In an interview with television presenter Matthew Stadlen in 2013, Meera Syal describes what it was like being brought up as a British Asian girl in Wolverhampton. It was, she says, “very amusing – and confusing,” a schizophrenic existence in which she was “very Indian and Punjabi inside the house and very Midland wench outside it: I used to swap masks all the time.” Most importantly, she says with a roguish smile, it supplied her with “fantastic writing material.”
It is this rich seam that she has mined repeatedly over the course of her thirty-year-long career, and she’s back with her pick-axe in her third and latest novel, The House of Hidden Mothers.
Syal would have been the same age (12) as Meena Kumar, the young protagonist of her first novel, Anita and Me. Set in 1972 in a fictional town in the West Midlands, it immediately set bells ringing for a slew of second generation British Asians, who namaste-ed and ate with their hands at home and played footie and ate chips with their mates outside.
Three years later, Syal came out with Life isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, the story of three childhood friends, now (like the author herself) in their thirties, each exemplifying a sort of Brit-Asian archetype: Sunita, the super-swot overachiever; Tania, the mouthy career-girl; and sweet, naïve Chila. They almost seem like different aspects of one personality: Ashokan lionesses, joined at the mane.
Shyama, the main character in The House of Hidden Mothers, could have been been Meena from Anita and Me, thirty-five years later. At 47, with a grown-up daughter, she longs for a child with her younger partner, Toby.
Usually, it’s considered rather churlish for a reviewer (or reader) to ask a novelist how much of their book is autobiographical, but in Syal’s case, the question is not just not rude or superfluous, it actually cuts to the heart of the matter. Each of her books is a way of coming to terms with her mixed cultural heritage at a specific stage in her life: as a twelve year old, in her thirties, as she approaches menopause. Is it important for the reader to know the biographical background of the author? Does it change anything knowing that Meera Syal has a grown-up daughter, and a very much younger son? Perhaps not, but on the other hand, the fictional worlds she creates so closely match the circumstances of her own life that it takes an act of almost willful blindness not to see the two working in tandem. It seems as if one needs to overlay one with the other in order to see the picture in 3D, to give it depth.
Let us, for the moment, stick with the fiction at the heart of which is a very real dilemma, and one that could only have arisen through the advances in reproductive technology over the past ten to fifteen years. Having tried and failed to conceive naturally, and all but exhausted their reserves – both emotional and financial – on various assisted reproductive technology treatments (ARTs), Shyama and Toby decide to contact a surrogacy clinic in New Delhi.
As they discuss the issue, Shyama shies away from the moral maze that they are about to enter, rationalizing the decision as much to herself as to her partner: “India had fertile poor women; Britain and America and most places west of Poland had wealthy infertile women. It had begun with companies moving their call centres towards the rising sun, so what was wrong with outsourcing babies there too, when at the end of the process there was a new human being and a woman with financial independence? It was a win-win situation, wasn’t it?”
They contact Dr Renu Passi, whose Delhi-based clinic comes highly recommended. She is not an unsympathetic character, keenly alive to the rights of the poor, Indian surrogate mothers whose wombs she hires on behalf of her rich, first world clientele, but she is also a businesswoman with a sharp mind and excellent legal backup. She matches up Shyama and Toby with a young woman called Mala, who a young, savvy, newlywed from a village outside Delhi. Having seen one of her neighbours leave the village, pregnant and poor, and return, childless, with a fridge and an air-conditioner, Mala puts two and two together. She and her husband make their own trip to the city to seek out the goose that laid – or at least incubated – the golden egg.
Through the tangled story of Shyama, Toby and Mala, the question that Syal is struggling with is the following: “Is commercial surrogacy an exciting option for family formation and a worthwhile new job opportunity, or an exploitation of poor women?”  To Syal’s credit, she acknowledges that there are no easy answers, and by the end of the book, you’re left wondering who’s exploiting whom? Mala is far from the hapless victim you might expect – in fact, she may be the most empowered of them all. Neither is Toby – the young, rugged and good-natured farmboy – the shallow chaser of exotic skirt that he might easily have been portrayed as. And even though my sympathy was strained at points by Shyama’s irrational craving for a baby (at her age? After she’s had one already? Isn’t it all a bit self-indulgent? A bit delusional? A bit unrealistic?), even she comes out of it well.
