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'Honor' is a searing meditation on the meaning of dignity in a dehumanizing world

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Thrity Umrigar's important new novel Honor isn't an easy read.

From depictions of casual misogyny to distressing scenes of public shaming, mistreatment and torture, the novel shows the terrifying social forces that strip vulnerable people of dignity and render them animal-like. It's a searing meditation on the meaning of dignity in a dehumanizing world.

Honor is set in today's India. This isn't the globalized India of news or the India of IT excellence and an ambitious space mission. It's the unseemly side of the country, blighted by cultural conservatism, poverty, sectarian violence, caste hierarchies and misogyny.

Umrigar, an English professor at Case Western Reserve University, has set several of her past novels in this tumultuous India, investigating fraught social issues such as caste and class divides, the lure of fundamentalism and culture clash. Her critically acclaimed novel The Space Between Us told with impeccable delicacy a story of friendship between two women of different backgrounds. Honor adds an element that the author has not addressed before: extreme violence.

Umrigar writes not only as an elegant storyteller but as a sharp-eyed reporter, no doubt informed by her experience as a former journalist. Her reportorial style takes us deep into the lives and minds of vividly realized characters, showing us their gestural quirks, geniality and, at times, horrific cruelty. If you are familiar with the country, the novel's depiction of Indian manners will seem startlingly true-to-life.

Umrigar's reportorial style is particularly apt because her central character, Smita Agarwal, is a journalist. Born in India, Smita moved to the U.S. with her family when she was a teen. Twenty years later, she arrives in Mumbai to help her friend, a fellow journalist, Shannon Carpenter, recover from a serious injury. In truth, Shannon wants her to cover an assignment for her: a grisly crime in a village named Birwad on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border.

Meena, a Hindu woman, and Abdul, a Muslim man, fell in love and married in defiance of the social proscription against interfaith marriage. Infuriated by the perceived dishonor she has caused to the family, Meena's brothers set them on fire in their home. Abdul has died; but Meena, pregnant at the time, survives, although severely disabled. She has filed a lawsuit against her brothers with the help of a lawyer activist, Anjali, and is awaiting the court's verdict. The story confirms everything Smita dislikes about India: its social backwardness and lack of respect for civil liberty. Still, she agrees to step in and makes the journey to the country's dark reaches. But by now it is clear to the reader that Smita is carrying an emotional baggage of her own surrounding the circumstances of her family's departure for the U.S.

As much as Honor is about India's humanitarian crisis, it is also about a transformative journey. We witness Smita's emotional and spiritual blossoming in the process of writing.

Honor leads us from the dirty, crowded but cosmopolitan Mumbai into the choking, retrograde world of Birwad, exposing India's entrenched prejudices and twisted patriarchal values. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the opinion of a villager Smita interviews. Commenting on Meena's brothers, he says: "Killing that Muslim dog? Fine. But they should not have touched that girl. No, he should have just dragged her back home and kept her locked up for the cooking-cleaning." Umrigar unsparingly reveals the social conditioning that enables persecution.

To inhabit Birwad and its surrounds is to be enclosed in a bell jar of violence, fire and smoke. Embodying the destructive forces of the region is Rupal, the chief of the neighboring village of Vithalgaon, who aided Meena's brothers in their heinous act. In this novel, there's no whodunit-style mystery, no genius villain lurking to be caught. The horror is how unabashedly Rupal gloats over the crime as a justified act of honor.

Yet the novel is not without relief from its gruesome portrayal of depravity. Meena's reminiscence of her love for Abdul, told in the first person, has a sweet tenderness. Once Smita and Meena talk, the asymmetrical structure of the interview begins to dissolve; the space between them closes up.

Nightmarish violence explodes once the court verdict comes out. The terrible events that ensue allow Umrigar to uncover the meaning of honor: not in grand acts of heroism but in small gestures of dignity and care.

Honor calls to mind Megha Majumdar's novel A Burning. Both novels emerge from the same world of rot: India's deep seated hatred, poverty, illiteracy and corruption. Both examine our capacity for moral behavior in the face of extreme circumstances. But Umrigar's vision is more optimistic than Majumdar's.

By the end of the novel Smita not only finds companionship, purpose and the ability to confront her trauma but she also learns the value of selflessness. Smita's friendship and romance with a man named Mohan is crucial in opening her to the Eastern philosophical tradition based on sacrifice. Umrigar suggests that the solution to India's social ills lies in this philosophical tradition rather than in Western tenets of individualism.

Writing about a social problem in a developing country is a notoriously difficult task. For one thing, it can easily become poverty porn, written for the perverse entertainment of privileged Western readers. The story of a transformative journey of a privileged character at the expense of disadvantaged subjects may also sound exploitative. Then there's the question: What should one do in response to a social crisis?

Umrigar tackles some of these challenges well. Yet she also lapses into sentimental didacticism that sounds inauthentic. The novel's conclusion is a crowd pleasing melodrama that ticks all the correct boxes. To some extent it follows inevitably from the novel's premise. But for all its structural weakness, the earnestness of Umrigar's intention is unquestionable: She convinces us that to read is to comprehend and to comprehend is to act.

Sharmila Mukherjee's writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Star Tribune and the Washington Post. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Washington.

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Sharmila Mukherjee