Secret Daughter (William Morrow, 2010) is a book about adoption, cross-cultural marriage, and familial rifts. The “daughter” of the title is Asha, a baby girl born into an India where high dowry prices mean daughters are undesirable. Her father wishes to get rid of the baby girl, as he did with the daughter born previously. Instead, pretending the infant has died, her mother takes her to an orphanage in Mumbai.
The first part of the novel tells this story, juxtaposed against the story of Somer Whitman, a young American doctor, recently married to Krishnan Thakkar, a young Indian man, also a doctor and a recent immigrant to the United States. After a series of miscarriages, Somer learns she cannot bear children. You see where this is going, right?
As Kavita, Asha’s biological mother, mourns the loss of the daughter everyone else thinks is dead, her husband, Jasu, moves their family from their village to the slums of Mumbai. Meanwhile, Somer and Krishnan travel to India and adopt Asha, who is now a year old. Somer’s dislike and discomfort of India become abundantly clear as she struggles to learn how to be a mother while surrounded by her Indian in-laws.
I enjoyed this first part, the back and forth nature of these two mothers who both love Asha fiercely. Somer’s fears and discomfort in India and with her husband’s family seemed realistic and were dealt with gently as she also saw the advantages to raising a baby in the midst of a large family.
The pace of the novel accelerates and Asha’s childhood passes quickly. Kavita and Jasu struggle to move from life in the slums while they raise their long-desired song, Vijay. Somer and her family move to the suburbs where she struggles with the fact that she is the odd one out in her own nuclear family. It was astounding to me that anyone, even in a novel, could marry into and then adopt a child from, a culture and yet be so wilfully ignorant of it. We see over and over again how little interest Somer has in India or its culture but the reason behind that is never explored or explained. I do comprehend the fear that Somer would have, that if she fails as a parent, her daughter has another family she can go look for. But Somer is also married to an Indian man. As we witness arguments between Somer and a teenage Asha it’s easy to be sympathetic to Asha because she seems to be deliberately kept from her own culture. Krishnan becomes a weak and shadowy figure in these scenes and it is never explained why he accepts this situation.
The real problem of the novel though becomes clear in these arguments and that is that Secret Daughter is not a well-written novel. The characters are one-dimensional and speak in cliches, especially Asha. Somer is an overprotective mother. Krishnan works too much. Asha doesn’t know where she comes from. None of the characters lift behind these simple statements and become real people.
Asha reaches university and heads to India by herself, her first time returning to her country of birth. From here, you can guess what happens. Most of the rest of the novel falls into the category of “Asha gets in touch with her Indian roots.” She also, of course, is a brilliant journalism student doing a report on the Mumbai slums. (Gowda seems to think Asha asking a cute boy where he goes to school demonstrates her keen journalistic abilities.) At first Asha is shocked by the slums but in the end manages to put together a heart-warming article about mothers.
Look, I’ve never been to India so I don’t know what those slums are like. But I have been to slums. I’ve been to a garbage dump in Guatemala City that spreads as far as you can see in every direction. It’s full of people who somehow live there, amidst the waste of a society. The smell is unbelievable. Vultures circle overhead constantly. Children run barefoot over ground you wouldn’t want to walk on with boots. They have fleas and ticks and the people scavenge through filth to make a meager living. It’s a horrible place and it’s horrible that people live there. There’s nothing heartwarming about it. Yes, people are people and there are beautiful actions even in such places but when I read articles about the strength of the human spirit or the triumph of a mother’s love in such hells on Earth, I wonder if that’s just a way to make us, in developed nations, feel better. A way to assuage our first world guilt and say, “Look, it’s okay that those people have nothing and live in dehumanizing conditions. At least they have their mother’s love.” I was disappointed that the novel went that route and used the slums, which really exist, as a plot point to make Asha’s character look sensitive. For me, it only made her look ignorant and unlikeable.
Predictably, Asha decides to look for her birth parents. Again, her ignorance astounds as she is heartbroken to discover that her parents had a son after her that they kept. Really? I thought it was pretty common knowledge that there are more girls than boys available for adoption from countries like India and I thought most people knew the reason behind it. For someone who seems to have spent her adolescence complaining that she doesn’t know who she is, Asha certainly hasn’t done anything to educate herself. Even the laziest Google research you could do would have told Asha why she was a girl adopted from India. This also makes her seem like a shoddy journalist.
The novel ends about how you would expect. The happiest ending is reserved for Asha and her American family. Her biological Indian parents continue to struggle on but are supposed to be okay with it because at least Asha has a good life. Indomitability of the human spirit, right?
Want to read a strong, well-written book about India? Try A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.