The comedian from Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No.42 may have been bestowed with a CBE, but Meera Syal, 54, says she is an Indian at heart. Visiting the country to promote her third book, The House of Indian Mothers, we caught up with the vivacious British-Indian actor at the Jaipur Literature Festival to talk about comedy, stereotypes and the cost of immigration. Excerpts:
Your first two novels centred on women’s lives. How different is this?
It’s related to the stage of life I am at. My first book was about my childhood and my second was about motherhood. The third is about late motherhood, second marriages and blended families. The story is about a British-Indian woman called Shyama. She is 48. She has been married once, unhappily. She has a teenage daughter called Tara. She has just fallen in love with a much younger Englishman called Toby. They are desperate for a child and the cheapest and easiest option they have is to find a surrogate from India.
Some people may see your protagonist as an exploiter….
Exactly! Shyama is ridden with guilt. She is desperate for a baby but there is also a part of her that asks: Am I just a colonial exploiter hiring a woman’s womb? Or am I going to change the life of a poor woman and give her a financial opportunity she wouldn’t get any other way? For me it was important that Mala, the surrogate, comes out just as strong and complicated as Shyama is. In a way, the story is a thriller because the power balance between the two gradually shifts in the novel.
How seriously do people take a popular comedian as an author?
All of my books dealt with comedy and tragedy together because I think that’s how life is. Life dances on the line between something tragic and something funny and, in fact, humour can save you from the tragedy. That’s how the women in my books cope.
Are there autobiographical elements in the novel?
Shyama’s parents have saved up and bought a flat in Delhi as many of those in my generation of parents did. The flat is taken over by relatives. In fact, it happened in my family as well. For my parents. it was the end of their dream of going back to the home they thought they would return to scatter their ashes in. Now my parents are too old and ill to enjoy that flat, so they had to sell it.
When did your parents migrate to the United Kingdom?
My parents moved from Delhi to the UK in 1960. I was born in [British politician, linguist, and poet] Enoch Powell’s hometown of Wolverhampton. And I grew up in a small mining village full of white working-class people, a very unusual childhood, which is what my first book Anita & Me is all about. My parents both got work. Not, of course, the kind of work they would have got in India. My father was a philosophy graduate and he ended up being an accountant. My mother taught at college back in India, but she ended up teaching four-year-olds here. That is the cost of immigration.
Was it tough to break into the inner circle of television and showbiz?
Of course it was tough. I think of people that went before us like dear departed Saeed Jaffrey, or Roshan Seth, Indira Joshi [best remembered for The Kumars At No. 42], there were so many actors that were the generation before us who pushed the door open a little. We pushed it open a little more. Of course you have to fight for representation because we carry a burden with us. In India, if I were cast in something, I would just be a person. When you are cast in something in Britain, you sort of have to bring your problems with you, they feel. We can’t have an Indian character unless they are talking about an arranged marriage or, you know, a violent husband. There are several of us who are breaking through. But we must not get complacent. There is real room for change.
Are we losing the ability to laugh at ourselves?
I’ve become aware of the intolerance debate at the Jaipur Literature Festival, so I don’t want to comment on behalf of those who live here. But speaking about British-Indians, if we had worried about that, we would have never done Goodness Gracious Me! We had faith that people are intelligent enough to understand satire. So we made fun of ourselves, but we also made fun of the host community. Everyone was fair game. There is something very healing about sharing a joke.