Thrity Umrigar's latest novel, "Honor," begins with a vacation cut short when Smita Agarwal, a foreign correspondent from Brooklyn, is forced to abandon the sunny beaches of the Maldives for an unexpected detour to bustling Mumbai. She is rushing to the bedside of her colleague Shannon Carpenter, a South Asian correspondent, who is facing imminent surgery. Before she's wheeled into the operating room, Shannon begs Smita to travel to Birwad, an all-Muslim village near the Gujarat-Maharashtra border, to report on a groundbreaking legal case in her place.
The complainant, Meena, a low-caste Hindu, goes against her community and religion to elope with her beloved, Abdul Mustafa, a Muslim. Meena's brothers, hellbent on exacting revenge on the couple for their interfaith marriage and the dishonor it has brought, set fire to the newlyweds' hut while they are inside. Abdul perishes instantly. Meena, pregnant and severely injured, barely survives. She eventually gives birth to their daughter.
Smita's hesitation to take on the assignment goes beyond her rusty Hindi and the uncharitable assumption of Mohan, Shannon's friend, who deems Smita a spoiled Indian American thumbing her nose at her country of origin. Smita's return to Mumbai triggers memories of an unspeakable act of violence and betrayal she experienced as a teenager before she and her family fled to Ohio. Though she wears her U.S. citizenship like armor, she knows spending time in a "city she'd spent the last twenty years trying to forget" will force her to confront her past.
Umrigar aptly tackles honor killings in rural India and paints Meena with agency and depth. Before her marriage to Abdul, Meena was a trailblazer who, along with her sister, defied her brothers' wishes and got a job at a sewing factory to help support their family. She believes that speaking out will empower other women who endure such horrors and that she must do her part to challenge a corrupt legal system that readily dismisses violence against women.
"Honor" is also a stirring critique of individual agendas surrounding Meena's high-profile case. This includes Smita, who, though a seasoned reporter, remains naïve to many of the forces at play, as well as Anjali, Meena's well-meaning but overeager feminist lawyer who, at times, seems to care more about sticking it to the patriarchy than about her client's well-being.
In her years of reporting on gender violence around the world, Smita takes care to avoid the kind of "trauma porn" typical of such articles. Curiously, in the book, Umrigar pens a gruesome scene that feels close to fetishizing female victimization. It neither fortifies the narrative nor deepens the reader's understanding of the cultural context of such violence. Less would have definitely been more.
Nevertheless, "Honor" boldly examines a system that continues to greenlight brutality and serves as a poignant reminder that despite all odds, "in every country, in every crisis, there are a handful of people who will stand against the tide."
Anjali Enjeti is the author of "Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change" and "The Parted Earth."
By: Thrity Umrigar.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 326 pages, $26.95, in stores Jan. 11.
Virtual event: In conversation with Rebecca Makkai, 7 p.m. Jan. 18, magersandquinn.com