In Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s compelling second novel, childhood best friends Anil and Leena choose very different life paths.
Anil leaves India to become a doctor in America, while Leena marries a man in a neighboring village—but they are soon confronted with changes that make them wonder whether they’ve made the right choices. Gowda confronts the universal question of how much our lives are shaped by family and cultural expectations in The Golden Son, a thoughtful family saga.
You were born in Canada and live in California, but you describe life in India very evocatively. What is your relationship to India like?
I come from a long line of immigrants. My grandfather left India to set up a trading business in East Africa. My parents left India and eventually settled in Canada. I came to the U.S. for university and have lived here ever since, and my children were born here. The idea of having multiple cultures is very much my own experience. I’ve visited India all through my life, and it does feel like “home” in some way. When I took my children to India for the first time, they too fell easily into the rhythms of family and culture, and I have to believe there’s some connection there on a deep level.
The idea of arbitration as practiced in Anil’s home village is likely unfamiliar to many American readers. How did you come across it?
I have long been intrigued by the Indian tradition of settling disputes within a community. I grew up hearing stories about lives that were changed: women granted divorces from abusive marriages, for example, before there were laws in place to protect them. Of course, not all disputes were settled happily, and afterward they had to go back to living together in the same community. It’s so different from the nearly anonymous, transactional way we administer justice.
What do you wish more people understood about immigrants and their reasons for seeking a life in North America?
I am drawn to stories of characters who have to navigate cross-cultural issues, because there are an infinite number of ways an individual can react to the particular opportunities and challenges of being an immigrant. At the same time, it’s also a universal theme: Almost everyone can point to a story in their family history that features a personal uprooting and resettling. Both Canada and America have been built on this tradition. It’s this diversity that makes Western society so strong, rich and innovative, and we would do well to remember that.
There is a lot of information about the medical field in this novel—how did you research those aspects of the story?
As someone who didn’t study science past high school and is squeamish about blood, it was not a likely (or wise) choice for me to write about a young doctor in his residency. But I thought Anil Patel belonged in the field of medicine, with its high stakes and prevalent moral questions. So, I dove into research. I read about the residency experience [and] interviewed many, many doctors. I’m very grateful to all the physicians who helped me learn how to tell this story. Fortunately, I never fainted on one of them.