I’m still thoroughly enjoying this read. Are you?
Umrigar continues to paint such a detailed picture of Sera’s upper-class world and Bhima’s world of poverty. I find the back-and-forth structure that she uses to weave the tale easy to follow. I never tire of one woman’s world, past or present, as the structure keeps me on my toes, but without feeling as if it’s hard work as a reader.
However the “hard work” is reading about the continuing pain and struggles of our two lead characters. From the opening chapter in this week’s read, the colorful scene of Bhima shopping at the markets for Sera’s food, the issues of money (or lack of it) and the dirt and grime of the stalls is so clear. As one shopkeeper says to Bhima when she asks that he not give her any rotten potatoes: “Everything in Mumbai is rotten. The air is rotten, the politicians are rotten, the public transportation system is rotten. Why should a few poor potatoes not be rotten?” In just those few words we know exactly where we are and what Bhima must fight against every day. She’s tired and worn out and feels old and poor. Did you all see the sights and hear the sounds of these markets as well and feel Bhima’s fatigue?
We read about the plans for Maya’s abortion, how Sera will step in and take care of it all. Again, the trust they put in Sera and how she embraces her servant family in times of need is quite touching. She does share her mixed thoughts, feeling irritated, about helping Maya this way. But Sera reminds herself how she owes so much to Bhima. I know I had wondered earlier if they would all agree to go ahead with the abortion. I especially suspected that Bhima would at the last minute not allow it. But they all clearly saw the need for this very young woman to be given a chance to move on from her slum life by getting a college education and a good job, not become a very young mother alone who cleans houses. And how striking is the good care Maya receives at the doctor’s office (instead of a government hospital), all because of Sera’s money and influence. Umrigar continues to remind us about the class system, it’s always present in this world, in this story.
The writer soon reveals the violence that Sera experienced in her marriage to Feroz. It was implied earlier—his angry moods—but now we know it was not just moods, he was physically abusive. We read about the harm he caused her in one awful fight with a brass candleholder: “Feroz would not stop, raining blows on her back, this time with his bare hands….he was staring at her as if he loathed her, as if the sight of her crumpled bruised body made him sick.”
How Bhima helps Sera to heal, how her strong hands massage and comfort Sera’s bruised body, is so lovely, the writing so powerful. “As her body relaxed under Bhima’s wise hands, Sera felt herself receding, moving backward in time, so that for a moment she was a young bride sitting astride her new husband’s lap as he rocked her back and forth in a sexual rhythm, and then in the next moment, she was a young child on her mother’s knee, being rocked to sleep after a hot, restless night…she was a small fish floating around in a warm world of darkness and fluids…” How healing these images are. Did you too feel how the strength and power of Bhima’s touch could move Sera to this healthier, happier place?
Maya’s post-recovery chapter is equally powerful. She’s depressed and Bhima’s recognition that she needs some fresh air—a change of scenery—is great. Those moments of their talks at the seaside are so joyful! Maya’s young spirit returns. And how happy that makes Bhima. Did you enjoy that breath of fresh air in the book? I think the writer knew we all needed that!
These seaside chats that the grandmother and granddaughter share are so sweet, but the harshness of their lives soon reappears. Bhima shares family tales and Maya presses her about her parents’ deaths. So once again we are in a harsh world, the brutal world of AIDS, and we read how Bhima struggled with the tragic ends of her daughter and son-in-law. It’s not a pretty picture, but we learn more about Bhima and Maya’s family history and how they ended up together. Says Maya: “I don’t know what I would’ve done if it wasn’t for you.” And Bhima realizes: “This girl is like her grandfather, she can pierce my heart with the words the size of a mosquito…Of course I took you in, you’re my blood, aren’t you?”
We enter their world of death with the descriptions of both of the funeral pyres. When it’s over, Bhima’s sorrow is expressed like this: “I have witnessed the horror of my own child dying before me, I will want to melt like ice, I will want to crumble like sand, I will want to dissolve like sugar in a glass of water. I will want to stop existing, you understand?” What beautiful metaphors, and how we feel her pain of losing her child, completely helpless.
Did you find the dying scenes truthful? Was it a difficult section to read? Did you too enjoy Hyder, the young man who Bhima meets and befriends at the hospital? I felt he was there to give Bhima (and us) some air, some light, during this hardship.
We’re given one brief mention of her husband, Gopal, and his “disappearance to alcohol,” and Bhima wonders if and how she should contact him during this time of loss. I imagine we will read more details about her marriage and its end.
As rough as some of these pages are to read, I still find Umrigar’s writing so moving. Are you as engaged as I am?