Forbidden Daughter

Forbidden Daughter

by Shobhan Bantwal


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Set in the sensual richness of India, Shobhan Bantwal's gripping new novel asks: Where can a woman turn when her life's greatest blessing is seen as a curse?

It's a girl! For most young couples, news of their unborn child's gender brings joyful anticipation. Not so for Isha Tilak and her husband, Nikhil. They already have a beloved daughter, but Nikhil's parents, hard-wired to favor male children above all, coldly reject little Priya at every turn. Vain and selfish, they see female grandchildren as burdens, and would just as soon never meet the one growing in Isha's belly. Even the obstetrician agrees, going so far as to suggest the unthinkable, throwing Nikhil into a rage--and changing Isha's life forever. . .

When Nikhil is discovered brutally murdered, Isha is convinced it had something to do with his reaction to the doctor's hideous "solution" to their problem. Alone, grief-stricken, and relentlessly oppressed by in-laws who believe her baby is a bad omen, Isha sets out on her own. Born into a privileged class, Isha doesn't know the first thing about fending for herself, but to protect her precious daughters, she will learn. And she will cling to the hope given to her by a strange old mystic: that her baby will arrive on the auspicious night of Kojagari Purnima, the full harvest moon, and be a gift from Lakshmi, the goddess of well-being. Isha and her girls will need all the blessings they can get, for the greatest danger of all lies ahead. . .

Praise for Shobhan Bantwal and The Dowry Bride

"Splendidly depicts passion, brutality, and cultures in conflict." --Dorothy Garlock

"Vivid, rich. . .expertly portrays a young woman caught between love and duty, hope and despair." --Anjali Banerjee

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780758220301
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 09/01/2008
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Shobhan Bantwal was born and raised in India and came to the United States as a young bride in an arranged marriage. She has published short fiction in literary magazines and articles in a number of publications. Writing plays in her mother tongue (the Indian language of Konkani) and performing onstage at Indian American conventions are some of her hobbies. She lives in New Jersey with her husband. Shobhan loves to hear from her readers.

Read an Excerpt


April 2006

Today was the day! Today Isha would most likely have an answer to that single question she'd been obsessing about for weeks — ever since she'd found out she was pregnant: Was it a boy, or ... God forbid ... a girl?

Nonetheless, she wasn't sure if she wanted to know. Even if she did, would her doctor be willing to reveal the fact, since it was illegal to discuss the sex of an unborn child with its parents? For Isha it was a case of mixed emotions and desires. There was a popular Americanism that described her feelings perfectly — damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Nervous anticipation made her stumble a little as she stepped out of the car to walk toward her obstetrician's comfortable and well-appointed medical office.

Nikhil, her husband, quickly grabbed her arm to steady her. "Are you all right, Ish?" he asked with a slight frown. He was the only person in the world who called her Ish.

She nodded. "Just a bit tense, that's all," she replied and lifted the hem of her cream chiffon sari a bit, so she wouldn't trip over the long, trailing pleats while climbing the single concrete step leading up to the front door.

"You're not dizzy or anything?" Nikhil's deepening frown and gently solicitous voice told her he was worried — more so than usual.

"No. I'm feeling fine," she assured him. No point in scaring him by saying she had huge butterflies, the size of bats, flitting around in her tummy. She was jittery enough for both of them.

She stole a brief sidelong glance at Nikhil. Dressed in elegant gray slacks and a blue designer shirt, he was the picture of polished good looks combined with affluence. But he wasn't his usual confident self today. He seemed edgy — almost as much as she.

He kept a protective hand curled around her arm. "Good. Let's keep it that way."

The black and white sign outside the single-story brick building was both prominent and impressive. KARNIK MATERNITY CLINIC — a proud testimonial to the doctor's professional success. Beneath it were his name and credentials: Dr. V. V. Karnik — Obstetrics & Gynecology Specialist.

Although male ob-gyns were still rare in small towns, this particular doctor had an outstanding reputation; consequently, he had acquired a large and exclusive clientele.

Isha was at the clinic to get an ultrasound test done — one of the most brilliant inventions in the medical field since the discovery of antibiotics. It could reveal whether the baby was healthy or not, and the most interesting thing was that one could see the fetus as a three-dimensional image on a computer screen. How fantastic was that!

