In conversation with Meera Syal about feminism, women empowerment, reflections of life with plenty of hearty laughs along the way…
A woman of many talents, I have long admired Meera Syal as a pioneer for British Asian women in media. Renowned for making the world laugh, amongst her most credible feats is of course the comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, which has become an unparalleled classic, creating characters that are now household names and that we liken to those we come across in reality – we all know a Smita Smitten type and a family undergoing the same identity crisis as the Coopers afterall! This is what makes Meera so extraordinary – her ability to connect with a vast audience, whether that is through her incredible acting or through her vividly descriptive writing. Her latest book The House of Hidden Mothers has been highly anticipated, focusing on the subject of surrogacy which merges the lives of two women from very different worlds. As down to earth and real as her brilliant work, Meera indulged with me a delightfully insightful discussion about a myriad of topics that as British Asian women, we are both equally interested in and passionate about, from cultural taboos, celebrating British Asian women, identity and life, altogether with a seasoning of light-hearted humour, much the way the celebrated writer sees life herself.
Your last book was published nearly 16 years ago, why did you wait so long to write another book and what inspired you to write about surrogacy?
I just got really busy with other things – Bombay Dreams, acting, having a baby. And there wasn’t really an idea that made me think, this is it and sometimes you need to have that flash of inspiration. It was just by chance whilst channel flicking that I saw a documentary on surrogacy in India about 3 years ago. I didn’t realise that India was the world centre for surrogacy, a multi-million dollar industry because it’s de-regulated at the moment. And I just thought wow that’s it, it ticks every box I want to talk about, including women, the relationship between India and UK, mothers and daughters, aging, fertility, which is all in my mind and is really relevant for a lot of women today. There was also the subplot of the parents trying to get their flat back abroad, which is something that has happened in my family and so many other families I know. It is a huge issue for a lot of NRI families, as a lot of our mums and dads bought property back home which has had very terrible consequences, like family stealing it from them. I wanted to provoke a debate and the surrogacy issue is a really big one, because even though it’s a lifeline for people who can’t have children, the other perspective is - are we giving these women an amazing opportunity or is it just terrible exploitation? I hope that people can see it from all sides, as I’ve tried to be really fair.
It’s a hefty but epic book! How long did it take you to write?
Probably about a year off and on as I was always doing other things. I would say a solid six months of doing nothing else and then the rest of the six months doing other things, along with refining and editing the book.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Not when you’ve got an idea you’re passionate about and want to share. Mala in particular, who is the Indian character in the book, just sprang off the page! She so wanted to talk and there was so much I wanted to say through her about the position of women in India and female infanticide, the inequality, the sex crimes – there are a lot of issues affecting Indian women.
I was surprised to hear that India is actually the surrogacy capital of the world, not many people would be aware of this. Why do you think surrogacy is hushed away, almost frowned upon in Asian culture?
A lot of the women who become surrogates have to hide it from the rest of the family, which is quite difficult. It’s a relatively new industry, its entering our landscape now and I guess there is a slight stigma about it. Infertility is an issue that affects every single community and it’s a lot more difficult for people in the Asian community to deal with. Often the woman is blamed even if it is the man’s fault. It is a focal part of our culture – it’s still unusual to find anybody in our community that doesn’t have children, and if they don’t, people immediately question what’s wrong, whats the matter with you? Although for some people, it could be a choice.
Do you personally prefer writing comedy or about more serious issues?
That’s just how life is. Even in my previous two books, Anita & Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, they both consisted of serious issues such as violent racism, child abduction and adultery. But that’s just a reflection of how life is – you have the dark and the light together and that’s how I write. So even though the topic of the book is quite serious, there has to be tinges of light hearted humour in there because that’s just how I see life and that’s how life is for most of us. It swings from tragedy to something funny from day-to-day doesn’t it?
Are there any elements of the main character of the book, Shyama that you can personally relate to?
Definitely! The fear of aging, that feeling of the ticking clock, that I’m getting older, having a blended family which I have, as I got married again and have a child from both marriages, which is becoming more common now. But the rest of it – no, as I luckily never had to go down the route of surrogacy, so that was really through observation and very dear friends who have gone through very painful issues with infertility.
What is your connection like with India when you visit?
I think I usually feel a mixture of homeliness along with feeling like a tourist. When you’re with family, you immediately connect to that familiarity. But India has changed so fast that when I go to Delhi, there is always a bit of it I don’t recognise because it’s changing that fast. I feel like there’s a lot more I need to get to know about India, but when you’re visiting relatives, all you end up seeing is the inside of someone’s sitting room and eating jalebis (said in an Indian accent!) and you think hang on a minute I haven’t been to the tiger sanctuary, I haven’t been to the South – there’s so much to see! Next time I go, I’ll do the family bit for a few days but then I really want to take off and see all the parts I haven’t been to.
The main characters in your books are usually female - how important is it to you to write books about women?
