Novel’s characters balance between cultures

April 19, 2011

Shilpi Somaya Gowda strikes a pleasing balance in her first novel, which draws upon the hot-button issues of female infanticide and overseas adoption. A No. 1 bestseller in Canada, “Secret Daughter” tells a nuanced coming-of-age story that is faithful to the economic and emotional realities of two very different cultures.

Kavita and Jasu are peasants in rural India. When Kavita gives birth to a second daughter in 1984, she knows her husband will take the infant to be killed if she does not act quickly. They cannot afford to raise a girl, he reminds her; they need a son to help in the fields. To save the infant’s life, Kavita leaves her at an orphanage in Bombay.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a physician named Somer has just learned that she will never be able to have a baby. Her husband, Kris, persuades her to adopt a child from Bombay, his home town. But once the couple arrives in India, Somer feels awkward with Kris’s family and out of place. She’s eager to go home with their beautiful new daughter, Asha.

Gowda, whose parents emigrated from India to Canada, alternates between these two couples as she sketches events over the next 20 years. Kavita and Jasu finally have a son, Vijay, and move to Bombay (renamed Mumbai in the ’90s) to give him a better life. Somer and Kris find themselves growing apart as she shifts her medical career into low gear to care for Asha. Kris, a high-powered surgeon, misses Somer’s intellectual companionship and resents her reluctance to visit India. Teenage Asha, painfully curious about her biological mother, also becomes frustrated by Somer’s lack of interest in her Indian heritage.

As the author moves among the perspectives of her various characters, she gives full weight to the humanity of each and views the problems of poverty and affluence with equal empathy. The two narrative strands come closer together in the novel’s second half, when Asha gets a college fellowship to study impoverished children and goes to live with Kris’s parents in Mumbai. Somer and Kris disagree bitterly over this decision and become estranged. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Kavita and Jasu are drawn together by their worries over Vijay, who’s making money in an illegal business.

Gowda doesn’t neaten up the messy complications of family life as she warmly affirms the power of love to help people grow and change. In Mumbai, Asha gains a longed-for connection to her Indian roots, as well as an appreciation of Somer’s maternal nurturing. Kavita receives some solace for the wound that has ached ever since she gave her daughter away, but it’s not what readers might expect. Asha isn’t the only character who grows up in “Secret Daughter.” Both sets of parents also come to terms with the imperfect choices they have made in response to life’s demands.

Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and a frequent contributor to Book World.

secret daughter

By Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Morrow. 346 pp. Paperback, $13.99

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