Last week I read a Book Riot post with some suggestions for diversifying your book group's reading. It will be my turn to pick a book soon, so that caught my attention. Then too one of my book-related goals this year has been to read more diverse authors, and I'm looking for recommendations for my own reading - even more now, with the upcoming "A More Diverse Universe" challenge.
Secret Daughter was one of the books listed, and the post's author wrote, "This is a book that that I love so much it’s a bit irrational." I am always intrigued by books that inspire that kind of passion in readers. When I checked the library catalogue, their summary of the book also intrigued me:
Interweaves the stories of a baby girl in India, the American doctor who adopted her, and the Indian mother who gave her up in favor of a son, as two families--one in India, the other in the United States--are changed by the child that connects them.I was particularly pleased that my branch library had a copy, so I could just walk in and pick it up off the shelf. I love our county library system (no surprise that I scored as a "Library Lover" on the Pew Research Center's Library User Quiz, which you can take here). But most of the books I want have to come from other branches, which can take weeks sometimes, so it's nice to find one ready on the shelves.
I found the blurb intriguing, but it's also a bit misleading. The mother in India, Kavita, doesn't give up her child in favor of a son, she does it to save the child's life. Her first-born, a daughter, was taken from her at birth. She knows the infant was killed and buried by her husband's family, though no one has ever told her so. If the child she is carrying is another girl, she is determined to save her. Her sister Rupa, who faced the same heart-breaking dilemma herself, found an orphanage in Mumbai for her child, and she agrees help Kavita take the baby there. At the Shanti Home for Children, Kavita gives her daughter a name, Usha, "Dawn," and leaves her with one of her treasures, a silver bangle.
The American woman who adopts the baby is Somer Whitman, a pediatrician living in San Francisco. She is married to a neurosurgeon, Krishnan Thakkar, whom she met in medical school. Krishnan is originally from Mumbai, where his parents and extended family still live. They have been trying to start a family for some time, but Somer cannot carry a baby to term. Finally, at Krishnan's urging, she agrees to consider adoption. His mother is a patron of the Shanti Home, and through an adoption agency they are offered a one-year-old child, a girl named Asha (which means "hope"). They travel to Mumbai to meet their new daughter, a trip that is also Somer's introduction to India and to Krishnan's extended family. She finds the city overwhelming, she feels an outsider in the Thakkar family and in the Indian culture, and she is distressed not to bond as easily as Kris does with their new daughter.
The story then takes us through more than 20 years of the two families' lives. Kavita and her husband Jasu move to Mumbai with the son they finally have, Vijay. Like Somer, they find the city overwhelming and not especially welcoming to the new arrivals pouring in from the countryside, looking for jobs and a better life for their children. They land first in a vast shantytown, a slum on the edge of the city where thousands live and work. Under the most difficult circumstances, they begin to build a partnership, from an arranged marriage that got off to a rocky start, with their new city life.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Somer and Kris raise their daughter, who grows increasingly curious about her birth. At the same time Kris realizes that his connection to his family and his homeland is slipping, while his daughter has no real connection at all to her Indian heritage. Reading their story, I initially thought that the author had glossed over the complexities of their multi-cultural marriage, let alone raising a child in that situation. I realized later that's because Somer and Kris had done the same thing themselves. As a student, Kris melded himself into American culture and ways. Both he and Somer were focused on their careers, something they had in common, and they married without ever really addressing the wide gaps in their experiences and expectations. In some ways their marriage had as shaky a foundation as Kavita and Jasu's, and adding a child doesn't automatically make that better.
This becomes clear in the second half of the book when, Asha, now a sophomore at Brown University, wins a grant to spend a year in India, researching children living in poverty. Somer is absolutely opposed to this, because it means losing a year of college, but also because she feels that Asha is choosing Krishnan and his family over her. In addition, she worries that her daughter will seek out her birth parents. Kris supports Asha, which infuriates Somer. Under the strain, other long-buried issues begin to surface, driving the couple apart.
I really enjoyed the second half of the book, following Asha as she arrives in Mumbai and meets her father's large family, who welcome her warmly. She bonds immediately with her grandmother, the matriarch of the family. With her cousins, she begins to explore the city and her own identity. Her introduction to Mumbai is much easier than Kavita's many years before, cushioned by her family and her economic security. But her research takes her to the same shantytown, where she discovers not just the heart-breaking poverty of the residents, but also the grace and strength with which they make their homes and raise their families - as her own birth parents did.
This is a complex story, with a lot going on between the different characters. It deals with big questions, of identity, of what it means to be a family, through individual stories. It shifts constantly between characters, and between the U.S. and India, but the different strands of the story are easy to follow. Ms. Gowda is a very skillful story-teller. My only quibble is that I found the San Francisco side of the story a little less interesting, a little flatter, than the stories of Kavita and Asha in India. The sections set in India really come to life, and it was fascinating seeing Mumbai through the eyes of the three different women: Kavita, coming from her small village; Somer, an American on her first visit to India, uneasy, closed in and resentful; and Asha, discovering her homeland for the first time. Ms. Gowda does not gloss over the poverty and the violence that plague Mumbai and other areas of India, nor the discrimination that women and girls face. But these problems do not define the country or her characters.
It is hard to believe that this is Shilpi Somaya Gowda's first book. I will certainly be looking for whatever she writes next.