I moved from room to room, swishing the duster over the furniture absentmindedly. I couldn’t apply myself to anything since the tragedy. But I knew I had to pull together for the sake of my own sanity and the welfare of my children. Inadvertently, my gaze fell on my reflection in the mirror.
“My God!” I sighed, “I can’t even recognize myself.” My face looked thin and drawn, and the eyes that stared back at me were lusterless and sunken. The bare forehead without the vermillion mark was an indication of my new status.
“No,” I decided, “I can’t let myself go to seed. I’m not the only woman in this world facing loss. Some of them are worse off than me. At least I have a roof over my head, and my family isn’t starving. And though I haven’t got many degrees to boast about, I’m sure I can find a decent job to support my children and myself.”
Hari’s death had come as a shock. He was a software engineer for a multinational company and earned a decent salary. We owned a beautiful flat and had two lovely children in the six years of our marriage. That night, he had phoned from the office. “I’m held up here, darling. I’ll be late coming home. So you go ahead and finish your dinner.”
But Hari had never come home. All that I could find out from his office the next day was that he had signed out at 10 pm the previous night. I was worried sick. Had there been an accident? Or could he have deserted me?
“No,” I thought, “Hari will never do that to me or the children. He truly loves us.”
“You never know with these men,” said a tactless neighbor. “What with all the mingling of the sexes and unearthly duty hours, secret liaisons are possible.”
I wished she wouldn’t torment me. “Have a heart, Mrs. Singh. Please don’t add to my anxiety.”
Hari’s body was found two days later in some forest in Coorg. He had been bludgeoned to death, and all his possessions—laptop, mobile, wallet and Visa card—were stolen. Whenever I visualized the mutilated body that was brought home, I couldn’t help but sob. He was so young and full of life, with many unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.
“Why did God permit such a thing to happen?” I wondered. “If robbery was the motive, why take his life?”
The Visa card had been used to bleed us dry.
“There are just two thousand and twenty rupees in your account, Ma’am,” said the bank manager. “At least the flat is in my name, and the children’s fees have been paid till end of the term.” I consoled myself.
Jobs were not easy to find. A high school education was just not enough. A college degree was the minimum credential required to be even considered.
“What job can I do? A sales girl? A domestic servant? A call girl?”
As days passed, desperation began to take over. “Now I understand why people go in for demeaning jobs,” I thought. “Desperation and dire straits! No help from siblings. Mine vamoosed as soon as the cremation was over. My in-laws can’t stop cursing me because I brought bad luck to their son. And friends are afraid I might pester them for favors. Some think I’m fair game now that I’m alone. These too are friends who wined and dined at our table many times.”
My resolve to find employment on my own became stronger. I scanned the ad columns diligently and chased after the ones I thought suitable. I must have made hundreds of phone calls. The answers were always in the negative. Either I was unqualified or inexperienced, or the jobs were reserved for minorities.
The owner of the provision store where I bought my groceries told me of his friend who had a business making and marketing ties.
“Do you think this will be below your dignity?” he asked, “The salary may not be very good, but you could negotiate. Besides, he may allow you to work from home.”
“I’ll try anything,” I said. “It is important that I find something to do soon. I don’t have much to fall back on.”
The man at the tie factory looked so dour and unfriendly. I could detect no streak of kindness on his face. My heart really missed a beat.
“Come for a week’s training,” he said, “Then if you think you can do the job, I’ll take you on. I have many women working for me from the comfort of their homes. You will be supplied with all the material you need. But what you earn depends on the skill of your hands. Each piece must be perfect, and I will pay you fifty rupees per tie.”
I had to accept, as I had no other option. It was quite a boring job. On a good day I could make up to four or five ties. But when I was in one of those tearful moods, even one tie seemed too much. The man was a stickler for quality control. Sometimes all my hard work was not good enough.
“You can do better,” he’d grumble. “Be a perfectionist. Take pleasure in the work you do.”
Each time I went to fetch my children from school, I looked longingly at a particular house on the street – a little bungalow in a garden full of pink, white and yellow bougainvillea. It belonged to a charming woman called Ruchi, the proprietress of a travel and tour agency. But Hari had always said this was just a front for a lucrative call-girl racket. “I wonder if I’ll be driven to seek her help,” I thought. “Desperation goads people into wrong decisions. No, no, I mustn’t even think on those lines.”
Then one day, quite by chance, I came upon an advertisement for a surrogate mum. The remuneration was tempting. But the magazine that carried the advertisement was almost three months old. Even so, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. With so much money I could start my own business. I wouldn’t have to work for someone else. I mulled over it for a few days. “I can do it just this once,” I convinced myself. “It would keep my children fed and clothed for some time.”
