Surrogacy has been in the news this month, as has the squalor in which surrogate mothers are housed while they are waiting to deliver the goods. But the issue of assisted reproduction, surrogate mothers and the global disparity of means that makes one drive the other is decades old. What is new about Kishwar Desai’s Origins of Love is that the writer brings stem cell research into this already clouded medium.
Desai’s story starts with the voice of Simran Singh, who is searching for the origins of Baby Amelia, a desperately wanted infant, fertilised in a test tube at high cost and brought into the world by the industrious teamwork of medicine and human commerce, only to be abandoned when she is found to be infected with HIV. A small human being becomes simply an example of human error.
Simran Singh is a strange, implausible amalgamation of social worker, investigator and conscience keeper at Madonna and Child Clinic, in Gurgaon. (Residents of Gurgaon who feel their town is disproportionately represented whenever lawless activities are depicted in fiction, please wait patiently and this tale of sleaze will end up right back in South Extension.) She lives with her mother and her adopted daughter. Since the couple who “ordered” Amelia are now dead, Simran has gone to London to track down other relatives the baby might have.
The awareness of low birth rates among the rich is at least as old as the proverb “The rich get richer and the poor get children” and there is a global industry at work to redress that balance by the simple means of paying poor women to have rich women’s babies. Desai’s novel draws on all the characters involved in that industry. The wealthy parents who insist that they must have children who are biologically their own dovetail neatly with the doctors who promise the impossible. On the other side of the counter are the women who are willing to have babies for a sum of money that to their desperate eyes looks adequate, and the middlemen who recruit them at a discount. Add to that a politician who wants to have a baby with her mentor without getting into bed with him, so that her unashamedly dynastic party will live on. Oh, and a middle-aged sperm donor in London who is forced to confront reality and sorrow together when he finds out the fate of one of his countless children. Proxy parents, doctors, and procurers all stick their heads in the sand when it comes to the health of the surrogate mothers.
Then there are the extra embryos. Parents supply as many samples as the doctors demand, and no one knows how many fertilized blastocysts are viable, how many are used, and how many have to be discarded. Embryos that never make it to Madonna and Child are diverted by a team of customs officials and fixers to Freedom Clinic, which offers stem cell therapy to patients who have suffered paralysis, degenerative diseases, or just old age. The reader connects these dots early on and then waits, foot tapping, for Simran to do the same, before goons predictably try to bump her off.
Medical thrillers always have a readership. Most of us are wound to high anxiety by just the smell of a clinic and we will read a medical whodunit to the end no matter how carelessly it is written. So bad writing is to be expected, and Desai delivers it in spades, starting with “I had to don my sleuthing hat again.” Chapters are headed “Six months earlier” or “Nine months earlier”, perhaps in the fond hope that the diligent reader is drawing up a time line so as to understand who did what and when.
Simran leaves behind the ghost of an old love and finds a new one. Be warned, Desai is writing a third novel featuring Simran Singh. Either she will refine her writing by then, or we’ll simply get used to it.