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‘The House of Hidden Mothers’, Meera Syal – Women and their bodies politic

‘The House of Hidden Mothers’, Meera Syal – Women and their bodies politic

June 5 2015

She is an actor, screenwriter and mother, and is one of the most recognised (Asian) faces on the map of creative Britain, and now she returns to fiction after a long hiatus…

By Tasha Mathur

MEERA SYAL’S long-awaited novel (16 years), “House of Hidden Mothers” is a compelling story of late parenthood as seen through the eyes of the late 40-something Shyama and her younger English partner, Toby.

The couple travel to India to see if they can fulfil their keen desire for a child and there, meet Mala, a poor woman from a rural village who dreams of escape from an oppressive marriage and both the women come to share a powerful dream.

Released officially this week and already gathering much praise, very few people know that India is considered to be one of – if not – the top destination(s) for couples across the world who are looking for a child through ‘assisted’ methods, (known in the jargon, as ‘assisted reproductive technology’ or ART.) There are believed to be some 3,000 clinics in India, providing in vitro fertilisation, with the country being responsible for some 100 to 300 surrogate pregnancies every year.

Discussing the novel at the HQ of publisher Penguin, Syal told “Just enter surrogacy in India into Google as an exercise and you’ll see it is overwhelmingly massive.”

Syal said the idea of her latest novel came about after watching a BBC documentary on surrogacy in India.

Meera Syal with her husband, Sanjeev Bhaskar. Picture: Swani

“One of my favourite books is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ by Margaret Atwood and I remember seeing that documentary and thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s come true.’

“’The Handmaid’s Tale‘ was written about 25 years ago and it’s like she’d seen a future where fertility is owned and outsourced by other people. So I think it was the collision of those two thoughts that made me want to write the book.”

She added: “For me, the topic is a perfect area to delve into, it’s about women, it’s about the politics of women and fertility, it’s about India and Britain and I was very inspired to write it.”

The notion of outsourcing surrogacy is a contentious topic that isn’t without its controversy but Syal successfully and very intentionally provides a balance of both sides of the argument within “The House Of Hidden Mothers”.

“Some people have very moral reactions to it but I hope I’ve been really even handed. I hope you can understand it from Mala’s point of view, Shyama’s point of view and even Dr. Passi’s (the fertility medic) point of view to some extent.”

But where does Syal herself stand on the issue of outsourcing surrogacy to India?

“I am totally even handed on it. I understand why people turn to it out desperation; I understand why the women take the money to do it but I also understand why people would find it problematic and say it is like ordering a baby from a catalogue and uses women as a microwave.

“I understand all of those views and like most real issues, it’s far too complex to come down on one side in black and white. I think the only thing you can be sure of is that it’s not going to stop because while there are rich, infertile women and poor fertile ones, this is always going to happen. So the least you can do is make it safe and protect the women as much as you can.”

However, Syal did find it challenging to maintain this balance within the novel, as well as within her own mind, while she became aware of a number of stories through her research.

“You read the horror stories and think, ‘that’s terrible, that shouldn’t happen’ and then you read the stories of the people that have longed for a child for years and finally have one and how it’s been the best thing in their lives.

Meera Syal

“I know how much my children mean to me so then you think, ‘well who are we to say that shouldn’t be open to you?’ It’s a really tricky, tricky problem.”

With Syal’s last novel, “Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee” (1999) featuring three confident British Asian female friends and her first novel “Anita and Me” (1997) featuring headstrong British Asian teenager, Meena, dominant Asian female characters have become a staple of Syal’s writing.

And ‘The House of Hidden Mothers‘ is no exception not only with Shyama and Mala but with Shyama’s defiant daughter, Tara and Shyama’s mother, Sita who takes charge of her husband’s family problems.

Through the use of such strong female characters, the novel explores a range of themes that face Asian women today such as generational feminism, female infanticide, ageing, pregnancy and many more.

It is one of the reasons why Syal specifically chose to set her novel in 2012.

She explained: “It was the year of ‘Nirbhaya’ (the name commonly given to the young woman who was raped on a Delhi bus) and that is a massive turning point I think.

“It will take a long time but there’s something about this particular incident and the protests and outrage it provoked that I think finally changed something.”

“I thought ‘Nirbhaya’ was a natural culmination of a story that is essentially about women’s bodies and who owns them.
“You could argue that the reason that women like Mala end up as surrogates is because they have nothing else to sell but their bodies because they are devalued as girls.

“It all actually feeds into the same big issue which is the inequality that puts women in positions where they either sell their bodies or have their bodies abused.”

Meera Syal (l) with critic Maya Jaggi at this year's Alchemy Festival

The British Asian context is another prevalent theme within all of Syal’s novels which is mostly seen within Shyama’s daughter, Tara, who is born and brought up in Britain and initially shunned her Indian heritage much to the dismay of Shyama.

Similarly, at a recent talk on the novel at the Southbank Centre’s Alchemy Festival (May 15-25 2015), Syal made it clear that Britain was home to her, as she had lived here too long to be able adapt to Indian life.

So how does Syal grapple with the two identities, both British and Indian and how does this change through the generations?

“I think we have to accept that everyone re-defines their Indianness with each generation. There isn’t any such thing as the perfect Indian but that’s the myth we grew up with in our heads: ‘you’re not Indian enough’.

“You stand a middle class woman in Mumbai next to a woman like Mala, what do they have in common other than that they’re female? Nothing.

“Anyone that wants to know about their culture, really has to go to their country on a regular basis. There is no substitute for that. Knowing your history, knowing what brought you here and knowing some of your language is useful. You carry a certain amount of your heritage with you and you adapt the rest and that’s not a bad thing. We can’t be too guilt tripped into thinking ‘Oh Indian women don’t do that’, because actually, who knows?”

With “Life Isn’t All Ha Hee Hee” turning into a TV series and “Anita and Me” becoming a film, it seemed only right to ask whether Syal could see this novel on screen and we for one were very happy to hear that the TV rights have already been bought even before the novel has been released, proving the success that “The House Of Hidden Mothers” will bring.

And how could it not? With such an important topic consisting of strong characters, love, family, female friendship and with Syal describing it as being almost like a thriller, the novel is sure to keep the reader gripped from start to finish with a very shocking twist at the end.

The House of Hidden Mothers’ by Meera Syal, published by Doubleday.
For more information/to purchase: finalThe House of Hidden Mothers

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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