Shades of maternity

Shades of maternity

Shades of maternity
Motherhood is holy. A mother and her child. Children have had several step-mothers too. In a happy household they were all mothers to all the children as in Dasaratha’s palace. But science has been playing with motherhood. Now one can have two mothers and neither can be dismissed as a step-mother. The agony and ecstasy of this thrust of science is the subject Meera Syal has chosen for The House of Hidden Mothers. It is good to know she has gained kudos for being an actress and has been playing recently in the drama Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As a mother whose mouth is no scripture.

Ever since Kamala Markandaya gave us The Nowhere Man (1972), we had become aware of the Indian immigrant in Britain, the veiled hostility from the Englishmen who think these hard-working immigrants will become rich before you can say Jack Robinson and how their hate simmered as black humour. The silence of the immigrants won the day for they had nothing to get back in India. But that story belonged to an earlier generation, the times of Sita and Prem. Already in the second decade of the 21st century, the self-consciousness of being an immigrant is now gone.

The heroine of The House of Hidden Mothers is on her own, very much like Meera herself. Self-possessed, not worried about living with the Englishman Toby openly, Shyama wants a child by him, though she has a grown-up girl of her own from a previous marriage. Toby and Shyama get ready to look around for a surrogate mother.

A child. Precious time spent in “mopping up poo and sick” or a spiritual glory of “Madonna with the chosen babe”? What is a child?

This is how a village belle from India comes to England to carry in her womb a babe for Toby and Shyama. But having taken up a hot potato as subject, Meera uses the darkest shades in her paint box to create a picture of what might or might not happen. The basic tale is about a divorced woman living with a younger man, and fishing for a surrogate mother. It is also about a husband and wife team who have decided to make a not too envious profession of surrogacy. Ram, who doesn’t care when their own child is born, is all attention when Mala is carrying someone else’s child. Why? Because the child is more important now. Unless Mala delivers the baby, Ram cannot laugh his way to their bank account.

“My husband is offering me his arm, noted Mala with wonder, walking me like a memsahib, making his voice low and sweet like a river. Now he is telling me not to worry, he will take care of everything as long as I am well, we are safe. For a few minutes Mala wasn’t walking along a litter-strewn pathway smelling of fried food and disinfectant, she was the wet sari in the fountain, the wind-swept dancer on the hillside, the garlanded goddess on a plinth. Until she realised that what he was worshipping wasn’t her, but inside her, what he longed to protect wasn’t his wife, but his investment.”

However, Meera’s focus shifts to Mala and Shyama as sellers of Indian curries and cosmetics. Just a minor business to keep mental goblins away. And then something goes wrong with the tautness of the subject. How much is Toby, that “chunk of maleness”, is drawing closer to the chirpy Mala? Why does he escort her to bed? The focus on the problems of surrogacy gets blurred further with the ownership problems of Shyama’s parents. The bated breath with which one is waiting for the denouement starts loosening up and we echo Shyama: “I’d take a breath now before you hyperventilate.” And there are always the similes that make you close the book, look around and guffaw or blink like an owl, as the case warranted: “that’s me, natural and fresh as newly shat dung”, “use a surrogate as another convenient labour-saving device”.

As if there are not enough distractions, we end up with the Delhi gang rape when Krishan is born with Mala’s eyes and Toby’s chin. What happened to Mala and Toby, Shyama and Tara, Dhruv and Sita to name a few of the dramatis personae? Like Eliot said, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Meantime a wee little clue about two years after: “That her daughter would announce that Shyama was soon to be a grandmother and that if she was to have any chance of finishing her degree, her mother would have to come over and do some seriously hands-on childcare.”

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