On the face of it, the Sarbadhicaris are like any other urban, upper middle class family anywhere in India. There’s little Aarush, two months old now, his mother Anindita, grandparents Ila and Supriyo, and their three pet dogs.
Yes, Anindita Sarbadhicari is a single mother, but no, she is not a divorcee or widow, and neither did she have Aarush in what is quaintly called “out of wedlock”. Aarush was born of a donated sperm that his mother bought for a few thousand rupees from a sperm bank in Kolkata and fertilised with an ovum taken from her own body. That too is not very remarkable in a country where the law allows a woman, including a single woman like Anindita who wishes to have a child, to take recourse to such methods of artificial insemination. But extraordinarily, for a country that remains largely conservative in its attitude towards women and relationships, Anindita chose to make no bones about her decision and announce it to the world. Even more extraordinary, her decision was welcomed by society at large.
The announcement in late September, ,created quite a stir. Naturally, since Anindita is a fairly well-known filmmaker, a local celebrity who has continued to openly side with the left after its ouster by the Trinamool Congress. Eloquent, articulate and forthright, she is a regular on television debates and other public fora.
But remarkably, the announcement was greeted with more approval than disapproval. “Durga Puja began soon after and my mother and I were so apprehensive about what people would say that we thought we wouldn’t go to the pandal,” Anindita recalls. “In the end we decided to go for just the aarti; but as soon as we entered, the pishimas and mashimas [older women] rushed out to greet me; embraced me and told me not to worry, that they’d help me bring up my child.” She also got congratulatory phone calls from strangers living in far-off suburbs. A neighbour, someone they barely knew, came up to her father, as he was standing outside the pharmacy to buy medicines, to say that Anindita was very brave and that he wished the girls in her house had half her courage.
But Anindita says her decision to approach a sperm bank was not about courage. It’s just that “there wasn’t a man in my life by the time I decided to have a baby”. Anindita is 39 and felt she didn’t have too much time left if she was ever to have a baby.
Why then did she not adopt a child? “I wanted to experience pregnancy, to feel a child growing inside me, to give birth.” She insists that she is a romantic at heart and does not have anything against men or relationships, just marriage. “I have been madly in love; I had a German boyfriend and we were engaged.” That relationship didn’t work out as did so many others around her. “A relationship cannot be tied down to two papers and a signature,” she says with characteristic forthright eloquence.
Her desire for a child was not a fleeting one. She recalls how her doctor, Rohit Gutgutia, an eminent IVF specialist in Kolkata, thought she was insane when she first approached him. “I have had single women before Anindita coming to the clinic and saying they wanted a child — one of them, I remember, was a school principal. But on talking to them, I found that they had either come out of a relationship or their families were not supportive of the decision,” says Dr Gutgutia. So when Anindita, a single woman from the film industry, came to him, Dr Gutgutia was sceptical.
Besides talking to her family and friends, he also made Anindita go through intensive psychological counselling and physical examination. The doctors also evaluated whether she had the financial muscle to bear a child’s expenses single-handedly.
Why a sperm bank? Wasn’t she concerned about who the sperm belonged to? After all, the child would get half his genes from the father, who could have some congenital disease if not traits like insanity or criminality which are said to be passed along genetically? “That was the least of my concerns,” laughs Anindita. “I could not have been surer of the genes my child would inherit through this method than if I had had him with some lover or husband. Before choosing the donor sperm, I was asked about every physical attribute and the kind of background that I desired in my child. I told the doctors that I had only three criteria for the father of my child — he should be taller than me, should be highly intelligent and dark, since I am of a dark complexion myself.”
Brave she might be, but it was not easy for a single woman to have a child all by herself, especially through ART, or “assisted reproductive techniques”. At first, Anindita tried IUI, or intrauterine insemination, where the sperm is injected into the uterus. It’s a less invasive process, and also less expensive and painful — but has a lower success rate, especially for women her age.
