As her new novel hits shelves, actress and writer Meera Syal tells Hannah Stephenson about becoming a parent again in her forties and how humour helped her beat the childhood bullies.
The subject of older mothers inevitably arises in conversation with Meera Syal, who had her son Shaan at 44, and whose latest novel features an older woman and her younger husband going to great lengths to have a child.
Yet, The House Of Hidden Mothers is not autobiographical. The main theme is surrogacy – the route the fictional couple follow to India – and the relationship that develops between them and the surrogate. The idea was inspired when The Kumars At No 42 star watched a documentary about an Indian surrogacy clinic.
“I had no idea at that point that the Indian surrogacy industry was the biggest in the world and unregulated. It was the image of this row of Indian women in saris in a dormitory, all heavily pregnant and waiting to give their babies away, that really moved me,” she says.
Syal’s own situation was very different to that of her characters. She married her Goodness Gracious Me co-star Sanjeev Bhaskar in 2005 and fell pregnant soon afterwards.
“I was very lucky. I just got pregnant immediately,” says the 53-year-old writer and actress, who already had a daughter, Chameli, from her first marriage to journalist Shekhar Bhatia.
“And that actually wasn’t easy, because I had a couple of close friends who were going through infertility problems. I remember not being able to tell either of them for some time because I felt grateful for my own good luck, but so desperately guilty.”
During her research, she spent a lot of time with a couple she found who’d had two children via Indian surrogates – “That was the most valuable part for the emotional journey” – and admits she now has mixed feelings about the process.
“I’m really quite divided about it. I can sit here with my two children and say, ‘It’s wrong, it’s exploitative, no one beyond 45 should even think about it’, but then I’m not that woman, or that man,” she says.
There are pros and cons to being an older mother, she reflects. “It’s tougher in some ways and easier in others. Tougher because you just don’t have the energy you once had. The sleepless nights are torture. You feel like you’re in some kind of seventh level of hell that no one else can understand.
“I had a son who didn’t sleep through the night for two years, whereas my first child slept through from six weeks. Go figure. It’s just the luck of the draw.
“But, on the other hand, you are more solvent. I could afford the kind of childcare that kept me sane that I couldn’t afford the first time around. You’re a bit more relaxed about things, you don’t feel obliged to join in with every mother’s group that you do on your first one.
“Where it becomes darker is thinking, ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to see grandkids from this child’ and that makes me really sad. My children have had both sets of grandparents for a long time and it’s been a really brilliant thing in their lives. Those are the long-term things that get you a bit.”
In the novel, the woman’s older daughter, who’s 19, does not take kindly to her mother using a surrogate to have another baby.
Chameli was 13 when Syal fell pregnant with Shaan. “She found it quite difficult at first, because she’d had me all to herself. There’s also that thought, ‘Er, my mother’s been having sex!’ But that didn’t last long, because once babies arrive, they’re gorgeous and it all changes. I’m really glad that my children have each other,” she says.
Her daughter still lives at home, as do most graduates, Syal observes. “Everyone I know is digging out their basement, or their loft. Everyone is becoming Indian and doing the joint family thing now. We’re just feeling a bit smug, going, ‘Yep, told you – that’s the way it works’.”
It’s one thing being an older mother, but playing Bhaskar’s grandmother, Ummi, in The Kumars was a joy, she recalls, although there are currently no plans to bring back the spoof chat show featuring a fictional British-Indian family.
“We loved that show,” she says, nostalgically. “I love it when you get parts where you don’t have to worry about whether your stomach’s hanging out, or if you’ve got a wrinkle. Pile it on. Just make me look as bad as I can possibly look!”
She and Bhaskar will be creating more laughs together, however, as they collaborate on a Goodness Gracious Me special to be shown in September, during the BBC’s India season. She’s unsure whether it will return as a series.
“There’s always interest hovering around, but it has to be the right thing. I think there’ll probably be some hybrid of Goodness Gracious Me before The Kumars. There are certainly plans afoot to do something with the Goodness Gracious Me team,” she says.
Born in Wolverhampton to Punjabi parents, who left Delhi for a brighter future in the UK, Syal used her humour as a defence mechanism to appease the bullies. “If you ask a lot of comedians, they say they developed a quick tongue because if you make someone laugh, they’re not going to punch you in the face.”
She says everyone encountered racism in that generation. “It was just part and parcel of daily life, but we hid a lot of it from our parents, because we knew they were going through their own stuff and we didn’t want to worry them.
“When I was growing up, people hadn’t seen anybody that looked like us. People tried to bully me, but I was too tough. I was a right old Midland wench.”
She graduated in drama and English from Manchester University and found acting roles during the 1980s, as well as presenting the magazine show Sunday East for the British-Asian community.
Her career took off in the 1990s, as she starred in the radio series of Goodness Gracious Me, which later transferred to TV, and then The Kumars.
Awarded a CBE in May for services to drama and literature, Syal says: “I was surprised, but the reaction of my parents made me realise how much it meant to them. For them, their children’s future and success is the reason they came to this country. It’s some sort of symbol that the sacrifice was worth it.”
She used her experiences growing up in the West Midlands for her first book, Anita And Me, which was later adapted for the screen and is now on the English literature GCSE syllabus, and found further acclaim with her second book , Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee.
Having recently finished a nine-month run at the National Theatre in Behind The Beautiful Forevers, it’s now her husband’s turn to pursue his career, as he goes off to rehearsals for an Anthony Horowitz play, Dinner With Saddam. That’s how they manage family life – when one works, the other stays at home.
“We tag-team it a bit. We don’t do theatre at the same time, because both of you being out of the house six nights a week is not fair. When one of us is doing theatre, the other will try and get screen work.
“It doesn’t always work that way – I’ve just turned down two really lovely theatre jobs because Sanjeev’s doing a play soon and it’s his turn. Much as I grit my teeth, that’s what we agreed.”
So, is there as much laughter at home as the couple have created on screen?
“Bitter, hollow laughter,” Syal says, dryly. “No, really, I think a sense of humour is one of the great glues of any relationship. Frankly, life is so absurd, you’ve got to laugh, or you’d cry.”