The Secret Dsaughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 978- 0061922312
Pub Date: March 1, 2010
As soon as I read the first chapter, I was taken by the character, Kavita Merchant, a woman who chose to birth alone in secret without the help of a midwife or the knowledge and support of her husband. Her fear in placing her child in danger at the mercy of a culture that does not readily accept nor desire the birth of a baby girl is justified.
Labour can be one of the most frightening and painful experiences for a woman who has never birthed before. For Kavita to choose to experience this alone with nothing more than a tree branch between her teeth to muffle her screams is not only horrifically barbaric, but heroic. It goes to show just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the needs of her newborn baby.
It is, however, ironic that the discrimination against the baby who is born actually becomes the catalyst for not only her survival, but also her eventual financial and cultural prosperity. Not every baby should be so lucky. Her older sister was not. Her older sister was born a few minutes, to then only be killed by a relative as approved by the conspiracy of her father. And only because she was considered to be born of the “wrong” sex and deemed a useless burden that would one day require a dowry. This injustice drove their mother, Kavita, to better preparation in her second pregnancy and a stronger resolve to resist her husband in order to save the life of her unborn child.
Kavita’s drive to travel a day’s worth from her rural village to a city unknown to her, an overcrowded Mumbai, with the knowledge of what she must do to save her child’s life is not only unbearable to do, but unbearable for me, the reader, to have had to witness. It was so disturbing to me as a mother that after I had read the except, I went to my 17 months-old daughter, picked her up from the crib, and held her tightly to me for 10 minutes, crying. Such parting should not have to take place, but the reality of poverty, of accepted and unaccepted societal norms, sometimes the difficult choice of biological abandonment is necessary.
Kavita Merchant’s polar character found in Somer Thakkar is a liberal, American doctor living in the United States who desires to be a mother, but cannot conceive a child of her own biologically. In the beginning of the novel I empathized with her inability to have her own children and even went so far as to understand her issues in seeing and dealing with pregnant women and pregnancy in general. But I found her character extremely self-centered and presumptuous. Her relationship with her husband, his family, and her perception of his Indian culture portrayed her as a self-righteous, rigid, and judgemental individual. Her inability to adapt and her resentful attitude toward to her liminality could have easily been interpreted as racist.
She seemed to me to be an insecure individual, possessive over her adopted daughter, always anxious, fearful, almost paranoid that her daughter would someday potentially seek out and wish to build a relationship with her biological parents. Perhaps somewhere in the recesses of a mother’s heart lies a deep-rooted fear to lose a child emotionally to another or lose the primary role of being a mother. I strongly disagree. Unfortunately, I found this to be immature on behalf of a character who is dutifully scrutinized by adopting agencies and its affiliates to exemplify the opposite: a person mature enough to be worthy and well-fit to be a parent.
Secondary characters such as Jasu, Kavita’s ambitious husband must deal with his personal failure as a man and as a father in first, his choice to allow his eldest daughter to be killed; second, his failure in providing proper leadership to his son, Vijay; and third, his inability to successfully provide for his family because of his prideful ambition and illusions about the city of Mumbai. Rather than return to the village of his former home where his wife and son would have been better taken care of emotionally and spiritually, he prevented them from returning to a much more tolerable life than the one they were living as a family in the slums. Rather than swallow his pride about his own error in judgement, Jasu perpetuates more failure by allowing his family to suffer and diminish.
Krishnan, Somer’s husband is also a doctor and a product of two worlds: India and America. He seems to be ignorant of his wife’s peripheral and cultural relationship with their adopted daughter. He attested to encouraging her knowledge and personal development when it came to learning their shared Indian culture, yet desired and pressured her to follow his chosen career path. Rather than fully support her dreams of becoming a journalist, he made it clear that he not only disapproved of her choice, but also wished she had become a doctor like himself.
The men in this novel are much more flawed compared to their women counterparts, but it’s not so much a novel about the battle between the sexes, but rather, the complexities of motherhood, parenthood, and the re-definition of home and family.
Usha/Asha is named twice, perhaps an intentional clue by the author alluding to the character’s duality and her search for understanding her personal identity. She is a daughter of two cultures, two worlds, and two family histories—and she must come to terms with both.
Though I found Usha/Asha’s questions of identity natural and inevitable, I did, find the resolutions around her, far too simple. Frankly, I found her to be a spoiled and ungrateful child, and later, more a daughter of clichés rather than of secrets. She had a biological mother who mourned for her and an adopted mother who succumbed to her every wish in fear of losing her love by being even a bit contradictory or strict simply because she’s an adopted mother, rather than a biological one. Why would a mother choose to walk on eggshells around her daughter in fear of her own insecurities?
Even Asha’s paternal extended family, including her grandmother, seemed to have afforded her special treatment. This was expressed as a desire for a girl in the family, but I suspect it had more to do with Asha being an American than it did with her being adopted.
I did, however, feel for Kavita, Usha’s biological mother. After mourning many years without any knowledge of her daughter’s existence or whereabouts, the actual opportunity to meet her daughter in person was marred not only by her daughter’s presumptuousness, but was also prevented by her mother’s death. Perhaps her mother’s death signified her own maternal death to Usha, who now chose to be called Asha and would choose to define her family within the boundaries of her adopted family, rather than her biological one.
How quickly characters like Somer and Asha judge Kavita so harshly. Somer had told Asha at one point, “At least I wanted you.” What a horrible thing to say to a person, let alone a child, an adopted one. And to presume because Usha’s biological mother gave her away that she didn’t want her! Ludicrous! The omnipotent reader knows that if this were true, Usha would not have been born in the solitude of a house, in the secret of the night without acknowledgement, support, or blessing.
Asha, too, assumes the worst of her biological parents simply because she discovers she has a younger brother. This irrational behaviour only exemplifies her immaturity.
I did not feel by any means, that justice was served by addressing Kavita’s longing with nothing more than a written letter. Imagine, she walked a day’s worth to save her child and all she received in return was a letter from her daughter? Not even a phone call or a personal meeting? And to receive it merely on her deathbed! What a tragedy.
Though the premise of the book was promising and the read mostly easy and enjoyable, I found the characters shallow, predictable, and clichéd. If life were as simple as fated meetings, handsome boyfriends, and dot-to-dot conclusions, then this book would be extraordinary. It is only extraordinary in how far-fetched and easy the plot seemed.
I do, though, remain faithful to my heroine, Kavita. Where the story was told in her blistered feet, her lactating breasts, her shrieks of loss, her sacrifice in the slums, and her respect in maintaining her husband’s honour, I found some form of solace and redemption. She was not born to privilege in the same ways Somer, Krishnan, Dadijima, or even Asha were raised, but was intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing enough that all other characters around her were able to benefit from her one choice—the one burden—she willingly made. She gave up her daughter so everyone except herself could gain. Perhaps that is one truth, one kernel of wisdom regarding motherhood. And for that, Kavita’s character should not be ashamed.