Run, Run, to Mohan!

In this novel, Smita, an American born in India, returns to her “homeland” as a journalist. In India, she covers the story of Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man–defying tradition. Meena’s own brothers kill her husband and burn her alive. Meena survives, pregnant and badly disfigured. She dares to prosecute her own brothers. Meanwhile, worldly and cosmopolitan Smita meets up with Mohan, a Mumbai (formerly Bombay) Mover-and-Shaker, who serves as a friend, translator, and–frankly–male-guide in a land with many obstacles for women. What follows is Meena’s story and Smita’s story. 

Jennifer: What was your big impression?

Lara: I am going to be a little snobby (which is generally your position) and say that it was much better, and better written, than I expected it to be. Here’s why. I read this book for my personal book club, and I was a little on the fence when I saw the “Reese’s Book Club” sticker on it. Now, I love Reese. I love the projects she does. I don’t always like her book club picks. They always SOUND good, but then often fall flat for me. But it was for my book club, so I sampled the audio and dove in. I loved it and found myself eager to pick it up and keep listening.

Why did you want to read it? Did the celebrity endorsement concern you?

Jennifer: Ha! YOU made me want to read it. You said you liked it; before that, it was not on my radar. I know you and I often rave about different books–but I think I perk up about complex stories in unusual settings. I think this book would make a great film, because a story about women in India is not very familiar to many, many folks. I’d say that I actually DID know some of these conditions–but a good story communicates emotional truths. And I didn’t know those. 

As you accurately guessed, celebrity endorsements mean nothing to me. Oprah endorses some good ones, though.

Was it me or did you have a book-crush on Mohan? 

Lara: I LOVED Mohan! I loved his patience with Smita as he guided her to different parts of India to get Meena’s story (and the story of Meena’s horrible mother-in-law). I loved how Mohan grew throughout the story, becoming more aware of his privilege. Smita did a great job of balancing love of her country while maintaining an ability to see its depravity. She opened Mohan’s eyes. I am not sure a lot of Indian men would have been as open or as reflective as he was. 

Jennifer: Mohan was a hotty. There’s one plot-question I have. I kinda want to know if you know this. Mohan and Smita’s journalist friend–Shannon–apparently were “just friends.” But did it strike you as odd? Not suspicious. I believe they were friends, but really? They were such good friends that he’d care for her in the hospital?

Lara: I never really thought that Mohan and Shannon were a thing. Actually, I thought Shannon might be kicking it with her weirdly clingy female assistant. Shannon had already been there for a while, working to tell Meena’s story, when she went into the hospital. It was clear that the cultural dynamic in India caters to males and males hold all the power. I think that would also be true in a hospital environment. I am sure Shannon relied on Mohan’s ability to help her navigate her care. The fact that he was male and upper class didn’t hurt either. 

Jennifer: That assistant was a bit odd. 

Smita, as an American-Indian, also faces her own ghosts on the continent. Here’s a great passage:

“While Meena had been battling for her life and, later, fighting against crippling social ostracizing, Smita had been sitting in cafés in Brooklyn with her friends, sipping her cappuccinos, all of them feeling aggrieved as they talked about acts of microaggression and instances of cultural appropriation, about being ghosted by a boyfriend or being overlooked for a promotion. How trivial those concerns now seemed. How foolish she had been to join that chorus of perceived slights and insults. How American she had become to not see America for what it had been for her family—a harbor, a shelter, a refuge.”

Any problems you had with this book? 

Lara: The problems I had were not with the book, but with how little agency Indian women have. This is a great book to showcase some of the real gender, class, caste, and religious disparities in their country, and the complex relationship their citizens can have with it. Well, and maybe the ending wrapped up a LITTLE too cleanly and conveniently. It would make a great movie, and the ending showed you that. 

Jennifer: Yeah, the end was, um, clean. But it works.

Okay, so here’s my ONE problem that you inevitably did not have, and I will say that I can easily deal with it. You’ve got this Hindu woman who marries this rather liberated Muslim guy, who loves her and sounds awesome. He says something, like, All Faiths Are Great. Something about all paths leading to the same place. That sort of thing. 

I guess I find it slightly jarring that the book presents the only option for peace to be the negation of faiths. Esoteric? The great secularization of all cultures . . . it bugged me. Like, contemporary Smita and Mohan were not especially devotees of their faiths. I’d be interested in seeing a story about peace, in which religious beliefs aren’t denigrated.

Here’s some of that classic non-religion, as Meena thinks about her dead husband:

“I’m not sure if I should pray to the Muslim God or the Hindu one. If Abdul were alive he would say there is only one God and I must pray to the God called Justice. But I am going to court because Abdul is dead.”

Yes, true. Religion can do bad things. What do we do? Become irreligious or reformational?

Nonetheless, I do love this story, and the romances within it. It’s just an issue, not restricted at all to this gifted author. 

Lara: I also loved Meena and her husband. He and Mohan gave me hope for the more traditional, patriarchal men of India.

Jennifer: The love stories are something to swoon over. And I think there were some mind-boggling instances of human rights violations in here, which include horrific men, as well as women hurting other women. 

Lara: Oh yes. I was repeatedly shocked, angered, and saddened reading this book by how horribly people can treat each other. People can be monsters and systems can help perpetuate an imbalance of power. I think Umrigar did a fantastic job capturing that aspect. I am really glad I read it, and love that you did too.

So, what else have you been reading?

Jennifer: Well, you know I’ve been going crazy in my praise of Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. I’ve been crazy vocal too, so let me say this: ​​​​​​When I read Claire Dederer’s November 2017 “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” in The Paris Review–which was hot stuff in my little world–I was SO smitten. I’ve probably shared the essay with a big chunk of classes I’ve taught since that fall semester. Dederer’s article asked the question that we’ve been asking in the #MeToo and #cancelculture movements: what do we do with Woody Allen’s movies and “The Cosby Show”? What about Picasso? And, Dear Lord, David Bowie? I REALLY WANTED TO READ THIS BOOK.​​ ​​I read it and ATE it up. As per my usual, I don’t always agree–but it’s a great book.

I also finally read Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, after starting-and-quitting about three-to-five times. Loved it. Worth it. 

I quit about a million books too; I’ve become wildly fickle.

Lara: You keep posting the cover of Monsters on social media, and it freaks me out. I think I want to read it. I am insanely jealous that you got through Cloud Cuckoo Land. It still terrifies me.

Since we last met up, I have had a major reading win, and three disappointments. The disappointments were the bookstagram darling We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman (it just did not work for me); The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain (too shallow/surface level); and Fiona McFarlane’s The Sun Walks Down (had high hopes, but the few moments of greatness couldn’t save the book for me). 

My recent reading win comes from my listening to (and my first reading of) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. GOODNESS GRAVY! How did it take me nearly half a century of life to read this? What an utter delight. I am convinced this book came to me at the right time. I was ready for all the good feels, wild curiosity, and delightful precociousness of “Anne with an E” and the delightful Mathew Cuthbert who always had her back. The Audible Exclusive is performed (not narrated, PERFORMED), by Rachel McAdams and she is BRILLIANT. Nuanced. Perfect. As good as Maggie Gyllenhall’s performance of Anna Karenina, which left me breathless. 

Next Up!
We are tackling wildly popular John Green and his latest, The Anthropocene Reviewed.

Until then, happy reading, Snotties!