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Review: Honor: A Novel by Thirty Umrigar

My Interest

I love to read stories set elsewhere–in this case India. I also wish American women could appreciate how amazingly privileged they are! We can dis our men all we want, but most of them do try to help at home, do spend time with the kids, and do appreciate their wives. American women are usually taken seriously when they report rape –even rape in marriage. Battered women in America can generally find help–their plight is taken seriously. We have control, oh sorry! We have “agency” over our lives (that means we have choices we can actually make). That is unheard of in so many places. We in American DO still have freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, in spite of efforts from both sides of the political spectrum to encroach on them.

Last year I had the goal of reading more from Reese Witherspoon’s book club, but mostly struck out. Honor is the pick for January 2022 and I was lucky that my library had the e-audio available with no waiting. I hope this book opens the eyes of so many who think they have it so bad. You haven’t met “bad” until you’ve seen what women go through in many other nations.

The Story

Smita, an unbelievably privileged and woke young journalist living in a fashionable area of NYC (the only place she could thrive–her parent’s Ohio college town just didn’t understand….[Must not have been Yellow Springs, eh Smita?]) agrees to help out a friend stuck in the hospital in India by finishing a series of stories on the treatment of a young woman, Meea, who marries out of her faith.

“Nobody taught us what I know today – the most dangerous animal in this world is a man with wounded pride.”

Her brothers, to defend the family’s honor (a concept we in America have largely decided can slide) have burned down the hovel in which Meena and her husband were sleeping. The husband is killed, Meena, though disfigured and somewhat disabled lives and gives birth to their daughter.

“Because a woman can live in one of two houses—fear or love. It is impossible to live in both at the same time.”

A big city women’s advocate gets Mina to go to court and try to have her brothers found guilty of murder. If you think American justice is screwed up, you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve stepped into a court room in any former “3rd World” country. (India is a 1st World country in commerce and a 2nd World or 3rd World country in other ways).

But, Mina’s is not the only story to be unraveled. Smita, too, has quiet a lot on her mind from her own childhood in India. She left the country at 14 with her family and landed in that stifling college town in (dear god, why?) Ohio. Smita is assisted by Mohan, who was her friend’s ( you remember, the journalist in the hospital?) translated and often necessary male companion. Together they set out to wait for the verdict in Mina’s case. They get to know her, her daughter, and the mother-in-law who both hates Mina and needs her.

The story ends in ways that will leave many American women stunned. (No spoilers).

My Thoughts

The oh-so-woke Smita thankfully gets a huge wake-up call (or should that be a “woke-up” call?) after even telling a woman in India that her “privilege is showing.” Yeah. But Smita redeems herself in more ways than one. Her own story is as gripping as Mina’s (no spoilers). I actually came to like and care about her–which I certainly did not see coming in the early chapters. I liked Mohan and was shocked that his story was not woke in any way. As for Meena, her story was not news to me. But I loved that she considered her time with her husband to be the happiest in her life. She, and the countless women like her, deserve more than just a token few months of happiness.

This is a great book for suburban book clubs and for those who genuinely care about the fate or women and children around the world.

My Verdict

3.75

I couldn’t go all the way to 4 stars because I am sick to literal puking of the seemingly mandatory screed against the most recent ex-president inserted into nearly every contemporary book these days. I am no fan of his AT ALL, but let him be history. We do not need a woke litmus test for publishing that includes a screed against him or anyone else.

Honor: A Novel by Thrity Umrigar

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Review: A Passage to India, a classic just right for today

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My Interest

Never mind that I chose to finally read it because it is a classic. It is as much about today as it is about early 20th Century India. For minorities, even when they are the true majority in a country, real justice is often hard come-by. The British rule over India enforced a Western sense of order, justice, and manners and morality. But was that justice as fair to one group as to the British themselves? This is a very timely topic. In the United States, justice for Blacks has always been a problem, though as a nation we pride ourselves on an independent judiciary.  Reading Passage to India, if you substitute an American location, Passage to Indiana if you will, could as well be written about a white American woman and a Black American or Mexcian-American man. No difference.

The Story

“The issues Miss Quested had raised were so much more important than she was herself that people inevitably forgot her.”

“God who saves the King will surely support the police.”

