Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda – Writing for the Senses

Synopsis: On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl. But in a culture that favors sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter’s life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son.
Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband, Krishnan, see a photo of the baby with the gold-flecked eyes from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion. Somer knows life will change with the adoption but is convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles.
Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds both of their destinies, Secret Daughter poignantly explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love, as witnessed through the lives of two families—one Indian, one American—and the child that indelibly connects them.
For the Writer: I found this book a challenging read. In the beginning chapters, the writing felt wooden and contrived, the characters of Somer and California stereotypical and two-dimensional. However, my perseverance paid off. The writing blooms when the location changes to India. The story of Kavita, her husband Jasu and the looming character of rural India is a smorgasbord of authentic writing infusing the senses.

Here is an example of Gowda’s descriptive skill: Kavita tries clean a shack in a slum of Bombay.

Working as quickly as she can, she equates down on her haunches and traverses the small room, banging the broom forcefully against the dirt floor. Her efforts creat a dust cloud that makes her cough and her eyes water, but she continues anyway. If she can just remove this top layer of filth that carries the memory of other people’s food and garbage and urine, if she can just sweep it outside, there will be fresh earth underneath, the kind she’s used to. When her throat burns so much she can’t continue, she sweeps the pile of dirt outside and returns the broom to its place. She waits outside for her lungs to clear, and the dust to settle inside. She steps into the hut again and inhales. Yes, the air seems cleaner, or could it be she has become accustomed to the door of this place? [p.104]

The dialogue of Krishnan, Somer and Asha and to some extent, Kavita and Jasu felt a little like lips being augmented, real, yet propped. Their thoughts seemed generally trained to an omniscient purpose, in this case a humanist ideal, which states if people reach deep enough or reach out enough, they will find the resources needed to prevail over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I have sensed the same contrivance in Coupland’s Microserfs and in the denouement of Brabury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Here’s an example, where Sanjay seems too good a listener and too devoted an encourager and Asha seems too easily forthcoming with a predictably correct view on poverty. I don’t know; It may be just my take on it.

“So how’s your project coming,” Sanjay says.

“Okay, I guess. I did my first interview last week.”

“And?” He sits down on a bench and slides to one side.

Asha sits down next to him and looks toward the water. “It was kind of hard.”

Why?

The wind whips her hair around and she pulls it to one side. “I don’t know, I just found it so. . . depressing.” She hasn’t spoken to anyone about this, not even Meena. “Seeing those people, the conditions they live in , hearing their stories. . . it made me feel horrible. Guilty.”

“For what?”

“For having a different kind of life. A better life. Those kids are just born into that, you know? they didn’t ask for that. It’s hard to find the hope.”

Sanjay nods. “Yes,. But there’s still a story for you to tell, isn’t there?”

Ironically, the most authentic story for me lay in the struggles of a minor character with the least scenes, who seemed beyond Kavita and Jasu’s control. Their son Vijay has gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, but it’s a money-making bunch, who offer Vijay a way to escape the trap of poverty.  In fact, Vijay contributes financially when his parents are in a predicament with their landlord.

I know this sounds more like a review – I issued a warning about ‘sticking in my oar’ – but there are kernels to be gleaned for the writer. Beware of being an overbearing parent with our characters is the lesson here. Let us listen to them. They may want to take us to a new place. As exampled by Gowda, we should as a rule write to the senses. Swim in the smells, sounds, sights and textures of the location.

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