By the third day, I had made up my mind. I sat down and wrote the advertiser a letter.
“If the vacancy for a surrogate mother is still open, I could be the suitable candidate you are looking for. I’m young, healthy, good-looking, with a cheerful disposition. However, I must know about your terms and conditions. I will need accommodation for me and my children for the duration of my pregnancy, as I cannot stay here.”
I had a pleasant surprise when the couple pulled up at my house in Thane, a few days later. They had motored down from Pune. Gita reached for Rohan’s hand as they walked up to my door. I could hear their conversation through my window.
“At last!” Gita giggled.
“Now, now, don’t get your hopes too high. She might not be suitable at all. She could be a gold digger,” cautioned Rohan.
“We wanted to meet you personally and check out where you lived,” said Gita.
“Perhaps you wanted to make sure I was no gold digger,” I said, looking at Rohan.
They must have guessed I was needy, taking in my stark white sari and unadorned face. Rohan kept staring at Hari’s photograph. Then he said, “So you’re a widow, and you need the money. Fair enough.”
Gita too must have realized that I was doing this out of sheer necessity.
“How peaceful it is in here! And you’re like an Easter lily.” “I’m really sorry you can’t have children the normal way,” I said, “I’ll be glad to help.”
“Oh no. You’ve got the wrong idea. We have no physiological problems. You see, we’re both working for corporate organizations and we’re very busy people. We’re young, ambitious and prosperous—the type who keep jet-setting around the world on business or pleasure. It’s five years since we got married. There is a great deal of pressure from our families that we start one of our own,” Rohan said.
“I just don’t have time for all that,” Gita piped in, “I’m not going to interrupt my career at this stage.”
“And I don’t think I’m cut out for fatherhood. I can’t imagine coming home at night to a bawling infant and a harried wife, or spending sleepless nights rocking a cradle,” said Rohan.
“That’s strange,” I thought, “Even if I carry the baby for them, eventually it’s their responsibility to nurture and care for it.”
Rohan said they had met Dr. Mahesh, a specialist in assisted reproductive technology, at a party. During the course of their conversation he had told them about the revolution in his field.
“You can have a baby without the hassle of carrying it in your body. All you need is a surrogate mother. Many women would gladly rent their wombs if the remuneration is attractive. The child will still be genetically all yours, because the fertilization of your sperm and ovum will take place in a test tube in my lab.”
Gita and Rohan had thought about it for days.
“Let’s do it,” Gita told her husband one morning. “This is a good way to get our families off our backs.”
“Okay. If it works, who knows we might want several more,” he had laughed.
“What am I getting into?” I wondered, “I have not even known them for a few minutes, and they are telling me how mechanical they consider the entire process—like feeding material into a machine and waiting for the perfect finished product! Anyway, I’m going into this with my eyes open. It’s a once-for-all job to give me a new start in life. I’m as mercenary as they are mechanical.”
“Are you up to bearing another couple’s child?” asked Gita.
“It’s a big sacrifice, you know,” said Rohan.
“I’m doing it out of sheer necessity. I’m not qualified for any office job, and I didn’t have the foresight to train myself professionally for an eventuality like this. Being wife and mother was a full-time job at which I tried to excel.”
I couldn’t help the tears welling up in my eyes and quickly turned away. I didn’t want their pity. But they seemed to be impressed.
“You’ll not regret it. All your needs will be met,” Gita assured.
“Everything will be done legally and you will be compensated generously- Rupees one lakh ,” Rohan promised.
“A strange couple!” I thought, “They are so confident that money can buy them anything.”
The manager of the tie factory was sad to see me go. For the first time I detected some emotion on that serious face, when I told him I’d be leaving for Pune soon and would have to stop working for him.
“I’ll be back,” I assured him. “One of my relatives needs my help, and I can’t refuse. But Thane is my home, and I can’t stay away for too long.”
I didn’t expect the comforts that were provided for me. An annex in their spacious compound had specially been furnished for my use. My meals were sent from the main kitchen. I had a monthly allowance for my personal needs, and my children were admitted to a school nearby.
However, there was no interaction between the couple and me. The housekeeper saw to all my needs and even took me to Dr. Mahesh, who ran a series of tests to make sure I was the perfect vehicle for the scion of such special people. He was a kind man and made sure that I was well informed about the entire procedure.
“From the start, you must be consciously aware that the fertilized ovum implanted in your uterus belongs to Gita and Rohan.
