Behind Closed doors
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.