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Delving into desperation over babies

by Ben East

The Observer

ORIGINS OF LOVE, by Kishwar Desai. Simon & Schuster, 2013, 496 pp., £7.99 (paperback)

Kishwar Desai calls her novels social thrillers; books set in the beating heart of modern-day India that lay bare its caldron of inequalities, injustices and cultural traditions. The first, 2010′s “Witness the Night,” won the Costa first novel award — and deservedly so; it somehow managed to deal with female infanticide in India without ever resorting to heavy-handed polemic.

That it worked so well was in no small part thanks to Desai’s engaging social worker-cum-detective protagonist Simran Singh. So it makes sense that she returns for the followup, “Origins of Love” — but this time she finds herself entangled in India’s shockingly prevalent surrogacy industry.

Desai expertly renders the clinics into which poor young Indian women are forced, by economic or family pressures. They are little more than battery farms for the hopeful Western parents who courier embryos to Mumbai for the surrogates to carry for nine months. When the baby is delivered, the parents fly to the clinic and pick up the child. Job done.

Outsourcing a pregnancy to India might sound fanciful, but it is legal. Desai says 25,000 babies are born to surrogates there every year. To her immense credit, Desai not only shows both sides of the story — she’s at pains to explain the decisions made by an English couple desperate for a baby — but fashions a page-turning narrative from the issue. An abandoned surrogate baby is born HIV-positive, her parents suspiciously die in an accident and Simran is immediately on the case, happening across endemic corruption and illegal stem-cell research.

And while the episodic nature of “Origins of Love” gives it the whiff of a soapy, serialized tale in a women’s interest magazine, Desai’s books are now best-sellers in India. Women politicians have begun to question the industry — suggesting that fiction can have the same power to change and provoke as, say, Siddhartha Deb’s brilliant nonfiction book on India, “The Beautiful and the Damned.” In a month where Indians themselves have begun to question the very fabric of their society, Kishwar Desai’s work would appear to be crucial.