Friday, October 1, 2010

Secret Daughter: great story about Indian-American woman who finally discovers her roots

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A poor Indian village woman (Kavita) gives birth to daughters, while her husband (Vasu) and his family only want a son. Her first daughter is taken from her and buried alive before she can even hold her. When she has a second daughter, Kavita and her sister make a long journey on foot to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where they have an emotional parting at an orphanage.

In the meantime, across the globe, a Californian physician named Somer suffers from a series of miscarriages and learns she will never be able to carry a baby. Her Indian husband, Krishnan, finally convinces her to consider adoption. They make their first trip to India together to visit Krishnan's family and adopt a baby girl, Asha, who had been born to Kavita and Jasu.

Some have criticized this book because Gowda tries to tackle too many years (a 25-year time span) in too few pages (about 340). She also switches back and forth between characters' perspectives. It's a little clunky, I must admit, and it took me some time to get used to it and settle into the story.

Some of the characters could have been more developed...a task that might have been easier had there not been so many perspectives or years covered. For example, what was going on with Kavita and Jasu's son, Vijay? How did he become who he was? We meet handsome economist Sanjay in Mumbai, but don't get a clear picture of who he is...similar to Asha's cousins and her mentor, Meena. Her grandfather hardly says a word in the book, and presumably she grows attached to him, but we're not really sure why because we don't glimpse any of their interactions. Perhaps the book was too ambitious in trying to cover too much.

Asha grows up and chafes against her parents. Somer and Krishnan grow apart, especially after Asha leaves for college. Kavita and Jasu have their long-awaited son, who turns out to be a disappointment. They move to Mumbai and continue to live in poverty for most of their lives.

I found the character of Somer to be annoying. She's the only major American character in the book, and some of her choices don't ring true to me. She marries an Indian in the 1980s, yet has no interest whatsoever in visiting India, getting to know her Indian relatives, or eating Indian food? Asha reaches the age of 20 without ever having returned to India. I can't imagine depriving a child of his or her grandparents for 20 years, not to mention not teaching her about her rich cultural heritage. Although the book begins by describing her heartbreaking battles with infertility, Somer was the least well-developed and believable character in the book.

For me, the story came alive when Asha went to work in India for a year on a college fellowship. She meets and gets to know her large Indian family and wise grandmother, and she also comes to appreciate her parents and better appreciate the choices they made.

Gowda also sensitively tackles the extremely difficult issue of females in India, from Kavita having her daughters ripped away from her because they were not male and experiencing scorn because she had not borne a the abject poverty and crippling conditions poor Indian women suffer...and the apparent power wealthier Indian women wield in their own families, yet they are still stifled by social structures and taboos. Asha comes to realize how much more freedom she has had as a woman, growing up in the U.S. instead of India. As Asha's mentor, Meena says, "Mother India does not love all her children equally, it seems." At the same time, Gowda balances the horrific challenges women face in India with the beautiful parts of the culture and the importance of family.

In spite of the book's weaknesses, I'm giving it four stars...because I couldn't put it down. I will read more of Gowda's books. For me, the most important thing about a book is how much I enjoy reading much it sticks with me throughout the day, and whether I think of it when I wake in the middle of the night. This book did those things for me, so I consider it a good read.

Chowpatty Beach, one of the sights Asha visits during her year in Mumbai

No comments:

Post a Comment