On the bookshelf
By Thrity Umrigar
Algonquin: 336 pages, $ 27
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Thrity Umrigar wants to talk about mega-churches, which seems both appropriate and slightly incongruous. His new novel, “Honor, âRevolves around India’s two main faiths, Hinduism and Islam, and the violence that can erupt when an extremist faction reigns.
âHonor,â which was announced this week as a choice of the Reese’s Book Club, involves – among many other events – a deadly clash between two brothers who believe India should be a Hindu theocracy and their sister’s husband, a Muslim from a neighboring village. But Umrigar, whose previous eight novels have been set in the United States and India, knows that fundamentalism can arise from any faith.
âOne thing western readers need to understand about India is, guess what? We [Americans] having people doing crazy things too. Maybe a few fundamentalist Christians take “Honor” and think, “Wow, why do I believe what my pastor says when he says the kind of crazy sounding things from one of my characters? “”
If this kind of secular awakening is unlikely, Umrigar thinks she might know why. âThe follow-up question as to why we have these mega-churches, I think, should be what is the secular equivalent? What do we have that gives people the same sense of community and belonging, which in my opinion is essential to the human spirit? “
She anticipates the answer, then rejects it: âYou can talk about libraries, books and museums, but these are becoming almost by definition, unfortunately, becoming elitist. What is it that gives the same sense of comfort and good neighborliness as a church? “
Maybe a writer? Umrigar speaks from her home in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has lived since the age of 21 and works as a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Her elegant demeanor, literary credentials, and Zoom background – shelves, art objects – could be viewed, objectively, as elitist. But Umrigar possesses a level of curiosity and compassion that I rarely encounter in other human beings, even in the many curious and compassionate authors I have interviewed.
A clue of his perspective comes from Sarah Willis, novelist and fiction buyer at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, who has known Umrigar for almost 20 years. They meet regularly for lunch with a group informally known as “The Pen Women” to talk about writing, but not always.
âSometimes we talk about shoes! said Willis. âBut Thrity never talked about shoes. She will talk about politics. She says she writes her books to understand the world, but one of the things she writes about is the way people treat each otherâ¦
âShe believes that words can change people – that words themselves have power, not her. Her books are always about someone trying to change and be a better person.
In “Honor,” that person is Native American journalist, Smita Agarwal, who reluctantly flies to India to help Shannon, a colleague who has been left behind with a broken hip. Shannon covered a powerful story about a young widow whose brothers killed her husband, Abdul, and disfigured her. The widow, Meena Mustafa, has decided to take her brothers to court, an almost unprecedented move in honor killings. Shannon begs Smita to come to the remote village of Birwad and interview Meena before the trial.
When I tell Umrigar that this book, with its strong romantic elements, seems like a slight departure from her other work, she smiles. “Glad to hear you say it, because maybe it will attract other readers!” But yeah, okay, there are two parallel love stories in this book and maybe it is a little different. Nonetheless, she argues, âI always write about issues that haunt me, about power and power differences.
A quick glance at the summary above might suggest that the plot activates Smita’s power in the situation. Instead, “It’s Meena who ends up being the teacher,” Umrigar says. âShe is more radical and courageous than any of the characters who hold what we now call privileges in the developed world. Meena is really doing something â, first by defying deep taboos, then by standing up for her rights. âThese are radical transgressions for which she is paying a very, very heavy price. Yet she still manages to teach Smita and her companion Mohan â- an Indian cadre she meets during the mission -â a lot about love and, yes, honor â.
âHonorâ is Umrigar’s first novel to be published by Algonquin Books; Editor-in-chief Kathy Pories says it was âthe simplicity of the title,â with its many connotations, that first struck her. âYou don’t know what that means until you read the book. But it was the author’s “effortless writing” that made him want to work with her. “You trust him. You can tell that she has so much affection for India, through dark times and beautiful times at the same time.
For Umrigar, “India” is another word with many valences. âOne of the things Smita ends up saying to Mohan is ‘My India is not your India.’ She tries to tell him that the India he sees as developed and progressive is not the one she grew up in, but his statement has a deeper meaning.India is multivariate, even for individuals.
Mohan is perhaps the character who most closely resembles the author. His India was once also that of Umrigar. She grew up there in the 60s and 70s, and “one of the joys of living in India at that time, at least in Mumbai as it was called then, was that it was a cosmopolitan and truly secular city. … But there was clearly a backlash to it all, with deep roots that aren’t straightforward. Remember Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist. Decades later, she believes that “the Hindu right wing has realized that there is political gain to be had from the exercise of power.”
Once again, Umrigar invokes a comparison closer to his current home.
âYou have to understand that I wrote ‘Honor’ during the Trump years,â she says. âI wrote about India, but I also wrote about my own adopted country. This otherness of others is not a phenomenon that can be attributed to a single country. Trend winds are blowing over the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States. Sometimes I am dismayed, bewildered and dismayed by the parallels. “
Trying to make sense of it, and perhaps to explain the role of a writer and what he says, Umrigar invokes playwright Tony Kushner, “who is one of my heroes.” He says something like: Hope is not a choice. Hope is a moral obligation. I try to live by these words. Sometimes I don’t have confidence in my personal situation which is absurd because I have had all the opportunities and privileges in the world. But I still have hope for humanity.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.