In this novel, Thrity Umrigar explores issues of social class and the ways in which class impacts life experience and relationships. Sera is a wealthy Indian woman who suffered in an unhappy and violent marriage. Bhima is her servant, living in extreme poverty with her orphaned granddaughter Maya, who she has cared for since early childhood. Bhima has worked for Sera for years; the two women understand and care deeply for each other. Many times Sera has come to Bhima’s aid, using her status to secure better healthcare for a family member, arrange for Maya’s education, and help Bhima navigate government beaurocracy. And Bhima provided Sera with much-needed emotional support throughout her marriage.
On the surface it would appear the two women have overcome class differences and forged a deep and lasting friendship. Yet Sera will not allow Bhima to sit on her furniture. There are many other small indications along the way, until the novel’s climax fully exposes the chasm between the two women. In the final analysis, class differences reinforce one woman’s privilege and the other’s destitution.
While this novel takes place in India, where much has been written about the role of social class, supposedly egalitarian societies fall victim similar traps. Just this week I had a conversation with a colleague who was struggling with the importance of developing a diverse workforce. “I think we should just hire the best people,” he said. I was reminded of an article I read years ago: White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. The author writes, “Obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated [sic] in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”
Food for thought.
My original review can be found here.