April 2010

Emma Kat Richardson


Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Even as worldwide changes and much needed upgrades with regards to gender politics have abounded, those of us settled here in Club: First World have the unfortunate tendency to plant our heads under a desert-depth sand dune to turn away from ongoing human rights violations in less fortunate nations. For what the definition of “health care reform” might mean to most Americans -- universal coverage and a solid, government-funded public option -- its meaning varies in a rather drastic way for, say, women living under oppressive patriarchal conditions in countries like India (where the idea of health care most likely constitutes a government moratorium on the throwing of acid into the face).  

This is why a book like Secret Daughter, the debut novel from Mumbai native Shilpi Somaya Gowda, has the inherent potential to cast a human pallor upon a tragedy most Westerners are only familiar with via statistical data. In this case, the subject of choice is female infanticide among poor, working-class families in rural India. Here, we have the opportunity to meet Jasu and Kavita Merchant; an unhappily married couple (unhappily because she keeps popping out daughters and, well, he keeps disposing of them) whose quest to bring forth a male heir into their fledgling family results in the live burial of one daughter and the other being shipped off to America on the heels of a posthaste clandestine adoption.  

Enter Somer and Krishnan Thakkar, adoptive parents of the Merchants’ cast-off offspring. Better still, in a rare stroke of luck for this child, born under the most unlucky of circumstances, both are wealthy physicians who reside comfortably in San Francisco. Naturally, the secret daughter in question, Asha, becomes quickly transformed from a beleaguered Indian baby to a big American loudmouth, and thus begins a sort of epic culture clash that might make even the most outlandish of Bollywood directors flush pink with extremity.

Truly, it’s difficult to get through all that Secret Daughter demands without sighing rather painfully with each turn of event and character nuance; not due to any sort of emotional  heartstring-tugging, but rather a disappointingly simplistic overview of what is a far from simple quandary. If anything, this story is live, pulsating proof that it’s not enough simply to draw attention toward a horrendous problem in a Third World nation. Indeed, humanizing a legitimate tragedy by means of literary fiction doesn’t ultimately do much to conjure up curiosity and active compassion if the humans in question are painted in a more pathetic than sympathetic light. For the most part, the characters here are unmemorable, empty cliches given to self-indulgent whims, taken out at the expense of everyone unfortunate enough to find themselves within a five meter radius of their tantrums. Of course, well-intentioned but ultimately destructive players in a story can sometimes serve as an aptly placed parable, preaching against the very manners in which they conduct their business, day to day. (Does the name Tony Soprano ring any bells for anyone?) But in the universe drawn up by Gowda, these people don’t exist to educate us much in the way of better living through a stronger moral outlook; the only real lessons to be found here are “teenage daughters, adopted or not, are bratty” and “why discuss something reasonably when screaming at someone is so much more effective?”  

The dialogue, too, which could have served as the nexus for clean, concise storytelling in its shining, peak form, fails to inspire any further and most-necessary intrigue pertaining to either the tale being told or the players responsible for telling it. Words exchanged between principle people of distinction often feel hackneyed and stilted when they should flow freely and effortlessly, especially given the intimate familial relations between these core actors. The words “honey” and “dear” fly back and forth so frivolously, it’s frequently difficult not to wonder if the characters have forgotten each other’s names and replaced them with terms of endearment on the sly.  

Many times throughout the course of the book’s unfolding, I found myself longing to latch on and root for even just one character; to see any sort of semblance close to what real people, existing outside the confines of extreme melodrama, might choose to do and say and act upon. Sadly, not one of these tenets are to be found here among Gowda’s cast of individuals, although the much put-upon birth mother Kavita Merchant and, in rare moments, her lost daughter Asha come close during select scenes. 

In a strange, twisted, and ultimately ironic type of way, Secret Daughter’s flimsy execution provides something of a unique insight into the wasted potential of so many Indian daughters tossed out like empty peanut shells. For the most part, we all want what’s best for the world’s children -- a larger scale scope of desire filtered down to a trickle in what we hope for from our selective choice of literature. While it feels repugnant and wrong to abjectly dislike a story that revolves around the outcomes of gender selective child birthing, there’s no further comfort to be had in the appreciation of poverty porn for its own sake of being.  

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
William Morrow
ISBN: 0061922315
352 Pages