Lives unfold after an adoption in ‘Secret Daughter’
As Indian literature in English has flourished in recent years, a subgenre of Indian-American literature has emerged alongside it. Written largely by authors of Indian descent who live in the United States, books like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake,’’ Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss,’’ and Tania James’s “Atlas of Unknowns’’ spotlight Indian immigrants or move back and forth between India and the United States. The latest contribution to this sub-genre, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s first novel, “Secret Daughter,’’ offers a new bridge between the two countries: adoption. The story of Asha, her Indian birth mother, and her American adoptive mother, “Secret Daughter’’ adds a fraught take on motherhood to familiar themes of alienation and cultural identity.
When Kavita gives birth to her first daughter in a small town in India, her husband immediately takes the baby away to be killed. Kavita refuses to let her second pregnancy come to the same end. When the baby is another girl, she sneaks away to Bombay and leaves the infant Usha at an orphanage. Across a continent and ocean, San Francisco doctor Somer Whitman discovers she is in early menopause and decides to adopt from India where her husband grew up. The baby they bring home to California is Usha who, in a paperwork error, has been renamed Asha.
“Secret Daughter’’ moves back and forth between the unfolding lives of Kavita, Somer, and Asha. Kavita finally satisfies her husband by giving birth to a son, Vijay, though she continues to yearn for her lost daughter. To make a better life for Vijay, the family moves to Bombay where their terrifying slum experiences and slow climb into a reasonable life and living are one of the book’s most interesting elements. Kavita is a sympathetic character, convincing in both her acceptance of her fate and her unceasing desire for her daughter — she returns repeatedly to the orphanage where she left the baby, searching for a recognizable child, unaware that she is growing up on the other side of the world.
Somer is more of a stock character — the professional woman undone by infertility and motherhood — but adoption adds a twist. Thoroughly alienated by India, she refuses to return after the adoption and largely banishes Indian culture from her family’s life, inadvertently broadening the distance she feels from both the child she desperately loves and, increasingly, her husband (it is somewhat hard to believe that a character as intelligent as Somer can’t see the consequences of her actions, but perhaps that is Gowda’s point).
Asha’s own sense of alienation is palpable from childhood, though she doesn’t fully realize what she’s missing until she connects with her Indian heritage in college. When she receives a journalism fellowship to Bombay, where she researches the lives of slum children and lives with her grandmother, the novel’s characters and thematic strands inevitably — and slightly predictably — come together.
“Secret Daughter’’ is an engaging read, with its quick shifts between characters and rapid movement through 20 years of familial narrative. Some plot developments can be spotted a mile away — when Kavita’s son starts bringing home lots of money, it is clear that he is up to no good — but Gowda resolutely refuses to tie up all her loose ends, keeping the novel from settling into banality.
If motherhood is the primary interest of “Secret Daughter,’’ its success is finally embodied in Sarla, Asha’s grandmother, who foregrounds the power of nurturance above and beyond either blood or legal ties. For Kavita and Somer, letting their daughter go becomes the ultimate act of nurturance, allowing Asha, in the end, to claim her own identity.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and writing coach who lives in Arlington.