Meera Syal, one of the UK’s most acclaimed actors and writers of stage and screen, is also a popular face on television. She is still remembered as the hunched Ummi in the hit series The Kumars at No.42. Syal, who already authored two books (Anita And Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee), recently came up with her third book, The House of Hidden Mothers (revolving around the dangers of surrogate motherhood). Syal talks to HT about her latest book, playing Ummi and receiving the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).
Why did you zero in on surrogacy for The House of Hidden Mothers?
I thought it was a perfect metaphor for exploring the complex and ever-changing relationship between India and especially Britain. It also explores so many areas which currently interest me; how women feel about ageing, mothers and daughters, “blended” families and how they work, the exploitation and ownership of women’s bodies, the politics of fertility and the huge industry surrounding it and how the longing for a child can turn your life literally upside down. But ultimately what really gripped me was that central relationship between two women from different worlds who, for that nine months of pregnancy, depend on each other to fulfill their dreams. What is that like, that intense life changing connection and the delicate power balance between them? And I wanted to ask that question, and have the reader ask it too: is surrogacy a win-win exchange where a wealthy infertile woman gets the child she desperately wants and a poor fertile woman gets the money to change her life for the better or is it just a cynical exercise in colonial exploitation?
Have you ever met women like Shyama and Mala? How did you come up with these characters?
There is a theory that every character a writer creates is merely different versions of themselves and certainly Shyama voices and wrestles with many issues and emotions many of my friends and I are going through. Shyama, and her friend Priya and Lydia are basically many of my friends and me giving vent to so many things we have laughed and raged about. For our mother’s generation, 50 was old, time to wear comfy shalwar kameez and sit on the sofa massaging our feet and saying hai hai. Our generation of women have refused to turn into matajis, thank goodness, and many of us truly feel in our prime in so many ways. It’s just a shame society doesn’t seem to think so sometimes. So yes, much of Shyama’s refusal to grow old gracefully, getting divorced, falling in love with a younger white man, wanting a baby with him, her power struggles with her disapproving teenage daughter Tara from her first marriage, are taken from real life, even if the storyline itself isn’t.
However, the story of what happens to Shyama’s parents, Prem and Sita, is inspired by real life. Like many of the first generation of NRIs, Prem and Sita sent money back to India to build their intended retirement home. However, thanks to unscrupulous relatives moving into the property and refusing to vacate, these two sweet old people find themselves embroiled in a decade-long property dispute in the Indian courts. This was inspired by events in my own father’s family around an apartment in Delhi and I think it truly broke my father’s heart and has left a permanent rift in the family. You won’t believe how common this property dispute is between NRIs and their extended families, practically every family here has a similar story to tell and it is not something that many people have discussed openly up until now. And it very much feeds into a running theme in the novel about what Home comes to mean for many of the characters.
Will you adapt The House of Hidden Mothers for film or TV, like Anita and Me?
We have already sold the rights to a great company over here (in UK), we are looking at a three or four part TV drama. I am really looking forward to seeing the characters come to life on screen.
In the book, humour comes to the rescue when things get grim. Is that your attitude in life too?
What is the saying? If you don’t laugh, you will cry... Humour is what keeps you sane in a mad unpredictable world and it’s also how life seems to be - a blend of tragedy and comedy. The virtue of being a writer is that even through the darkest moments, there is a part of you standing apart observing the details to write down for later on. Everything is material and nothing is wasted.
Which Meera do you like the most - the author, the actor, comedienne or screenwriter?
The one who’s got a job. I love the variety of my work. I’m lucky to have the choice to go from the energy and communal experience of theatre to the focus and solitude of writing a book. As long as I’m being creative and stay curious, I’m happy.
Tell us about the projects you are currently working on.
I’m about to start filming something for the BBC in Prague. Then, I have a few literary festivals to attend, including a couple in India, which I’m so looking forward to (Delhi and Jaipur hopefully.) There are also plans of rewriting and remounting Bombay Dreams and a Shakespearean role next year, which I can’t talk about yet. But I can’t wait to get back to theatre.
Do we see you in a Bollywood film in the near future?
Depends on the role! If it’s to play some mataji massaging her feet in the corner then no, but if there are any roles for women of my age which are strong, funny and feisty, then I’m definitely interested.
You were recently bestowed with a prestigious CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). Tell us about it.
The irony didn’t escape me, awarded a gong by the Empire that both sides of my family fought to eject. However, that is why I think it became hugely symbolic for my parents, that this was some mark of how far they had come and that their sacrifices had not been in vain. Remarkable that my father was a refugee from Partition and at 13 was in a refugee camp with nothing but the clothes he wore, and a generation later, his daughter picks up a medal from Buckingham Palace. I accepted it totally for them, for without their struggles and love, I would not have achieved anything.
Do you miss playing Ummi (in The Kumars at No. 42)?
Who wouldn’t miss playing a rebellious naughty grandma? It was a gift of a role and I got to improvise and tease so many famous people. I don’t however miss the nasty cardigans and those very uncomfortable false teeth.