Ottawa-based author Anita Kushwaha’s second novel can’t help but be compared to Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter, another story about the relationship between a mother and her adopted Indian daughter and the fears and hopes assailing all involved. But beyond a certain chime in the titles and subject matter, there are many differences between the two novels. Not least among them, Kushwaha’s book brings the story closer to home in Canada.
Set among the diasporic Indian community in Ottawa, Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters alternates between two timelines. The first, set in the present, focuses on Nandini and her adopted daughter, Asha; the second is set 19 years earlier and addresses Veena and her graduate-student daughter, Mala. Nandini, who is desperately afraid that she will never be good enough as a merely adoptive mother, chooses to keep the circumstances of Asha’s birth a secret for as long as she can. That decision will have severe consequences when, on Asha’s 18th birthday, Nandini and her husband, Prem, finally present her with a letter from her birth mother, leaving her reeling. Veena, meanwhile, is recently widowed and desperate to arrange a marriage for Mala. In the meantime, Mala herself is falling in love with fellow PhD student Ash.
As both stories hurtle toward inevitable conclusions that reveal the obvious connection between the two families, Kushwaha draws out a cornucopia of themes: difficulties of being an immigrant, what makes a marriage, loss of a parent, mental illness, meaning of family, being gay in a socially conservative context, and the roles of fate and karma in life.
With so much material ranged over so many characters, certain story elements are less developed than others. In particular, Veena’s story falls by the wayside as her daughter’s life becomes entangled in a pregnancy that is dealt with by a hastily arranged marriage to a good Indian boy with his own secrets.
However, the novel is especially poignant when it delves into Asha’s inner life as she grapples with a loss of family trust just as circumstances beyond her control threaten to further upend her life. Asha’s coming-of-age storyline is more moving than that of Mala, who opts to sacrifice fidelity to herself for the sake of her mother’s honour.
Despite occasional overreach, Kushwaha has written a novel full of empathy. Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters is a reckoning of the secrets and lies found in families and their reverberations through the years.