At age 14, Smita Agarwal and her family were forced to leave Mumbai after a horrifying incident of religious persecution. They immigrated to Ohio, and now, 20 years later, Smita has grown up to become a world-traveling journalist who writes about gender issues. As Thrity Umrigar’s Honor opens, Smita is asked to cover an assignment in Mumbai—“the one place she had spent her entire adult life avoiding.” Readers will find themselves completely immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of India, a place that Smita acknowledges can be “cosmopolitan, sophisticated, but also resolutely out of step with the world.”
Similar to her central character, bestselling author Umrigar grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) and immigrated to the United States at age 21. Ever since, she’s been writing “to make sense of the world and to make sense of my own, often contradictory emotions and feelings.” In this spirit, Honor is a multifaceted examination of Smita’s love-hate relationship with her native country, a place that fills her heart yet is besieged with assaults on women. As one character comments, “We Indians are in the Dark Ages when it comes to the treatment of women.”
That issue is thoroughly explored through the lens of Smita’s assignment: the case of Meena, a Hindu woman suing her brothers after they killed her Muslim husband and then burned and disfigured her. Smita travels to Meena’s remote village and befriends the impoverished woman and her toddler daughter. She interviews the brothers, the police and the village chief, who emboldened Meena’s brothers to commit their atrocities. While Meena and Smita live in completely different worlds, Smita increasingly realizes the parallels in their lives and in the ways they have been treated as Indian women.
Throughout the novel, Smita is escorted by a wealthy single man named Mohan, who adores his country and is eager to reintroduce its glories to his charge. She is resistant, however, and their constant tug-of-war about India’s pros and cons results in a well-rounded portrait of a complicated country.
Suspense deepens as Smita and Meena await the court verdict, and there’s a horrifying aftermath that seems largely avoidable. Not surprisingly, romance develops between Smita and Mohan, and the blend of passion alongside brutality sometimes makes for an uneasy mix. Nonetheless, readers are likely to remain engaged with the story and its well-drawn characters.
Whether she’s writing about the bright lights of Mumbai or the poverty of village life, Umrigar excels at creating engaging situations and scenes. Readers will appreciate this novel’s deep understanding of the many complexities of Indian society.