Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s promising debut novel transverses the globe from California to India and binds two women who share the fate of one baby girl. Spanning 25 years from 1984 to 2009, this tale of birth and death, strength and weakness, gain and loss, joy and pain runs the gamut of human emotions, with characters that always astound and relationships that swing from one extreme to the other. From losing a child to gaining a child, and from adoption to female infanticide, Gowda weaves a bold, compassionate story that is difficult to ignore.
After her first baby daughter has been put to death, Kavita Merchant gives birth to her second daughter in a
village outside of Mumbai. Because a girl is considered a financial burden on the family, this baby’s fate is also doomed. Determined to keep the child alive, Kavita relinquishes her to an orphanage.
On the other side of the world, San Francisco pediatrician Somer Whitman Thakkar suffers yet another miscarriage due to premature ovarian failure. She finally agrees with her doctor husband, Krishnan, that adoption is their only choice. When she sees a picture of a smiling infant girl from India, both Somer’s and baby Asha’s fates are sealed.
Pregnant for the third time, Kavita’s ultrasound reveals a son, yet she never spends a day without mourning one daughter and wondering about the fate of the other. Eventually the son, the rest of the family longed for, tests the strength of his parents in ways they never dreamed of. At the same time, Somer faces each day dealing with the issues of being a mother to Asha, hoping that everything she does will keep her from losing this child and keep her multi-cultural marriage and family intact.
As Asha grows up, she begins to make her own choices in the face of her parents’ pressure to follow in their footsteps. One of her decisions not only answers her own questions but also heals family wounds that remained painful over the years.
At first glance, one might believe that the the book actively advocates adoption. For example, while weighing the possibilities left to her regarding having a family, Somer visits with her mother and grieves that she’ll “never create a life.” Her mother suggests that with adoption, she’ll be “saving a life.” Later in the book, Asha realizes how fortunate she has been because she was adopted. However, Gowda sees it differently, choosing instead to recognize the enormity of the choice involved.
“I think these are very personal choices, about whether to have a child or whether to adopt,” she says in an email interview. “Each individual or couple has to make the right decision for themselves. The adoptive parents I spoke with, took many paths to arrive at their decision. Some always knew they would adopt one day, others came to that decision quickly after having infertility problems, and still others spent years getting comfortable with the idea. I do believe that raising a child well is one of the best legacies you can leave in the world, no matter how that child comes to you.”
In writing Secret Daughter, Gowda drew from her own unique experiences. “I was very fortunate to receive the Morehead-Cain scholarship for college, which provided four incredible summer internships to broaden my view of the world,” she explains. “For one of those summers, I spent some time volunteering in an orphanage in Hyderabad. I had been to India many times before, but this was my first trip alone as an adult, and it was certainly the first time I saw that side of life in India so closely.”
Secret Daughter boldly takes on adoption’s closest competitors in India as well: female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. Female infanticide continues to take place in rural India; boys are still viewed as a better fit for families as income producers, caregivers, and inheritors. “There are still parts of India where female infanticide is too common: in one particular rural district of Tamil Nadu, nearly 60% of infant girls are killed within three days of birth,” adds Gowda. “However, in much of the country, female infanticide has been replaced with sex-selective abortion—choosing to abort after determining a baby’s gender through an ultrasound. Sadly, this practice is not limited to rural areas or poor populations; it is also practiced among the educated, urban, and middle-class. There is still a gender imbalance amongst new births in India, causing a “girl deficit” of 500,000 girls a year.”
Written in compassionate prose with a deep understanding of the complexities of motherhood, Gowda can’t help but shine as a first-time author. She also is the mother of two daughters, which influenced her as she wrote this heart-rending story. “I don’t think I could have written this story before becoming a mother,” she says. “The most difficult part of it was putting myself in the shoes of Kavita, Somer, and even Sarla (Krishnan’s mother)—all of whom lose a child in some way, and have to find ways of coping with that loss. That terrible experience is far away from my own reality, but not so far away in my imagination, where, like all parents, I always seek to keep my children safe.” In no small way, her characters exhibit the same feeling for their own children.
Gowda displays an undeniable empathy for these women who are from different walks of life and who view motherhood from different perspectives. She confirms those feelings are both as universal as they are diverse.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she works as a paraeducator specializing in reading, language arts, and technology. In her spare time, she freelances as an advertising copywriter/designer and works on two novels for young adults.