Set in contemporary Bombay, Umrigar’s second novel (Bombay Time, 2001) is an affecting portrait of a woman and her maid, whose lives, despite class disparity, are equally heartbreaking.
Though Bhima has worked for the Dubash family for decades and is coyly referred to as “one of the family,” she nonetheless is forbidden from sitting on the furniture and must use her own utensils while eating. For years, Sera blamed these humiliating boundaries on her husband Feroz, but now that he’s dead and she’s lady of the house, the two women still share afternoon tea and sympathy with Sera perched on a chair and Bhima squatting before her. Bhima is grateful for Sera, for the steady employment, for what she deems friendship and, mostly, for the patronage Sera shows Bhima’s granddaughter Maya. Orphaned as a child when her parents died of AIDS, Bhima raised Maya and Sera saw to her education. Now in college, Maya’s future is like a miracle to the illiterate Bhima—her degree will take them out of the oppressive Bombay slums, guaranteeing Maya a life away from servitude. But in a cruel mirror of Sera’s happiness—her only child Dinaz is expecting her first baby—Bhima finds that Maya is pregnant, has quit school and won’t name the child’s father. As the situation builds to a crisis point, both women reflect on the sorrows of their lives. While Bhima was born into a life of poverty and insurmountable obstacles, Sera’s privileged upbringing didn’t save her from a husband who beat her and a mother-in-law who tormented her. And while Bhima’s marriage begins blissfully, an industrial accident leaves her husband maimed and an alcoholic. He finally deserts her, but not before he bankrupts the family and kidnaps their son. Though Bhima and Sera believe they are mutually devoted, soon decades of confidences are thrown up against the far older rules of the class game.
A subtle, elegant analysis of class and power. Umrigar transcends the specifics of two Bombay women and creates a novel that quietly roars against tyranny.