Published by Sarah Crichton Books
Publication date: June 14th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction
The House of Hidden Mothers is a melting pot of a lot of timely themes, but author Meera Syal manages them without overwhelming the flavor of the story. Forty-eight-year-old Shyama owns a successful beauty salon in London where she lives with her thirty-four-year-old boyfriend Toby and her daughter Tara, who’s attending university. By and large she is happy with her life, but having a younger man around has made her think she would like another child, but she been unable to conceive. When a friend suggests a surrogacy clinic in India, where Shyama is from, it sets the novel in motion, propelling Shyama and her family from London to Delhi and into a world they know little about.
Once back in Delhi, Shyama and Toby meet Mala, one of the women who see surrogacy as her way out of poverty—get paid for being pregnant, live in a facility for nine months where she is fed well and taken care of and where the only demand on her is a healthy baby. Further, there is no fear that if it is a girl she’ll be killed, a very real likelihood in Mala’s village. They choose Mala as their surrogate, but when her husband shows up and is abusive, they decide that she will not be safe in India and so, they opt to bring her back to London and into their lives—an distinctly unorthodox choice.
Surrogacy is the focus of the novel, but Syal ventures into hot topics using the rest of Shyama’s family. Her parents are embroiled in a decade-long battle to regain their apartment in Delhi where a family member is refusing to move out of what was supposed to be a temporary stay. Now, they’re battling a corrupt legal system and watching their retirement funds disappear and their family fracture as everyone chooses sides. Tara is sexually assaulted at college, but never reports it or tells anyone. Later, she uses her anger to become an activist at an NGO and moves to Delhi to fight against the pervasive rape culture.
Syal achieves a sense of push/pull in The House of Hidden Mothers while exploring a host of real issues: surrogacy, aging parents, rape, the caste system and corruption. Should Shyama, at her age, be going to India because of its lax surrogacy laws? In a perfect world, Mala would be rewarded for her mind and her ambition, but as a farmer’s wife in a rural community that’s not going to happen. So, is paying her for the one resource over which she has control, her body, wrong? And then, what about exploitation on the part of the surrogate, who can essentially hold the parents-to-be hostage?
In the same way, Syal pits some of the traditional aspects of Eastern culture against the Western mindset. Although the novel is set in London, much of the plot takes place in India and for a Western reader elicits further awkwardness while reading. Shyama’s family situation, where a brother is so clearly abusing the family relationship by refusing to relocate his daughter and her family out of an apartment, necessitating a decades long battle to evict said family members, is unfathomable. It makes for the kind of reading that might be entertaining but also leaves behind a queasy feeling.
Syal uses this plentitude of issues to evoke a response. In this way she reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Thrity Umrigar, who also writes of the intersection between India and the West and the cultural implications for both sides. The difference between the two is that Umrigar’s voice is more nuanced, with greater shadings between right and wrong, while Syal clearly takes a position. Did this mean that by the end The House of Hidden Mothers there were outcomes I didn’t agree with? Yes, but overall I found the novel to be provocative and entertaining.