Although she wasn't sure if she wanted to find out the sex, she still couldn't wait to see her unborn child. It would be thrilling to have a chance to be introduced to the tiny person growing inside her.

"Nervous?" asked Nikhil, after they'd announced themselves to the receptionist and settled down on the blue-and-gray upholstered sofa in the waiting room.

"Very." She searched his face. "Are you?"

He smiled at her, his hazel eyes warming up. "A little, I guess."

"A little?" she asked with a wry chuckle. She knew her husband well. He often covered up his negative feelings with that attractive smile. He rarely fooled her, though. And he hadn't slept well the previous night. "I think you are more anxious than I am."

He took her hand and rubbed his thumb over the wrist, the laughter fading from his eyes. "Everything's going to be okay. You'll see."

She knew he was trying to reassure himself while doing the same for her. They were both pulsing with tension. There was a lot at stake here.

Twenty minutes later, it bubbled up like a fountain, warm and effervescent — the emotion that could be experienced only by a mother-to-be. Her baby! With damp palms and a racing heart, Isha observed the fuzzy movements on the monitor. The word amazing hardly described it. It was like watching a fantasy show on television.

That funny little glob was the living, moving baby in her womb. But even at this early stage of pregnancy, the little arms and legs were identifiable. With its oversized bald head and a protruding forehead it resembled some alien creature in a science fiction movie.

But the elation quickly dampened when other thoughts began to crowd her brain. Oh no! What if ...? She said a quick, silent prayer. God, please let it be a boy. Please! If I don't have a son this time, I'm finished.

Her in-laws had made such a ruckus about her giving birth to a girl the first time. Her mother-in-law, supposedly an enlightened woman, with a college degree and an interest in music, world affairs and literature, had wrinkled her brow when she had first learned Isha had given birth to a girl. "Arré Deva, moolgee!" Oh God, a girl!

Dr. Karnik allowed both Nikhil and Isha to gaze at the image on the screen for several more seconds. Isha looked for the small but significant part of the baby's anatomy that would establish its gender. So far there was no indication of it on the screen. Was it something that didn't appear until the fetus grew a little bigger? She studied the image more closely. What she desperately hoped to see wasn't there.

The doctor looked at her and Nikhil by turns. "So, do you want to know the child's sex?"

Isha closed her eyes for an instant. Did she really want to know?

But then she heard Nikhil say, "Um ... yes." He sounded hesitant.

"Are you sure?" The doctor gave him a pointed look.

Nikhil glanced at Isha and she nodded, albeit reluctantly. Was the doctor serious, or was this his idea of injecting a little levity into a grave situation? But he wasn't smiling. And it was common knowledge that some doctors did manage to reveal the sex of the fetus discreetly, despite what the laws dictated, perhaps to accommodate the parents' natural curiosity.

They exchanged brief glances. It was an unspoken agreement that the three of them would keep this confidential.

Deep down, she already knew the answer. The tiny image on the screen was plain enough.

"It's a girl."

Silence fell over the examination room as Isha and Nikhil tried to digest the doctor's casual announcement. Nikhil stood motionless, his gaze fixed on some unknown spot on the wall.

Another girl! That was all that went through Isha's mind over and over again, although she'd known it in her gut. Official confirmation just made it harder.

Assuming their silence indicated disappointment, Dr. Karnik said, "It is not the end of the world, you know."

Isha rolled her eyes. "Maybe not to you, doctor. My in-laws will be devastated."

Dr. Karnik shrugged. "So ... we can fix that."

"Excuse me!" Isha stared at the doctor. Had he really meant to say what she thought he'd meant? Or had she misunderstood him? She looked toward her husband, wondering if he had read the same message. All she saw was a puzzled look on Nikhil's face. "What does that mean, doctor?"

"We can easily perform a clinical abortion," the doctor replied. "You're only in the beginning of your second trimester, and it is a fairly simple procedure."

"Fairly simple!" Isha felt like she'd been punched in the stomach.

"Simple, safe, and fast, with today's techniques," assured the doctor.

