Thrity Umragar about his novel “Honor”, India, extremism, Trump

On the shelf


By Thrity Umrigar
Algonquin: 336 pages, $ 27

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Thrity Umrigar would like to talk about mega churches, which seems both apropos and a bit inconsistent. Her new novel, “Honor,” focuses on India’s two major faiths, Hinduism and Islam, and the violence that can erupt when an extremist faction holds power.

“Honor,” which was announced this week as a choice of 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 nearby village. But Umrigar, whose eight previous novels have been set in both the United States and India, knows that fundamentalism can spring from any faith.

“One thing for Western readers to realize about India is, guess what? We [Americans] get people to do crazy things too. Maybe a few fundamentalist Christians pick up ‘Honor’ and think, ‘Wow, why do I believe what my pastor says when he says the kind of thing that sounds cute that comes from one of my characters’ mouths?’

If this kind of secular awakening is unlikely, Umrigar thinks she might know why. “The follow-up question 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 that I think is essential to the human spirit?”

She anticipates the answer and then sweeps it away: “One can talk about libraries and books and museums, but they are almost by definition, unfortunately, becoming elitist. What gives the same sense of comfort and neighborhood that a church does?”

Maybe a writer? Umrigar speaks from her home in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has lived since she was 21 and works as a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Her elegant demeanor, literary references, and Zoom backdrop — bookshelves, artefacts — could objectively be considered elitist. But Umrigar possesses a level of curiosity and compassion that I rarely encounter in other people, even the many curious and compassionate writers I have interviewed.

A clue about her perspective comes from Sarah Willis, a novelist and fiction buyer at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, who has known Umrigar for nearly 20 years. They meet regularly for lunch with a group informally known as “The Pen Women” to talk about writing – but not always.

“Sometimes we talk about shoes!” says Willis. “But Thrity would never talk about shoes. She wants to take up politics. She says she writes her books to understand the world, but one of the things she writes about is how people treat each other …

“She believes that words can change people – that the words themselves have power, not her. Her books are always about someone trying to change and become a better person.”

In “Honor”, this person is an Indian American journalist, Smita Agarwal, who reluctantly flies to India to help Shannon, a colleague who is put on the sidelines with a broken hip. Shannon has 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 travel to the remote village of Birwad and interview Meena before the trial.

"Honour," by Thrity Umrigar

When I tell Umrigar, this book with its strong romantic elements seems like a slight departure from her other work, she smiles. “I’m 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 it might be a little different. “Nevertheless, she maintains,” I still write about problems that haunt me, about power and power differences. “

A cursory glance at the summary above may indicate that the plot turns on Smita’s power in the situation. Instead, “It’s Meena who ends up being the teacher,” Umrigar says. “She is more radical and brave than any of the characters who have what we currently call privileges in the developed world. Meena actually does something,” first by defying deep taboos and then by defending her rights. ” These are radical transgressions for which she pays a very, very high price. Yet she still manages to teach Smita and her companion Mohan “- an Indian leader she meets during the task -” a great deal about love and, yes, honor. “

“Honor” is the first of Umrigar’s novels published by Algonquin Books; Executive Editor Kathy Pories says it was “the simplicity of the title” with its many connotations that first struck her. “You do not know what it means until you read the book.” But it was the author’s “effortless authorship” that made her want to work with her. “You trust her. You can see that she has so much love for India, both through dark moments and beautiful moments.”

For Umrigar, “India” is another word with many valences. “One of the things Smita ends up telling Mohan is ‘My India is not your India.’ She tries to tell him that the India he sees as developed and progressive is not what she grew up in, but her statements have a deeper meaning. India is diverse, even for individual people. “

Mohan is perhaps the character that most closely resembles the author. His India was also once Umrigars. She grew up there in the 60s and 70s, and “one of the joys of living in India at the time, at least in Bombay, as it was called at the time, is that it was cosmopolitan and a truly secular “But there has clearly been a backlash to all that, with deep roots that are not simple. Remember, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist.” Decades later, she believes, “the Hindu right wing realized that there was political gain to be gained by exercising power.”

Once again, Umrigar calls for a comparison closer to his current home.

“You have to understand that I wrote ‘Honor’ during the Trump years,” she says. “I wrote about India, but I also wrote about my own adopted country. This difference from others is not a phenomenon you can assign to any country. The trend winds are blowing across the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States. I am some times shaken and confused and terrified of the parallels. “

In an attempt to make sense of it, and perhaps explain the role of a writer and her words, Umrigar invokes the playwright Tony Kushner, “who is one of my heroes. He says something along the lines of: Hope is not a choice Hope is a moral obligation. I try to live by those words. Sometimes I can not feel hope for my own personal relationships, which is absurd because I have had all the opportunities and privileges in the world. But I always feel hopeful about humanity. “

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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