Meera Syal, much celebrated in Britain as an actor, comedian, and novelist, is little known here, though that should change with the publication of The House of Hidden Mothers, her third novel. Fast paced, character rich, and, for the most part, deftly plotted, the book throws out a constellation of problematic issues arranged around a central one, that of the Indian surrogacy industry and the relationship between people who have nothing to sell but their bodies and those who can afford to avail themselves of them. As of this writing, the Indian government is in the process of regulating the trade and prohibiting surrogacy for foreign couples, but the matter is far from resolved, not least because surrogacy is the only means by which many Indian women have been able to provide for their own children’s welfare and education. The question is so ethically complex as to have no satisfactory answer. In other words, it provides ideal material for a novel.
Shyama, daughter of Indian immigrants, is a successful London beauty salon owner and a woman of “a certain age” – 48, to be exact. She is divorced from an unfaithful husband and living with her 19-year-old daughter, Tara. Also present is Toby, Shyama’s partner of some six years, a gentle man 14 years her junior. Meanwhile, her elderly parents, Prem and Sita, once refugees from Partition who have scrimped and saved all their lives, live right next door. Shyama and Toby have been trying to have a baby for four years, and the novel opens in a Harley Street fertility specialist’s office, where Shyama finally learns that she has no viable eggs and an “inhospitable womb.” Pregnancy is impossible, and it’s devastating news, especially to her, a self-made woman used to overcoming barriers. It’s a grim truth, she reflects, that “[i]n an age where you could cougar your way around town with a wrinkle-free smile, inside you were not as old as you felt, but as old as you actually were.” Not to be balked in her quest for a baby, Shyama seizes on the idea of employing a surrogate mother.
This will be Mala, a woman living in poverty in an Indian village. Unable to complete her education because of the death of her father, she is married to Ram, an ignorant boor whose family received what they considered an inadequate dowry. This shortcoming has given Ram license – if license were needed – to treat Mala like chattel; and when he learns of the riches to be obtained by renting out his wife’s womb at one of India’s many surrogacy clinics, he is determined to act on it. But it is Mala who takes charge, seeing surrogacy as power and an escape from her degrading existence.
The plan is for Shyama and Toby to travel to India and for Mala to be impregnated with a donor egg and Toby’s sperm – the idea being that the surrogate will have no substantive attachment to the baby. Mala will be housed at the clinic with the other gestating surrogates and, upon delivery, hand the baby over. Complexities of the plot, however, result in Shyama and Toby bringing Mala home to live with them during her – or, as they think of it, their – pregnancy. It does not make for a happy domestic scene. Tara is furious with her mother – partly because she has been completely left out of her decision to have another baby and partly because of her mother’s general high-handedness and, not to put too fine a point on it, self-absorption. Beyond that lies a more wounding circumstance: While Shyama is in India dealing with the clinic, Tara is sexually assaulted. Traumatized, she feels she cannot confide in anyone, most especially her mother, who is wrapped up with the pregnancy.
For their part, Shyama’s parents are bewildered by the whole idea of their middle-aged daughter’s determination to have baby, especially in this manner; but, in addition, they are in torment thanks to another strand of the story. They had allowed Prem’s niece and her husband stay temporarily in the apartment they had bought with their hard-earned money for their longed-for retirement in New Delhi. It is one of the many examples in these pages of one person’s generosity being taken as stupidity by the recipient. Fifteen years later, the couple are still there, refusing to move even though, in addition to his own apartment, Prem’s brother owns two other apartments – which he rents out. Prem could have recovered his apartment years ago simply by bribing the legal authorities – as the present occupant is doing. But instead, honorable and peace-loving, he is in misery, as is his wife.
The novel is a cornucopia of vexed situations: the trials of an older woman-younger man relationship; the anguish of infertility; mother-daughter conflict; the many questions surrounding surrogacy; sexual assault in the Western world and in India; female infanticide (“to save their parents the price of a crippling dowry”); the plight of poor Indian women and the status of women in India in general; Western feelings of entitlement; cultural dissonance; legal corruption; and dispossession of émigrés. It is truly remarkable how Syal can bring so many big topics into the storyline without making the book seem less a novel than a primer in 21st-century global ethics. But along with these matters the novel delves deeply, often with rueful humor, into the main characters’ inner lives: the petty envies, tyrannies, doubts, hopes, regrets, and bubbles of joy. Further, Syal’s writing is highly visual, summoning up milieu and mind-set in scene after scene, as, for instance, in her depiction of Mala’s journey to New Delhi, squashed in a crowded train carriage with Ram. Among their fellow passengers are:
"A worn-out mother with three children, barely months between them: she must have popped them out like winter peas, thought Mala. Of course, the whole carriage knew why: the eldest two were girls.... They were obviously the rehearsal for the third child, a boy, visibly plumper than his sisters, his skin gleaming with coconut oil and with kohl around his eyes to ward off the evil-thinkers, nestling in his mama’s lap, prince of them all."
In the end, everyone gets his or her lot in life straightened out, for better or worse, and in one case, rather too neatly – or perhaps I should say happily. But "The House of Hidden Mothers" remains a most rewarding novel and, I would add, an ideal selection for a book club, as it lends itself to endless and expansive discussion.