Reading a novel by Thrity Umrigar is like experiencing a master class in writing and storytelling. Honor, her most powerful novel to date, is no exception, calling out marginalization of a minority and religious tribalism in India, alongside battling the concept of not being able to go home again.
The word honor in our daily lives operates as a positive one, yet here, honor also becomes a contranym, an antonym of itself, a quirk of the English language not often acknowledged.
Two stories weave together as tightly as the threads of finest satin—that of the complex Smita Agarwal and the unworldly Meena Mustafa, two women whose dissimilar lives are interrupted by tragedies which, though unrelated, ultimately bind them. In contrast, a beautiful, unyielding love story forms the backbone that offers power against misogyny.
Umrigar draws on her years as a journalist in creating Smita, an international gender issues reporter who was born in India but has lived in America since she was fourteen. Her Americanization disconnects her from the people she meets when she returns to the land of her birth to assist Shannon Carpenter, her South Asian correspondent colleague. It was a trip she never wanted to make, to return to India, where family history was left behind yet begs a response.
“… she found herself dealing with everything that she detested about this country—its treatment of women, its religious strife, its conservatism.”
However, with Shannon on medical leave, Smita agrees to take over the reporting of a story Shannon had been covering. That story is about Meena, a young mother and widow in a remote village. As a Hindu, she bravely filed a lawsuit to demand justice from her brothers and the men from her village who marched to her home and, in what they believed would reinstate their family honor, set Meena’s home on fire and killed her husband, Abdul, a Muslim. In her attempt to save Abdul, Meena, pregnant with their only child, was severely burned, leaving her disfigured and maimed.
In her skillful hands, Umrigar reminds us of similar injustices and misguided beliefs in the United States and around the world, none of which are excusable.
“How alarmingly easy it had been to get millions to participate in genocide during both the Holocaust and Partition,” Umrigar writes. “Human beings could apparently be turned into killers as effortlessly as turning a key. All one had to do was use a few buzzwords: God. Country, Religion. Honor.”
When Smita accepts the follow-through on the story, Meena is awaiting her trial date and lives with her young daughter, Abru, and Abdul’s verbally abusive mother. Meena harbors hope that the trial will bring about change so her daughter won’t be stigmatized or suffer the same fate while restoring honor to her late husband.
As she gains Meena’s trust, Smita finds herself recalling the traumatic events that drove her own family from India when she was in her teens. Her third-person point-of-view allows her the distance to observe before she feels emotion and gives her the ability to come to terms with everything she has experienced in her lifetime. As she does so, Smita’s own grief and anger are tempered by Meena’s imperishable love for her late husband. Through Smita’s opened eyes, India becomes a place to no longer fear or reject. Home.
Umrigar’s novels are timely and immersive, haunting and thought-provoking. Meena’s first-person narrative is particularly moving, and in the end, uplifting. Through Meena’s story, Umrigar illustrates religion as a weapon, one that imposes unfounded edicts, boundaries, and walls as protective armor in the fight for what it alone believes to be right.
Honor scrutinizes the tragedy of humans to allow misogyny as a rule of life and the failure to accept differences among us as much as it is about matchless love and sincere forgiveness. It is a portrait of the strength one draws on to raise herself up again.
It means Honor.
I named her this in memory of her father, a man who made this word bloom with every word he spoke and every deed he did.”
Do yourself a favor. Read this book.
Thrity Umrigar is the best-selling author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, The Weight of Heaven, The World We Found, The Story Hour, Everybody’s Son and The Secrets Between Us. Her new novel, Honor, is a Reese’s Book Club Pick for January 2022. Umrigar is also the author of the memoir, First Darling of the Morning and three children’s picture books, When I Carried You in My Belly, Sugar in Milk and Binny’s Diwali.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network).