Meera Syal on how her new novel imagines A Handmaid’s Tale in India

Meera Syal

Meera Syal - Credit: Archant

The Highate actress and author’s latest novel deals with the complexity of India’s burgeoning surrogacy industry. Sanya Ali asks her what inspired the book.

MS: While channel surfing one night I came across this arresting image of a group of Indian women, all pregnant and poor, being interviewed in a dormitory. It was a documentary about a surrogacy clinic, and until then I had no idea that India was the world centre for this massive industry worth $4.5 billion annually. It’s popular because it’s cheap and as yet unregulated. What costs $100,000 in the US will only cost about $20,000 in India, the surrogates are paid £5-7,000 not much for anyone in the West, life changing for a poor rural woman.

Surrogacy seemed an interesting way to explore the complex ever changing relationship between India and Britain. Have the West just outsourced fertility as they did with call centres? Is India merely filling a gap in the market as is their right as a growing tiger economy? Is it exploitation or a solution in which both sides get something they need? Above all I wanted to explore this fascinating relationship between Shyama the British Indian woman who wants a child, and Mala, the poor Indian woman who needs to escape poverty. How weird that a stranger 5000 miles away holds the key to your dreams and what is that relationship like, so intensely connected for nine months 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? I wanted to explore that power balance and how it unexpectedly shifts as events unfold.

SA: Where do you draw inspiration for your characters?

MS: Inevitably from what’s around me, amongst my friends, in the news. Many of the issues Shyama is facing, her feelings about ageing, her declining fertility, being part of a blended family and the reaction of her teenage daughter to the news of a new sibling, are in many women’s lives. She’s a blend of a few women I know and no doubt I have thrown in some of my own stuff too. With Mala, it was the thought of my parallel life had my parents not emigrated here, I often imagine what would my options have been? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ended up in rural poverty, my parents were urbane educated city dwellers, but going on that path of ‘what if’ can bring forth interesting things. I did know that Mala would be as strong and spirited as Shyama, that you could imagine given different circumstances, Mala could have had Shyama’s life and as the story progresses, that is what starts to happen.

SA: In which character do you most see yourself?

MS: On the surface my life is closer to Shyama’s but Mala’s sass and curiosity and desire to see what’s over the horizon is how my mother describes me as a child.

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SA: Your past novels have drawn upon your identity and heritage.

MS: This story explores those themes but within a more global context. Shyama’s relationship to her motherland is complex; whilst she’s at home with her dual heritage, visiting India as a fertility tourist challenges her ideas of belonging and identity, especially when Mala is no longer a statistic but a real person with whom she has this intimate connection.

Actually what happens to Shyama’s parents Prem and Sita has had more reaction from British Asians than the surrogacy story. They bought a flat in Delhi for their retirement. Prem agreed to let some relatives live in the flat until they needed it, but the parents reach retirement, ask their relatives to vacate and they refuse. So the parents spend years fighting through the Indian courts to get their property back, but the damage is done, the father’s heart is broken by this betrayal. Nearly every Asian family I know has had this happen! This plot was inspired by something that happened in my own father’s family and he has never got over it. For my parents, like so many others, the idea of India being their home, the place they would retire to, that would welcome them home, is gone.

SA: Why did you begin with a quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?

MS: Because her brilliant prophetic novel seemed to see this coming! It deals with a dystopian future where the world population is in freefall, so the few fertile women become baby making slaves for their rich infertile owners. The handmaids are owned and their their wombs don’t belong to them. I was obsessed with this book, still am.

SA: What first made you write?

MS: The desire to tell the stories no one else seemed to be telling and hoping by sharing them, a dialogue could begin. That moment when you open a book and step into someone else’s world is thrilling. Books sustained my childhood, gave me some of the best journeys of my life without ever leaving my chair. It’s a privilege to know others might want to travel with you on yours.

SA: What other novels have resonated with you?

MS: I read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 13 and it changed the way I looked at life. Such a profound wise and humane novel. Pride and Prejudice, the original and best rom-com shot through with quiet subversiveness, and Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, seamlessly poetic and political.