Secret Daughter is definitely one of the best adult fiction books I've read this year! Incredibly poignant and filled with both tragedy and hope as is India.
Secret Daughter opens with a short but intriguing prologue, the significance of which we don't comprehend until the very end of the book.
This is the story of the lives of three families, on two different continents, tied together by the birth of a baby. Somer Thakker, a 32 year old physician living in California, learns she has premature ovarian failure and therefore will never have the baby she so desperately wants. This leads her and her husband Krishnan to consider adopting a baby from Krishnan's native India.
Meanwhile, half a world away in Dahanu, India, Kavita, wife of a poor farmer (Jasnu) decides to save her newborn daughter, Usha, from certain death by leaving her in an orphanage in Mumbai. After walking three days, Kavita, reluctantly gives up her baby, a heartrending decision that will haunt her the rest of her life. It is Somer and Krishnan who adopt Usha (mistakenly called Asha by the orphanage), the baby with the beautiful gold-flecked eyes, when she is 1 year old. Asha leaves India to grow up, much loved and well educated in America.
The story is primarily told in the voices of the three principal female characters, Somer, Asha, and Kavita from 1984 to 2009; the period during which Asha grows to adulthood. Added to their voices are those of Jasnu and Krishnan who provide the perspective of husband and father.
is a rich study of the motifs of love, family, motherhood, and feminine identity. Somer and Kavita each struggle with their fears and understanding of all of the above while Asha must deal with the meaning of family, love and identity. As an adoptee, she struggles to learn who she is, what family means and even more importantly how love can sometimes mean giving up something very very dear.
The theme of loss also figures prominently in this story for each of the women - although we also learn of the tremendous loss Jasnu experienced and has kept unacknowledged throughout most of his life - it is a loss that causes his only regret at a terrible price. What ultimately shines through in Secret Daughter, is the inner strength of these women, their growth in wisdom and how this strength helps them to guide their daughters, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.
Secret Daughter also focuses on the incredible sacrifices women make for each other and for their children.
Shilipa Somay Gowda brilliantly captures the incredible contrasts that mark the society and culture of India. A strong sense of family and familial obligation is contrasted with the practice of femicide, bride burnings, and a cultural preference for boys. The soul killing poverty of the slum, Dharavi is in contrast to the wonderful resourcefulness of the poor. And that same poverty is offset by Mumbai sari shops containing silk garments in every shade of the rainbow and the wedding in a prominent Mumbai family that features guests in the thousands at a cost of ten million rupees.
Despite the tragedy that abounds in this book, Ms Gowda weaves a story of hope and possibility. I highly recommend this book, especially as a book club offering. Thankfully, we are provided with a glossary of Indian vocabulary at the back, although I personally enjoy the Indian works used throughout the novel. The Epilogue provides a satisfying conclusion to the Prologue.
Secret Daughter. A Novel. by Shilpi Somay Gowda
HarperCollins Publishers 2010