Jean’s Pick of the Week: Honor by Thrity Umrigar

What price is too high when standing up for one’s convictions?

Can there ever be honor in compromising one’s principles?

The idealist may see the answers to these questions in black and white, but the realist knows that nothing in life is ever so clear. These questions lie at the very heart of Thrity Umrigar’s latest book Honor. Following the compelling stories of two women in contemporary India, Umrigar explores the incongruous notions of honor and shame in her powerful new novel. Is it possible to hate a country’s politics but still find beauty in its culture?

While vacationing in the Maldives, journalist Smita receives a call from her friend and coworker Shannon, who is about to undergo emergency hip surgery in Mumbai. Smita thinks Shannon is calling for help during her recovery, but Shannon’s true motive is to ask Smita to take over the story she had been writing for their newspaper. The story involves a lower-caste Hindu woman named Meena who, despite vehement familial objections and against the customs of her rural village, marries Abdul, a Muslim man. When they learn that she is pregnant, Meena’s brothers perform a so-called “honor killing” on her husband, setting him on fire with gasoline. Meena is horribly disfigured trying to save Abdul yet, despite being outcast from society and facing danger at every turn, she demands her brothers be brought to trial for the killing. 

While awaiting the verdict, Smita interviews Meena and all those with a hand in the murder of Abdul, a man whose only crime was imagining a “new India” – a world in which his and Meena’s interfaith marriage would be accepted. In doing so, Smita is forced to confront her own complicated feelings about India. Up until the age of 14, Mumbai had been Smita’s home but, after a tragedy, her family fled to America to start over. After meeting Meena, Smita’s entire experience in the U.S. is reframed. She remembers the culture shock of those difficult first few years and the slights and microaggressions lamented with friends, but also, for the first time, dawns an understanding that this chance at a new life was actually a privilege, one that Meena and her husband were never afforded.

A woman can live in one of two houses – fear or love. It is impossible to live in both at the same time.

There are many scenes in this book that are impossibly heartbreaking and very difficult to read, much less to comprehend, especially knowing that these situations continue to happen around the world every day. Yet despite the violence of Abdul’s death by burning, the spark of hope for a better future is not completely extinguished. Thrity Umrigar closes her novel by leaving a tiny flame to guide the way out of darkness and into a better India. 

Steel is forged from fire.

Thrity Umrigar in Honor
Author Thrity Umrigar

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