One of our recommended books is Honor by Thirty Umrigar

HONOR


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,

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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.

In this tender and evocative novel about love, hope, familial devotion, betrayal, and sacrifice, Thrity Umrigar shows us two courageous women trying to navigate how to be true to their homelands and themselves at the same time.

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  • Algonquin
  • Hardcover
  • January 2022
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781616209957

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About Thrity Umrigar

Thirty Umrigar is the author of HonorThrity Umrigar is the bestselling author of eight novels, including The Space Between Us, which was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, as well as a memoir and three picture books. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in more than fifteen countries. She is the winner of a Lambda Literary Award and a Seth Rosenberg Award and is Distinguished Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. A recipient of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard, she has contributed to the  Boston Globe , the Washington Post, the New York Times and Huffington Post.

Praise

Honor is an utterly engrossing novel about two very different women whose lives converge after an unspeakable act of violence in India. With insight and compassion, Thrity Umrigar writes masterfully about the complexities of hatred and love, estrangement and belonging, oppression and privilege, about holding on and letting go. A powerful, important, unforgettable book.”—Cheryl Strayed, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wild

Honor is a novel of profound depths—cultural, personal, romantic, spiritual. It’s also a story of tremendous grace, both in the understanding it shows its characters and in the ways they navigate a brutal but stunning life.”—Rebecca Makkai, Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Great Believers

“Propulsive . . . Umrigar offers readers a broad understanding of the complicated issues at play in contemporary India.”Publishers Weekly

“Full-bodied and insightful, Honor is both a page-turning account of a horrific family drama and a meditation on the complexities of love—both personal and national.” Shelf Awareness

“Umrigar excels in her juxtaposition of the contrasts between the tech hub image of contemporary India and the deep religious divisions that continue to wrack rural regions . . . This is a thought-provoking portrait of an India that ‘felt inexpressibly large—as well as small and provincial enough to choke.'”Booklist

“In the way A Thousand Splendid Suns told of Afghanistan’s women, Thrity Umrigar tells a story of India with the intimacy of one who knows the many facets of a land both modern and ancient, awash in contradictions, permeated by a smoldering mix of ageless traditions and new ideas, beauty and brutality, hope and despair, certainty and mystery. A place where love can sometimes involve the peril of defying convention . . . and ultimately risking everything for what matters most.”—Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours 

“With Honor, Thrity Umrigar continues her habit of laying bare the folly of our perceived differences. This is an intense and spellbinding novel, ricocheting between fear and hope, betrayal and redemption. It is the story of the human heart in all its complexities, and love worth fighting for.”—Connie Schultz, bestselling author of The Daughters of Erietown

Discussion Questions

1. Smita tells Mohan that her India is not his India. What does she mean?

2. How is Meena’s India different from Smita’s? What explains the differences?

3. Meena relates her story to us directly, in the first person. Why do you think the author chose this point of view?

4. Meena’s brothers think they are doing the moral thing, the right thing, by punishing their sister and her husband. Honor killings are a fact of life in many parts of the world. What do you think it will take to change this cultural practice?

5. What do you think of a system where the village council and the head of that council have so much power? What are the consequences of those positions being held by men?

6. Why didn’t Smita’s father change their name back to their family name after settling in America? Do you understand why he didn’t?

7. Smita and Meena both fall in love. How do their cultures inform their relationships: the level of intimacy, communication, decision-making for each woman? If you are in a committed relationship, how do you think it would have been affected if it had begun in a different culture?

8. As strange as the customs and traditions described in this book may seem to an American reader, did you recognize any common touchpoints across the two cultures? What aspects of the novel reminded you of life in America?

9. Trace Mohan’s evolution in the course of his travels with Smita.

10. What do you think of Smita’s decision in the conclusion of the novel? What do you foresee for the future of Smita and Mohan?

11. There are many different levels of privilege described in this book. What are some of them and how do they affect the characters’ behavior?

12. There is a moment when Smita remembers the marigolds tied around the oxen’s horns, and it makes her feel tender toward India. Why?

13. The notion of objectivity is the foundational belief in mainstream American journalism. What happens when journalists cover places and people whose culture is completely different from theirs? Should they strive to be objective or should they identify a moral ground from which to report a story? If so, how do they determine what that moral ground should be? Or are they imposing their morality on others?

