I seem destined lately to read books that tell the tale of two people or two families, alternately, back and forth throughout the book. Secret Daughter, a novel, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the third story of this type I’ve read in the last couple of months. Each has been a compelling story in its own way; each has had a different style and voice.
Secret Daughter tells the story of a girl born in India and put up for adoption because of poverty and the greater value of a boy. The author follows baby Asha — Hope (although her birth mother named her Usha — Dawn) to California with her adoptive parents: Somer, an American, and Krishnan, an East Indian who came to the U.S. to study to become a doctor. The story also continues to follow Asha’s birth parents: Kavita and Jasu Merchant who lived in a small northern village called Dahanu when Asha was born, but later, moved to Mumbai where there were hoping to have better opportunities for success. The year after Asha was born and given up for adoption, the Merchants were blessed with a boy who they called Vijay — Victory. Vijay was six years old when his family moved to Mumbai.
This is a touching story about cultural differences, feelings of inadequacy, longings to fit in, and the complex problems that accompany adoption when a child is taken away from its culture. Yet the story is one of hope, because as a young adult, Asha learns about family:
At some point, the family you create is more important than the one you’re born into. (p307)
The three women are the main focus of the story: Asha, her birth mother — Kavita, and her adoptive mother — Somer. Growing up, Asha felt different, that she had a past she knew nothing about. When her grade three teacher asked them to write a letter to someone in another country, Asha wrote to her birth mother. But when she asked her father to mail it, Krishnan tells her he doesn’t know where her mother lives. Asha is confused and often lashes out at Somer; Somer often feels odd man out because she is the only non-Indian in her family. She had desperately wanted a child and when she learned she couldn’t, she and Krishnan opted to adopt a child from India. Somewhere along the way, it had started to fall apart.
Both Krishnan and Somer want Asha to become a doctor like them and push her to excel in math and science. But Asha has other ideas. She wants to be a journalist; she’s terribly excited about journalism and seeking the truth. When she wins a one-year scholarship to do a story about children growing up in the slums of Mumbai, Somer is worried and angry. She realizes Krishnan already knew about this and both husband and daughter had kept it from her. When Asha leaves for Mumbai, she has a second agenda: seeking out her birth parents. Somer feels she has lost touch with everything that was important in her life and decides to move out.
Arriving in Mumbai, Asha discovers her grandparents and many, many aunts, uncles, and cousins who sweep her up into their love. She learns much from early morning walks with her grandmother who encourages her to do what she feels she must. Asha thinks she knows what to expect in India but becomes aware that everything she thought she knew was more complicated than she realized; everything including what she thought she knew about family.
This is very much a story of Asha coming of age, but also about how two families are affected by adoption, and how two cultures that seem to clash are able to mesh and learn from each other. It is also about what the author refers to as “the two Indias”, Dharavi, the enormous shantytown, and the India of Asha’s family where there is space, luxury and servants. But as Asha learns, even in Dharavi there is hope for a future. * * * *