“Honor,” Thrity Umrigar’s ninth novel, opens with a newspaper clipping detailing the fate of Meena, a woman who becomes disabled after surviving a fire set by her Hindu brothers with the intention of killing her and her Muslim husband. Abdul, Meena’s husband, does not survive the blaze. Spurred on by a lawyer who’ll work pro bono, Meena is taking her brothers to court, an act unheard of in the rural community where they live. To many around her, Meena is seen to have dishonored her family by defying her brothers and entering into an interfaith marriage they had forbidden.
This article is written by Shannon, a white American foreign correspondent (as Umrigar reveals in the acknowledgments, the character was inspired by the real life work of Ellen Barry for The New York Times). It’s also a microcosm of the book’s central tensions, from the power dynamics inherent in who is telling a story; to the privilege wielded by men, Americans, Hindus, members of the upper caste, the educated, and urban dwellers; and the intersectionality of the two women around whom “Honor” is centered.
No doubt informed by Umrigar’s own experience as a journalist, the novel starts and ends with Smita, an Indian American journalist, at the Mumbai airport. Smita is returning to the city of her birth, a place she had vowed to leave behind forever. Invited by Shannon, who has injured her hip and needs someone to take over covering Meena’s story, Smita reluctantly agrees, traveling to meet Meena with the help of Mohan, another friend of Shannon’s.
The longer she spends there, and despite flashes of nostalgia for her childhood self, Smita’s distaste for India deepens. So too does the reader’s understanding of the traumatic events that led Smita’s family to flee to the US. Through Smita’s story, another central theme emerges: feeling rooted versus uprooted. Although exiled by the circumstances of her childhood departure from Mumbai, Smita also acknowledges the privileges she’s gained. “How American she had become to not see America for what it had been for her family — a harbor, a shelter, a refuge.”
Mohan, an upper caste man from Mumbai, acts as the ultimate foil for Meena’s brothers. He comes to represent a version of India that could be home to Smita. Of loving Mumbai, Mohan says, “I do. … But you don’t love something because you’re blind to its faults, right? You love it despite its flaws.”
As with the fictional article that begins the book, Umrigar’s strength as a writer is most potent in individual scenes that distill these tensions. Just as the arc of the story builds to a crescendo, both in its hastening action surrounding the trial of Meena’s brothers and the reader’s understanding of Smita’s history, so do smaller moments. In one, Smita goes from looking out her car window in rural India to thinking about Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” to the understanding, “Like it or not, this, too, was her land and she felt implicated and ensnared in its twisted morality and contradictions.”
One contradiction is highlighted by Anjali, the lawyer representing Meena. Meena is the bravest woman she knows, Anjali says, because Meena’s aware her case is being put forth to try to set a precedent, and will in no way improve her own life. As a journalist, Smita understands all too well how the media often try to individualize systemic problems — from violence against woman in India to mass shooters and police killings of Black men in America — without contextualizing them within “the culture from which they bubbled up.” Smita, who covers gender issues, wants to make clear such actions are enabled by the powerful forces and institutions that undergird them. “Sometimes, it seemed to Smita that the history of the world was written in female blood,” Umrigar writes.
Two-thirds into “Honor” the full story of what happened to Smita and her family is revealed, in ways that will help readers understand how Smita has come to define honor, in contrast to the conflicting ways it has been defined by others. In what feels like an epilogue, the final chapter of the book brings our understanding of honor full circle.
The many layers that comprise “Honor” unfurl like a peak season peony. Toward the book’s end, Smita is back in the liminal space of the airport, but changed. What has evolved: her ability to see India, her understanding of home, of love, of what is worth a sacrifice. She has stitched together what she once saw as desperate pieces of herself into a more present whole. She has done what she proclaimed was not possible at the outset of the book: found her way home again. Her experiences culminate in the precipice on which she stands as the book comes to its beautiful conclusion. Smita understands, “Maybe, in the end, that’s all that love was — doing the hard thing.”
By Thrity Umrigar
Algonquin, 336 pp., $26.95
Anri Wheeler is a writer and antiracist educator; more at anriwheeler.com.