In the past decade, celebrities have embraced gestational surrogacy in increasing numbers. In India, for example, Shah Rukh and Gauri Khan as well as Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao have had children through surrogacy. In America, the host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon, and his wife Nancy have had two children through surrogacy, and Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban have had one. But what of the couples who aren’t celebrities and have no other option to have a family of their own? What are the social, emotional, and moral implications of the procedure? Amulya Malladi explores these questions in her sixth novel, A House for Happy Mothers.
Priyasha, better known as Priya, lives a sunny Californian life—has a good job, is happily married, and has everything she ever wanted except a baby of her own. Attempts to start a family have been fraught with miscarriages, and Priya’s last hope is to consider gestational surrogacy not in America, but in India. Her husband Madhu goes along with the plan willingly, but he’s not a worry wart like Priya.
Asha is as happily married as she assumes she is allowed to be and lives with her two children and husband in a small village in India. Her young son is gifted, and to make sure he receives the education he needs, she must become a surrogate mother. No problem though, because her sister-in-law did that, earned more money than she and her husband ever thought possible, and now lives with her family in a large and comfortable flat. The prospect of such money drives Asha’s husband Pratap to push her to lease out her womb because he wants what his brother has.
In chapters alternating between Priya and Asha, this character-driven, emotion-based novel runs the gamut from ecstasy to sorrow and from emptiness to fulfillment with a bit of manipulation thrown in. The underlying reasons for the two women to engage in surrogacy are both desperate and materialistic, each providing what they need and want but for vastly dissimilar reasons. Both parties know the outcome of the journey, but neither know what lies along the path.
Over the course of the novel—her first after nearly a decade—Malladi covers all bases when it comes to reactions and opinions Priya and Madhu encounter about surrogacy. They interact with close friends, acquaintances, and relatives, all of whom have decidedly different ideas about surrogacy. Yet somehow, Malladi never pushes her characters to be overtly “preachy” when they so easily could be. I asked Malladi how she managed to keep the characters off the pulpit.
“I write stories to answer questions,” Malladi said in an e-interview. “The question was—How do a biological mother and a surrogate mother feel? I wanted to understand them, not make any judgment. The lack of agenda probably helped.”
Priya and Asha also run the gamut of emotions regarding the surrogacy. The myriad pros and cons that plague them could have degenerated into a didactic debate about this ethical and moral matter, but it doesn’t. Because of this, we are allowed to weigh the issue for ourselves. Some authors consciously write to make a point, express a specific idea, or for a particular audience, but according to Malladi, she doesn’t write for a reader. She writes to explore and make sense of the world for herself.
“I write because I have a burning question I want answered, and the only way to have it answered is to live through it (which I can’t do for all the many questions I have) or write a book about it and see my characters live through it,” she explains.
Malladi, who has written about unusual topics in her previous books, found the inspiration for this book while watching a BBC documentary about a woman using an Indian surrogate. She said the story started to evolve—the biological mother came first and then the surrogate mother—and then they told their own story.
A mother of two young boys, Malladi conducted research for the book. Her research was guided by the questions she needed answered: Why do people choose surrogacy over adoption? How hard is it? How do the biological parents feel?
“With fiction, it’s simpler I think,” she explained. “You do the research and you get some facts and opinions, but ultimately, your characters feel what they feel and the story evolves from there.”
In contrast to Asha and Pratap, who live a suitable marriage, Priya and Madhu are a loving couple who have had their ups and downs but who respect each other. There’s no gushy sentimentality between them and because of that, they feel very real.
“I’m often surprised by my characters,” Malladi said. “I just define the characters and then they have the lives they have. I liked Priya and Madhu’s marriage, but it could’ve gone either way.”
The book is not just about surrogacy and money. It’s also about relationships, and there are many in the novel. The main relationship is between Priya and Asha. They are nothing alike and they change their views of the other, riding that rocking horse of emotions because the baby is Priya’s but Asha’s doing the work. Priya worries that something will go wrong, while Asha worries if Priya will be a good enough mother. The bottom line for both, however, is that this is business and reality hovers over both of them.
“These women are in a business contract over a very human transaction—they both are unaware of how to feel about this,” Malladi said. When Malladi wrote the book, surrogacy for foreigners was still legal in India. Since then, the Indian government passed a law prohibiting foreign nationals from contracting Indian women to act as surrogates. Apparently, however, that’s not the end of the legal story. Malladi said she recently met with a friend who is a well-known embryologist in India.
“My friend said that India might ban paid surrogacy altogether,” Malladi disclosed. “They’re also changing laws with regards to how many eggs women can donate. According to the government, this is being done to prevent the exploitation of the women.”
Which leads to the question of how Malladi feels about the law in place for women in India. “I am against paid surrogacy,” she said without hesitation. “But this could help families get out of poverty. Is it a fair exchange? Not at all. I wish we had a higher standard of living for all people so that paid surrogacy was not needed to help families rise from poverty.”
Malladi had a large gap between her previous book, The Sound of Language, and this one. “It feels great to have published again. I feel like I got my life back,” Malladi said. “My next book, The Copenhagen Affair, which I joke is a dark comedy about depression, will be published in October 2017.”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association.