In this riveting and immersive novel, bestselling author Thrity Umrigar tells the story of two couples and the sometimes dangerous and heartbreaking challenges of love across a cultural divide.
Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she and her family left the country with no intention of ever coming back. As she follows the case of Meena – a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man – Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves: Smita realizes she has the freedom to enter into a casual affair, knowing she can decide later how much it means to her.
There were times when this novel became almost too painful to read, but I’m glad I continued until it’s bittersweet conclusion. At home in America, journalist Smita is every inch the modern career woman, living a single and globetrotting life. She has a series of ready packed cases so she can zoom off to the airport at a moment’s notice to cover a story anywhere in the world. There are similar, psychological cases in her mind, packed and closed until she’s called to certain destinations. In fact one hasn’t been opened in years, until she’s called by a journalist friend in India who has ended up in hospital mid-story. On the basis of a misunderstanding, Smita flies out to Mumbai thinking her friend needs personal help and looking after. Yet it’s professional support she would like, needing Smita to travel into a more rural area of India and cover the story she has been engrossed in. A woman called Meena is the story. Along with her sister Radha she defied her brothers to take a job outside the home, in a sewing factory. The brothers run their home along strict rules and the sisters are supposed to stay at home, care for the house and serve the brothers. Meena’s final downfall was love, when at the factory she met a kind, gentle and intelligent man. Meena’s family followed the Hindu religion and her brothers would never let her choose for herself, especially when her choice is a Muslim man. When she defied them a second time she sealed their fate. They are set on fire by her family and their village. Smita is the only one to survive.
Not only did Smita survive, but she escaped to the home of her mother-in-law. Now with a little girl to look after, Smita is recovering from her burns but her injuries are devastating. With the help of a charity she is taking her brothers to court for their actions and the verdict is due this week. Reluctantly, Smita takes on the story and agrees to meet Meena with the help of Shannon’s friend Mohan as driver and translator where required. There isn’t much that shocks me in life, but the terrible cruelty of what’s been done to Meena made me seethe with anger. I simply cannot comprehend how family members could wreak such revenge on their own sister, although sadly I have watched dramas about such murders in this country. Although we have a long way to go in conquering the patriarchy in the UK, we have to remember other countries have their own battle and are often a long way from the comparative equality we enjoy. A recent drama showed how this violent killing is based in culture not religion. It showed a community using it’s young men to watch their women, standing outside taxi firms and take away shops they policed their area and noticed when a girl was starting to wear Western clothing or too much make-up. These communities worked like Meena’s village, curbing bad behaviour before it gets out of hand. They doled out punishments to those girls who transgressed and the families carry them out, so that community members could see how their women respected them. It’s never about men saving the women’s honour; it’s about saving their own.
The author drew me deeply into this novel and complexities of life in India: the stark differences between the more cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and the rural areas; the intolerance between religions and cultures; the massive contrast between the freedoms a Western Hindu woman like Smita has, compared with Meena. Smita actually embodies all of these differences. In order to make a transition to the rural area they’ll be visiting she asks Mohan to take her to a shop where she can buy more traditional clothes, because she doesn’t have anything suitable and they must be the everyday kind, not those for tourists going to a wedding. Mohan is a world away from Meena’s brothers, but he still has a tendency towards an old-fashioned chivalry, somehow reminding Smita of her father. His need to ‘look after’ the women around him feels like part of the culture she considers outmoded, but it’s only a small part of who he is. He bothers her, because she knows from experience that men who think they need to rescue women can also think they own them. I found the flashback to Smita’s teenage years in Mumbai particularly evocative and shocking. It’s no wonder Smita never stays in one place very long, she knows that even your closest neighbours can turn and betray you in an instant, better to keep moving. Yet this trip may challenge her to put down roots and be part of something; is she ready to confront what happened and make a change? As for Meena, her story left me feeling so sad and angry that such injustices can and do happen. Her life, being worked and insulted by her mother-in-law while constantly living in fear, seemed intolerable to me. I hoped that the brief, but fierce love she had experienced, was enough of a consolation. She must live for her beautiful little girl. I was troubled and engrossed by this novel and I’m still thinking about it several days later. It’s evocative, intelligent and a fascinating insight into the cultural complexity of India.
Meet The Author
Thrity Umrigar is the bestselling author of The Space Between Us, which was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, as well as six other novels, a memoir, and three picture books. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in over fifteen countries. She is the winner of a Lambda Literary Award and the Seth Rosenberg Prize and is a Distinguished Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University.