'Society deals with you the way they do, or forms an opinion, depending on if your family is with you every step of the way.'
Motherhood did not arrive in the customary way for Rutu Parikh.
She was 36. And dearly wanted a child. Rutu recognised she had the capacity to give plenty of maternal love or "motherly instinct," as she calls it, and be a great mom.
But she didn't have a partner. And "there was no marriage."
IVF was the answer.
Ahilya was born nine years ago without a father. Rutu opted for an unknown sperm donor.
You only have to look at gorgeous Ahilya, with her big black dancing eyes, long silky brown hair and sparkling elfin face, to know that the gamble Rutu took was wonderfully worth it.
But IVF was not an easy solution.
Rutu, a Jamshedpur-raised, Mumbai-based fashion designer, who trained in London and worked with Arjun Khanna and then began creating couture under the label UR, went about her research to become a mom meticulously.
What kind of donor did she need? What if the donor claimed fatherhood later?
How would she know if she was getting healthy sperm and that the donor did not have any untoward genetic history?
Who were the finest doctors to take her down the test tube conception route? Where were the top sperm banks with sterling reputations of reliability?
Most importantly, would her family back her, because "It was very essential that everyone in the family was on the same page. We are a very close-knit family, extremely close. I have two brothers and parents. Society deals with you the way they do, or forms an opinion, depending on if your family is with you every step of the way."
But we are getting ahead of the story here...
Why did Rutu not date, find a man and settle down with him to start a family. Why choose an unconventional and bold path?
In the ten years prior to choosing IVF and single motherhood, Rutu says she did date. "I met and I dated a long time. Not one man. Several men." But she could not see a future for herself with any of the men she met.
There were some she became "friendly with" and says she "was stupid enough to think this was it." Rutu, "to be very honest," has one succinct word for all of them: Golddiggers.com.
"I got quite fed up, so I thought probably I was a magnet for losers" and she grasped, as she "matured," that "these are not the kinds of men I should have in my life."
As time went on, her chances of meeting someone became scarcer and scarcer. When she turned 36, Rutu decided to trounce the irritatingly ticking biological clock and freeze her eggs.
"I was working all the time. Who would I meet? Tell me. I would meet my fabric-wallah. All my tailors and cutters, my embroidery guys. And designers whose sexual preferences were the other way. It was always that I had no opportunity at work to meet somebody."
She considered the arranged marriage route too -- "My mother started this process when I was 22!"
Rutu explains that an arranged marriage could have succeeded: "My parents did find me loads and loads of men to marry. But at that point in time, I was keen on somebody else who I had found. So that didn't work."
She even considered having a child with one of her close friends, but realised it would not be practical, because of the issue of his fathering rights. "I did ask a childhood friend. That's a good question. I asked. They (the childhood friends she asked) were willing, but they just said that 'I want an equal part in bringing up the child or (they said then) the child will be mine'."
Her soundest recourse was IVF with a nameless sperm donor. It was the only practical option -- "better to have an anonymous one."
She preferred a donor abroad -- "the sperm is imported to India" -- firstly, because sperm collection, Rutu says, is done in a much more convenient, practical manner in countries like the UK and America. Also, a detailed genetic profile is available.
She went with Fairfax Cryobank, apparently, according to Ritu, a very respected firm worldwide. "I was very keen that we get data for at least three to four generations on the donor, so you get a general idea if there is a disease prevalent. The health of the donor was also deeply investigated. Of course, you pay and he's also paid and he is willing to do it (be tested)." And he is obliged to continue to inform her of the status of his health till the child is 18.
Secondly, Rutu was worried that while it was possible to ask an Indian donor to do various tests, she might run the risk of the father getting involved and it not being as anonymous a process as she preferred. "You don't know who will turn up, how many years later, and say 'That's my child'. You want to avoid that, always, at any stage."
The father's right to not claim fatherhood is more easily, smoothly, and perhaps legally guaranteed abroad as well -- via plenty of endless legal documentation he signs and she did too.
Plus, there are all kinds of choices offered via the sperm bank. Like the donor can decide to reveal his identity to the child at 18, only if the child would like to know who he is. Or not. "We chose an anonymous donor, who would not want to meet the child at 18 either." She felt it best, "to avoid any "emotional roller coaster" for a child at the vulnerable age of 18 and that Ahilya would live with the fact that she only had a mother and "that is what it is."
During this process of electing to be a single mom, Rutu met Dr Firuza Parikh and chose to go into the care of this well-known Jaslok Hospital fertility expert because Dr Parikh's "systematic" and "advanced" approach worked for her.
While shopping for sperm, Rutu had her own stringent requirements. "I wanted a brilliant donor and genetically healthy. I was not looking for looks at all. I was looking for brain and health" She hunted for a father who had a proven record of academic brilliance but was also not a "nerd."
Ahilya's unidentified dad is an MIT PhD. Says Rutu, "He's not stupid by any chance. He is a sportsman. I was very keen that (he should be) somebody who played sports and not a nerd. He's athletic as well. It was literally curated. And we decided on this particular donor."
