Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
27th August 2015
Of the Book Festival events I have been to this year, this was the first which was intended to promote a novel. The House of Hidden Mothers is the story of two women. One is here in Britain, Shyama, aged forty-eight and with a new love in her life, and desperate to raise a child with him. The other is in India, Mala, a woman from a poor background who, with only one asset to exploit, is part of that country’s $4.5 billion-per-year surrogate mother industry. Each, in a way, holds the answer to the other’s dreams. It is Meera Syal’s first novel in sixteen years, and Lee Randall in the chair called it ‘beautifully done’, praised its ‘bold authorial choice[s]’ and its ‘bold and breathtaking’ ending.
The event gave us a chance to hear some of the novel’s content, as Meera read out a passage where Shyama and her friend are sitting in a café, waiting for their order to arrive, and browsing a surrogacy site whilst they wait. The dialogue was, as I might have expected, a script-like exchange, as though Meera had been visualising its being acted out, right down to the reaction and recovery of the approaching waiter on hearing the subject of sperm being loudly discussed. In narrative passages I noted that her style involved choosing words like ‘emanating’ rather than ‘coming from’, and I wondered why, because it didn’t seem necessary in the slightest. The script-like quality of the dialogue was reinforced by Meera’s reading ‘in character’ – she would do, she’s an actor! – and it was obvious that the audience enjoyed this. Later of course she played up to this by treating us to an imitation of her cousins over in India. Easy winners.
More attention-holding was the passage she read out where Shyama and Toby her partner are discussing the options offered by an Indian surrogacy agency, and the costs involved, and they are overheard and interrupted by Shyama’s teenage daughter by her first marriage. As the teenager confronts her loathing, at that moment, for her mother and for her own reaction, we realise that the issue is going to effect an increasing number of people beyond those immediately involved.
I had wondered whether Festival-goers might have come to this event to be entertained by someone who is cleverly funny and can assume characters, rather than for the issues raised by the novel. From the questions raised at the end I doubt that. Of the ten questions, nine were from women, and all focused in the novel’s serious content and intent. Both the answers and the main discussion beforehand were very thought-provoking.
The whole subject of women’s ownership of their bodies, said Meera, and the use of those bodies as sources of income, became ‘muddier’ rather than clearer the more she looked at it. Surrogacy became a metaphor for a lot of other things she wanted to talk about. In the Baillie Gifford Theatre we were led to consider such things as the Jyoti Singh Pandey rape/murder case, the age at which a cut-off point for becoming a mother should be, whether there should even be a cut-off point, whether couples should have children for ‘stability’, how surrogacy can be a matter of altruism in one country and commerce in another, how status-conscious India is becoming paralleled by and increasingly stratified Britain, how social media has changed everything for women growing up, and the difference between feminist issues at the forefront today and those of one generation further back.
The House of Hidden Mothers was written – Meera was first to admit – from the point of view of a Non-Resident Indian, a British Indian exploring her roots, but writing irrespective of those roots. The book is coming out in India, where it will be read by people whose life experience is wholly of India. Meera reminded us that we have outsourced fertility there like we had outsourced call centres, and reminded us that culture shifts all the time. Don’t confuse ‘tradition’ with ‘old bad habits’. Like most of the events at this year’s Book Festival, the scheduled hour ended with loads more to talk about, and that talk moved on to the signing tent. So, no old bad habit there, then.
Once again I’m in the ‘male-thrust-in’ position here. No matter, it was fascinating. Whether I’m inclined to buy the novel is another matter. From what I heard I might not get on too well with stylistic aspects of it. But I’m sure I’ll be in the minority.
Reviewer : Paul Thompson