Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s first novel My Secret Daughter, a story about motherhood and identity from two sides of the world, was one that came recommended to me.
The story begins with Kavita, in rural India, giving birth on her own to a baby girl. The baby, who unfortunately is born into a society that prefers males, is promptly taken away from her and is never seen again. At the same time, on the other side of the world in San Francisco, Somer is at the hospital experiencing yet another emotionally gripping miscarriage.
Two women going through such emotional moments right at the beginning of a book? I knew at that moment, whether I liked the story or not, I was going to be hooked.
A short time later, Kavita gives birth to another baby girl but this time in an effort to save her newborn daughter’s life, she gives her away. It’s a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even after she has a son and moves into the big city.
In America, Somer and her husband Krishnan, after realizing they cannot have their own baby, decide to adopt one from a Mumbai orphanage. It’s a difficult decision to make for Somer, adopting an Indian baby who is more like her husband than her, but the minute she sees the little girl, she falls in love.
The baby of course is the one Kavita gave away.
We follow the stories of the two mothers’ lives as time goes on and soon start to follow the daughter Asha’s story (or Usha as Kavita named her) as she goes to India to do an internship at the Times, to get to know her father’s Indian family, to find her real parents, and ultimately find herself.
Gowda tells the story with excellent detail and style and with some very interesting characters from very different walks of life. The story is ultimately an emotional journey and it’s those emotions that kept me hooked, from the American mother who feels left out to the poor Indian mother whose heart hurts at the struggles her family is going through to Asha’s maturity and realization about the mothers in her life.
As a woman, I was taken by the relationships that unfold between the different women from different cultures and generations.
But what interested me more was how the move from one village/country and culture to another for a “better life” affected the characters and the struggles and the difficulties they faced. I was intrigued by the hardship that came from leaving people behind, with trying to adapt to the new cultures and people without losing themselves, and trying to have other people understand who they really are. And ultimately, the hardship that came when they realized that they don’t entirely fit in either place anymore.
It really reminded me of two other stories I have enjoyed and that I recommend you see or read:
- Dhobi Ghat. The independent movie I saw at TIFF last year, you can read my review here, that featured characters from different walks of life (poor, rich, American, Indian) and looked at the way their cultures both meshed and clashed together. Of course this reminded me of The Secret Daughter as Shai, one of the main characters, is an Indian-born American who is in town to document and tell the story of the poor working in the city, as well as to learn more about herself. Pretty similar to Asha.
- The Namesake. The book (better than the movie) follows a young man as he learns to understand what his parents went through to move to the US to give their family a better life. We follow along as he learns what it’s like to leave everything you know behind, to try to adapt to a culture that doesn’t understand your own, and watch your children grow up in a world so different from what you know.
This was a very long review, but I’d love to hear what you thought of The Secret Daughter or even Dhobi Ghat or The Namesake. Let me know in the comments below.