Not so long ago, Kishwar Desai’s debut, Witness the Night, won the Costa First Novel Award. The novel was about female foeticide and it drew much attention, especially in the West. The theme in this second novel by Desai is surrogate parenting, or the renting of one’s womb to carry the child of others.
The protagonist Simran Singh is a social worker of the cigarette-smoking, high-end variety who make spinsterhood fashionable. Simran is firmly against womb rentals. She comes across unsavoury examples in infertility clinics with alarming names like ‘Freedom’ and ‘Madonna and Child’. She meets Malti and Radhika and Preeti who are young surrogate mothers; Sonia, whose infertile husband forces her to have sex with his friend in order to conceive; and men with names like Pandey, Mehta, Sharma and Ganguly, all villains exploiting women towards the same end.
The novel strings together stories about couples desperate for babies, young women eager to rent their wombs for money, doctors engaged in the practice of ‘creating’ babies, fixers and customs officials who want a share of the booty when artificially fertilised embryos are transported from UK to India for safe-keeping inside an Indian womb. There is a sperm donor in London and a British couple longing for parenthood, but one fails to understand why they are included the way they are. They do not add weight to the story.
The womb of another woman is merely a rented room in which to park the valued foetus. While there are many cases of infertility where this can be justified, the rising tide of surrogacy is awash with examples of couples using it in order to avoid the unpleasant effects of a normal preganancy, to say nothing of a ruined figure.
A writer who starts with a theme and then hangs a story around its neck will land in trouble unless she is telling it from inside-out. By humanising the characters. Kishwar Desai has strong views about surrogacy. She has exposed certain truths about a well-oiled medical industry that has bypassed ethical issues to provide couples with a baby that is ‘biologically’ their own. But the shocking indifference of medical bodies like the Indian Medical Association and the Medical Council towards such corrupt, unethical practices is not mentioned.
The novel fails to navigate the difficult zones of disappointment, despair, social expectations and family values that envelop the issue of infertility. This lends a disappointing flatness to the story. The feisty protagonist goes all the way to London, posing as a woman in need of a sperm donor, god help her, but we do not feel any empathy towards her or any of the others.
The undoing of this work is the form chosen by the writer. The facts revealed here are much like journalistic reporting and so it could have worked as non-fiction. As a novel, it does not.
(Kavery Nambisan is a surgeon and novelist)