When Asian mores clash with Western society, tragedy occurs.
Killing Honour Author: Bali Rai Publisher: Corgi, 336 pages
A YOUNG woman with a potentially bright future succumbs to an arranged marriage to a man from the same clan to honour her family’s wishes only to be trapped in an abusive union. Woman turns to family for support but is shunned because she is now the husband’s property. By then, it is all too late and her fate is a sealed tragedy.
Sounds like an overworked plot? But here’s the thing. It isn’t the plot in Bali Rai’s Killing Honour although it is the backbone to the story. What makes the British author’s new book different is that Rai has cleverly approached the common plot from a fresh angle, making it dynamically interesting.
I read Killing Honour in one sitting, with minimal toilet and texting breaks. Then I went to bed only to experience parts of the scenes from the chapters being re-enacted in a series of disturbing dreams. It was pretty haunting, not in a nightmarish way but in way that prompted a sad realisation that some outdated cultural practices are still being honoured in these modern times, and in doing so, sometimes killing honour itself. Ironic but true.
The story centres on a young Punjabi Sikh named Sat who is determined to find his married sister who vanished under suspicious circumstances. Although the in-laws, the Atwals, claim that she has eloped with her Muslim lover, Sat crosses boundaries to discover the truth despite hurdles thrown up from his own family, who believe that their daughter is a disgrace.
With conservative values woven through modern mores set against a background of sex, drugs and brutality, Sat’s story begins in Leicester, England, and he narrates it in 28 chapters. Adding to the stark narration are independent, supporting texts randomly interspersed between the chapters.
I love Rai’s writing style: easy and fuss free without any serious dips into frilly emotional jamborees given the nature and density of the book’s subject. The clean and clinical style makes reading the book much like watching an episode of TV’s Criminal Minds.
I felt that Rai’s portrayal of his community’s sentiments is spot on, recognising them from when a Punjabi friend of mine became somewhat of an outcast for taking a non-Punjabi husband. Many Punjabi friends have told me that they’d only marry a Sikh because it is their community’s natural expectation of them. “Race and religion doesn’t matter to me but I’d still marry a Punjabi Sikh. If I don’t do that, my mother would be very, very upset. It won’t be the same again, ” a male friend said recently.
Another friend, a British Punjabi, was married off to a girl who was hand-picked by his grandmother from India. The pair was happy for a while, but after a couple of years when her residency came through, she divorced him, almost stripping him off all he owned.
Having said that, when you pick up this book, read it with an open mind. Those with no concept of certain long-held beliefs among Asians may find the key issue in the book totally intolerable in today’s world. While arranged marriages and the spirit of keeping the “herd” close among some cultures may be viewed with anything ranging from disbelief to disgust, it probably does work for some people.