It’s not like I can’t write men and I do. I think it’s because there has been so little written about us that is really honest and is really about the way women feel and talk – I know that’s the kind of stuff I like reading and since there’s so little of it, I think that I’m drawn towards telling the stories that haven’t been told yet. There’s plenty of fiction about lots of other groups of people and not much about us and actually we’re so interesting and complex – why wouldn’t I want to write about us, because we have so many amazing stories!
So many of the characters in your books remind me of someone I’ve come across or know. Do you purposely base your characters on people you have actually come across?
It’s usually a blend of people I know, I think all writers use observation and because I’m an actor as well, I do a lot of people watching. The main character of the book, Shyama is a bit like me and some of my friends. We are all women of this age who grew up as feminists, a bit bolshy and are now dealing with teenage daughters who confuse them! So that’s a bit of my experience, but also a combination of the experiences of the women I know. I try and put my finger on the pulse of what is in the air, the zeitgeist and you only get that from really hanging out with interesting people and listening, as people will give you all the research and stories you need. There’s nothing more fascinating than people and everyone’s got a story - you just have to dig deep enough.
Your previous book, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee also touches upon issues that are very real and relatable but are frequently brushed under the carpet in the Asian community. Do you feel that times are changing for Indian women?
Definitely, and I think we are going to see many rapid changes over the next decade because of the way the younger generation are coming up and are more vocal. We saw after the Delhi bus rape in 2012, how angry young women and men were – the way people took to the streets and I thought wow there is a real sea of change coming. In India, there seem to be two major issues – one is sexual violence and the other is corruption and those are two things that the younger generation understand that if we don’t sort out, India is never really going to be a superpower. And then you go to something like the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and you’re just blown away, I mean we are kicking ass! There are some amazing Asian women out there, we just need to blow our own trumpet a little bit more, because we are out there, quietly just getting on with it. I think together, we’re quite an unstoppable force and it’s all about finding the things that bring us together, which is why ceremonies like that are great at reminding us that we are quite the opposite of the oppressed woman image that is often depicted. In fact, since we have had to live through oppression, we are actually really strong. I have grown up around incredibly strong Asian women, and you think wow what amazing role models to have, even though some of them may have been housewives because they didn’t get the choice to do anything else, but were still really strong women who held the family together. The younger generation of men are beginning to recognise the role of women in society and understand that feminism isn’t just a woman’s job, but it’s actually all of our jobs. I mean, what do you want as partner – do you want a doormat or do you want a friend, an equal who you can have a proper partnership with? And men these days want that too.
How was your experience of growing up as a British Asian? Were you a BBCD (British born confused desi)?!
It took a long time, I don’t think you are fully aware of who are you when you’re growing up because every kid just wants to fit in and I had no choice – I just did not fit in because of where I grew up. That’s what my first book was all about, Anita & Me. I was part of this Punjabi family in the middle of a white working class mining village and we stuck out like a sore thumb. I knew I had to fight my battles early, because you do become a target when you’re so different and I would say through most of my early life, I was always the only one. I was one of three Indian kids in my girls school, I was the only woman of colour in my drama and English departments, and then when I started acting, I was one of a handful of Indian women acting and probably the only one doing comedy at the time I was doing it, so I kind of got used to it. It was very lonely, but the best bit is when you find like-minded people, like when we did Goodness Gracious Me and you get that feeling of - I have finally found my tribe! I have found all these people who think exactly the same as me and get the same jokes! We were all growing up in little pockets, as we hadn’t found each other, so I always say to young people, you probably do feel really different and you probably do feel confused which is completely normal so don’t get freaked out. But it’s your differences that make you unique, it might mean you have to fight a bit harder, but it will fill you with strength and make you proud of who are you. You will learn to use those differences to become successful, as that’s what makes you special. Having the best of two cultures is really a great gift if you know how to use it.
I have to ask – you and Sanjeev have done such a legendary job making the world laugh, but is it actually laugh-a-minute in the Sanjeev-Meera household?!
No, it’s like - who’s paying me to sell this joke?! Well, we’re the same as any other couple – you have your good days and your bad days, but I do think a sense of humour is one of the greatest things a couple can have. If you’re having a bad day, if someone can still make you laugh, that’s really great and Sanjeev does constantly, as he is naturally a really witty person.
What else can we looking forward to in the near future from you?
You can all look forward to another special of Goodness Gracious Me coming out in September, which will have a slightly different slant, because it will be aired as part of the Indian season, so it’s less about British Asians. It was a lot of fun getting back together! We are in currently in the process of having long discussions with the BBC about doing various things as a group together, which will become cleared in the coming months. We do have so many ideas since comedy is all about the current climate and things have changed so much since the times of Goodness Gracious Me. There are some brilliant Asian stand-ups but I feel that sketch comedy isn’t really done that much anymore, which is a shame.
The House Of Hidden Mothers is available to buy in-stores and online