Thrity Umrigar’s latest novel, “Honor,” begins with a vacation cut short when Smita Agarwal, a foreign correspondent from Brooklyn, is forced to abandon the sunny beaches of the Maldives for an unexpected detour to bustling Mumbai. She rushes to the bedside of her colleague Shannon Carpenter, a South Asian correspondent, who faces imminent surgery. Before entering the operating room, Shannon pleads with Smita to travel to Birwad, an all-Muslim village near the Gujarat-Maharashtra border, to report on a groundbreaking legal case for her.
The complainant, Meena, a low caste Hindu, goes against her community and her religion to escape with her beloved, Abdul Mustafa, a Muslim. Meena’s brothers, determined to take revenge on the couple for their interfaith marriage and the dishonor it caused, set the hut of the newlyweds on fire while they were inside. Abdul perishes instantly. Meena, pregnant and seriously injured, barely survives. She ends up giving birth to their daughter.
Smita’s reluctance to accept the mission goes beyond her rusty Hindi and the uncharitable assumption of Shannon’s friend Mohan, who sees Smita as a spoiled American Indian thumbing her nose at her. native country. Smita’s return to Mumbai awakens memories of an unspeakable act of violence and betrayal she experienced as a teenager before she and her family fled to Ohio. Although she wears her American citizenship like an armor, she knows that spending time in a “city she has spent the past twenty years trying to forget” will force her to confront her past.
Umrigar aptly tackles honor killings in rural India and paints Meena with agency and depth. Before her marriage to Abdul, Meena was a pioneer who, along with her sister, defied the wishes of her brothers and got a job in a sewing factory to help support their families. She believes speaking out will empower other women who endure such horrors and that she must do her part to challenge a corrupt legal system that easily rejects violence against women.
“Honor” is also a moving critique of the individual programs surrounding Meena’s high-profile case. This includes Smita, who despite being a seasoned journalist, remains naïve to many forces at play, as well as Anjali, Meena’s well-meaning but over-enthusiastic feminist lawyer who at times seems more concerned with it. hold on to the patriarchy only on the well-being of his client.
During her years of reporting on gender-based violence around the world, Smita takes care to avoid the kind of “porn trauma” typical of such stories. Oddly enough, in the book Umrigar writes a gruesome scene that resembles a fetishistic victimization of women. It neither reinforces the narrative nor deepens the reader’s understanding of the cultural context of such violence. Less would certainly have been more.
Nonetheless, “Honor” boldly examines a system that continues to give the green light to brutality and serves as a poignant reminder that despite all odds, “in every country, in every crisis, there are a handful of people who will stand up. against a current”.
Anjali Enjeti is the author of “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change” and “The Parted Earth”.
Through: Thrity Umrigar.
Editor: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 326 pages, $ 26.95, in store Jan.11.
Virtual event: In conversation with Rebecca Makkai, 7 p.m. January 18, magersandquinn.com