Maya, escape from the back-breaking menial labor that has marred the lives of her mother and her mother before her. Sera has even promised to financially assist Maya with her college degree, help that Maya so desperately needs. So it comes as a shock to them when seventeen-year-old Maya tells them she is pregnant. In desperation, Bhima seeks Sera's help, convinced that an abortion is the only way for Maya to break out of the prison she has made for herself.
For Bhima this is just one more setback in a life plagued by hard knocks. Her daughter and son-in-law are dead, stricken by an incurable disease; forced to live in the slums, her emotions are now ruled by anger and fear, fear for this stupid innocent pregnant girl and anger for this unborn child whom she sees as a "demon growing in her granddaughter's belly."
Maya's mistake bonds Sera and Bhima; sometimes it is as though Bhima has an eyeglass to Sera's soul. Yet they are divided by a hypocritical society that perpetuates discriminative caste differences and looks down upon the poor. Bombay is a city mad with greed and hunger, power and impotence, wealth and poverty, where the weak and vulnerable are elbowed away, where the poor treat the middle class like royalty, when they should actually hate their guts.
Sera is concerned for Bhima and Maya, but will never allow Bhima to sit at the lunch table,
making her squat on her haunches on the floor nearby and use separate eating utensils. In this jolting momentary world full of illusion and false hope, Sera and Bhima – both disappointed by the men they loved – are obliged to make the best of any situation they land
in. Sera resorts to tears and recriminations, determined to shut out the
realities of the evil within her own family; Bhima is left to pick up the pieces, to soldier on, cloaked in anger and misery, yearning for what she has left behind.
Gorgeously imagined, this intimate and sensuous tale is fraught with tension, the human condition this author's specialty. It is impossible to imagine more frightening circumstances than those that Bhima must endure at her age, her heart broken by the people around her with their deceit, treachery, fallibility, and sheer humanity, each wound penetrating deeper and deeper. Throughout the course of the story, Bhima learns that none of the old rules, the old taboos, apply.
Hers is a fragile existence, a world constructed of sand – shaky, ambiguous, and ultimately impermanent.