Rohan. Unless you assume a dispassionate attitude towards it, there is every possibility of your bonding with the fetus. Remember, you are merely the vehicle.”
“I’m aware of it, Doctor…. Makes me feel cheap.”
“Come now, you are doing a service. It’s noble of you.”
“Nothing noble about it. I’m only doing it for the money.”
I had occasion to observe the general routine of the couple. They went their different ways after breakfast and returned at different times, late in the evening. Home for them was a place to rest at night and get ready for the next day. I seldom heard their voices either in laughter or in argument. It was too perfect a relationship with neither the joy nor the banter of a normal marriage. I often thought of our home, where Hari and I had so much to talk about, quarrel sometimes, or even sulk occasionally. But the reconciliation was all the sweeter.
Sometimes I wondered about the child I was carrying. What kind of future did it have? Would they take time from their busy schedules to cuddle and play with it? Or would it be brought up by a nanny, surrounded with all the luxuries their money could buy, yet lacking the one thing it required most of all—the love and affection of parents?
“It’s none of my business,” I thought, “I’m here to do a job, and then I’m on my way.”
Thankfully my children were still too young to understand what I was doing. My son did comment on my increasing girth, but with the wisdom of his age put it down to inactivity and good food.
It was difficult to while away my time when the children went off to school. So I thought I could improve my skills at tie making. I visited the shops and bought different kinds of material and cut them into suitable lengths for ties. I was getting better at the job.
“Now they look really professional,” I thought. “I must make one for Dr. Mahesh and another for Rohan. For Gita, I’ll make a scarf.”
Neither of them had bothered to speak to me or enquire about the health of their baby. I was anxious to tell them when I felt the quickening and later, when it really began to move and kick inside. But the housekeeper discouraged me.
“They get all the information they need from the doctor. You don’t have to trouble yourself.”
Even so, I expected them to be all excited when I went into labor.
“Aren’t you going to call them, Dr. Mahesh? I’m sure they would like to be here when the baby arrives.”
“In a little while,” he said. “They’re busy people, you know. I’ll call them when you are ready.”
I had just a glimpse of the little boy who came screaming his lungs out. Then he was promptly taken to the nursery.
“Perhaps they are waiting by the nursery and will take him home tonight. How I wish I could see the happy look on their faces! This little fellow is a lucky guy—literally born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
I had never been inside the main house, but I pictured a beautiful nursery all decked in blue, with little toys strung over the cradle. Perhaps Gita would want to take time off from her job to spend a few hours every day with her child.
What perplexed me was the total lack of politeness on their part. Though they were going to pay me for my role, a ‘Thank You’ would have been greatly appreciated. But they chose to treat me like a hired labourer, and that hurt.
On the third day, I was ready for discharge. Dr. Mahesh arrived with a bundle of papers for me to sign, waiving all rights to the boy. He handed me a cheque for my services. “At least they could have given me the cheque personally, rather than send it with the legal papers,” I said.
For a long time, Dr. Mahesh stared into space. Then he pulled up a chair and sat down as if exhausted by the load he was carrying.
“Are you ill?” I was concerned.
“No, but hopelessly disillusioned. And I must take the blame for bringing an unwanted child into this world,” he said sadly.
“The day you were admitted into the labor ward, I got separate messages from Gita and Rohan. They said they had changed their minds and would not want the baby after all.”
“Oh, my God!” I said, numb struck by the news.
“I’ll have to live with this guilt all my life. They were perfectly all right with their ‘Double Income, No Kids’ ideology. I put the idea of surrogacy into their minds. If I had dug deeper, I would have known that they are not parent material at all,” the doctor said sadly.
I was happy to leave Pune and return to Thane. My odyssey was over. Both the children and I would certainly miss the comforts we enjoyed for nine months. But when I entered my house and saw the picture of Hari smiling down at me, I felt so ashamed for being a pawn in the game of these heartless people. I was culpable too. “I don’t want any of their money,” I decided. “I’d rather be poor and have peace of mind. But will I ever forget that unwanted child?”
I visited the tie factory manager the following day. I had a bundle of ties which I had made in Pune and many ideas for improving the quality of his products. For the first time, I saw him grin from ear to ear when he saw me.
“So you’re back at last?” he said, as though he had been waiting for me to return. “I’ve missed you.”
“Oh, my goodness!” I thought, “The guy sure doesn’t look so dour anymore. He’s human after all.”
Dr. Eva Bell is a Doctor of Medicine and also a freelance writer of articles, short stories and children’s stories that are published in Indian magazines and newspapers, anthologies and also on the web. She is the author of two novels, one work of non-fiction and two children’s books.