The Story Behind secret Daughter

Yashoda was three years old when I met her, the summer in college I volunteered at an orphanage in India. She was a beautiful, lithe girl with a shaved head, sparkling brown eyes and an impish grin. Though I couldn’t speak her language, we quickly found ways to communicate and soon became inseparable. She loved to be chased around the courtyard, and delighted in listening to my Sony Walkman while she danced. What Yashoda impressed upon me most, along with the other children at the orphanage, was her joyfulness.

The orphanage was home to a diverse family of more than a hundred children. They spent their days and nights together: lining up in the courtyard each morning to say their own silent prayers to various gods, sitting cross-legged in rows to eat their meals, sleeping side by side on straw mats. Their lives were simple, but seemed full and happy. I tried not to judge, to believe wholly in what I’d been told: the children were lucky to be there, it was better than being on the street. Still, I could not help think about how limited their opportunities were, about what would happen when they had to leave the orphanage at sixteen.

Having grown up in North America and visited India every few years, I was quite aware of the inequality faced by most women there, even if it didn’t materialize as much in my own educated family. One of the most disturbing manifestations is India’s gender imbalance. In most of the world, there are 105 females for every 100 males; in India, there are fewer than 93. The accepted reason for this disparity is the practice of female infanticide and abortion. It is ironic that the same advances in medical technology, such as widespread ultrasounds and safer abortions, which have led to women’s reproductive freedom in the West, have also led to their demise in the East. According to the United Nations, half a million girls in India are killed this way each year. As a result, fifty million girls and women are missing from India' s population. Fifty million.

This year, Yashoda will be twenty-one years old. The lively little girl I have pictured in my mind and in photographs is now all grown up. I’ve often wondered about her fate, but I know the odds are not in her favor. There’s little chance she got a solid education, a good job, a self-sufficient life, if she’s even survived all these years.

These ideas percolated in my mind over time, and eventually formed the underlying themes of Secret Daughter. How much of our life is destined for us -- by our gender, our economic class, or the culture we’re born into? How much is within our power to change? By the time I finally sat down to write this story, many years had passed since that summer at the orphanage. Like many people, I now see the world differently through the eyes of a parent.

This story is an alternate history for Yashoda, and the millions of India’s other forgotten daughters. Perhaps, despite the odds, Yashoda did get a break. Maybe, one day, on a city street or in a suburban mall, I’ll pass by her without even knowing it. I’d like to think so.

Children lined up for morning prayers at Childhaven International orphanage in Hyderabad, India (Summer 1991)