"No!" Glancing at the screen again, she saw the fetus move. The baby! "That's not an option."

Dr. Karnik eyed her calmly. "It's up to you, of course." He had thinning gray hair and steel-rimmed glasses. His thin mustache was all gray. His shoulders were beginning to droop. Dressed in mousy brown pants and a long white lab coat, he looked like a harmless old grandfather. Isha wondered how a gentleman could say such hideous things with such nonchalance.

Nikhil spoke for the first time, his voice sounding uncharacteristically shaky. "She's right, doctor. As long as the child is healthy, we won't discuss anything like ... abortion." Even the word seemed to be stuck in his throat. In fact, there was that familiar spark of anger in his eyes. He was clearly upset by the doctor's outrageous suggestion.

Isha sent her husband a grateful look. Thank goodness he was in total agreement with her. But along with the annoyance she could also see the disappointment in his face. He was the Tilaks' only son, and his parents were looking forward to two or more grandsons to carry on their name and inherit the prosperous family business of selling tires.

Instead Nikhil and Isha already had one daughter, and now they were going to have another. In its own way it was a nightmare.

Later, as they left the doctor's office and climbed into the car, Nikhil turned to her. "Some nerve that idiot had, suggesting an abortion!" His eyes continued to gleam with suppressed anger.

Isha's sense of shock was still lingering, too. "We often hear about female infanticide and feticide taking place in big cities, but I never dreamt that our own gentle doctor in Palgaum would suggest it so easily." She shook her head. "I can't believe how coolly he said it could be fixed!"

"Someone ought to report that man to the authorities," said Nikhil through clenched teeth. "Doesn't that old fool know that there is a law against selective abortion? He could end up in prison."

"I'm sure he's well aware of the law, but how many people in this country really and truly follow the law? Practically everyone we know does something illegal on a daily basis. You do it yourself when you grease the palms of the government people to get your import permits and licenses, don't you?" She narrowed her eyes on him. "What about all the money you hide from the income tax people?"

A guilty flush suffused his face. "But killing an unborn baby is not on a par with black marketeering or bribing a government officer. Feticide is tantamount to murder!" Nikhil's jaw seemed to work furiously as he drove them home, and Isha knew it was best not to feed his sense of outrage. He had a short fuse and a very righteous attitude about certain things, and he tended to react accordingly.

After that outburst they drove home mostly in silence. Isha looked out the window, wondering how they'd break the news to Srikant and Vidula Tilak — her father-in-law and mother-in-law.

As it was, their daughter, five-year-old Priya, got second-class treatment compared to Isha's sister-in-law Sheila Sathe's sons. Sheila was beautiful and she was married to a wealthy man. The proverbial icing on her cake was the fact that she had produced two beautiful boys.

And in the Tilaks' eyes, the boys could do no wrong. They received lots of attention while Priya got almost none. Ayee and Baba, as the grandchildren called Isha's in-laws, although not overtly abusive to Priya, never showed her any affection. She was kept at a distance and often subjected to stern discipline. Priya was now old enough to notice their behavior and had started to complain that the boys got so much while she got so little.

Isha and Nikhil tried to make it up to their little girl as much as they could, but since they lived in the same house as the elder Tilaks, and Priya saw her grand parents everyday, it was hard to explain to a child that her gender had everything to do with the way they treated her.

To offset the neglect, Isha often found herself spoiling her child. And that led to a lot of friction with her in-laws, too. They thought she bought Priya too many toys and clothes, and that she never corrected Priya's behavior whenever she acted up. Occasionally Isha would try to explain to them that Priya acted up only when she noticed Sheila's boys getting extra attention.

Ayee and Baba always brushed it off as Isha's misguided perception.

Nikhil took his hand off the steering wheel for an instant to take Isha's hand. "Don't make yourself sick. It's not a big deal." It seemed like his rage had diminished.

Tears pooled in her eyes. "It will be a big deal when Ayee and Baba find out."

"We'll explain to them nicely. They're not unreasonable. These things happen. Maybe we'll try for a boy next time."

"There won't be a next time. Who in their right mind has more than two children in this day and age? You really think India's exploding population can sustain one more child?"

