The Golden Son. 2016. Shilpi Somaya Gowda. Publisher: William Morrow. 394 pp. $26.99

In a talk at Keplers bookstore in Menlo Park in the fall, Shilpi Somaya Gowda revealed that she had originally planned to title her book The Arbiter. Gowda laughs as she narrates how the titles of her books, The Golden Son coming after her previous book, The Secret Daughter might set her up to write a “whole weird family theme.”

Instead, the book is about Anil Patel and Leena, children growing up in a village in Gujarat. “Their lives diverge when Anil goes off to America to become a doctor, and Leena goes to a neighboring village after having an arranged marriage. And it’s a story about their friendship, the choices they have to make, the impact that it has on their families and their communities,” Gowda offers.

Certainly, Anil’s siblings are given some space in the narrative. There are references to his sister, and the games they play as children. Tensions arise when the brothers, Nikhil and Chandu who are of different temperaments, are sometimes jealous of Anil’s status as “the golden son.” Gowda relates how, in the book, this phrase had a sarcastic edge to it and yet became the title, displacing The Arbiter which sounded like a legal thriller.

And Anil does seem to gently coruscate with a shiny golden quality, a medical student who does well enough at school to earn a fellowship to pursue medical studies in the United States. Certainly, he is most precious to his mother, even as his phone conversations from America are carefully edited to omit the white girlfriend or the beef burgers. The new freedoms of America can be sampled and savored, but with a knowledge that these would incur parental disapproval. Later in the novel, Anil will reject this hypocrisy and assert himself even if this new-found independence dims the sheen of his mother’s approval.

While the novel can be adept at its treatment of family dynamics, it focuses more on moving away from the obligations and pleasures of family relationships, and striking out on one’s own. It is his father who has encouraged Anil to cross the oceans to America, where the facilities and professional opportunities outshine those available in a city hospital in Gujarat. So, Anil trades his room in the big house of his village for an apartment in Dallas, which he shares with two other young Indian emigres. The tug of the homeland is frequently balanced with his new attachments and alliances in his new home, whether it is an affair of the heart with his neighbor Amber, or the professional bonds he forges with his supervisor Sonia.

This push and pull of the adopted homeland has been better examined by writers before. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands come to mind. Still, Gouda competently creates a vignette of the early striving of young immigrants just out of graduate school, the trajectory of career goals, citizenship, and then a family. This particular arc of achievement has a shared meter and chronology and Gouda’s writing evokes the long hours and soul-searching of those early “fresh off the boat” days. In a hybrid existence that makes neither land truly theirs, there are now two sets of moralities and affiliations.

One part of this hybrid immigrant identity is clearly stronger than the other. For me, the more interesting parts of the novel happen in India. Despite well-written sections on medical terminology and procedures, the narrative comes alive not in the high-intensity events within shiny steel and glass buildings in Dallas, but in the tragic sequence of dowry-related events that Leena encounters.
When Anil realizes that his father made an error in judgment that threatened Leena’s very life, he begins to relate this to his medical errors. There is also a humility of accepting that his high-minded adjudications from America can ignore realities and traditions that his brothers are better acquainted with. In a nod to local wisdom, Anil’s sister starts a clinic in the village that taps into ancient healing systems like Ayurveda. The Western medical system, it turns out, can be out-shone by these humble herbal cures.

The ending is a damp squib. The happily-ever-after-does not happen. Instead, a female self-help narrative emerges. Leena does not get saved, but saves herself through her creativity and strength. Anil and Leena do not become family, but remain friends.

“Part of writing is to create characters and then to torture them,” I remembered Gowda mentioning with a smile. Perhaps the readers too?  The Golden Son left me feeling jilted at the altar. Verses from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice came to me as I neared the end:
“All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”

Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents. She is excited to be teaching a media course at Santa Clara University in the 2017 Winter quarter.

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