All About an Issue

A thorough exploration of surrogacy,but a half-hearted thriller

Written by Aishwarya Subramanian | Published: June 2, 2012 2:16 am

Book: Origins of Love

Author: Kishwar Desai

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 470

Price: Rs 350

A child conceived via in vitro fertilisation is found to be HIV-positive. Her parents are dead,her family untraceable and the surrogate mother has mysteriously disappeared.

Origins of Love consists of multiple plotlines woven together. There are the Pandeys,proprietors of a hospital in Gurgaon offering assisted reproductive technologies; Kate and Ben,an English couple who desperately want a child,though for different reasons; Sonia,one of the surrogate mothers; and Diwan Nath Mehta,a customs officer who becomes embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos. Tying all of these plots together is Simran Singh,the social worker who formed the focus of Desai’s earlier,Costa-winning novel Witness the Night. Simran’s is the only thread of the story to be told in first person; it is she who,with the reader,pieces together these stories to work out what is going on.

And there’s a lot to work out. Origins of Love attempts to be both an exploration of a social issue (that of surrogacy in India) and a rather crowded mystery/ thriller. But it is soon obvious that Desai is more interested in the issue than the story. Subplots that might in other circumstances have been entire novels are gestured at and then rather half-heartedly wrapped up; such as that of Ben,whose guilt over an ancestor’s actions in India curiously lead him into perpetuating the same set of dynamics,or Renu,a rising politician who plans to use her child for political ends. The couple around whom the mystery revolves,Susan and Ben Oldham,barely get any page time,making the various revelations about them rather lacking in impact.

As a discussion of the various issues around surrogacy,the book is more thorough. The lack of agency of the women who agree to become surrogate mothers is a point constantly made — even when characters make the original decision for themselves (Sonia thinks that the money will help her to escape an abusive boyfriend and return to her family),control is almost immediately wrested from them. The upper classes are not let off — the Pandeys may be sympathetic characters on the whole,but we are treated to uncomfortable scenes in which Dr Subhash Pandey evaluates potential surrogates who can be most easily fobbed off as middle class on ignorant foreigners. Occasionally,Desai is too heavy-handed in the effort to make the reader see the point of this,and puts together the evidence of what the text has already shown us into convenient expository paragraphs.

This is a problem throughout. Show,don’t tell,is perhaps the most hackneyed literary criticism,but there is some truth to it. Unfortunately,Desai explains everything. Characters are reintroduced as if we had forgotten them in the last 50 pages,and Subhash’s discomfort with homosexual couples having children is something that must be told to us again and again. This need to explain is at its worst when it comes to the international aspects of the plot — it’s hard to tell who her intended audience is when the author is at one moment explaining London’s racial divides to the reader,and at the next explaining that “locals” in Delhi would travel by autorickshaw,and that Ambassador cars with red lights on the top indicate an important person.

If Desai finds her voice at any point it is with the Diwan Nath Mehta plot. Mehta is a fundamentally decent man caught up in larger matters that he never anticipated and there’s something rather exaggerated about the world as he perceives it. This makes for great satire,in the conspiracy theories of Mehta’s boss and in the form of caste-obsessed sperm bank officials who inform us that they are “well stocked on Brahmins”. But there are also hints of a gentle,touching romance. This is in sharp contrast to Simran’s overwritten sections in which we are given plenty of details (down to the colour of her underwear) but little in the way of feeling.

The problem with issue-based fiction is always going to be that it’s more about the issue than the fiction. As a book about surrogacy in India it does exactly what it needs to. As a novel,however,it is half-hearted.

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