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Books Shilpi Somaya Gowda: ‘I wanted to explore a character who was thrust into this role of making life-and-death decisions for others’

Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Photo Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Shilpi Somaya Gowda's 2010 debut novel, Secret Daughter, was a runaway bestseller at home and abroad, selling more than a million copies around the world. Born and raised in Toronto, she now lives in California with her family. Her new novel, The Golden Son, was published last month.

Why did you write this book?

I have long been intrigued by the Indian tradition of settling disputes between individuals and families within a community. In its original form, an assembly of five respected elders was used before formal judicial systems were established in rural areas, but this custom has endured in less formal ways in many communities. I grew up hearing many stories, in my family and others, about lives that were changed: women granted divorces from abusive marriages, for example, long before there were laws in place to protect them. Of course, not all disputes were settled happily for all parties, 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. I wanted to explore a character who was thrust into this role of making life-and-death decisions for others, particularly when he'd already chosen to make such decisions in a very different way as a doctor.

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Would you rather be invisible or time travel?

Oh, I would much rather be invisible. I already love observing human behaviour in all forms: an elderly couple walking slowly together, carrying the shared weight of their years; or two colleagues having a tense standoff over a restaurant table. I love being able to imagine their conversations, their backstories. I can only imagine how much more I'd be able to glean if I could roam about unnoticed.

What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

This is a tough question, because my own children are around that age and they are both voracious readers, so my list could be very long. But if I have to narrow it down, I would say the first Harry Potter book, for several reasons. First, it contains all the classic elements of great storytelling: drama, adventure, love, ambition, betrayal, the struggle between good and evil.

Second, it is a testament to the power of human imagination: that J.K. Rowling could invent such a world out of thin air is an inspiration to every little boy and girl and what they can dream. It is also great for kids to read with their parents and then reread on their own, likely many times. Finally, it's proven to be a gateway book: Kids get hooked and devour the rest of the series, and then develop a reading habit for life.

Which books have you reread the most in your life?

Two books I have read literally dozens of times are The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, simply because it was during my adolescence,when I was learning to be a critical reader and trying to make sense of the world. Both of those books capture the intense, turbulent nature of adolescence and the transition out of the innocence of childhood. Interestingly, as an adult, I choose not to reread books as much, because I don't want to compromise my first magical experience with a text I love.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

My favourite advice for life is embodied in the poem Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann from 1927. I received it as a college graduation gift in book form, with very simple line drawings on each page. The simplicity and enduring nature of the words make it a source of wisdom I have revisited countless times and shared with many people. A couple of my favourite lines: "Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself" and "Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."

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