She recalls how she would drive herself to the infertility clinic, a little depressed, walking in slow motion, almost from the effect of all the hormones injected into her body, and how the nurses at the clinic would look somewhat askance at her. “It takes a huge toll psychologically, especially the two weeks or so of not knowing whether you have conceived,” she says. When IUI didn’t work for a couple of cycles, Anindita resorted to IVF, which is more foolproof since fertilisation happens outside the mother’s body and the zygote (fertilized egg, culture for a few days) is injected into the uterus. No wonder, she has named her son Agnisnato — someone who has been bathed in fire (Aarush is his pet name).
Anindita would probably never have managed to go through without her parents’ support. Even today, it is her parents who are providing backup, so vital during the physically demanding first few months with a new-born, especially since Aarush was born a few weeks premature. It is Ila (mother) who stays with Aarush while I speak to Anindita, it is she who cooks the light, nutritious meals that a nursing mother ought to be having, while Supriyo (father) helps to get the medicines.
“Whatever I have been able to do in my life is because of them,” says Anindita.
Not just her parents; Anindita has a close group of friends who have stood by her through this difficult, yet exhilarating time in her life. “One of the things that Dr Gutgutia asked my friend Joy Sengupta was whether he would come to my help if I needed it in the middle of the night. I wanted to tell the doctor that in every emergency that I have faced in my life, it has always been a friend who has stood by me.” Then there was her dadabhai (older brother), actor Adil Hussain (Sridevi’s husband in English Vinglish) and his wife Kristen who counselled her after she had a miscarriage in late 2012.
Speaking of their relationship, Anindita says, “I was depressed and and remained locked inside my room with my dogs for two weeks. Dadabhai then told me that I should stop treating this as a 100 metre dash and that if I had taken a decision, I should stick with it through all the difficulties that came my way.”
Joy Sengupta — along with her parents and her friend Shahana Chatterjee, a Bengali actress, and her mother — was with Anindita every inch of the way, from picking up the donated sperm and accompanying her on her doctor’s visits to calling frequently to check on her. He was also present on the night Aarush was born. Anindita had gone into premature labour and had had to be operated upon in an emergency, especially since the doctors had discovered a large tumour in her uterus.
“That was a traumatic time, more so because the hospital’s receptionists kept insisting on a father’s name. We told them about the entire case, and even had them speak to Anindita’s doctor but it didn’t seem to have any effect,” recalls Joy. “‘We have a column for father’s name in our software and must put down a name,’ they kept saying.”
The hospital employees’ obduracy is despite the fact that the draft ART (regulation) Rules – 2010 very clearly allows single mothers to go in for artificial insemination using donor sperms (interestingly, single men don’t have similar legal permission). However, the progressive guidelines are not very well known, especially among hospital staff. “Thankfully, there was no problem with the hospital birth certificate which mentions ‘baby of Anindita Sarbadhicari’. We haven’t yet got around to procuring the birth certificate from the municipality, and for all you know there may be problems there,” Supriyo says.
A child changes many things in a parent’s life, including finances. “I am broke,” she says with a smile, having spent nearly Rs10 lakh on the treatment over the past two years. Since she will not have the freedom to take off on film shoots immediately, Anindita plans to open an acting school, along with her friends and batchmates from NSD and Pune’s FTII. She’s hoping it will give her a steady income and also the time and freedom to be with her young son.
But what about when he grows up and asks her about his father? “I’ll tell him the truth, of course,” she says. If there is unconditional love, she says, her son will have the maturity and understanding to not be traumatised by the knowledge of his unconventional parentage. “I can already foresee my son growing up on film sets, the same way that I grew up on the wings of theatres where my parents were performing.” [Anindita’s parents are actors, veterans of the left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association]. As Adil Hussain asks, “After all, what is normal?
You have naturally born children who are sexually abused by their fathers. It does not really matter whether a child is adopted or born from some procedure as long as there is unconditional love.”
That is something that little Aarush, surrounded by the love and care that his mother, grandparents and their friends and neighbours shower on him, is completely assured of.