An incredibly gruesome act lies at the heart of Thrity Umrigar’s novel, Honor: A Muslim man is set on fire and murdered by his two Hindu brother-in-law, an act encouraged by the head of the village council while local police are bribed to stay apart.
Terribly disfigured by her attempt to extinguish the flames that consumed her beloved husband Abdul, Meena Mustafa accepts the voluntary offer of a lawyer to bring her brothers to justice for murder. It is this decision that attracts the attention of an American journalist. Shannon writes about Meena’s bravery in trying to seek justice for her husband’s memory despite her family and society’s condemnation of her marriage to a Muslim.
Umrigar was born in Mumbai, the setting for a part of Honor. She writes about the unexpected and secret beauty of the metropolis which is overwhelmed by its human population, rapid economic development and the pollution that growth brings. She moved to the United States at the age of 21 to attend college. Journalist, critic and novelist, Umrigar has written a memoir, eight novels and three children’s books.
Umrigar uses his personal experience as an Indo-American journalist to create the character of Smita Agarwal. Smita also grew up in Mumbai, but moved to America with her family when she was 14. Her childhood memories resurface when she is suddenly called to Mumbai by Shannon, who is hospitalized while awaiting hip surgery. Shannon asks Smita to take over the coverage of the Meena case against her brothers, as a verdict is expected soon. Smita agrees, although she has actively worked to stay away from India and suppress any bad memories she has in store for him.
Shannon’s friend Mohan volunteers to accompany Smita to the small village where Meena and her young daughter Abru live with Meena’s stepmother. In the Indian countryside, a woman traveling alone is unusual and carries a personal risk. Smita points out to Mohan that traditional Indian society dictates very different roles for women and men. This disparity is still common in rural India, where women are mainly expected to take care of the home and children, and men to work outside the home. Meena and her sister challenge this traditional view by working as seamstresses in a nearby clothing factory to help supplement the family income. Their older brother Govind struggles for a living in farming, and their younger brother Arvind is a drunkard. Even though brothers take all the money their sisters earn, they still believe that women shouldn’t have jobs outside the home.
The bad feelings between the siblings reach a breaking point when Meena runs away to marry Abdul, whom she meets at the factory. A few months later, the couple return to Meena’s former home and announce her pregnancy to her siblings. Meena said to Smita, ??… my older brother, Govind, wouldn’t even let us into his house. He said that I had already cut his nose while running away to marry a Muslim. But bearing a Muslim child meant that the stain of dishonor would spread through the generations.
Meena’s fate, caused by the deep religious divisions that continue to exist within modern India, brings back memories of Smita of a traumatic event also linked to the Hindu-Muslim conflict. Visiting a former neighbor in the Mumbai apartment building where her family once lived only increases her mental anguish.
In HonorUmrigar portrays the natural beauty of his ancient homeland, balancing this portrayal with the havoc that development causes. The deeply held beliefs of rural villagers change slowly as their society evolves, but these changes are not always viewed as positive by all who are affected. The ancient and modern faces of India are very different, and Umrigar manages to capture both points of view in his writing.
Andrea Geary is a freelance writer.
St. Vital Community Correspondent
Andrea Geary is a community correspondent for St. Vital and was formerly a community reporter for The Headliner.
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