Meera Syal first rose to prominence in TV comedy Goodness Gracious Me and, today, is also renowned for her writing. Her third novel, The House of Hidden Mothers, is out now and here she explains the inspiration, talks about her diverse career and why Goodness Gracious Me is coming back to our screens
What initially spurred you on to write The House of Hidden Mothers?
I was channel surfing one night and came across this very arresting image of a group of Indian women, all obviously pregnant and poor, sitting in a dormitory and being interviewed. This turned out to be a documentary about a surrogacy clinic in India, and until then I had no idea that India was the world centre for surrogacy, a massive industry worth 4.5 billion dollars annually. It’s the most popular place for surrogacy because it’s the cheapest and as yet not regulated. What would cost you 100,000 dollars in the US will only cost about 20,000 dollars in India. The surrogates are paid between 5 and 7 thousand pounds – not much for anyone in the West, life changing for a poor rural woman.
I also felt surrogacy was a really interesting way to explore the complex, ever-changing relationship between India and Britain. Above all, I really wanted to explore this fascinating relationship between Shyama the British Indian woman who wants a child and Mala, the poor Indian woman who needs the money to escape poverty. How weird that a stranger 5,000 miles away holds the key to your dreams and what is that relationship like, so intensely connected for just the nine months it takes to carry a child and then you just walk away? Is Shyama just a fertility tourist or giving something back to the country her parents left? Is Mala being horribly exploited because her womb is the only thing she has to sell, or is this the lucky escape she needs to change her life? I wanted to explore that power balance and how it unexpectedly shifts and changes as unexpected events unfold.
Why such a gap since your last book, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee?
I honestly didn’t have an idea good enough to make me want to sit down and write again for a long time. Plus I was busy doing so much other stuff, writing plays, acting, having another baby! All that took up quite a lot of time but I’m glad I waited until it felt right.
Your books do tackle difficult topics. Is that important for you to do?
I don’t intentionally do that, it’s just the complex areas always throw up the most interesting and dramatic situations. Books where everyone’s having a normal happy life don’t exist for anyone under ten, do they? For me character always comes first anyway. As a reader you have to like and invest in the people you may be spending weeks with under your bedcovers or on the train. The topics issues stuff for me is secondary to caring about what happens to the characters.
Your first book, Anita & Me, is now studied at school. Does that fill you with satisfaction?
It’s probably the proudest I have ever been, hearing that the book had been chosen for the curriculum. Although I now need to apologise to all those poor kids who may curse me as they sit down with a study guide to write an essay… sorry, I didn’t see that coming when I wrote the book. But I do remember when I was a kid how I longed to find a book that would speak to me, anything that would chime with the bi cultural experience I was having as someone who didn’t quite belong. Then of course you realize that every kid feels like that. For every kid there is an Anita, the older bigger kid they hero worship and want to be, but who probably is really bad for them. I think that’s why the book has resonated with so many people, it may be about a little Indian girl in a Midland mining village but it’s also about all the kids who feel different and learn to celebrate those differences rather than be ashamed of them.
What kind of people did you come across during your research for The House of Hidden Mothers?
I spoke to a lot of doctors as you can imagine. Getting to talk to people at the surrogacy clinics themselves was quite tricky, luckily there’s so much info on the net as that is where most people seeking an Indian surrogate do the majority of the paperwork and setting up, online. However I was lucky enough to find a couple here who have had two children via Indian surrogates and they were amazingly open and generous with their time, and gave me the real emotional journey behind the statistics and facts.
What shocked you the most?
I wasn’t surprised to come across tales of exploitation and elation, both extremes of experience. However I was shocked at some of the other services available to those seeking a surrogate; for example there are embryo carriers, people who are the middle men who will basically source your chosen sperm and egg, get an embryo fertilized almost to order and then deliver that embryo to the Indian clinic, without their intended parents ever having to do anything except press a few keys on their computer.
Why did you pick out East London as the scene setter for The House of Hidden Mothers?
Until recently I had lived in the East End for over 20 years, it’s the part of London I still know best and it’s so interesting and diverse, and continually changing. It’s a natural place for me to set my stories.
How do you feel when you look back at the career you created for yourself?
I still keep thinking someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘time’s up’, like I am going to be found out really soon, because it’s such a tough business and you need a healthy dollop of luck along with all the usual stuff like hard work and being proactive and trying to create your own opportunities. Who was it that said, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get?’ So yeah, I take nothing for granted and try to enjoy every moment.
Next year marks a decade since Goodness Gracious Me was first aired. How do you look back at the time when you were originally creating it?
Actually it’s longer than that! It may even be 15 years, how scary is that? It was a life changing experience for all of us involved. We got to work with like-minded creatives, finally finding our tribe after so long felt like coming home in many ways and I hope the comedy we loved doing really broke down some barriers and proved that we have the confidence as a community to laugh at ourselves as well as others.
Why did it work so well?
Because we didn’t write to second guess audiences or for ratings or to try and get some big message across, we genuinely did the stuff we found funny and hoped everyone else would do too. I think audiences could feel that it was honest and at times really silly, and at times satiric and pulled no punches. But above all, we were ourselves and we invited everyone else along for the ride and luckily they came.
I believe it is coming back for a special later this year. Could that lead to something bigger?
Yes, we have another one off special coming out in September [as part of the BBC’s Indian season]. There are discussions going on about us doing something else as a team together, but TV discussions take ten times as long as real ones so who knows when that may be. Before I’m too old to enjoy it I hope.
Finally Meera, if there was one particular message that readers glean from The House of Hidden Mothers, what do you hope that will be?
I hope the reader will feel sympathy for both women and maybe not judge either of them for the really hard choices they have to make. It’s easy standing on the outside to condemn Shyama for wanting a baby at 48, or Mala for selling her womb, but unless you have known the pain of infertility or the lengths you will go to escape poverty, how can you judge? I also wanted Mala the surrogate to be as complex and strong as Shyama is, that you feel given different circumstances, she could be running a business just like Shyama. In Mala’s rural area, female infanticide is normal, girls are seen as a burden because of the dowry system, and yet as a women she holds the key to changing Shyama’s life. The underlying message if anything is how ironic that women are so powerful and yet so often made to feel so powerless by society.
Words: Mark Kebble
The House of Hidden Mothers is out now