Shobhan Bantwal’s The Forbidden Daughter, set to be released August 26, is full of love, murder, and compelling social issues. Its classification as a page turner is evidenced by the fact that I cracked it open at mid morning on a Saturday and finished it mid morning the next day.
Set in a small village in southern India, the novel revolves around the sobering issue of gender selective abortion. In a culture at a strange crossroads, where the birth of a female baby is a disappointment even though she might grow up to be a doctor, the introduction of the ultrasound contributed to the illegal practice of what is called female feticide – abortion of unwanted female fetuses. Recently, in an effort to curb the ramifications of antiquated values that rank females lower than male babies, the government has forbidden doctors to reveal the sex of a fetus lest parents seek an abortion based solely on that information. Though new laws have curbed the practice stubborn traditions and persuasive bribes have kept it from being eradicated.
The Forbidden Daughter is the story of a young, upper caste Indian woman named Isha who braves her in-laws disapproval of her pregnancy with a second girl and vehemently rejects a proposed abortion. Isha’s husband, Nikhil, is similarly outraged at the suggestion and, in an effort to stop the practice, threatens legal action against Dr. Karnik who revealed the baby’s sex and who offers to perform the procedure. When Nikhil is found dead in what appears to be a robbery attempt, Isha flees the mounting pressure of her in-laws' home and takes refuge in a convent where she gives birth. An old college friend of Isha’s, Dr. Salvi, learns of her trouble and offers free medical attention and any other help that Isha might need. As Isha pulls her life back together with Dr. Salvi’s help, starting a business and buying a home for her family, she discovers that the mysterious circumstances behind her husband’s death point to Dr. Karnik. With incriminating documents still in Isha’s possession, her daughters are endangered as the doctor attempts to cover up his crimes.
Aside from the intriguing plot device that illegal gender selective abortion provides, Bantwal uses other relevant themes surrounding the clash of old and new values in India to shape the story. Coming-of-age versus obedience to parents, women's roles in society, and the dynamics of marriage are all examined from both a traditional and a modern Indian perspective. Though these issues are certainly not undiscovered in political, social and literary circles, the addition of relevant cultural and moral themes to what would otherwise be a rather predictable story makes The Forbidden Daughter stand out among other aspiring novels.
Though the theme of the novel is fundamentally an interesting and serious one, one is forced to question how accurately it is portrayed. It is unclear whether all abortions are illegal in India or specifically gender-selective abortions (it is, in fact, the latter). While some characters in the book are shocked at even the mention of abortion, others see it as a common though hushed occurrence.
The inconsistency in the portrayal of the primary theme is due, at least in part, to lack of character development. Characters’ reactions are often inexplicable or inconsistent, indicating that the book is driven by the plot rather than the people in it. The themes of the novel warrant a deep examination of emotions and thoughts behind the participants’ decisions, but instead the characters are given just enough development to facilitate the action of the story. The plot and pace of murder and romance take over the end of the book as the feticide issue falls by the way side. Loose ends are tied up in a rush with an old fashioned, crowd pleasing shootout and surrender of the heroine to the hero. The impact of the sad reality of female feticide would have benefited from solid exploration of each character and their interaction with the dramatic events of the narrative.
These drawbacks should not deter you if you are looking for a good plane book with a little substance. The Forbidden Daughter is a quick read that is buoyed by important cultural issues. If nothing else, it is a narrative introduction to an issue that cannot be ignored.