By Thrity Umrigar
Algonquin Books: Jan. 4, 2022
$26.95, 336 pages
India is a land of contrasts: a Hindu culture going back more than 2,500 years and a booming, high tech economy; small villages with a traditional lifestyle and some of the largest cities in the world; a population that is majority Hindu with a significant Muslim minority; grinding poverty and eye-popping wealth; oceans, plains, and mountains; the list goes on. India contains multitudes.
In Honor, Thrity Umrigar puts the tension between these contrasts to good use in the story of Smita, a 30-ish Indian American journalist. She is called away from a vacation in the nearby Maldives to help her close friend Shannon, an American journalist based in Mumbai who’s in the hospital with a broken hip and urgently needs help covering a major story. Smita returns to Mumbai for the first time since her family emigrated to the United States 20 years earlier and finds herself entangled in the story she’s been asked to cover. Her trip to a city she swore she would never set foot in again triggers memories of her childhood and the complex series of events that led her parents to flee to the U.S.
The core of Honor concerns the case of Meena, a poor Hindu girl from the distant village of Vithalgaon who upsets the balance in her family when she and her younger sister decide to work outside the home. Her older brothers, traditional Hindus, are responsible for Meena and Radha. No woman in their village has ever held a job, and her brothers are outraged by the humiliation their actions have caused. Their wounded pride turns to fury when Meena falls in love with a Muslim co-worker, whom she intends to marry. The charming and earnest Abdul “had considered his interfaith marriage to be not a source of shame but of pride. He had seen himself and his wife as representatives of a new India, had thought of their unborn child as an ambassador of this new nation. . . Bearing no malice or prejudice himself, he couldn’t imagine the contempt and hatred his brothers-in-law felt for his kind, couldn’t have foreseen how they seethed under the scandal and dishonor that Meena had wrought.”
Her brothers, Govind and Arvind, and a gang of village men burn down their tiny hut on the edge of the village, killing Abdul and leaving Meena with major burns, including across the left side of her face. Anjali, an activist attorney, persuades Meena to file a criminal complaint against her brothers for Abdul’s murder, sparking further outrage in Vithalgaon. It’s also a source of concern in the nearby Muslim village of Birwad, where Meena now lives with her mother-in-law, Ammi, who blames her for Abdul’s death. But she is all that Meena and her baby girl Abru have. Anjali and Meena hope coverage in the Indian press and, with luck, the international media, will help begin to change the patriarchal violence of honor killings.
“As children, we were taught to be afraid of tigers and lions. Nobody taught us what I know today—the most dangerous animal in this world is a man with wounded pride.”
This is the hornet’s nest that Smita encounters. Fortunately, she is accompanied by Mohan, a friend of Shannon’s, who serves as her driver, Hindi translator, and mediator with the people of Vithalgaon and Birwad. He’s a resourceful guy who aids Smita in negotiating a traditional village culture she never encountered as the young daughter of a scholar living in a tolerant, multicultural section of 1990s Mumbai. He turns out to be indispensable in unexpected ways.
What follows is an engrossing novel that is both a character study and a page-turner. Honor probes the tension between traditional and modern Indian culture, Hindu and Muslim, the individual and the community, independence and interdependence, the dual identity of an Indian American, and the central human issue of what we owe each other. What constitutes honor? How do we choose to honor each other?
As events progress, Smita evolves from a dispassionate professional to a compassionate chronicler of both Meena’s case, the larger cultural and religious issues, and her own relationship to the land of her birth and formative years. She has her own tangle of issues, past and present, to unwind and make sense of. As she notes early in her return to Mumbai, India is a force of nature that cannot help but change you.
You can support this blog by ordering this book and others through my shop on Bookshop.org. https://bookshop.org/shop/openbook
Honor is a novel of piercing insight into modern India, family, love, obligation, and yes, honor. The characters are presented as complex, if not always sympathetic, people – even the misogynistic, murderous brothers are given an opportunity to explain how their actions are perfectly rational in their worldview. And, as much as it explores hatred, Honor is also a story of love in unexpected situations and the sacrifices parents make for their children.
Umrigar’s storytelling skills and seamless writing pulled me in and carried me along like a river with a strong current; I haven’t read a book this fast in a long time (over 100 pages a day). I have a feeling that Honor, one of 2022’s first releases, will end up on my year-end favorites list.