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Monday, September 7, 2015

India-Origin Actor's Book Talks of Surrogacy, Late Parenthood

NEW DELHI:  There is an urgent need for guidelines for the "unregulated" surrogacy industry in India to protect rights and health of surrogates as well as intended parents from exploitation, says acclaimed British Indian actor and writer Meera Syal whose new novel deals with the subject.

Ms Syal was watching a documentary and her attention was caught by images of a row of poor and very pregnant Indian women sitting in what looked like the dormitory of a women's college. The programme was a revelation for her, as until that point she hadn't known that India was the world centre for surrogacy.

"I knew it was the subject I had been waiting for, for my next novel. I thought it was a perfect metaphor for exploring the complex and ever changing relationship between India and specifically Britain and for also exploring so many of the areas which currently interest me; how women feel about ageing, mothers and daughters, 'blended' families and how they work, the exploitation and ownership of women's bodies, the politics of fertility and the huge industry surrounding it and how the longing for a child can turn your life literally upside down," she says.

And thus her third novel "The House of the Hidden Mothers" was born.

Late parenthood is certainly happening a lot more across all communities as many couples delay having families for economic or career reasons, says Ms Syal, who has starred in the hit series "The Kumars at No. 42" and recently in the BBC film of David Walliams "The Boy in the Dress".

"And of course like my central character Shyama, there are the people who have second marriages and long to have a child with a new partner. At 48, this is unlikely for Shyama and even though she has a 19-year-old daughter from her first marriage, Tara, who is violently opposed to her mother's surrogacy plans, the desire for a child can be all consuming and surrogacy is one of the few options available to achieve that dream," she says.

She wanted her book to be a gripping human story, part psychological thriller as the power balance shifts between the women, and that what would be paramount is the human emotional journey rather than an "issue" book.

"I really want the reader to care about both women, see the journey from both their points of view. And also see the ripple effect on the entire family that this surrogacy journey provokes. This is why it was also important for me that Mala, the surrogate from a small rural community, is not seen as a victim but I hope comes across as a strong, vivid, intelligent woman who is only too aware of the limitations of her life and longs for something better," Ms Syal told PTI.

She says there is a reason India's surrogacy industry is the largest in the world, it's at the moment unregulated and significantly cheaper than mo st other countries and there are rightly real concerns about how some areas of it are being run, specifically when it comes to the treatment of the surrogate women themselves who are inevitably poor and often illiterate.

"Why else would such a woman offer her womb for hire unless she had nothing else of worth to sell? However, it is not going to go away, whilst there are wealthy infertile couples and poorer fertile women for hire so the least one can hope is that there are worldwide regulations and guidelines put in place to protect the rights and health of the surrogates," he suggests.

She says lack of regulations has put poor Indian women at the risk of being exploited or lured by money to lend their wombs.

"The bald fact is, Indian women are paid far less than their Western counterparts for the same service and have much less protection: there is a need for international consultation and guidelines to try and make the system as fair as possible for the surrogates and also for the intended parents who can also be exploited too."

"The House of the Hidden Mothers", published by Penguin Random House, has come 16 years after "Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee". Her first novel was "Anita and Me" (a national curriculum set text).

"I started researching the novel in early 2013.The research took about 6 months in all and although I didn't visit any clinics in India, I did talk to professionals here (London) who have worked in Indian clinics and the most invaluable insights came from a couple I found through mutual friends.

"They have had 2 children via Indian surrogates so they had copious knowledge and experience of the system. Interestingly it is amazing how much you can find out online as for many couples outside India seeking an Indian surrogate that is where most of their research and process is done. Many foreign couples do not visit India at all until the time comes to pick up their baby," she says.


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