Authors: Meera Syal
Little India, East London: Shyama, a divorced mother, has fallen for a younger man. They want a child together.
Meanwhile, in a rural village in India, young Mala, trapped in an oppressive marriage, dreams of escape.
When Shyama and Mala meet, they help each other realize their dreams. But will Fate guarantee them both happiness?
Brimming with warmth, wit and indignation,
The House of Hidden Mothers
immerses us in a heart-rending story of friendship, family, and the lengths to which women will go to have a child.
This is Meera Syal's long-awaited third novel and shows her at the height of her literary powers.
For Sanjeev, Milli and Shaan, my North Stars.
âEach of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement's over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.'
The Handmaid's Tale
RELIGION IS FOR
those who believe in hell, spirituality is for those who have already been there.' Shyama had to squint slightly to read the laminated sticker on the side of the receptionist's computer. It must be the light, she consoled herself. She shifted slightly in the queue, catching a whiff of perfume from the woman in front of her â something woody and expensive, blended with a scent she recognized intimately, a musky aroma with a bitter undertone: the familiar smell of desperation. The woman exchanged a few hushed words with the receptionist and then took a seat on a faded chintzy sofa, giving Shyama a better look at the owner of the computer.
A new girl. She was young â too young, Shyama felt, for a place like this, a discreet Harley Street address where women under the age of thirty-five ought to be banned. With a faint nod, Shyama handed over her appointment card and stole a longer look at her. Sun, sin and saturated fats had not yet pinched the skin around her eyes or spider-legged their way around her smiling mouth. She was a natural redhead, with that translucent paleness and a smattering of tiny freckles, dusting on a freshly baked cupcake. How could this snip of a girl have ever had a glimpse of hell, as her sticker proclaimed? Then Shyama spotted her earrings: silver discs with the Hindu symbol âOm' engraved on the surface.
âDo take a seat, Mrs Shaw,' the young girl said. âMr Lalani won't be long.'
There was a moment's hesitation while Shyama considered commenting on those earrings. But that would spark a conversation about where Shyama came from and yes, she was Hindu, but no, born here, and no, she hadn't been to half the ancient sites that Miss Cupcake had visited, and yes, isn't it humbling that the Indian poor have so little yet they would give you their last piece of chapatti and, despite living knee-deep in refuse, how on earth do they always seem so happy? Then there would be some more chat about the charming guest-house the receptionist had found in Goa or the unbelievable guide who had practically saved her life in the teeming, chanting crowds of Haridwar, or that moment when she had watched the monsoon clouds rolling in over Mumbai bay, dark clots curdling the horizon, the air turning metallic and tart to the tongue.
Shyama had done all those things, many years ago, before motherhood and divorce and laughter lines â though frankly, when she looked at herself in a magnifying mirror nowadays she wondered if anything could have really been that funny.
They could have swapped life-changing anecdotes, Shyama knowing she would always be able to trump the earrings simply by pointing to her skin. âThe real deal, see?' Though she knew she wasn't. She hadn't been to India for years. The only branch of the family she had ever been close to were now not speaking to her, and it seemed highly unlikely that she would be going there in the foreseeable future because every penny of her savings had gone on this clinic. The clinic where the redhead with the Om earrings was now staring at her.
Shyama flashed her a warm smile, wanting to reassure her that she wasn't one of those bitter women who would give her a hard time simply because she had youth and insouciance on her side â no sir, not she â and she sat down heavily on a squishy armchair, trying to steady her nerves.
She started as a metallic ping announced that a text from Toby had just arrived. âU OK? Phone on vibrate next to my heart â¦' She knew the dots denoted irony. They did a lot of that: self-conscious romantic declarations, inviting each other to join in and trample on the sentiment before it embarrassed them both. It was cute, it was becoming habit, maybe she should worry about that. There might come a point where one of them would need to say something heartfelt and sincere without being laughed at. She texted back, âGlad phone vibrating next to heart and not in trouser pocket as usual. Not gone in yet â¦' It was only after she had sent the text that she realized she'd ended with dots too. Surely he would know that they denoted a resigned sigh, rather than an invitation to let the joshing begin. Oh well, it was a test. If Toby misunderstood and texted back with some quip, she would know that they weren't really suited and that it wasn't worth carrying on with any of this time-consuming, expensive grappling with Nature. Best to walk away with a sad smile and a good-luck-with-the-rest-of-your-life kind of wave. Then she could just let go. Let the belly sag and the grey show through, and blow the gym membership on vodka and full-sleeve tops to cover up the incoming bingo wings.
