Be­hind Closed doors

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ARTS & LIFE - By DAVID CHAU David Chau has writ­ten for Quill & Quire, Ri­cepa­per, and other pub­li­ca­tions. He lives in Van­cou­ver

About half­way through 2009, days af­ter submitting her de­but novel, Se­cret daugh­ter, to her pub­lisher, Shilpi So­maya Gowda was struck by an­other idea. A born and bred Toron­to­nian, Gowda grew up hear­ing about of a method of “in­for­mal dis­pute res­o­lu­tion in In­dian cul­ture.”

dur­ing child­hood she was, she says over the phone from her home in cal­i­for­nia, “ush­ered out of the room” at mo­ments where the closed-door prac­tice was put in play, she nev­er­the­less imag­ined what oc­curred. “As I grew older, I talked to my fam­ily about it,” she says, “I heard sto­ries of women of my grand­mother’s gen­er­a­tion hav­ing to go to the vil­lage pan­chayat — which is the orig­i­nal name of it. The pan­chayat trans­lates as the coun­sel of five elders.

“My great aunt had to go to the one in her vil­lage in or­der to be re­leased from an abu­sive mar­riage,” she con­tin­ues. “I found it very fas­ci­nat­ing that this prac­tice ex­isted. And my mind just got very ab­sorbed with the idea of what all could hap­pen in that fo­rum.”

Five years and one in­ter­na­tional best­selling novel later, this ab­sorp­tion has led to Gowda’s new book, The Golden Son, a sen­si­tive and in­tel­li­gent work. Ini­tially de­vised as a se­ries of linked short sto­ries fea­tur­ing dif­fer­ent ar­bi­tra­tions, it be­came a novel once “I re­al­ized I re­ally needed to have a pro­tag­o­nist who would carry the arc,” she says. “how does an in­di­vid­ual han­dle the re­spon­si­bil­ity, and learn to de­velop the wis­dom to han­dle the role?”

ex­am­in­ing cul­ture, au­ton­omy and duty, the plot fol­lows Anil, the el­dest son in the Pa­tel fam­ily, as he leaves the fic­tional In­dian vil­lage of Pan-chana­gar in the early 2000s for an in­tern­ship at a dal­las hospi­tal. “I am con­tin­u­ally in­ter­ested in the idea of iden­tity and in­di­vid­u­als search­ing for them­selves,” Gowda says, “es­pe­cially when they’re in in­ter­est­ing cir­cum­stances and caught be­tween two or more worlds.”

The first of his kin to at­tend univer­sity, Anil bears the ex­pec­ta­tions of his fa­ther who’s dreamt of his son’s fu­ture far from the fields. “They be­came con­spir­a­tors in build­ing Anil into some­one who could ven­ture be­yond Pan­chana­gar and its lim­ited of­fer­ings,” Gowda writes.

“his am­bi­tion, and his drive, and his nerdy awk­ward­ness — all of that was clear to me from the be­gin­ning,” Gowda says, of her finely drawn pro­tag­o­nist. “I think what did grow a lit­tle bit was the softer side of him, the emo­tional hu­man side.”

Anil’s story, which in­cludes fall­ing in love with an Amer­i­can woman and a fa­tal med­i­cal er­ror, en­twines with the novel’s other thread in­volv­ing Leena, his child­hood friend in In­dia, who’s trapped in an abu­sive mar­riage.

Af­ter the death of his fa­ther, Anil as­sumes the post of vil­lage me­di­a­tor and set­tles dis­putes in per­son and through long dis­tance phone calls; pre­sented in vi­gnettes are claims that de­tail the onus and ex­pand on mo­tifs of in­her­i­tance and dis­lo­ca­tion. re­con­nect­ing with Leena, and still trou­bled by the racially mo­ti­vated at­tack on one of his Texas room­mates and the con­clu­sion of his ro­mance, Anil re­con­sid­ers his own tra­jec­tory. “Love and fam­ily and work and am­bi­tion, when those things come into op­po­si­tion with each other, or they tug on you and you can’t please all of the masters at once, how do you choose?” Gowda asks. “What do you choose?”

Il­lu­mi­nat­ing her char­ac­ters’ ex­te­rior and in­te­rior lives re­mains Gowda’s great­est nar­ra­tive strength. There’s mar­vel­lous verisimil­i­tude here, from Parkview hospi­tal where Anil con­tends with ex­haus­tion and fel­low in­terns while pur­su­ing his ca­reer, to Pan-chana­gar where Leena, shunned upon re­turn­ing from her in-law’s vil­lage, turns river­bank clay into ce­ram­ics to sup­port her­self and her wid­owed mother.

Gowda spoke to a num­ber of doc­tors about their in­tern­ship ex­pe­ri­ences and wrote many pages of med­i­cal scenes that she even­tu­ally dis­carded. A trip to ru­ral In­dia a few years ago, as she was re­vis­ing the novel, “def­i­nitely helped me un­der­stand the coun­try­side, the rhythm of the life­style — how deeply agri­cul­ture and na­ture are in­ter­wo­ven with ev­ery el­e­ment of daily life.”

Se­cret daugh­ter, which has sold in ex­cess of a mil­lion copies, viewed loss through the lens of mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ships; The Golden Son trans­poses this to fa­ther and son, and fur­ther demon­strates Gowda’s abil­i­ties as a sym­pa­thetic ob­server of heart and mind. “ev­ery­body’s some­body’s child,” she says. “I think that’s why I felt like there was a lot of power in con­tin­u­ing to ex­plore a slightly dif­fer­ent dy­namic of par­ent and child.”

As an ado­les­cent, Gowda “was fas­ci­nated by the whole phe­nom­e­non of the dis­pute res­o­lu­tion” and thought, “there’s a right and a wrong, and a black and a white, you just have to study it hard enough, like a math prob­lem,” she says, laugh­ing. “I thought that that’s what adult life was about — just get­ting to the right an­swer — and of course, as you get older and things get more com­pli­cated, you re­al­ize that that is the an­tithe­sis of what life is like.”


The an­cient In­dian city of Kar­nataka. Shilpi So­maya Gowda trav­elled to ru­ral parts of In­dia while re­search­ing her book.

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