A trip in a mixed (English and Indian) group to the Maranbar Caves has newly-arrived Miss Adela Quested sure she has been molested by the Indian host, Dr. Aziz. The Echo. The subsequent arrest and trial of Aziz bring out the worst in the rulers. The plotting, obfuscation, and outright lying would be right at home today in any court in the U.S.A. not trying the rape case of a top white, wealthy, collegiate swimmer. Miss Quested is treated like an imbecile (also still common today in rape cases anywhere in the world). But the predictable does not end predictably. In this case, justice prevails, but only in court. Aziz must remake his life elsewhere. Miss Quested returns home never to venture out of the UK again. Damages? A civil suit? No, no, no, move on, nothing to see here. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh?

My Thoughts

“The conversation had become unreal since Christianity had entered it. Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the National Anthem, but he objected when it attempted to influence his life.”

“Ronny’s religion was of the sterilized Public School brand, which never goes bad, even in the tropics. Wherever he entered, mosque, cave or temple, he retained the spiritual outlook of the fifth form, and condemned as ‘weakening’ any attempt to understand them.”

First of all, I had a problem keeping two Ronnies straight. Ronnie Heaslop, the City Magistrate and putative fiancee of Miss Quested and the other Ronnie of the Raj–Ronnie Merrick of Jewel in the Crown–a story that also involves “fraternization” between a British woman and an Indian man, and which I enjoyed more, likely because I read it pre-cell phone attention span. I loved the miniseries, too, but then, back in the 80’s I loved the movie of Passage to India, too.

This book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird even though it predates TKAMB by many years. The vivid portrayal of racism, the proceedings in court, the emotions generated. All were very much alike, only set in different countries and cultures.

Confession: I was not expecting an Indian voice to narrate the audio! #WhitePrivilege strikes again.

Note: This book was published in the 1920s. There are racial slurs in use at the time in this book that would not be used today. I think there were two such instances. Do not let that stop you from reading this impressive work that deserves its reputation as a classic.

My Verdict

4.5

 

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Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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My Interest

India is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. It is a fascinating place. The story interested me for that reason and because the young woman is of my own kids’ generation.

The Story

Shalini is a young college grad working in a lifeless job and yearning to make a difference.  She decides to go off and look for a man who used to visit their family–a man from Kashmir, a troubled region near the dangerous boarder with Pakistan.  In alternating chapters, she tells of her time in Kashmir and the story of her trouble middle-class upbringing in Bangalore, explaining  how her family knew the man for whom she is searching why he was important to her.

My Thoughts

I sincerely doubt if one American in 1000 today could find India and Pakistan on the map, let alone the Himalayas (which Americans pronounce incorrectly) or Kashmir or Bangalore. We hear of India and Pakistan only when the word “nuclear” can be added or a disaster is perpetrated by an American chemical company. Even fewer Americans know that a minor member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, (Prince Philip’s Uncle and Prince Charles’ mentor) afraid to be away from his naval career too long, set an arbitrary date for full Indian Independence. To make that long story short, he divided India into two nations–Pakistan being the new country born out of a majority Muslim area. This area of the so-called “partition” has been violent almost ever since. If Americans consider the mess we have currently on the Mexican border and then add in religion, and religious extremists who are eager to kill or die or both, you can about picture the region Shalini went to in this book.

All through the story, I thought of myself and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers arriving bright-eyed, pukingly earnest and eager to “help” by telling people how to do things the American way. Shalini’s experience was so similar. The feeling of “family” created with the locals with whom you lived [although the dictator I lived under did not allow foreign volunteers to live with host families as is the norm in nearly every Peace Corps country–even 1960’s India itself where President Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian” served in retirement], the sense of “belonging” you gain as the community becomes geographically familiar to you, and self-esteem you develop as the languages and gestures of the people start to become understandable. You feel yourself “assimilate.” You think you are a local, a real resident. A part of the community.

All of that is laughable. You are so ridiculously naive. You find this out when you go to leave at the end of service and they want your stuff. Shalini, too, found out just how naive she was and I relived every emotion along with her.

Every word of this book rang true. The emotion, the process of assimilation–it was so chillingly accurate. Yet, in the end, Shalini found out what an impact she had [no spoilers] and how naive she was.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

The Far Field by  Madhuri Vijay

I listened to the audiobook.

I learned of this book from the Podcast “Reading Women,” episode 70.