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Friday, September 11, 2015

A mix of hits and misses

An unexpected end makes you wonder if what Syal has written isn’t really a cautionary tale about inter-racial surrogacy and late parenthood

Meera Syal’s new book has been a long time coming. After all, it’s been 16 years since her last, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, was published, and almost two decades since her first, Anita & Me, hit the stores. In all this time, Syal’s style has evolved, and the way she approaches the plot in The House of Hidden Mothers is different, more subtle and surefooted in its touch. At the same time, Syal has managed to maintain the sheer ease of her work, and the way it invites you to plunge headfirst into the story that seems almost deceptively simple.

The House of Hidden Mothers continues in a similar vein, with a plot that, as it unravels, is anything but simple. At its heart lies the complicated and delicate web spun with themes of inter-racial surrogacy, aging, parenthood, and family. It is expansive and incredibly ambitious in its scope, and with every layer you peel off, and every page you turn, Syal opens doors that lead to more questions, and sometimes, to a few answers.

The book starts with a veneer of shiny, charming cynicism, the kind that hides something deeper just under it. British-Indian Shyama visits her Harley Street specialist, and we first see the book’s world through her eyes. In her late forties, Shyama, unsettled by her aging body, deals with the world in a kind of half-funny, half-angry way. Shyama is a fighter. Even before we learn that she can’t have the baby she so desperately wants, even before we are told of the philandering ex-husband, and much before the action in the book has really started, Syal, simply though this solo visit to a Harley street doctor, paints the picture of a resilient woman, vulnerable in a way that refuses to lead to helplessness.

And across the globe, Syal introduces us to another woman, another fighter. In rural India, Mala fights a quieter battle, one that is littered with compromises and silences, hope and ambition. She’s resourceful, hungry for information of a world she wants but cannot have. That she can become a surrogate mother is both a frightening and promising news for her, but reaches her through the many filtered route of neighbours, friends and her husband. It immediately becomes an escape she doesn’t quite understand the price of. Within the first few chapters of the book, Syal sets the plot. Now we can only wait for Shyama and Mala’s world to come together.

It is the book’s foundation, this initial setting of stage, that is its real strength. It provides the plot with an unshakeable foundation, so that even when you aren’t really convinced, it holds you flagging interest. Syal’s created complicated, beautifully contradictory characters — in Shyama’s 19-year-old daughter from her first marriage; in the much younger Toby, Shyama’s lover and partner; in her friends Priya and Lydia, who could have easily become caricatures, but instead carry their own weight.

Syal examines the question of surrogacy in a way that allows from several points and counterpoints. Supplementing fiction with reality, Syal explores the very nature of commercial surrogacy in India today, peppering the dialogues about it with real cases and examples to illustrate legal, moral and medical points.

What also shines, in The House of Hidden Mothers, is the subplot that involves the property struggle Shyama’s aged parents, Prem and Sita, face in India. Long after the book is over, the tenderness that these gentle, kind people evoke lingers. In them, Syal has created her most empathetic characters, and watching them hurtle towards difficult legal battles and inevitable heartaches, there is a kind of helplessness one feels.

The book, in its entirety, is a curious mix of several hits and misses. It is immensely readable, and Syal’s language creates a world that is dramatic, but not overly so. Her characters are satisfyingly fleshed out, and to a certain extent, so is her plot. A substantial part of this book is set in India, and Syal shows that she can handle the descriptions of this contradictory, complex new India well. She writes of it without breathtaking awe or kindly superiority. Instead, Syal keeps things almost starkly real, so that the setting plays as the perfect score, neither too overwhelming nor invisible.

So, it is really the resolution of the book that irks, like a loose thread on an otherwise smooth cloth, the one that you shouldn’t pull on, in case the entire thing unravels.

Towards the end, Syal’s characters, and the plot, careen towards an unexpected, and also unlikely end, one that is probably not but does feel hurried. Their actions raise more questions — on biological identities, fatherhood, love and belonging — the kind of questions that are unsettling, and which are too huge, too complex, to deal with in the last remaining pages. What is otherwise a satisfying read, therefore, ends on a confused, almost uncertain note, and you wonder if what Syal has written isn’t really a cautionary tale about inter-racial surrogacy and late parenthood.


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