"Honestly, when you think about it, what difference does it make whether one has a boy or a girl?" said Nikhil, obviously trying to rationalize a difficult situation. "They all get educated the same way and they follow similar careers. To me it makes no difference."

"I'm not the one that needs convincing, Nikhil." She tossed him a look of mild disdain. "Go explain that to your parents! Haven't you noticed how they treat Sheila's kids and Priya differently? While Sheila's boys' birthdays are such a big, fussy affair with a dozen gifts, they forgot all about Priya's birthday last week. You and I had to go out and buy a cake and presents and lie to her that some of them were from Ayee and Baba."

Nikhil took a long, tired breath. He had no response to his wife's remarks. Isha knew he was fully cognizant of his parents' petty biases. But he was a good Hindu son, one who'd never acknowledge his parents' shortcomings. Those were never to be discussed openly.

Besides, Nikhil and she had no choice but to live with his folks. It was the old-fashioned Indian way. The son, especially an only son, lived with the parents, obeyed them, humored them, tolerated their foibles, and took care of them.

Isha dried her tears, leaned back and closed her eyes. She needed to prepare herself before informing her in-laws that there would be another female baby in the house. God, they'd be tearing their hair out. Or, maybe they'd toss Isha and Priya out and find another wife for their precious son. She wouldn't be surprised if a thought like that crossed their minds every now and then.

Well, thank goodness at least Nikhil's sister, Sheila, was a good woman. Despite her looks and money and all the coddling, Sheila treated Isha with respect and affection. Isha couldn't have asked for a nicer sister-in- law. In fact, Sheila often pointed out to her parents that they should treat Priya the same way they treated her sons. But her advice didn't make an iota of difference to their way of thinking or behavior.

Isha opened her eyes when the car slowed down and made the sharp turn into their driveway. Nikhil brought the car to a stop under the carport outside their house and turned to her. "Feel a little better now?"

She shook her head. "Worse. We have to go in there and tell them the news."

He cupped her cheek in his hand, his expression tender and sympathetic. "I'll do the telling, Ish. You just sit down and relax. You need to rest after the sleepless night you've had."

She tried to summon a smile but didn't quite succeed. He could be so kind sometimes, and he was so good-looking he still made her heart skip a beat. She'd been instantly attracted to him the day he'd come to her parents' home for the bride-viewing. One look at those sparkling gray-green eyes, the strong jaw and nose, the tall, proud carriage, and she'd made up her mind that this was the man she wanted to marry. Fortunately he'd felt the same way about her.

She'd fallen in love the first day and fallen deeper over the years as she'd come to recognize his many sterling qualities: loyalty, sense of humor, his capacity for hard work, and mostly his love and devotion to her and Priya — and now his commitment to their unborn child.

She loved Nikhil more than anyone else in the world. But even that wasn't going to be enough to provide a buffer between his parents and her.

But such was her fate. She had been destined to marry Nikhil Tilak, a good man with not-so-good parents. As his wife, Isha had no choice but to put up with his family. In their culture, marriage was a package deal.

Opening the car door, she stepped out. "All right, then. You tell them and I'll sit there like the good little wife and pretend to be happy."

Despite her bitter sarcasm, Nikhil smiled. "Good decision."


June 2006

Isha listened to the relentless rain beating down on the roof as she coaxed Priya to finish her dinner. The monsoons were in full swing. Late evenings seemed drearier than the rest of the day for some reason, perhaps because it rained even harder, or because she dreaded dinnertime. It almost always followed the same pattern: the meal started with stilted conversation, then deteriorated into emotional arguments, and finally sank into sullen silence.

It was nearly two months since Nikhil and she had informed Ayee and Baba about the baby's gender. As expected, their reaction had been shocked silence followed by disappointed sighs.

Then one evening, they had nonchalantly introduced the subject of abortion. From that point on, it became almost the sole topic of discussion, and also a bone of contention. The relationship between the younger and elder Tilaks had begun to fracture immediately. With each passing day it became more strained, more resentful, even turbulent at times. The bitterness and animosity seemed to accelerate at about the same rate the baby grew in her womb and kicked with more intensity.


Excerpted from "The Forbidden Daughter"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Shobhan Bantwal.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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