A young wife in a rural village in India lies in a small hut, screaming with the pain of childbirth. The widwife tells her she has a daughter. Her husband comes to the hut to meet his son, and when he sees the baby is a girl, he takes her away to be killed. They can't afford a girl-a girl will not be able to do the hard manual labor, and for a girl they will need a dowry. The year was 1985.
That's right, 1985. As recently as the end of the 20th century, the culture of valuing boys more than girls was flourishing in places like India and China. Cultural practices regarding marriage and family, as well as the need for laborers to work on small subsistence farms, caused some families to abandon their newborn daughters to orphanages, or worse. In The Secret Daughter, Gowda tells the story of one such family. Kavita Merchant has three children. The first was taken away and killed at birth for being a girl. When the second girl, Usha, was born, she sneaked away from her husband and took the baby to an orphanage, so that at least she'd have some chance of a better life. The third, a boy, was cherished and celebrated by the family.
Usha was adopted by a couple from the United States, Krishnan and Somer Thakkar. Kris grew up in India wealthy and well-educated. Somer is as American as apple pie. After having multiple miscarriages, Kris convinces Somer that adoption from his home country is her chance to be a mother. Usha, now named Asha, comes to live with them when she is just one year old. She grows up surrounded by love and privilege, but it's not until a trip to India at 20 that she truly learns what her birth history and adoption mean to her life and the lives of her parents, biological and adoptive.
The story is told from the perspective of the two mothers for the first part of the book, and mostly from Asha's for the last portion, though her two fathers (bio and adoptive) also get short chapters from their point of view. It would be easy to demonize a society that throws away 5% of their girls (there is a 5% difference in the population of men versus women that can't be explained by natural or health factors), but Gowda shows both Kavita and her husband Jasu as real people who are faced with impossible decisions in order to survive crushing poverty. And while Somer seems like an easy choice for sympathetic character (inability to have children, swooping in to save a little brown baby from a third world orphanage), the fact is that she was pretty hard for me to like in this book. Once she has her daughter, she is constantly afraid that she won't really have a connection to her, because she looks more like her husband, and people in the streets don't know she is the girl's mother. She tries so hard to hold on to the girl that she ends up pushing her away, into the very thing that she feared most-a search for her biological parents. While Asha begins her journey as a spoiled, surly teen, what she finds on that search makes her reevaluate her own assumptions about identity and a mother's love.
Gowda does a great job of showcasing the differences between the lives of the classes in India, and the culture shock that westerners, even those of Indian descent, have when they see the beauty and history of the culture transposed with the poverty and environmental issues. Asha and her Indian family portray the mixture of pride and shame that must come from being a part of a culture that brims with thousands of years of history, yet still devalues girls such that female infanticide, child abandonment, and honor killings are still taking place today. One can't help but wonder which India will win out in the end-modern, technological India, or the India of subsistence farming and poverty.