Kishwar Desai's latest novel, Origins of Love, which she has labelled as a 'social thriller', deals with the confronting topic of surrogacy.
Kishwar Desai aims for change using fiction
It sounds like a scene from a horrific dystopian film. Wealthy prospective parents courier embryos stored in canisters of liquid nitrogen to India, where they're picked up at Mumbai airport and implanted at baby factories into a surrogate desperate for money. Nine months later, the parents fly to the clinic to pick up "their" baby and take him or her back home. The surrogate is paid, and waits for her next commission. But this is not some science fiction fantasy set in 2045. It's happening right now, and it's the subject of the award-winning novelist Kishwar Desai's new novel, Origins of Love.
"I heard about these embryos seized at customs in Mumbai," says Desai, recalling the initial inspiration, "and it just pricked my interest - and my conscience. I mean, what a bizarre way to have a child, essentially outsourcing your pregnancy and renting the womb of a poor Indian woman for a small fee. Because let me tell you, surrogacy in India is no longer the altruistic act of a caring woman helping an infertile couple. Everybody needs to know that the women who are giving their wombs up are desperately poor and this has become a multibillion-dollar industry for the baby-making businesses involved."
It's a deadly serious moment in a conversation peppered with laughter. And if such levity should sound strange considering the issues raised in Origins of Love, anyone who read Desai's debut Witness the Night will know that this journalist and broadcaster's real skill is to make what she calls "social thrillers" effortlessly readable - zestful, even.
No mean feat considering Witness the Night's similarly controversial topic was infanticide, but much of the enjoyment is to be found in the exploits of Desai's heroine of sorts, Simran Singh, an inquisitive, grumbling yet jovial social worker who returns in Origins of Love to uncover the truth behind an abandoned surrogate baby. Meanwhile, after another miscarriage, an English couple hear of a potential solution in India - and interestingly we're invited to feel sympathy for them.
"I don't want to be judgemental because I do know people who are desperate for a child," says Desai. "But what makes me distinctly uncomfortable is that these women don't really have a choice: they're harvested up from these poor towns and pushed into the idea that the first surrogate child could pay for education for their own child, and the second surrogate could mean they could buy a new house ... and so on."
And just as Desai's first book brought infanticide into the spotlight in India, so this book is also provoking debate. Already on the best-seller list, it's a neat reminder of the power fiction can still have.
"I really didn't want it to come out as a lecture on surrogacy, but rather each character and storyline to speak of a particular aspect of it, from the women to the prospective parents, the hospitals, and so on," she says. "True change never comes unless you can personalise these stories, unless you can live with these characters and understand what they're going through."
And what does Desai hope she can change with Origins of Love?
"Well, first of all, I want surrogacy talked about more," she says. "There are 25,000 babies being born to surrogates every year in India now - and nobody seems too bothered about it because everybody is making money. But there are now women politicians questioning whether this sort of thing should be allowed. Personally, I think it's too late for that because it's a multibillion-dollar industry already. But it needs laws to regulate it, for the surrogates to have more rights and most of all for the couples involved to think carefully about their motivations. Is it really worth it when you're trying to do a beautiful thing by creating a life, but everything around it is not so beautiful?"
Origins of Love (Simon & Schuster) is out now.