"Secret Daughter" by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Here’s my book review from Sunday’s Dallas Morning News:

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Morrow, $23.99)

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Dualities abound in this engrossing first novel by Dallas writer Shilpi Somaya Gowda.

The story arcs over 25 years in two nations with very different cultures: India and the United States. The narrative follows two sets of parents, and at the heart of the tale are two children.

One is a boy who grows up to live a double life so that he and his parents might escape the Mumbai slums. The other child is his sister, a little girl with two names, who is born into one culture but grows up in the other.

Gowda knows both worlds. She was born in Toronto and grew up there, with parents who were Mumbai natives. She earned her university degrees in the United States, but she never lost touch with her Indian roots.

In 1991, she spent a summer working in an orphanage in India, and her experiences there, especially her friendship with a charming toddler girl, inspired Gowda to write the story of Asha, the child whose life is forever changed by a mother’s sacrifice.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Because of a change for her husband, Gowda moved to Dallas from San Francisco in 2005 and enrolled in writing classes at Southern Methodist University. Secret Daughter, which grew out of a class project, “would not have gotten written unless I made that move,” she says.

Gowda’s cultural ties to India, along with her Western life and education, led her to create two very different women: Kavita Merchant, the impoverished villager who knows too well what happens to unwanted girls, and Somer Whitman, the American pediatrician who marries a fellow physician from India.

Somer’s infertility leads her and her husband, Krishnan Thakkar, to adopt Kavita’s baby, Asha, from the Indian orphanage where Kavita had surrendered her. Gowda vividly describes the cultural fears and shocks confronting a Western woman in India, followed by the insecurities attending Somer back home, as she strives to mother a child who looks like Krishnan, but not like her.

“Nature had already deemed she couldn’t be a mother, and now she wonders if they made a mistake. … Would she know better what to do with Asha if they shared the same blood? Would Asha respond better to Somer if she didn’t look so different from everyone she’d known in her short life?”

Gowda weaves her tale deftly, alternating viewpoints between Kavita and Somer, with occasional chapters told through the eyes of their husbands. Later, a teenage Asha takes over much of the narrative as she journeys back to India to meet Krishnan’s family and to search for her identity, unaware that her birth mother never stopped wondering what happened to the little girl she gave up.

The sounds, scents and sights of India are vividly drawn, pulling the reader deep into a culture that most of us have only glimpsed, perhaps, in Slumdog Millionaire. Two worlds collide, then meld, in a story that intimately considers how we all are shaped, through fate or free will, nurture or nature, by the astounding power of family love.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Shilpi Somaya Gowda will appear at 6 p.m. Monday at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2719 Routh St., Dallas; make reservations at 214-981-8803 or e-mail millingworth@ dallasinstitute.org. Gowda will also be part of the SMU Writer’s Salon at 7 p.m. April 9 at Legacy Books, 7300 Dallas Parkway, Plano.

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