14. What do you think of the final chapter? What function does it serve?

15. What are the various meanings of the book’s title?

Essay

Reclaiming Honor

An Essay by Thrity Umrigar

 

In 1993, my middle-aged father stood on our balcony and watched helplessly as the apartment building across the street burned. It had been set on fire by a mob of angry Hindus who had heard that a Muslim family lived on the ground floor.

By this time, I was living in faraway America, safe from the paroxysm of insanity and violence that gripped Bombay—the erstwhile most tolerant and cosmopolitan of Indian cities—during that terrible period. But I can still hear the bewilderment in my father’s voice as he later recounted the incident during our weekly phone chat. I immediately worried about my family’s well-being, but he brushed aside my fretting. We were Parsis, a small, prosperous, and educated religious minority in India; the joke was that there were so few of us, nobody saw us as any kind of threat.

What I learned much later from the Muslim family who lived next door to us was that they had earlier brought all their jewelry to Dad for safekeeping before they fled the neighborhood for a few weeks. There were many sad stories of families returning home after the riots ended and finding that those whom they’d trusted with their assets had swindled them. My dad, on the other hand, had made our neighbors put their jewelry in his locker themselves and then given them the key to it. “When you return,” he said, “please come and use the key to remove your belongings.”

The whole experience stayed with me, even though I heard and read about it secondhand, even though I was no longer in the city of my birth. But I certainly wasn’t thinking of it as literary material, just a personal story that made me worry about my father even as it made me more proud of him.

Then, a few years ago, I came across a series of stories written by Ellen Barry in the New York Times about the oppressive conditions of women in parts of rural India. Barry’s description of the punishment meted out to those who strayed from tradition made my hair stand up. Things we take for granted, such as women working outside the home, were considered transgressions punishable in ways that recalled the Dark Ages. Naturally, Barry’s stories also described the corrupt police and politicians who allowed such barbarity to flourish.

The world that Barry described was alien to me. I was a city kid, raised in a tolerant, Westernized, middle-class family in which it went without saying that women had to be educated and independent. But even so, I had spent the first twenty-one years of my life in India. How had my privilege blinded me to such injustice? I was aware of urban poverty, of course, and had written about homelessness and the struggles of the working poor, but I was as stunned by the medieval punishments Barry described (making women walk on coals?) as I was by the patriarchal mindset. But at the same time, I was impressed by the determination displayed by the women of the village who rebelled against the old ways.

It was that respect for women who persisted against insurmountable odds, who questioned traditions that had prevailed for thousands of years, that gave birth to Meena, one of the two protagonists of Honor. She came to me, urgent with the need to tell her own story. She shares that story with Smita, a young Indian American journalist haunted by a family secret, tormented by her own love-hate relationship with India. Smita is everything Meena is not—emotionally closed off, terrified of intimacy, afraid of love. In a traditional “privileged savior” novel, the modern, worldly Smita would lead the impoverished, illiterate Meena to enlightenment and safety. But what if Meena were the teacher in Honor?

 

The word honor has been abused and shorn of its meaning in traditional, male-dominated societies, where it is simply a cover for the domination of women by their fathers, brothers, and sons. The sexual politics of the so-called honor killings are impossible to avoid. Women are raped, killed, and sacrificed to preserve male pride and reputations.

In this novel, I wanted to reclaim the word and give it back to the people to whom it belongs—people like Meena, a Hindu woman, and her Muslim husband, Abdul, who allow their love to blind them to the bigotries and religious fervor that surround them, who transcend their own upbringing to imagine a new and better world. It seems to me that every time we read a story about an honor killing, it’s always told from the point of view of the killers. But my interests lay in the victims. I wanted to tell the story of their everyday lives: how they met, how they fell in love, how they lived. There is something incredibly tender and beautiful about people who have never known a day’s freedom deciding to love whomever their heart chooses.

By telling Smita’s and Meena’s love stories—one taboo, the other not; one constrained by societal prohibitions, the other by her own inhibitions—I wanted to examine notions of privilege and inequity, and the simple luck of the draw that separates a Meena from a Smita. But there’s also another love story at the heart of Honor, one that describes Smita’s love-hate relationship with India itself. The novel poses the question of whether it is possible to love a country when you’re ashamed of its politics and practices. What form and shape does that love take? Millions of us all around the world are currently grappling with that question. It is my hope that readers will see themselves in the internal and external struggles of the novel’s two female characters, and in their search for home.