Friday 23 March 2018

Books: Passage from India with a tale of two mothers

The House of Hidden Mothers, Meera Syal, Doubleday, €20.55

Honoured: Actress and author Meera Syal displays her CBE medal at a Buckingham Palace investiture a few weeks ago
Honoured: Actress and author Meera Syal displays her CBE medal at a Buckingham Palace investiture a few weeks ago
Meera Syal book cover
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

To say that Meera Syal's latest book, House of Hidden Mothers, manages to cover such diverse topics as IVF, surrogacy, arranged marriage, middle age, old age, rape, alcoholism, feminism, retirement, raising teenagers, emigration, corruption, divorce and infidelity, would seem to be to condemn it to the category of a worthy but difficult tome.

And yet this doesn't feel like a heavy read. In fact, Syal manages to cover all of the above, and more, with a light hand, mainly by dint of employing a sprawling cast of vivid, sympathetic characters, her own sharp wit, and by avoiding at all times a preachy or judgemental tone. Syal - also one of Britain's leading actresses - is a 53-year-old mother of a seven-year-old, who also has a daughter in her twenties, so was probably able to closely identify with some of her material.

Forty-something Shyama, a feisty, independent businesswoman, and the English-reared daughter of Indian immigrants, is enjoying a blissful relationship with younger man Toby, an easy-going farm labourer. Shyama's first husband, and father of her existing child, 19-year-old Tara, walked out after years of callous behaviour, so she is relishing this relationship and the easy, readily available love, affection and sex it offers. At times, somewhat to the detriment of her relationship with Tara, a college student still living at home, and suddenly a cuckoo in her own nest.

The age gap doesn't seem to have affected the relationship at all, except with regard to the matter of children. They want one, and it hasn't happened. So the couple have embarked on an expensive, emotionally gruelling, and ultimately unsuccessful course of IVF. The story opens in a Harley Street clinic, where Shyama is told she will never conceive another child. She has, in fact, an "inhospitable womb."

In an effort to cheer her up, one of Shyama's oldest friends, suggests surrogacy in India. The novel was in fact inspired by a documentary Syal watched about India as the world's capital of surrogacy.

At the same time, deep in the Indian country, Mala, a bright, vivacious woman trapped in a stultifying marriage, learns from a friend about the riches available through offering oneself up as a surrogate. Mala has already suffered one miscarriage, an event hallmarked by her lack of any sense of attachment to the baby. So she approaches the idea of surrogacy in a business like fashion, as a means of escape from her present hopeless situation.

And so the two women's lives are set on the one path.

Their story, and an exploration of what it is to be a mother, is the main narrative. Various sub-plots include Shyama's daughter Tara's coming-of-age; after suffering a traumatic experience about which she is unable to tell anyone, she embarks on a journey towards a new independence; and the travails of Shyama's ageing parents, who live in a house in her garden. They are embroiled in a heart-breaking 15-year battle to regain the apartment in Delhi they had purchased for their retirement, which has been snatched from them by opportunistic relatives. Various friends, fellow would-be parents, medical personnel and relatives make up the supporting cast.

As the novel progresses, the two main heroines are at times in danger of becoming distant and unsympathetic. Shyama, when her single minded focus on her new family, or baby-to-be, leads her to callously neglect the very real struggles of her existing child; Mala as her growing sense of power leads to an invincibility that is just, but renders her somewhat one-dimensional.

However, the engaging side stories, particularly that of Shyama's humble, endearing parents, at all times humanise the narrative, and save this from becoming mired in the issues examined in the latter part of the novel; the morality of surrogacy tourism, the dark side of India's tiger economy, what it means to be a modern Indian, and the return of the third generation to the country their grandparents left.

The second half moves mainly from London to Delhi, where the characters respectively find resolution in various forms. The conclusion feels slightly abrupt, as everything is wrapped up rather swiftly. It's somewhat brutally unforgiving, as is Syal's wont. Her characters are not necessarily bound for a happy ever after, but they, and the reader, are usually guaranteed a fair amount of laughter.

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