Syal is no Margaret Atwood, and The House of Hidden Mothers is definitely not The Handmaid’s Tale – a book that it inevitably invites comparison with, given its subject matter. Atwood’s classic piece of speculative fiction was published in 1985, the exact same year (according to Wikipedia) that the world’s first surrogate baby ‘Baby M’ was conceived. ARTs were in their infancy – the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’ Louise Brown was born in Greater Manchester in 1978 – and the very real, legal, practical and ethical dilemmas that we are now facing had barely been thought of. Today, some of the most interesting and challenging work is being done in entirely new academic fields such as feminist bioethics, as we struggle (and fail) to keep up with the pace of medical and technological innovation around us.
But, to coin a phrase, a knotty issue doth not a good novel make and Syal’s, sadly, hoists itself by its own well-meaning petard. Only the petard, in this case, is shaped more like a trishul: for there are not just one but three separate knotty issues that she is jousting. Before I trip over my own tangled metaphor, let me clarify that while the whole surrogacy thing is the main issue in the book, there are two others that run alongside: the property dispute issue (Shyama’s aged parents have spent the last several decades embroiled in the legal mess of trying to oust their nephew and his wife from their flat in Delhi) and the rape issue (the story of Shyama’s twenty-year-old daughter Tara and the way that she deals with sexual assault). In trying to make this a richer and more layered novel, Syal has actually achieved the opposite, and to my mind the two subplots end up detracting from the main one rather than enhancing it. Shyama and Tara are together in Delhi at the time when the infamous December 2012 gang-rape happens, and I felt that these passages in the book – which should actually be the most powerful – worked least well, intercut as they are with the descriptions of Mala in labour. It felt like an uncomfortable juxtaposition, to say the least: here, the overlapping of the real and fictional worlds resulted in not greater depth but something that skated much closer to a sort of artistic exploitation, using a horrific and very real event for literary ‘effect’.
Having said that, Syal should be applauded for venturing into such tough terrain. She is not a versatile writer – nor does she pretend to be. But she does have a way of capturing a particular zeitgeist. Anita and Me nailed the immigrant experience of Britain in 1972; Life isn’t all… was also ‘of its time’, a few shades darker, both in skin colour and tone than Bridget Jones but equally ‘1990s’ in feel. In Hidden Mothers, we are in a world where the balance of power is tipping between the first and third-world, and the NRIs are struggling for a foothold. One of her characters describes those relatives ‘back home’ in India: “They want to punish us. When we escaped, they resented us, the ones who got away. They thought we were all millionaires, so they asked us for everything. And we gave it, because we were rich, compared to them. And we felt bad for having abandoned them. But not now. Now the gap is closing. We can never afford to buy there again, those days are gone. I think that’s what they wanted. You left us, so now we don’t want you back.”
She is at her best when she is poking fun at her own community, herself included, highlighting its (or perhaps I should say ‘our’) quirks and foibles, the stock figures and the caricatures to be laughed at and laughed with, knowing that there are tears there too.
I found myself wishing for a little less gritty social commentary, and a little more of the wit and exuberant silliness that Meera Syal brought to the TV comedies that she’s best known for: Goodness Gracious Me, and The Kumars at No 42. By the end of the book, the tone is far more rueful than satiric, more resigned than tragic and I missed the laugh-out-loud passages of her earlier books. I hope that in her next, she regains the ability to tickle our collective funny bones: it’s a gift, and not one to give up lightly.
First published in Biblio magazine, August 2015
 Marcy Darnovsky and Judy Norsigian, ‘US Feminists and the Fertility Industry’ in Reconfiguring Reproduction: Feminist Health Perspectives on Assisted Reproductive Technologies Sarojini N. and Vrinda Marwah (eds.), Zubaan-SAMA, New Delhi, 2014, p141