Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Publisher: William Morrow (Harper Collins) – 346 pages
Book Review by: Laxmi Chaandi
Some beliefs in India, particularly in its villages, baffle people in the Western world. And for good reason. One of them has to do with favoring the birth of a son instead of a daughter. Why would a family prefer to have a son rather than a daughter, we in the United States would ask.
This belief emerged centuries ago when males worked and produced income for their families whereas females tended to the needs of their families at home. It is still held so strongly by some people in India that the social stigma associated with it force mothers of newborn daughters to give them away or else face ostracism.
Some traditions in Indian families such as giving dowry when they marry their daughters to men in arranged marriages put additional financial burdens upon households that do not have sufficient means.
In some extreme cases, newborn daughters face death by burial. While the law prohibits this, the stigma and the pressure persist in some parts of India.
This story is about one such instance. Kavita gave birth to a baby girl. To save her newborn daughter’s life, she had to give her away.
When Kavita gives birth to a baby girl in a village in India, her husband Jasu tells her:
“Look, Kavita, you know we can’t keep this baby. We need a boy to help us in the fields. As it is, we can hardly afford one child, how can we have two? My cousin’s daughter is twenty-three and still not married, because he can’t keep up with the dowry. We are not a rich family, Kavita. You know we can’t do this.”
Meanwhile thousands of miles away in the United States, Somer faces a different struggle: her inability to conceive a live child. To solve this problem she and her husband Krishnan adopt Kavita’s baby. The doctor couple feel exulted when they view a photo of of Kavita’s lovely daughter. Their long journey to an orphanage in Mumbai is filled with hopefulness and fulfillment of a deeply-held longing.
This is a well-written story packed with a wide range of emotions felt by both couples: grief, loss, sadness and shame, as well as hope, love, fulfillment and happiness.
We will not mention one very important part of the plot that makes this story even more meaningful to readers and in order for them to evoke deeper sympathy for Kavita.
First-time novelist Shilpi Somaya Gowda is a writer with a well-developed story-telling style Her narrative skills are extraordinary, even when writing in the third person. Read this example below – a letter written by Somer’s then 13-year-old adopted daughter to her birth mom Kavita, as part of a school project:
“I wish you were here to help me.
I am supposed to write a biography of myself for eighth-grade social studies, but I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know where I really came from. Whenever I ask my mom, she just gives me the same story – they picked me up from the orphanage in India when I was a baby and brought me to California.
She doesn’t know anything about you, or why you gave me away. She doesn’t know what you look like. We must look like each other, and I bet you would know what to do with my bushy eyebrows. My mom doesn’t like to talk about this stuff at all. She says I’m just like everyone one else now and it shouldn’t matter.
My dad tried to help me find some photos for my project. He took out this old album with black-and-white photos and tissue paper between the pages They were pictures of him in his cricket uniform and his uncle riding a white horse at his wedding.
He told me about the kite-flying festival that kids in India have in January, and the colored paint they throw for that holiday in the spring. It sounds like a lot of fun.
I’ve never been to India.”
With such heart-rending writing, tears came to my eyes. And I am not one who cries easily or is moved so deeply with emotions.
I need not say more in this review except this: Get the book and enjoy it thoroughly!
This is a beautiful first novel by Shilpi Somaya Gowda written from her heart, who, I hope, will treat us with more stories in her uniquely talented way.