By Aparna joshi May. 08, 2016
Leaving stigma behind in the dust of the fields they toil in, Gujarat's surrogate mothers are scripting a narrative of change.
Samuben Rabari might have gasped when she first heard what Reenaben was doing. Or she might have chosen to maintain a heavily judgemental silence about the fact that her neighbour was proposing to rent out her womb to a stranger. Reenaben, on the other hand, was fairly blasé about it. “One baby is almost a house,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. Samuben had never heard anything so scandalous. And yet, no one in Petlad – the tiny town in lush south Gujarat where rich landowners have sprawling fields of tobacco and banana – had earned the preposterous sum of ₹4.5 lakh that Reenaben Buch had been offered.
Reenaben went ahead with her plans even as her neighbours discussed the shocking idea for everything it was worth. But when Reenaben returned nine months later, tongues stopped wagging. She promptly moved her family of four into a smart rowhouse even as Samuben continued struggling to make ends meet. She kept working the fields for ₹5,000 a month, with a husband who had just lost the use of his right leg. Soon, however, under the glare of an unforgiving sun judgment melted away and her mind began to work on the possibilities.
The first task in front of Samuben was to convince her husband. She expected retaliation, but surprisingly, it didn’t take much. Tired of the unceasing struggle of keeping their family of four intact, he gave in without too much of a fight. The relatives were another matter, but Samuben suspected that the money might win over their fears of social stigma. She turned out to be right.
Finally, one fine May morning, Samuben took the state transport bus to Anand to meet Reenaben’s doctor. As she sat in the hot, noisy vehicle only one thought sustained the anxious 27-year-old: My children are going to have a better future than mine.
The Surrogates House in Lambvel is a lovely place. A beautician visits daily, and those interested can take Gujarati and English lessons.
Jonas Gratzer/Getty images
I meet Samuben when she is six months pregnant, lounging in an easy chair in the Surrogates House, munching dry fruit especially flown in by her “party”, the biological parents of the child she is carrying. The baby Samuben delivers is likely to be the 1,000th child to be born at Dr Nayna Patel’s Akanksha Clinic.
Located at a nondescript building in a dusty bylane of Anand, the clinic may just set a world record: 986 surrogate babies were born here during the last decade. Anand, which ushered in the milk revolution that empowered women in the 1970s, is well on its way to leading a wholly different kind of empowering revolution today.
India’s milk capital and nearby Lambvel, where the first state-of-the-art surrogacy centre is coming up, is where women like Samuben and others from Godhra and remote villages in Nadiad district, congregate to change their lives. They are accompanied by impassive husbands, with steely determination in their eyes. The women stay behind to be impregnated with the sperm of their party and enter a nine-month period of confinement, as the husbands go back to the village to manage the household in their absence.
The pregnancy experience Samuben is now having, is radically different from the one she had when bearing her own children. Unmarked by any kind of special care, she’d had to work in the fields up to the eighth month, delivering her children at the local government hospital, and then going right back to her duties at home and on the field. It’s not just the respite that’s completely different; it’s the whole package.
The Surrogates House where they spend their pregnancy is a lovely place. The warren of living quarters leads into a large hall, where embroidery and tailoring classes are held every day. A beautician visits daily to conduct classes on parlour services, and those interested can even take English and Gujarati lessons. The nutrition, the pampering, the different activities, the food… all of these together will mark these nine months as the most luxurious period in the lives of the surrogate mothers.
As I listen to Samuben tell me about her new life, I wonder if the grief of handing over a baby nurtured in her womb will cleave her. How will she reconcile with that? But floating around in comfortable kaftans, the surrogate mothers appear curiously detached from the life growing within them.
Many are gossiping or playing games on their mobile phones. A tailoring teacher helps Nitaben fashion her own blouse while her own five-year-old son plays with his toys. The blackboard with the day’s English lesson flaps on the wall behind, awaiting the next lesson.
A huge TV dominates the living room where the women congregate in the late evenings to watch serials in which life, seemingly far more dramatic than their own, unfolds. But unlike the serials they watch, they choose not to create drama in their own narrative.
Samuben plans to participate fully in the Shrimant Pujan, the baby shower ritualistically held in the seventh month of her pregnancy at the Surrogate House. The elaborate puja will be attended by the gloriously happy future parents – the same couple who has been sending her the rich dry fruit she is eating now. These future parents, mostly NRI couples, to which most of the 65 mothers have rented their wombs, are an active presence in their lives – attending their baby showers, sending nutritious food, exulting over baby scans.
For Samuben and her tribe, there is no confusion that this NRI woman is the actual mother of this child, not she. It’s like her friend Reenaben had said, “You need to keep your children and the baby you are carrying, separate in your mind. That is all.”
I wonder if this is all rhetoric that Samuben has been fed and whether the moment of parting will destroy her. Samuben’s moment is still three months away, but she tells me her friend Jayaben recently gave away her baby after delivery. Jayaben did feel the pangs of separation initially, but recovered within a few days.
Now, more than the baby, she is happy to describe the gold chains and gifts the American couple left for her when they departed. Gain, in the world of these women, trumps grief by a huge margin.
The future parents, mostly NRI couples, are an active presence in the surrogates’ lives – they attend baby showers, send nutritious food, and exult over baby scans.
Sam Panthaky/Getty images
I believe Samuben when she says she does not want to dwell too much on the impending separation. She is, instead, looking forward to the fact that, like Reenaben, she may now be opening her own bank account for the first time. Or even buying a house in her name, as the clinic advisors suggest, since the stamp duty for women-owned property is lower in Gujarat. She is looking forward to better clothes and better food for her two children when she resumes life after her time here.
Rested and rotund, the woman sitting in front of me with shining eyes is a far cry from the labourer coaxing a living from the field. She is already envisioning life after Surrogates House, and from where she sits today, it appears like a happy one.