Cash on delivery
Reviewed by Balwinder Kaur

Origins of Love
By Kishwar Desai. Simon & Schuster. Pages 470. Rs 350

An unregulated industry, run by unscrupulous doctors catering to desperate foreigners and exploiting impoverished women sets a fearless social worker on a quest for social justice and accountability. Origins of Love by Kishwar Desai follows her award-winning debut novel Witness the Night featuring the same protagonist Simran Singh. A social worker by profession, Simran is a bold and headstrong woman living life on her own terms and asking the questions most donít have the courage to.

New-born Amelia is the unwitting catalyst that sets the story ablaze. Born in Gurgaon to Mike and Susan Oldham by a surrogate via in-vitro fertilization, she is found to be HIV+. This sets in motion a terrible series of events. Doctors Subhash and Anita Pandey; the proprietors of Madonna and Child Clinic are in a state of panic; more commercial than moral. Meanwhile, the commissioning couple dies a mysterious death while availing the clinicís complementary tour of Rajasthan. The mystery only deepens as the birth mother Preeti disappears immediately after giving birth and is untraceable. The plight of this hard-won, now-orphaned and ill child compels Simran Singh to intervene and investigate the matter. Her quest to do the right thing means following a flimsy lead, a scribbled name Edward Walters from Gurgaon to London. The deeper she digs the more dirt she finds, persisting despite threats and attacks. How deep does the rabbit hole go?

Soon she comes face to face with the seedy underbelly of the burgeoning baby business. This completely unaccountable industry, while providing hope and joy to some; exploits and torments others. Mostly the unsuspecting, uneducated and underprivileged women who make these miracles happen.

While Simran untangles the web of lies surrounding the present predicament of all involved the non-linear narration takes us to the beginning of the drama, nine months ago and we see the present events unfold alongside. The expose of all who contributed to this disastrous outcome keeps the reader invested.

Kishwar Desaiís characters have realistic motivations, tangible problems, human flaws and relatable pain. The author has a message to convey and has no compunctions about subjecting these characters to harsh scrutiny, divvying up their share of the blame even as they hide behind flimsy excuses, pithy platitudes and self-serving rhetoric. Be it the doctors, the administrators, law enforcement or the parents. While headstrong Simran Singh at her reformist best as she stands up for the defenceless and victimised.

The author provides multiple points of view to analyse the existing scenario. While her characters are wide ranging and varied encompassing the gamut of society, some of them exist only to serve as mouthpieces and catalysts.

The writer addresses vital social issues and there are a lot of fingers pointed. There is also a wide spectrum of social commentary though seen through the lens of reproductive issues. There is the seemingly inescapable gravity that reproduction holds over women. Whether they do or donít, can or canít, will or wonít and should or shouldnít.

The book highlights the plight of the many marginalised women trapped by circumstances who are lured into having repeated unhealthy pregnancies by authority figures they trust for which they are poorly compensated. Beguiled into undergoing extreme hardship both physical and emotional; pushing their bodies beyond endurance. Heart-rending is the plight of surrogates such as Sonia, Preeti, Reena and Radhika. Their stories are compelling above all others and achieve the most emotional resonance. The book will make its readers uncomfortable. It will give them reactions, feelings and opinions. It is an eye-opener that is informative and educational but not dry and clinical.

Desai puts under the microscope a billion-dollar industry that is largely unregulated. There is also the very controversial and loaded debate surrounding stem cell research which is explored and arguments are made both for and against. Central is the much discussed but still relevant issue of many doctors being care givers second and businessmen first. Beneath the thin veneer of professionalism lie their merciless capitalistic ambitions. Ultimately bringing home the urgent need for regulatory legislation and for legal checks and balances to be implemented and enforced. It is an unflinching and gratuitous look at exploitation. Of the system by the corrupt. Of the gullible by the savvy. Of the desperate by the unscrupulous. And finally of women by society.