The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This is a very descriptive book, evocative of many different things.   It is a poignant tale, set in India and California.  The story is told from the perspective of several different characters, but mainly from the viewpoint of Asha, her birth mother Kavita and her adoptive mother Somer.  The plot revolves around Asha’s family background, how she comes to be left at an orphanage, and how she is adopted from there by a wealthy Californian couple, unable to have children of their own.  It is a remarkable comment on how the preference in some cultures for male children can have far reaching consequences.

I really enjoyed this book and read it in only a few days.  The prose is lyrical and precise and had me in tears on a couple of occasions.  Particularly powerful is Gowda’s description of the despair felt by Kavita, Asha’s birth mother, when her first baby, a girl, is taken from her by her husband and killed.  This renders all the more moving Gowda’s description of the birth of the second girl, Asha, and the remarkable steps Kavita takes in securing her future, at immense personal cost.  All the characters in this book are sympathetic and written with close attention to detail.  Gowda’s portrayal of the clinical, focused, surgeon father and slightly emotionally detached mother is very well observed.  I particularly liked how the story was told from many different viewpoints as this facilitated insight into the actions of the other characters which might not necessarily be evident at first sight.   An example of this was Jasu, Kavita’s husband, and how 25 years after the event, we learn how he regrets the killing of his first daughter, a deep, lifelong regret that provokes nightmares.  When the birth and death of that daughter is first told, it is from the viewpoint of Kavita, who sees Jasu as a cold, uncaring monster for taking her daughter.  It is only later that we learn, from Jasu himself, that he regretted this action almost from the minute it was carried out.

There are many themes running throughout this book; the importance of family, of roots and of knowing where you come from.   Asha’s character often considers the implications of having adoptive parents and of never having the opportunity to travel to India.  She laments the thick, dark hair she has which marks her as different from her peers.  She writes letters to her imagined parents in India and becomes frustrated when her adoptive parents seem reluctant to discuss her origins.  The importance of family and roots also has implications for Asha’s adoptive family, particularly her mother, Somer, who is white.  Somer worries about losing Asha if she searches for her Indian family and just wants to hold onto her tightly to keep her from slipping away.  Unfortunately she doesn’t realise that holding Asha so tightly means Asha will only want to loosen her mother’s hold.  This is exactly what happens when Asha announces that she has won a scholarship to study journalism in India, with a special project on the slums of Mumbai.

It is Asha’s travel to India to live for a year with her father’s family which illuminates many of the themes in the book.  The importance of travel and education in broadening the mind is demonstrated in Asha’s journey and how she copes with the complete change in culture and relates to the people she meets there.  During this period, with the benefit of distance and an alternative perspective, Asha sees her parents in a new light which she had been unaware of previously.  When contrasting her life with what she sees in the slums of Mumbai, she realises that they only ever wanted the best for her and their actions are born of that desire.

Asha begins a search for her birth parents and finds that they subsequently had a son.  She misunderstands this and thinks that they didn’t want to keep her because she was a girl.  Of course, she is partially correct, but that is not the whole story.  She knows her mother loved her enough to name her, to give her a silver bangle and to walk days following her birth to take her to the orphanage where she would be safe.  But she does not know all the facts and the story ends without her finding out.   Similarly, Jasu doesn’t discover until the end of the book that his second daughter lived and was given up for adoption.  He only discovers this fact when his wife is dying and wants to have news of her daughter.  The reader is left wondering whether Asha will, in subsequent years, try to find out more about her birth parents, maybe even try to meet them or her brother.   I wonder, were a sequel to be written, whether maturity and the passage of time would alter Asha’s views and lead her to search for a more comprehensive understanding of her background.

I was even more impressed with this book because it doesn’t have the fairytale ending you might expect.  The tale was all the more powerful and poignant for not taking the easiest, neatest or most obvious choice.

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