When Pragya Agarwal started her first period, just after her 11th birthday, her mother handed her a bundle of blue cloth. For Agarwal, as for so many girls around the world, the transition to womanhood was sudden and shocking. “I had to stop playing cricket on street corners at once," ella explica. “And thereafter I was both visible and invisible, not seen or heard except to silence and tease, a provocation and titillation.”
If she was silent for a while, she has certainly made up for it since. A behavioural and data scientist who has taught at universities in both the US and the UK, Agarwal is now a passionate campaigner for racial and gender equality. She has written two highly acclaimed books: Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias y Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking With Children About Race. “What are you going to do today to make powerful white men uncomfortable?” her (blanco) husband asks her at one point as she writes this book. The short answer appears to be: “a lot”.
There’s plenty of anger in her new book and quite a lot of it is directed against powerful white men. A fair bit is directed against brown men too, since these were the men who shaped her childhood and youth in India, the land of her birth. It was men who decided that menstruating women were impure and could not go into a kitchen or take part in any religious ceremonies. It was men who had created a society where women are “monitored, patrolled, controlled and abused”. And it was men who fostered the belief that a woman “unable to conceive” is “an untouchable” who “holds no value for her husband or her family”.
This is not the predicament Agarwal faces when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant as a young wife. She has recently graduated and has hopes of broadening her horizons in ways that her mother was unable to, with her three daughters and alcoholic husband. When her mother-in-law, husband and extended family go off to a wedding, Agarwal is gripped by “sharp, pulsating rhythms of agony” as she starts contractions, at just 26 semanas. For the next nine weeks, she has six to eight injections a day. “I will always take care of you,” she whispers to her new baby daughter, but she also makes a decision. In Hindu culture, only a male heir can secure rebirth or light a funeral pyre. “For the first time,” says Agarwal, “I began to see that I did not have a future here.”
A few years later, now living in England, she finds she is pregnant again. She is in a new relationship and desperately missing her daughter, who’s in India with her mother while she tries to complete her PhD. She decides to have an abortion, but is later haunted by the decision as she and her second husband try but fail to have a baby of their own. After IVF doesn’t work, they decide to use a surrogate. When their twin daughters are born in Delhi, eight weeks early, Agarwal smells their heads, “a bouquet of jasmine and monsoon” and gazes at their nails “as tiny and pink as rose petals that can be squashed”.
Her experiences of motherhood couldn’t be much more dramatic, and they are riveting. Agarwal writes with searing honesty and tenderness about the joys and agonies of becoming a mother, of trying and failing to conceive again, and then of pursuing a route to motherhood that’s widely seen as taboo. "Oh, they come here to buy children,” she hears one of the officials say (in Hindi) on one of her trips to try and sort out her new babies’ visas. “I still don’t know,” she says with admirable honesty, “if I am OK with this.”
Recollections are interspersed with facts, figures and reflections on fertility, motherhood, the expectations women face and the degree of control they have, or don’t have, over their bodies. She is right to point out that women of colour generally face bigger challenges on many of these fronts than white women, and that there are alarming attempts to limit choices even more. But she talks about “patriarchal and social constraints” with a sense of anger that seems to range so widely it’s sometimes hard to pin down. The body clock, por ejemplo, is “a mythical monster created … to seize agency and autonomy away from women”. Or perhaps it’s just an inconvenient fact.
“As you read this book,” writes Agarwal in the introduction, “you might wonder if it is a memoir, a manifesto, auto-fiction, or a form of political writing.” You might indeed. If it’s an argument, it’s a slightly muddled one. Her key point seems to be that women are the victims of a system that conspires to make them feel worthless if they are not mothers. “Infertile women,” she observes, “are seen to be unfulfilled, empty, devoid of meaning.” Really? In this country around a fifth of women over 45 don’t have children and most of us had no idea we were meant to feel so bad.
This is a book about motherhood that’s very pro-motherhood. It’s a book by a woman who had a child, and who tried to move the sun, the moon and the stars to have more. In the end, it’s about motherhood as redemption, “my saving grace, allowing me to reconcile all my different selves”. And that’s fine. Agarwal writes beautifully about her own complicated experience. That’s what literature is for. But if she could focus her anger more precisely, she could let the poetry sing.
(METRO)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.