By Ninder Kaur

The House of Hidden Mothers is Meera Syal’s long-awaited third novel. Meera Syal CBE is an author, actress, comedian and an impressive three decades into her career. Syal is already one of the most acclaimed actors and writers of stage and screen, and has already achieved great success with scripts, TV shows and novels.

Syal’s latest and much anticipated release arrives nearly 16 years after her last book, Life Isn’t All Ha HaHeeHee.

Asian Sunday caught up with Meera in an exclusive ghap shap about her latest venture.

Adrian Lester and Meera Syal at the Launch of the House of Hidden Mothers
Adrian Lester and Meera Syal at the Launch of the House of Hidden Mothers

How would you describe the novel?

The story of two women from completely different worlds who
both hold the answer to each other’s dreams. One wants a child and the other wants to escape her life of repression and poverty. But those dreams come at an unexpected price.

What is the inspiration behind the novel and how did the idea come about?

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 five and seven thousand pounds, not much for anyone in the West, life changing for a poor rural woman.

Meera Syal and Lenny Henry
Meera Syal and Lenny Henry

How long has it taken to write? was there a lot of research involved in terms of finding out about surrogacy in india?

Including research it took me about eighteen months. There is a lot of info about Indian surrogacy on the net
as that is how most clients find their clinic, register and even co coordinate choosing their surrogate, most of the process is done over the internet. But I also got to know a couple over here that have had two children via surrogates in India and hearing their emotional journey was invaluable.

Also, I should also mention the story of the grandparents in the book because it is one that has had more reaction from desi’s than anything else. Shyama, the British Indian woman who wants a child, lives next door to her parents who some years ago bought a flat in Delhi for their retirement. The father had agreed to let some of his relatives live in the flat until they needed it, but well you can guess what happens – Shyama’s parents reach retirement and ask their relatives to vacate and they refuse. So the parents spend years fighting through the Indian courts to try and get their property back, but the damage is done, the father’s heart is broken by this betrayal by his own family. Nearly every desi familyI know has had this happen to their family somewhere! This plot was inspired directly by something that happened in my own father’s family in India and my father has never got over it. I really wanted to bring this issue into the spotlight because it seems to affect so many families who have virtually no protection or support when it happens.

How did you decide on the title of the book?

I wanted to have a title that suggested what the themes were without giving too much away. I looked up the

Richard E Grant and Meera Syal
Richard E Grant and Meera Syal

Hindi word for surrogate and there isn’t one, not surprisingly! But one of the suggested words was the same
one that could also mean Hidden. And I thought The House of Hidden Mothers also suggested the clinic and dormitory where the surrogates are enclosed for their whole pregnancy.

Which writers inspire you and why?

I read a book a week probably and all kinds of genres, new fiction, factual, biography etc. Each writer teaches you something different. Growing up my favourite novel was and maybe still is – Harper Lee’s
To Kill A Mocking Bird. It changed the way I thought about so many issues, racism, prejudice, poverty and justice. I also love Charles Dickens for his world of characters and humanity, Jane Austen for her subversive humour and plotting and Toni Morrison for her language and profound understanding of suffering and redemption.

Why has it taken you so long to write your third novel?

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.

Nitin Ganatra and Meera Syal at the launch of The House of Hidden Mothers
Nitin Ganatra and Meera Syal at the launch of The House of Hidden Mothers

What message, if any, can readers take away from the book?

I don’t really write message books, I just try and tell good stories with characters that connect hopefully with the reader. I hope anyone reading it will come away with sympathy and understanding for the women on both side of the surrogacy issue – Shyama who longs for a child and Mala who longs to escape her village. I won’t give away the ending but I hope the reader feels they have been on a real journey with both women with an unexpected twist at the end.

How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in writing?

It’s obviously very competitive as there are so many good writers
out there with so many new books battling to be noticed. Also book sales are really changing, less people buy paper books anymore, electronic book sales are overtaking everything which leads to a different kind of market altogether. But as a writer you can’t worry about that, you have to tell the stories you are passionate to tell and hope that people respond to that.

Would you adapt this novel to the big screen?

The rights have already been sold to a major TVcompany, which is very exciting, so hopefully we may be filming it towards the end of next year.

What are your best and worst bits about the whole writing process?

The worst bit is beginning, the terror of the blank page and just having to dive in and start. It never gets easier. The best bit is right now, when your book is finally out there and you get to tell people about it and get them as excited as you were writing it.

What advice can you give aspiring asian writers?The House of Hidden Mothers

Same as I’d give to any writer: write from your truth and whatever happens, however many rejections you may get, keep writing. It’s like a muscle, the more you write and hone your craft, the better you become. The hardest thing for a writer is finding your voice, what makes your writing truly yours and you only get that by continually working at it, developing your style and technique.

Is there anything you are working on at the minute? can we expect any more books?

I’m taking a break over the summer, as it’s been really full on this
year. But I am doing a number of book festivals, Edinburgh, Buxton, Cheltenham, Delhi -this is the fun bit! I may be doing another play this Autumn, there’s a TV series bubbling under but right now I’m quite happy to chill out for a bit and enjoy the summer.