A group of pregnant women with swollen bellies sitting on a row of beds in a documentary about surrogacy in India intrigued Meera Syal, sparking the inspiration for her latest novel.
The House of Hidden Mothers is the celebrated actor and author’s first book in 16 years since the critically acclaimed Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee.
Syal, who was born in Wolverhampton and graduated in drama and English from Manchester University, penned her debut novel Anita and Me in 1997. Based on her own childhood growing up in a small mining village, it is now a GCSE text.
Her new book delves into the issues of late parenthood and the booming surrogacy industry in India, where women are paid to have babies for couples who want a child but are unable to conceive. Used by hundreds of Western couples every year, the industry is worth billions of pounds. UK partners might pay less than £20,000 for a baby, including a donor egg and travel.
The Goodness Gracious Me star, who picked up a CBE from the Prince of Wales last month, explained how the book came about and how India’s surrogacy industry is rapidly changing.
Speaking at an event as part of the Southbank’s Alchemy Festival in May, Syal said: “It was this image [in the documentary] of this row of clearly poor Indian women, all in saris, sitting on their beds in a dorm. It could have been a girl’s boarding school, except they were all heavily pregnant. It was just so arresting – it intrigued me and troubled me in equal measure.”
The story also explores the issues of identity and modern-day India through its protagonist Shyma, a British-Indian woman in her late 40s who returns to her motherland to find a surrogate mother. She and her younger English boyfriend Toby are desperate for a child, but have reached the end of the road with IVF.
“Shyma is of my generation, born and brought up here, and as much as we connect to India and call ourselves British Indian, we are actually tourists when we go over there,” Syal said. “We don’t actually know what it’s like to live over there. We may look the same, we may speak the language, but there will be an accent. Believe me, they can always tell.
“When Shyma goes back to find a surrogate, she’s conflicted by all sorts of feelings – on the one hand, is she going as a colonial exploiter or is she going as someone who is going to make another Indian woman’s life immeasurably different and better?”
The mother-of-two is married to longtime collaborator Sanjeev Bhaskar, with whom she has worked with on Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42. Syal said she was struck with the idea after waiting years for inspiration for her novel.
“Most of us know or have been through infertility issues. It is one of the big issues of our age and the pressure is always on the woman, because we have the tick tick tick [biological clock] unlike men. I then also began to meet people for whom surrogacy had made their lives and their dreams come true, people who were so desperate for children and that’s how they got them.
“It hit all those areas I’m interested in, the relationship between India and England and I thought, this is a very interesting metaphor for that relationship.”
Syal added: “I really wanted to provoke a debate. I hope when people read the book they will see it from everybody’s point of view: from Mala’s, she is the surrogate and I wanted her to have as clear a voice as the other characters, and I think she does. You even see it from Dr Passi’s [the doctor who runs the clinic] point of view. She even says one of the reasons she wanted to go into surrogacy is because she got so fed up of aborting girl babies because families didn’t want them.”
Surrogacy is a controversial subject in India, with activists blaming foreigners for exploiting poor women who get paid to carry babies, with the guarantee, at some clinics, that the pregnant mother will be closeted in one of the secure facilities sometimes described as “baby factories”.
There are now roughly 3,000 clinics which provide the service in India. Every year, the country sees anywhere from 100 to 300 surrogate pregnancies, making it the surrogacy capital of the world.
However, new regulations passed in 2013 prohibit gay couples, single men and women, non-married couples and couples from countries where surrogacy is illegal from hiring a commercial surrogate in the country.
Syal set The House of Hidden Mothers in 2012, before these changes came into force.
“I deliberately set this in 2012 before there were regulations and because it was the year of the Delhi bus rape. But the bill which limits surrogacy to married heterosexual couples will really affect the surrogacy industry in India. It may not be the centre over the next five years.”
She said the brutal rape of the student on a bus in India’s capital was like an Arab Spring and precipitated “some kind of a seed change”.
“For the young generation in India, there are two things that are very much on their agenda – sexual violence and female infanticide, and corruption.”