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Book Review: The House of Hidden Mothers

8 August 2016
Appeared in BioNews 863

The House of Hidden Mothers

By Meera Syal

Published by Black Swan

ISBN-10: 1862300534, ISBN-13: 978-1862300538

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Given the title, and this book's appearance on the market at a time when commercial surrogacy in India was a booming industry for foreign fee-paying customers, I expected this to be a book about surrogacy. To some extent, it is. On the whole, however, it is a tale about much more – about two cultures, about cultural expectations, about inter-cultural relationships, about the ubiquity of violence against women, about corruption, about familial relationships, about middle age, about women who work, about the stresses of modern life facing Indian immigrants to London, their Anglo-Indian children, and more.

Because this book tries to tackle so many broad, important themes, some of them are lost. The way surrogacy is included in the story makes it feel like a bit of a tag-on or, possibly, just one of many things that Syal wants to comment on negatively in relation to Anglo-Indian culture.

In the opening pages we find the main female protagonist, Shyama, a divorced 48-year old second generation Anglo-Indian woman, in a Harley Street fertility clinic, brusquely being given the bad news about being unable to have a baby, there being 'very little point in pursuing IVF or any other kind of assisted reproduction. Even seeking donor eggs would not solve the issue of your inhospitable womb and the dangers of attempting to carry a child yourself'. This is a baby she is inspired by her new husband Toby, a younger man in his 30s, to have – Shyama already has a daughter in her late teens.

Segue to India and more broad themes: tales of competitive Indian wives, public and domestic violence against women, and a theme about being able to make money by becoming a surrogate – though perhaps under the coercion of greedy or oppressive husbands. Mala is a woman whose pregnant neighbour disappears for a while, coming back without a baby but with newfound consumer spending power. Eventually, Mala finds out why, and also investigates becoming a surrogate at her husband's insistence. For her, it is written as an empowering choice, to do something to improve her conditions when her husband cannot. His disempowerment becomes another theme – it 'frees' Mala from his dominance and puts him in her debt.

Meanwhile, Shyama and Toby have investigated surrogacy in India. Adoption was ruled out on the basis of waiting lists and they do not appear to consider using 'domestic' surrogacy, though two comments – 'it's even longer if you want to use donor eggs' and 'by the time we were near the top of [the] list, I'd be… a lot older' might suggest they thought about it. Whatever the case, they end up going to India for both egg donation and gestational surrogacy, costing 'around… between £6000 - £9000 pounds.' As Toby says, 'Blimey, that's not much more than two rounds of IVF!' This perhaps gives some insight into one of the attractions of overseas treatments and surrogacy in recent years. Explaining it to her ageing parents, Shyama says, 'It's a very common procedure… I mean there are literally hundreds of clinics in India that do this'.

Syal lets us know it is not only British couples who use Indian surrogates via the lens of the clinic's director, who is 'alerting expectant parents to hop on to flights from California and Israel in order to welcome their babies into the world.' We hear that 'somehow these people always had the cash and flexibility to drop everything and present themselves, sweating with nerves and smelling of aeroplane, at her clinic's door.' We hear the doctor had 'huge sympathy for those very few women who got attached to their surrogate babies' but that, 'after the women had calmed down a little' from her soothing talks and tea, she 'would have to remind them of the terms of their contract.' We might feel warmth for the clinic director – a successful woman putting her own children through university medical school – if it weren't for this, and the deception she allows to take place to people in her care, which becomes integral to the surrogacy storyline later. We also witness a conversation between the clinic's director and its lawyer foretelling doom if India was to regulate access to surrogacy for foreigners, and only allow access to those 'heterosexual couples who had been married for two years… and only those from countries where surrogacy is legal and surrogate children will be given automatic citizenship' (note: this was the bill being discussed at the time, later versions have contained different proposals). 

Inevitably perhaps, Mala becomes Shyama and Toby's surrogate. They meet, the men say nothing to each other, but 'the women can't stop looking at each other, two sides of the see-saw but perfectly balanced, knowing each has something the other wants very badly.' Mala is variously described as beautiful, vital, intelligent, with 'surprisingly good' English. This should perhaps lead us to expect the very unrealistic twist in the tale that leads, eventually, to the surrogacy arrangement going (inevitably? This is a work of fiction that needs drama, after all) wrong. The surrogacy story of Mala is played out alongside all kinds of other background events in Shyama's life, drawn from Syal's overly ambitious web of storylines. Shyama gets a bit lost in the story somewhere from this point and – though I had found few of the main characters particularly likeable – I felt sorry about that.

All in all, the surrogacy aspect of this book - which I view largely as a story about the clash between Indian culture and that of Indian immigrants and their subsequent generations in Britain - is not presented positively, though some might say it has a 'happy' ending for some. Even the title is pretty pejorative. Syal appears to have wanted to draw attention to as many 'Indian' problems as she could in this novel, the Indian surrogacy industry being just one of them. That is not to say that the sudden and dramatic proliferation of Indian surrogacy offered to people from all over the world – and its unregulated nature – wasn't and isn't problematic. We know it is, and there are news stories, academic works and legal cases that illustrate some of these problems clearly. Also, I and others have called elsewhere for there to be wholesale reform of surrogacy laws in the UK, partly in the hope that this could ameliorate the need for some people to go overseas for surrogacy at all. Nevertheless, we should remember this book is only one (fictional) version of that process. One which has, despite many problems, brought happiness to a number of people who might not have found it.

Buy The House of Hidden Mothers from Amazon UK.

20 June 2016 - by Dr Ëlo Luik 
Discounted Life is a captivating look into the lives of the women who constituted the production line of India's surrogacy industry at a time when it was still legal and booming...
19 October 2015 - by Kirsty Oswald 
India looks poised to introduce surrogacy legislation following several developments that could lead to a blanket ban on commercial surrogacy...
27 April 2015 - by Professor Jenni Millbank 
Surrogacy has received vastly disproportionate attention in Australia given its infrequent occurrence. In less than 30 years we have seen 27 public inquiries and at least 17 different laws passed. Many thousands of media articles and current affairs stories have been penned and filmed...
13 April 2015 - by Dr Ëlo Luik 
Last month BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed examined a rather extraordinary invitation: 'See the Taj Mahal by the moonlight while your embryo grows in a petri dish'...
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