Secret Daughter (Gowda)

Secret Daughter
Shilpi Somaya Gowda, 2010
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061928352

On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl but faces a heartbreaking choice. In a culture that favors sons, the only way for Kavita to save her daughter's life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son.

Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband Krishnan see a photo of the baby with gold-flecked eyes from a Mumbai orphanage, they are convinced the love they feel will overcome all obstacles.

Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the daughter they both love, Secret Daughter is a deeply moving family drama that poignantly explores the emotional terrain of love, loss and identity, witnessed through the lives of two families, worlds apart, and the child who binds their destinies. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December, 1970
Where—Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of North Carolina;
   M.B.A., Stanford University
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California, USA

Shilpi Somaya Gowda was born and raised in Toronto to parents who migrated there from Mumbai. She holds an MBA from Stanford University, and a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1991, she spent a summer as a volunteer in an Indian orphanage. A native of Canada, she has lived in New York, North Carolina, and California. She now lives in Dallas with her husband and children. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Shilpi Somaya Gowda strikes a pleasing balance in her first novel, which draws upon the hot-button issues of female infanticide and overseas adoption…Secret Daughter tells a nuanced coming-of-age story that is faithful to the economic and emotional realities of two very different cultures…Gowda doesn't neaten up the messy complications of family life as she warmly affirms the power of love to help people grow and change.
Wendy Smith - Washington Post

A debut novel from [a] fresh, vibrant voice portraying a heroine straddling two cultures ... offers readers cause of celebration ... A page-turning dual narrative.
Charlotte Observer / Raleigh News & Observer

This story about motherhood, loss, family and forgiveness is authentic in every way. The prose is so achingly touching, it draws the reader in with every description and emotion of the characters.
Associated Press

Gowda’s debut novel opens in a small Indian village with a young woman giving birth to a baby girl. The father intends to kill the baby (the fate of her sister born before her) but the mother, Kavita, has her spirited away to a Mumbai orphanage. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Somer, a doctor who can’t bear children, is persuaded by her Indian husband, Krishnan, to adopt a child from India. Somer reluctantly agrees and they go to India where they coincidentally adopt Kavita’s daughter, Asha. Somer is overwhelmed by the unfamiliar country and concerned that the child will only bond with her husband because “Asha and Krishnan will look alike, they will have their ancestry in common.” Kavita, still mourning her baby girl, gives birth to a son. Asha grows up in California, feeling isolated from her heritage until at college she finds a way to visit her birth country. Gowda’s subject matter is compelling, but the shifting points of view weaken the story.
Publishers Weekly

Responding to poverty and a cultural preference for boys, an Indian mother hides her newborn daughter in an orphanage. The girl is adopted by an Indian-born doctor and his American wife, who live in California. Parallel stories are told of young Asha's life in America, where she is distanced from her native culture, and the growing rift between her adoptive parents, along with the fate of her birth parents and their son, who leave their small village for Mumbai and gradually rise out of poverty. After a slow start and some trite dialog, the book becomes more engrossing, as Asha takes a journalism fellowship in Mumbai and seeks a greater connection to her roots. First novelist Gowda offers especially vivid descriptions of the contrasts and contradictions of modern India. Verdict: Rife with themes that lend themselves to discussion, such as cultural identity, adoption, and women's roles, this will appeal to the book club crowd. —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Library Journal

In her engaging debut, Gowda weaves together two compelling stories. In India in 1984, destitute Kavita secretly carries her newborn daughter to an orphanage.... That same year in San Francisco...two doctors...adopt Asha, a 10-month-old Indian girl from a Bombay orphanage. Yes, it’s Kavita’s daughter. In alternating chapters, Gowda traces Asha’s life in America...and Kavita and Jasu’s Dharavi, Bombay’s (now Mumbai’s) infamous slum.... Gowda writes with compassion and uncanny perception from the points of view of Kavita, Somer, and Asha, while portraying the vibrant traditions, sights, and sounds of modern India. —Deborah Donovan

Fiction with a conscience, as two couples worlds apart are linked by an adopted child.... A lightweight fable of family division and reconciliation, gaining intensity and depth from the author's sharp social observations.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. On the way to the orphanage in Bombay, Kavita reflects on "what power there is in naming another living being." She gives her daughter the name Usha at birth, but she is later raised by her adoptive parents as Asha. Kavita's name changed when she was married, and her given name reappears again later in the story. Even Krishnan becomes known as "Kris" in America. What is the significance of these changing names throughout the story? How are names intertwined with your own sense of identity and belonging?

2. Kavita faces a difficult choice at the beginning of the novel. Did she make the right decision? What would you have done if you were in Kavita's place? What would the repercussions be of making a different choice?

3. Why do you think Somer made the decision to adopt a child from India, and do you believe her reasons were sound? Are there any parallels between how she made this decision, and her previous decision to marry Krishnan?

4. Both families in the novel leave their home in search of better life—the Merchants leave their village for Bombay, and Krishnan leaves India for America—and this act of migration creates longing for home and feelings of displacement. Do you think their migrations were driven more by wanting to leave home or being attracted to a new place? Would the characters have made different choices if they knew what the consequences would be?

5. The novel explores the issue of how gender affects one's role in society, both in India and the United States. Despite much of the obvious discrimination women face in India, Sarla Thakkar believes, "you can't always see the power women hold, but it is there..." In what ways is this true? What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a woman in each of these countries? Are there any similarities in the female experience across the two cultures?

6. An overarching theme of the novel is motherhood, and how that experience can change a woman. Both Somer and Kavita have powerful experiences and emotions around pregnancy, childbirth and mothering. What are the differences in how they experience motherhood, and are there any similarities? Are there universal aspects to motherhood or is it an individual experience?

7. Both marriages portrayed in the novel, despite different circumstances and origins, face significant challenges. How did Kavita and Jasu's marriage recover from the dramatic conflict they faced at the beginning? What caused the estrangement between Krishnan and Somer, and how did each spouse contribute to it? Do you believe one marriage is fundamentally stronger than the other? What do you believe the future holds for each couple?

8. Asha grows up with a deep curiosity about her biological family in India. Could her parents have done anything to lessen the sense of feeling incomplete Asha had as an adolescent? Can her conflict with Somer be chalked up to that experienced in all mother-teenage daughter relationships, or was it more complicated? What does Asha learn about the true meaning of family, and could she have learned it without going to India?

9. This story turns on a twist of fate that changes the life path of Asha, and follows the parallel lives of Asha and her brother in India. Do you believe Asha was better off being taken to the orphanage as a baby than she would have been with her birth parents? Could Vijay have had a different life? How much of our lives are destined for us, and how much is within our power to change? Reflecting on your own life, what have been the turning points that have been made for you, and those made by you?

10. The importance of relationships across generations echoes through the novel, particularly at the end, with the deaths of Krishnan's father and Kavita's mother. What role do elder relatives play in the story? What hopes and expectations are passed down? What did you think of the relationship that develops between Sarla (Dadima) and Asha? How are these ideas complicated or resolved in the rituals of the cremation ceremonies at the end?

11. What do you believe Kavita and Jasu are feeling and thinking at the end of the novel? Were you surprised at the ending? Did you find it satisfying? How did your view of Jasu's character change from the beginning, and why? What do you imagine happens to these families next?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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