May 22 2015
Actor and screenwriter’s latest novel explores India as the surrogacy capital of the world and asks vital questions about identity, family, and the right to conceive, as she talks for the first time publically about the subjects at the heart of her first book in 16 years…
IF MEERA SYAL’S new novel, “The House of Hidden Mothers” is half as good as some of the themes she touched on in conversation with acclaimed and prize-winning critic Maya Jaggi on Wednesday evening as part of the Alchemy Festival, it will be a ‘corker’.
And it could well turn out to be one of the best books of the year.
Let’s face it, British novels are not overly teeming with the diversity or the reality we see on most of our streets.
But Syal’s new novel appears a wonderful counterweight to all that, with strong women characters who live in the real world, and not the one that characterises much of popular English fiction aimed at women, where they are usually in need of saving (often from a handsome, rich and ahem, man with considerable appendage).
More seriously, the book has very universal themes at the heart of it – reproduction, ageing, inter-generational differences and conflict.
For ethnic audiences, there are also the deeper and more complex explorations on the notion of ‘home’, family relationships with those in the ‘motherland’, and glimpses of a new generation of Indians who may think very differently from their older counterparts.
Jaggi in her introduction called it ‘cracking’ to borrow the language, she said, of Syal’s earliest creations, Anita and Meena, from her debut novel, “Anita and Me” (1997).
Jaggi said the new novel contained “a lifetime of wisdom, experience and observation in its polyphonic descriptions and of course, humour”.
That it has taken her 16 years from this book to Syal’s last “Life isn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee”, shouldn’t be held against her.
She has been busy – writing TV screenplays and continuing to act – she was one of the central characters in the recent National Theatre production/adaptation of Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”, which enjoyed a six-month run and charts the lives of slum-dwelling Indians who live near the international airport in Mumbai. Syal also received her CBE for services to drama and literature in person from Prince Charles earlier this month.
She admitted she hadn’t had a strong idea which had made her want to write and it explained the long gap.
Jaggi initially drew Syal on the parallels between her own novel and Boo’s work and the play, but there is a large difference – “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is totally about India and Indians, it says nothing of the British Asian experience.
Syal’s new work, like her two previous novels, is totally immersed in that and her creations in “The House of Hidden Mothers” appear compelling because of it.
Shyama is a 48-year-old divorcee who has snagged a younger white partner, called Toby. She has a 19-year-old daughter from her first broken marriage. Tara still lives at home and proves quite the handful.
Into this mix, Shyama dreams of having a baby with Toby. But she is too old and has to go to India to find a surrogate mother. Here Mala, a young mother whose own marriage is in a state of turmoil, is selected to be the surrogate.
Syal disclosed that “The Handmaid’s Tail” (1985) by Margaret Atwood was one of her inspirations, as was a documentary about surrogacy in India.
“It is one of my favourite books,” she revealed.
“I was channel hopping and I came across this documentary about surrogacy in India, about two and half years ago.
“I didn’t know at that point that India is – or was – the capital for Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART).
“There were all these poor Indian women in their saris sitting on the bed in a dorm and it could have been a girls’ boarding school, except they were all heavily pregnant, it was so arresting. It intrigued and troubled me.
“I thought this is like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘.”
In that story, reproduction is heavily regulated and outsourced and only certain groups of women are allowed to conceive or assist in a process. There is little room for love, affection or even lust.
Syal said the idea of assisted reproduction and the fact that surrogacy in India was – until very recently – unregulated, prompted her to explore these themes in her own new work.
“Most of us know people or have been through infertility issues, it’s one of the biggest things of our age and the pressure is always on the women, because we have the tick-tick, unlike men,” said the mother-of-two, who was married to top journalist Shekhar Bhatia and now to fellow actor and colleague (from “Goodness Gracious Me” and “The Kumars at no.42“) Sanjeev Bhaskar.
In response to a question from the audience about where she thought of as home, she said she was now convinced it was Britain.
“There was a time when I thought differently and I thought about going back (to India),” she revealed.
But a bitter family dispute over her father’s Indian property, which had been rented out to other extended family, had strained relations and had forced her to think harder about where really was home, instead of carrying a romantic notion in her head.
She also said some friends who had moved back had told her hard it was and that while it could be done, it certainly was not easy.
Towards the close, Syal touched on issues around the 2012 Delhi rape case, which made headlines around the world and was again in the news after the BBC’s controversial “India’s Daughter“ documentary.
She said she was heartened by the number of Indian men who had come out to protest and said that she had noticed a change in attitudes among the young there.
“There are two things that are on the agenda for the young in India – opposing sexual violence and female infanticide and secondly, corruption.”
On the subject of diversity of representation in UK TV and film, she said she was a little tired talking of about it, and suggested for a time, things had actually gone backwards.
She felt a new group of actors though were now were making head way and there was some progress – though more still needed to be done.
“The Riz Ahmeds and Archie Panjabis – they are extraordinary and I am a little jealous,” she quipped.
Jaggi, whose aunt is celebrated culinary phenomena, Madhur Jaffrey (and one of the first to popularise curry in the UK), revealed that she only went into cooking because of the lack of opportunities for her as an actor when she first lived in Britain.
*The Alchemy Festival, a multi-arts festival celebrating South Asian culture, continues until Monday, May 25.
For full programme see: Alchemy 2015
- Meera Syal’s ‘The House of Hidden Mirrors’ is officially published by Doubleday on June 4.
- To buy http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/the-house-of-precious-mothers/9780385410731