Birth of a discussion

A House for Happy Mothers is sure to attract the imagination of everyone who wants to see lifelike, relatable and thought-provoking issues being addressed through the journey of characters who quite convincingly echo our own everyday dilemmas.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that when an author gathers the courage to weave a story on a theme as complex as surrogacy, and what it means for the people involved, it contains within its womb the potential for being a catalyst for the slow but steady revolution in societal conscience.

Surrogacy is fast gaining momentum in the country, but it continues to be a less-explored and even tabooed theme in social discussions. A House for Happy Mothers breaks the ice and brings out in the open the emotions and apprehensions of the parties involved. It is a provocative and engaging read.

The story is about the trials and tribulations of a married-prosperous Indian couple living in Silicon Valley, Priya and Madhu, whose only woe in life is the fact that Priya cannot become pregnant, and thus the couple decides to have a baby through a surrogate named Asha in India. Asha's husband is a house painter, and despite their poverty, they desire to give their intellectually gifted son quality schooling.

Despite initial family disapproval, Asha decides to become a surrogate as she sees this as the only opportunity to fulfil her family's dreams. Malladi weaves the story intricately with the many realistic dilemmas that both her central characters Priya and Asha face, and how the world around them responds.

Priya's friends deliberate whether or not they should keep working when they have children, or what the best ways are to rear them, and, while this ambience engulfs Priya, all she wants to do is to join their league and experience motherhood. Priya's relationship with her mother gets affected in the process, where she displays cynicism and suggests the possibility that Priya may not be meant for motherhood at all. Despite her daughter's extreme positivity, she says, "Have you thought about that instead of running around impregnating some strange woman with your child?"

What has added to the reading experience is the way Malladi builds the supporting characters, whether we talk about Priya's friends, her quarrelling mother and mother-in-law, Asha's sister-in-law, who happens to be a veteran surrogate, or the other women in Asha's surrogate home. In fact, the importance that the author has attached to these voices enables us to hear the diversity of opinions that people have about surrogacy, womanhood and motherhood.

A co-surrogate in the home tries to convince Asha in her weaker moments that she should only think of the entire process as a profitable business and not feel emotionally tied to the child growing inside. Another woman suggests (about her other child), "You're doing this so that your daughter can study and be a lanja munda like Dr Swati. Strong. Independent."

What is interesting to note is that the contexts that the two women find themselves in are responsible for the perspectives on the issue that they introduce. It provides an opportune moment to discuss surrogacy from the class angle, and its implications for the women involved.

The most engaging parts of the novel unfold in India, where Asha lives under medical supervision with women like herself in a special home until they deliver the babies they are being paid for, having left behind their own families. The house looks unkempt and the women are taken care of by a housemother who is strict yet kind.

Interesting dynamics unfold amongst the women, where one acclaims, "We're giving a gift to someone - something they can't get themselves - and they give me the resources to build a better life."

For Asha, this means the chance of educating Manoj, who has been promoted by two grades in the village school. Asha and her husband have their bitter moments, but a zeal for the son motivates them.

An important part of the narrative are posts from an online message board, which Priya posts on and reads in moments of doubt. Notes that mothers leave for each other here describe the realm of the unknown surrounding surrogacy.

Priya and Asha are women located in completely contrasting social realities and we hardly see anything common between them, but as the story unfolds, we discover how their love for their own children - the one that is to enter the world and those who already have - is the force that binds them with an invisible thread of interconnectedness.

Malladi's book is thought-provoking as it stirs up in the mind glimpses from the worlds of two women juxtaposed by destiny.

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