Reading: Secret Daughter

“Mommy lit”?

The Globe’s reviewer called this ‘mom lit’ which is not inaccurate in so far as this book is focused on the lives of mothers and mothering, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because chick lit and its derivations are usually flippant insults leveled by critics who need ‘weightier’, more literary, more precious books.  Let’s take this for what it is: an emotional, incredibly well paced, one-generation drama.

It’s true Gowda is no Rohinton Mistry.  The book lacks nuance and literary flavour:  I recall but one overt metaphor in the book – the stars which reveal themselves like an earring under a fold of dark hair.  But taking out all the lyricism allows the plot to careen forward, five years at a time.  Asha is unborn, now she’s 3 days old, now she’s one, now she’s six, now she’s 16 (whoa! where did the time go?), now she’s 20 and an award-winning student at an Ivy League school.  So different from Mistry’s deeply evocative descriptions.  But Gowda got me to finish the book in one night (oooh, sacrificing precious sleep on an evening when my darling actually slept from 8am – 5am (!!!), where as I have still not finished A Fine Balance….I’m stuck somewhere in the Emergency. I put it down about a year ago and haven’t picked it up since.  Oops.

If I had to compare the two (which, since I haven’t finished reading the latter I am abjectly unqualified to do but that’s why I have my own blog, yeah!), I would say Mistry’s book is political; Gowda’s is personal.   Or maybe it has to do with the level of detail Mistry has given to both politics and person over emotion (melodrama).  Mistry’s characters certainly feel emotion–mostly fear, as they are largely drawn from the struggling underclasses – whereas Gowda’s Ivy League-educated characters have the luxury of oblivion, ambition and self-pity. Mistry’s characters are pawns of Fortune, and Fortune in his book is determined by rather far off self-interested politicians.  Gowda’s characters are very close to the political class – but it is never discussed. Politics do impact her impoverished characters (who also demonstrate a touching resiliency and strength), but not in a way that they have energy to perceive or time to dwell on — the violence seems to erupt randomly rather than as a product of a system that empowers one group of people and disempowers another.

On that note, my major criticism is that although it is a story that gives equal narrative time to the wealthy western family Asha joins and the impoverished peasant family of her birth, it is written with little class awareness.  Could that be because the writer is from that Ivy-educated class herself?  There is no criticism of the high business echelons with whom Asha mingles.  Nor does she seemed fazed or bothered by the demonstrations of wealth she witnesses there despite her journalistic ‘immersion’ in the slums.  Outside of a single fleeting criticism of the hypocrisy of one wealthy family’s contribution to Mumbai’s pollution, there is no criticism of the wealthy in general, and no connection drawn between the staggering wealth of some of India’s population and the struggles of her birth parents.  Her new, wealthy family is unconditionally celebrated.  For all the contradiction she finds in India (poor/rich, despair/resilience, modern/backwards), she finds none in her family. They are loosely drawn but all welcoming; they are rich but it is tempered with magnanimity a la the Great Capitalists, enlightened about both gender and caste (Asha’s likely lower caste is never commented on and never an issue) and humble (her family are patrons without fanfare to the orphanage from which Asha is rescued). For a character who’s life work is criticism of inequities (as a journalist), it’s a disappointing hole in Gowda’s tale.  Asha has the paint-by-number Western response to India’s in your face, devastating poverty – shock, revulsion and despair.  And then the 2nd ‘more enlightened’, equally formulaic response: to see the humanity of those who are suffering. Then she meets a nice, wealthy Indian boy educated abroad and yeah!  I would have liked to see Asha turn her lens and her intellect on herself, and allow that to be part of her journey of self-discovery.  Her own western family is well meaning in a similar bumbling, wealthy way, her mother ironically self-actualizing through California’s yoga culture and upcoming cycling trips to Tuscany.

The book is very interested in women’s lives (though mostly the upper class kind) and for that I commend it.  Solid pacing and well worth a read.  But it doesn’t challenge us (especially us wealthy western readers who are basically dabbling in a kind of poverty-tourism when reading the stories of Asha’s birth parents). The book allows us to shed our tears for their tragedies but walk away hopeful.  The persistence of those people (thank god we’re not them) is legendary, so let us carry on.  It strokes your social justice heart, but ultimately the tale is a hollow one.

I suspect a good non-fiction companion piece for this is probably Kristoff’s Half the Sky, which is on my ‘to read’ list.

Have you read either? What did you think?

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