Secret Daughter, the stunning debut novel from Toronto-born author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, is captivating, emotional, and rich in detail. The beautiful prose, intricate storylines, and riveting characters drew me in by the first chapter. I loved this book from beginning to end.
The novel begins in Dahanu, India in the midst of the monsoon season, when Kavita Merchant gives birth to a baby girl–without the aid of a midwife. Out of fear of her husband’s reaction, and that of the society in which she lives, Kavita leaves the newborn at an orphanage in Bombay in order to save her from the merciless hands of a culture that abhors female births. The novel spans 2 decades, stringing together the story of Kavita, her husband, Jasu, the girl, Usha, and American doctors, Somer and Krishnan — Usha’s adoptive parents.
Usha, we learn, means “hope” — Gowda plays with this concept throughout the book; her characters pray for it, question it, turn away from it, lose it, find it, and, ultimately, believe in it. We learn, at the onset, that Kavita gave birth to a daugther before; however, she was given up, quickly and brutally, to her husband. Gowda describes her anguish in heart-wrenching detail:
“Kavita spent the next two days curled up on the woven straw mat on the floor of the hut. She did not dare ask what had happened to her baby. Whether she was drowned, suffocated, or simply left to starve, Kavita hoped only that death came quickly, mercifully. In the end, her tiny body would have been buried, her spirit not even granted the release of cremation. Like so many baby girls, her first-born would be returned to the earth long before her time.”
Reading through Kavita’s personal trajectory from an accepting, acquiescent wife to a strong woman willing to risk her life in order to save her daughter’s was eye-opening. Determined for this daughter to live, she stands up to Jasu, her initially domineering, frightening husband, demanding space and time. And, concealed from him, she hands her child over to the orphanage and walks away, the devastating sound of her shrill screams resounding in Kavita’s ears for the rest of her life. Jasu and Kavita struggle for much of their life, after their son (they finally have one) is born, moving from the slums to Bombay in pursuit of bigger dreams, only to have them shattered upon arrival, and year after year.
Meanwhile, in California, Asha — as she is called — grows up in a normal American household, wondering why her eyebrows are so bushy and why she and her adoptive mother, Somer, seem so far apart, while she and her father, Krishnan, understand each other on a completely different level. Both physicians, Somer is a California blonde and Krishnan is Indian; having fallen in love in med school, they married, and, sadly, discovered that Somer could not have children. Scared that Asha will distance herself from her, and insecure about her ability as a mother, Somer is reluctant to engage in any conversations with Asha about her past or her heritage. Throughout the novel, she consistently denies the part of her family that is Indian, creating discord between herself, her husand and her daughter. By the time that Asha is twenty years old, she has not been to India since the time she was in the orphanage. Deeply curious about her past, Asha decides, in the summer before college, to go to India. She wins a journalism scholarship, hoping to visit her father’s family, learn about who she is, and, lastly, contact her biological parents.
None of the characters in Secret Daughter are one-sided; they are full of good qualities and full of flaws. This is the mark of a well-written novel. There is a great, many-layered complexity in the relationships between parent and child, husband and wife. For example, Jasu seems, initially, terrifying; by the end of the novel, we actually sympathize with him, as readers. The novel begins and ends with his devotion to finding the truth in order to bring peace back to his and Kavita’s life. In closing, Kavita describes her marriage:
Yes, he has made mistakes and poor decisions along the way, but her husband has grown to be a good man. They have grown together, toward one another, two trees leaning on each other as they age.
Gowda presents a powerful, touching story about self-identity, marriage, the definition and importance of family, and indirectly, India. The novel does a wonderful job of conveying the contrast between “the two Indias”, describing, in great detail, Indian lifestyle, traditions, language, advantages, and disadvantages, truths and myths, and, of course, FOOD (I am dying to go to a good Indian restaurant in Toronto, after reading this — any suggestions?) I felt extremely heartbroken and shocked towards some of the issues Gowda hints at in the novel: bride-burning, sex-selective abortion, drug culture, and rampant poverty. I cannot believe the tragic suffering that women in many parts of the world, at the hands of a patriarchal society with an archaic mentality, continue to endure. I was compelled to do some more research on these topics — you can find some useful information here.
Overall, I really enjoyed the novel and zipped right through it. I only wish Kavita’s son had more of a voice; though he gives his parents money, it is only for the social stigma he feels without it — he is the only character that seems to be purely selfish. However, it neatly came together at the end, and was completely unpredictable — in fact, it had a very different ending than the one I had envisioned. And it was better that way.