Alchemy 2015: Meera Syal

Actor and writer Meera Syal shares some thoughts and inspirations from her literary journey

Posted: 04.06.15

To be in a room with Meera Syal, is to be in the presence of someone who has achieved so much greatness, yet someone who is humble and down to earth. Syal has multiple credits to her name as a successful writer, actress, producer, comedian and a CBE.

She has just finished her leading role as a rag picker and matriarch in the play Behind The Beautiful Forevers at The National Theatre, a play about Mumbai’s slums. Syal talks about the responsibility and integrity in the original book by Katherine Boo, who was only too aware of ‘poverty-porn’ and how some try to portray the ‘glamour of the slum.’ Syal describes Boo’s writing as ‘A superb piece of journalism.’

Syal is modest about her own success. She turns the talk on those British Asians who first broke through the British Asian culture scene such as Saeed Jaffrey and Madhur Jaffrey and the current generation like Archie Punjabi who she says ‘have gone to achieve incredible things.’

The topic of her parents and their generation reminds the audience of the struggle of uprooting and settling into a new place with desires of returning back home. Her own experience of belonging to two places, being 'the only Indians in the village' in the West Midlands and feeling like a ‘tourist’ when she visits India and how 'you get ripped off in the shop,’ conveys that identifying and belonging to two places continues as you get older.

Syal has written three novels. Her first semi-autobiographical novel Anita and Me has been made into a film, is in the National Curriculum and is being currently adapted into a play for the stage. Her second novel Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, is an intelligent ‘chic lit’ about a group of Asian women friends which has been adapted into a mini TV series.

Syal’s novels seem to have a chronological yet organic order. Anita and Me is about girlhood experiences and the second novel is about being young woman and friendships. Syal’s much anticipated third novel The House of Hidden Mothers continues this sequence of women and focuses on issues highly relevant in Britain and India; fertility and surrogacy. She watched a documentary and discovered that India was the world centre for surrogacy. This provoked an interesting debate because of India’s problem with aborting girl babies and female infanticide. Syal talks about how the setting of the novel in 2012 was a conscious decision. Key events like the Delhi rape case and the Indian legal system are the backdrop to the book. The novel charts motherhood across continents and three generations. One of the main characters is called Sharma who is of Syal’s generation. Syal talks about how her favourite book The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was also a source of some of the inspiration. She sees Atwood as a prophetess who was writing about women, reproduction and forms of surrogacy. Syal also wanted to explore the relationship between women in India and Britain, the two areas she identifies with.

Her new novel is sure to continue the success of her previous works. Syal is simply unpretentious in who she is and what she does. She is a joy both on and off the screen.

Syal’s third novel The House of Hidden Mothers is out on 4th June 2015.

Lubjana Matin-Scammell

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