“Honor” is a perfect title for Thrity Umrigar’s powerful novel about India and the horrors that are perpetrated in rural areas in the name of religion and honor. For while honor is a noble concept, the foul acts perpetrated in its name are not. Umrigar makes it clear that while India is the setting for this tragic story, the prejudice and hatred toward women, toward others of a different religion, toward others who are considered to be less worthy, are not confined to any one country. Such prejudice and hatred are endemic to almost every country.
We meet Smita, a journalist who returns to India, a country she and her family had fled decades before, to help a colleague in need. But when she arrives in Mumbai, she is dismayed to realize that her friend doesn’t need her help personally, but expects Smita to cover a story that she had been working on. Smita, as we learn, has very mixed feelings about returning to the country of her childhood—a place she had never wanted to visit again. Umrigar deftly creates an enigma as we grow to understand that something tragic happened to cause Smita’s family to flee India, but that something is shrouded in mystery while we view India through Smita’s admittedly prejudiced eyes.
The story that Smita must work on is about Meena, a Hindu woman who fell in love with a Muslim man, Abdul. While most of the story is told from Smita’s point of view in third person, Meena shares her love story in first person narrative. The narrative is intensely moving as we read about a Romeo and Juliet tragedy wherein neither takes their own life, but rather is burned to death on the pyre of hatred and bigotry by the hands of family. After Meena elopes with Abdul and lives with him for four blissful months in his village, she gets pregnant. When they tell her brothers their happy news, hoping that such joyful tidings will soften their hearts, the brothers fly into a rage. We read about how completely and rabidly the Hindus in their small town hate the Muslims. In the rural area where they all reside, it’s as if time has frozen for hundreds of years. They believe in magic, and they believe that the village chief, a hateful man named Rupal, talks directly to God on his phone. If Rupal warns the local police to stay away from a crime scene, they obey.
So when Meena’s husband is doused in gasoline and set on fire, no one intervenes. Meena tries to put out the fire with her hands, and she is severely injured and horribly maimed. A women’s lawyer convinces her to sue her evil brothers for Abdul’s death, and Meena bravely agrees to do so. First, the lawyer must convince the police to reopen the case. We learn about the ubiquitous corruption of the police and their refusal to do anything to help Meena, the victim. We meet Abru, Meena’s daughter, who is cursed by both Hindus and Muslims as she is neither and both at the same time. To Meena, Abru is the culmination of her love for Abdul, and she will do anything for Abru. They live with Abdul’s mother, who abuses Meena and berates her, blaming her for the death of her oldest son.
There are multiple layers to this novel. On one level, it’s the story of rural India and the twin horrors of misogyny and religious fanaticism. At one point, I was reminded of the oft-repeated saying of Lyndon Johnson, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Here we see that even the poorest, most pathetic man feels powerful because he can look down on any woman. And any Hindu man is able not only to subjugate women, but to look down even more on Muslims. Smita is frustrated when she cannot even sign for a hotel room when they visit Meena. Umrigar mentions the “clerk’s casual misogyny,” and writes, “This was the real India, revealing itself to her in small slights and grave tragedies.”
Yet on another level, the story is about Smita and Mohan, her colleague’s friend who becomes Smita’s escort and driver into the rural area where she must interview Meena and go to court when the case is decided. They are thrown together, and the friction is apparent as we see the clash between Smita and Mohan regarding life in India. Through Smita’s eyes ,Mohan is forced to acknowledge the parts of India to which he had been blind, growing up with privilege as the son of a wealthy diamond merchant. Outside of Mumbai, his beloved India is not modern and urbane, but rather filled with the prejudice of the caste system, the horror of religious fervor and its attendant violence, and the repugnant corruption of not only the police, but often the judicial system.
Umrigar’s writing is not just powerful — it cuts us like a knife, forcing us to look at the horrors done in the name of honor, and making us realize that while we smugly believe we are better than those in rural third world countries, that is not, in fact, the case. When the lawyer tells Smita that the village chief is a monster, Umrigar compels us to face that truth:
“Monster, Demon, Satan. In Smita’s line of work, people often bandied around such terms to explain away horrendous behavior. Every time there was a mass shooting in America, for instance, there was a rush to label the shooter a crazed monster, rather than place him within the context of a culture that fetishized guns. Every time a cop shot dead a black man, there was an attempt to paint him as a rogue cop. But what about the millions of otherwise normal people who were recruited to massacre strangers during a war? Were they all evil? How alarmingly easy it had been to get millions to participate in genocide during both the Holocaust and Partition. 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. No, men like Rupal were not the problem. The problem lay with the culture from which they bubbled up.”
In spite of the violence and brutality of the deaths in this novel, Umrigar’s message seems ultimately hopeful: Through small steps, by refusing to accept the cruelty and bigotry, change will happen. But she also recognizes that women bear the brunt of the violence, and, depressingly, she writes, “…it seemed to Smita that the history of the world was written in female blood.” Rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, women being frightened and isolated and abused are not limited to any country, and Smita, whose job has taken her all over the world, understands that as much as anyone could. “Honor” is a moving account of the multifaceted layers that are India—both the beauty and the ugliness. It’s a novel that screams “book club” because of its thoughtful and beautiful prose and the essential points that it raises.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.