Book relates what it must be like to have a 'Secret Daughter'

Sometimes the image in our minds of what we have lost is far greater than the loss itself, and so it is for Asha, who was given up for adoption by her birth parents in India.

Boys are the prized possession in the Indian village where Kavita Merchant gives birth to a daughter. She loves this child and cannot bear to have her husband, Jasu, leave her to die, as he did with their first girl. In secret, she names her Usha, or dawn, and painstakingly makes her way from her village to then-Bombay when the baby is just 3 days old. She leaves the child at an orphanage, and every day for the rest of her life, she lives with the pain of her decision. For Kavita, it was the only way to save the girl.

The child is renamed Asha, meaning hope, and adopted by a couple — an Indian man and his American wife — who live in California. Krishnan and Somer Thakkar are both doctors. Slowly, Somer begins to realize what it means to be a mother, about the small and large sacrifices. Her child doesn't look like her, and Somer worries that she will one day lose Asha to her native land. The relationship between the couple begins to unravel as Somer refuses to accept the Indian culture, rarely visiting her husband's family. This also strains her relationship with Asha.

Kavita, on the other hand, gives birth to a son, Vijay, and is thus able to keep him. Jasu persuades her to move to Mumbai, where they can try to pursue a better life. They are met instead by the squalor of the Dharavi slums.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda's flair for detail is evident in the way she describes the clothes, food, the streets and their smells of this land teeming with people and poverty. This story about motherhood, loss, family and forgiveness is authentic in every way. The reader need not be a mother to feel Kavita's pain. The prose is so achingly touching, it draws the reader in with every description and emotion of the characters.


Gowda shows how Kavita goes hungry so her husband and son can eat.

"Kavita steps outside to make chai in the dead embers of last night's fire. There is some leftover khichdi from dinner, which she divides into two portions, one each for Jasu and Vijay."

Through hard work, Kavita and Jasu manage to leave the slums. Vijay becomes embroiled in illegal dealings as a young man, that brings them more money. He moves them into a bigger apartment, allowing them to have little luxuries like a taxi ride home from an evening out. His presence in their lives also diminishes, and the authorities are after him.

"What else should I have done for him? How could I have kept him from this fate?" Kavita asks herself.

At one point in the story, Jasu and Kavita save a girl being harassed by men.

"Kavita doesn't say what she is thinking, how nice it was to hold the girl's frail body in her arms until it stopped shaking, to wipe away her tears and stroke her long hair. To sing sweetly to her in the car, as her own mother used to sing to her. As she has imagined singing to her own secret daughter."

In the end, Asha comes to India for an internship at a newspaper, bonds with her father's family and learns about her culture. She also locates Kavita's apartment, but she never meets her. Asha realizes her parents had a child they chose to keep, that she was unwanted.

When Kavita is sick, Jasu goes back the orphanage and asks the director if his daughter has done well in life. The director gives him a letter that Asha left.


"America," Kavita said. "So far from home. All this time, she's been so far from us." Jasu reads her the letter he has memorized.

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