A text from Toby. A single unironic X.
âMr Lalani will see you now.'
Shyama stood up at exactly the same time as the woman who had come in before her. Smart suit, perfect hair, pencil-thin, one arched eyebrow raised like a bow.
âMrs Bindman? Do go through.'
The eyebrow pinged off an invisible arrow of victory and Shyama sat back down, repressing an urge to bang her heels against the chair like a truculent toddler. There was so much waiting in this game and yet so little time to play with. Her life was punctuated with mocking end-of-sentence dots. All those years spent avoiding getting pregnant, all those hours of sitting on cold plastic toilet seats in student digs/shared houses/first flats, praying for the banner of blood to declare that war was over, that your life would go on as before. And then the later years, spent in nicer houses on a better class of loo seat â reclaimed teak or cheekily self-conscious seats like the plastic one with a barbed-wire pattern inside (her daughter's choice, of course) â still waiting. But this time praying for the blood not to come, for a satisfied silence that would tell Shyama her old life was most definitely over as, inside her, a new one had just begun.
On impulse she dialled Lydia's number, exhaling in relief as she heard her friend's voice.
âI haven't gone in yet,' Shyama whispered, getting up and going out to the corridor so she could talk at normal volume.
âYou just caught me between my 11 o'clock bulimic and my midday self-harmer. Great timing.' Lydia's cool, measured voice felt like balm.
Shyama's shoulders dropped an inch. âThink I need a free session on your psycho-couch right now.'
âThat's what last night was for. Therapy without the lying-down-and-box-of-tissues bit. And as I told you thenâ'
âI know.' Shyama sighed. â
Que sera sera
and all that. Out of my hands. It sounds more palatable in Spanish somehow.'
âOh, hang on a minute, Shyams. Got another call coming through â¦ stay there â¦'
Before she could tell her that they could talk later, Shyama was put on hold. She looked across the corridor at her fellow patients, absorbed in old copies of
. They were all, as the French so politely put it, women
, maturing like fine wine or expensive cheese, ripening into what might be regarded in some cultures as their prime years, when the children had flown the nest, the husband had mellowed, and the time left was spent in contemplation, relaxation and generally being revered. She, Lydia and Priya had talked about this very subject last night at their local tapas bar, the three of them hooting gales of garlicky laughter.
Lydia had started it. âDid you know that some Native American tribes actually used to hold menopause ceremonies? A sort of party to celebrate the end of the slog of childbearing?'
âA party?' Priya said doubtfully, wrinkling her perfectly pert nose. âMust have been a laugh a minute.'
âOh, I can see that,' Shyama chipped in. âDancing round a bonfire of all your old maxi pads. Bring your own hot flush.'
Priya snorted a considerable amount of white wine out of both nostrils, grabbing a serviette to mask her splutters. She looked a decade younger than Shyama, though she wasn't. She managed a huge office, two children, a husband and ageing in-laws who lived with her, batch-cooked gourmet Indian meals and froze them in labelled Tupperware, and always wore four-inch heels. She would have made Shyama feel resentfully inadequate if it wasn't for her expansive generosity and her frank admission of several business-trip affairs.
âA little respect, please, for the wise women who came before us,' Lydia intoned, mock seriously. âApparently feathers and drums featured heavily, plus some spirited dancing and the imbibing of naturally sourced hallucinogenics. The point was, they didn't see the menopause as this terrible curse, they welcomed it, celebrated it. Because it meant you were passing into your next and maybe most important phase of life â the powerful matriarchal elder, the badly behaved granny, take your pick.'
âDress it up how you want, honey.' Priya was filling her glass again. âNo amount of druggy dancing is going to make me feel any better about intimate dryness.'
âThey saw it as a beginning, not an end. Imagine, a whole tribe of cackling, don't-give-a-toss hags proudly sailing their bodies into old age. Who's up for it?'
They had decided they would do just that, once that hormonal watershed had been crossed. Find a leafy spot on Wanstead Flats, gather a tribe of fellow crones â the three of them plus a few of the game birds from their Bodyzone class â choose a full-moon night and chant defiantly at the skies, âWhat do we want? Respect! Adoration! Our right to exist as non-fertile yet useful attractive women! When do we want it? As soon as someone notices us, thanks awfully, sorry to bother you.' Or something a little more snappy.