Q & A with Thrity Umrigar
Q: What inspired you to write Honor?
A: There were two sources of inspiration. The first and most immediate was a series of articles in the New York Times written by Ellen Barry, which described life in Indian villages, specially the lives of rural women and the endemic corruption among the police etc. But I also had older memories of relatives describing a historic event that came to be known as the Bombay Riots, which happened in the early 1990s.
Q: In the small village in India you write about, there is intolerance for independent women and horrific punishments are doled out for those who do not follow the rules created by the men. How did you learn about this? Does this drastic religious intolerance including honor killings continue today?
A: These stories are in the news on a regular basis. I’m not for a moment suggesting that they are commonplace or routine, but they do occur, and more often than they should. And although they usually revolve around religious intolerance, there can be many reasons for them. For instance, there have been instances of the courts actually ordering women who have been raped to marry their rapists, in the name of saving their “honor” and reputations.
Q: Did you have to do research for this novel or did you just draw on your knowledge and experiences?
A: As someone who lives in the U.S., I definitely had to do research—to describe the layout of villages, to explain the workings of the court system and the criminal justice system, to try and understand the mindset of men who would oppress women to this degree.
Q: How long did it take you to write Honor, and did the pandemic and the US political turmoil have any impact on your book?
A: I wrote the first draft in about six months but then spent over a year going over that draft and reshaping it quite drastically. I thankfully finished it before the pandemic but the US political turmoil was never far from my mind and although there’s big difference in degrees, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the country I was raised in and the country I now call home. The underlying issues seem achingly similar, mostly the Otherizing of anyone who is different than us.
Q: Honor has two parallel love stories, Meena and Abdul, and Smita and Mohan. Did you write about each couple separately and then weave the stories together or did you write the book in order, as we read it?
A: I definitely wrote the book in order, much as it appears to the reader, because Smita’s love story and general awakening, is greatly influenced by Meena’s courage and actions. I feel as if the two stories have things in common even though the protagonists are so different.
Q: Smita, an Indian born American citizen has all the wealth, privilege, opportunity and freedom of an American, yet Meena, held back by the patriarchal society of her small Indian village seems to live with abandon, guided by her heart. Usually, the oppressed learn lessons from the upper class, but in Honor, Meena and her choices have a powerful impact on Smita. What did Smita learn? Why did you choose to write their story this way? And with Meena in the first person?
A: I’m delighted to have you make this observation. I didn’t want to write a “rich lady savior” novel; in fact, I was interested in inverting that trope and seeing what it resulted in. I think what Smita learns from Meena’s example is courage and trust, two qualities she is lacking. Even though she obviously has to be brave to be a foreign correspondent, she is a solitary and distrusting person in her personal life. And it was important for Meena to tell her story directly to us, in the first person. She has had such little agency and choice in her own life and I wanted to restore her voice to her. This was my little way of—yes—honoring Meena and millions of poor, working class, invisible women like her.
Q: Were you consciously exploring what we can we learn from each other regardless of class, wealth, education?
A: I mean, I’m not sure if I was consciously exploring these issues. In some sense, I was, in that I knew what I didn’t want to write, as I said above. But mostly, the book evolved in that way organically once Smita meets Meena and begins to not only have a change of heart about India, but also begins a process of self-evaluation.
Q: Smita has the great privilege to tell Meena’s story of persecution and unjust, but can journalists have a negative influence on the outcome of a case? Objectivity is part of being a good journalist but is there a moral responsibility as well? In Smita’s case, should she impose her beliefs when covering Meena’s story?
A: I can’t claim to have an exact answer to this but I do know that these are questions worth asking and for journalists—especially Western journalists covering unfamiliar cultures—to continually grapple with.
Q: It seems like with the brothers and the government in the Indian villages, the responsibilities to rules, religion and tradition were more important than the responsibility to take care of human life and family (Meena and her baby). We have seen similar examples of that type of thinking in this country as well. Is there a happy medium and are we any closer to it now vs.100 years ago?
A: I suppose the happy medium would be to situate the individual within the larger community and to cherish and value both. The problem comes when the individual is in conflict with the community. What then? I think the recognition that women should have choices in the most basic aspects of their lives—education, work, marriage, sex, motherhood—and that ultimately, they are the ones who should determine what’s best for them, seems like a basic first step.
Q: When writing Honor, did you explore any other plot differences or outcomes? Did anything end up on the cutting room floor you wished you kept in?
A: Honor was much more heavy on the flirty banter between Smita and Mohan earlier on; they also have a stronger attraction much earlier on. So those scenes were on the cutting room floor and frankly, that’s where they belong. This version, I hope, is more restrained and nuanced.
Q: Smita has a love-hate relationship with India and she seems to really struggle with this throughout the book. She and Mohan see the country very differently. Now, more than ever, this internal battle about country hits home for many Americans. How do you think India and The United States are similar?
A: Despite their obvious differences in wealth, power etc. the world’s two largest democracies have a suprising lot in common. Both democracies are at risk by a tendency to gravitate toward charismatic leaders with authoritarian tendencies; certain political parties in both countries seems agreeable to demonize minorities, immigrants etc. in order to gain and retain power; there are restrictions of women’s rights and a desire to control their bodies. The list goes on.
Q: You write a lot about class, gender, poverty and privilege. Why do you think your books resonate with so many?
A: I would like to think that it’s because in reading about specific characters in certain counties, they can make the connections and see parallels in their own lives. I don’t want my readers to “pity” marginalized women like Meena; I want them to stand in solidarity with them and perhaps even see some aspect of their lives in women like her.
Q: Do you visit India often and when were you last there?
A: In January 2020, just before the Covid nightmare began worldwide.
Q: How did you find out Reese Witherspoon picked your book and do you think it will impact your writing career?
A: I found out several months before the Jan. 4 announcement from my publishing team and had to keep the news a secret. I have no idea how it will affect my career but I’ve been very gratified by the outpouring of support from readers and friends and especially, fellow writers. That, for me, was the best part.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: It’s not a terribly new book, but I was blown away by The Overstory by Richard Powers
Q: There is so much emotion in your writing and the stories of Meena and Smita in India would be captivating on a big screen. Is there any talk about Honor becoming a movie?
A: There’s always talk but there’s many a step between talk and something on a screen.
Q: How can we keep up with all that you are doing?
A: I have a FB page called Thrity Umrigar Author and a website that I try and update but sometimes fail to do. It’s www.umrigar.com