In the winter of 2013, after six months of arduous donor research, Rutu was, you could say, finally pregnant via surrogacy. Ahilya, who is part Gujarati, part Welsh, part German, part American, was born on a gloriously happy day for the Parikh clan in Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai, the following August.
"My family encouraged me so much. They were with me. Like if I go for an egg retrieval, my brother would go with me. Every step of the way the entire family stood by me. Even now, they are like the de facto fathers."
What has utterly surprised Rutu the most has been the ease with which the so-called traditional Indian society has accepted her unusual path to motherhood and applauded it.
Ahilya's imminent arrival was kept a secret till her birth and then family friends, colleagues, acquaintances, some of them "celebrities," got to know and Rutu recalls that not even the most conservative of aunties had anything to offer except positive words. "They would say that we want to come and salute you...
"Not one person said: 'What did you do? Oh my god, how will you bring up this child?' Not one person... No, the aunties were coming with things for the baby. They were like, over the moon. It was it was so unexpected. I can't get over it. So, something I've done, correct."
Rutu was bowled over too by the reactions she got at Mumbai's D Ward office "from that level of society." She had to meet a doctor heading the ward and she got 10, not one, birth certificates "on a platter" to her delight without any red tape hurdles.
"They said, 'Madam, we want to salute you with flowers and cake. We cannot praise you enough for doing this'. In their own way, they were so heartwarming... Their kind of mindset and upbringing is different. Yet, they were welcoming."
It was the same at the passport office in Ranchi where they went to make Ahilya's first passport. "No issues. Absolutely zero. Firstly, they go gaping when they see her (given her cuteness). Not one person raised an eyebrow. Not one. Father's name: Dash. Mother's name: This. Middle name: Nothing.
"What we think of people, they're not. They are different. Their mind works differently. There is no such social stigma, you know. Nothing."
Matters were slightly different, awkward, when Rutu tried to admit Ahilya first into a certain Mumbai pre-nursery school, and later regular school. That's not surprising considering that many of our schools are the last bastions of 18th century orthodoxy.
Emphasising, deliberately, the word certain, Rutu has figured it all out: "Certain people of a certain generation may think "Oh god, single mother's child, what do we tell the other parents, because they belong to a certain community'. There is a certain pattern of thinking."
One of the pre-nursery schools Rutu applied to declared they were extremely open-minded about accepting the kids of single mothers -- "She (the school head) said it's fine. It's not up to me. I will take anyone. Please register her'." But then never called baby Ahilya for the interview and they were later informed the school was full.
On being queried narrowly, they confessed to not knowing what to say to other parents if they gave admission to 'fatherless' Ahilya - "'Parents ask questions to us. They will be kind of...' I said forget it." And Ahilya quickly got admission in another very well-regarded, progressive pre-nursery.
At an established, traditional south Mumbai regular school, Rutu also encountered prejudice. The school had different meet-the-parents days for the children they were admitting in primary school, depending on if they had single moms or were 'normal' children with two parents.
"They wrote openly that single parents will meet us on this day separately. And children with both parents will meet us on a separate day. I couldn't understand why. That's discrimination to what extent!"
Rutu eventually admitted Ahilya in the school of her first choice, Hill Spring International School, located at Tardeo, near Mumbai Central. Attitudes, she found, were quite different there. They were keen to know her story -- "When they started admissions, the first call that they made, to say your child is admitted, was for Ahilya."
Young Ahilya is flourishing at Hill Spring, with heaps of friends and adores her teachers. "She is so happy. If I ask her which is your happiest time of day she would say: 'When I am in school!'"
At age five, Rutu explained to Ahilya the circumstances surrounding her birth. To her astonishment, Ahilya was tearful with relief. There was a brief and uneasy time when the tyke had wondered if she was adopted.
"I think it was during lockdown. I literally took a paper and pen and said 'I'm telling you how you're born'.
"She absolutely hugged me tight and kissed me. 'Oh my God, you are my mother, you are my real mother. Because I always thought I was adopted'.
"Ahilya looks the way she does and I do not look like a foreigner. All her small classmates asked: 'How can you be your mother's daughter? You look like a foreigner. You are a foreigner. You must be adopted from some orphanage abroad'. In her little head of a four or five year old she was trying to figure it out."
"When she realised she was my own child, she was over the moon. She went to school and told everybody I am my mother's own child, and I don't have a father. And there is a donor etc. I mean, she could tell you too the whole story of how she was born."
Ahilya, Rutu describes, has blossomed into an intelligent, perceptive, fearless child, doing very well in school, showing an interest in art, singing, the environment and sports (a trait she must have inherited from her dad, along with the fearlessness, Rutu feels).
"We keep looking at her and wondering who she looks like. And we forget that there is a donor. It happens. (Have to remind) 'Arre bhai, there is a donor, who has 50 per cent contribution!'"
Ahilya's athletic streak was probably a gift from her "foreigner" donor father. Maybe the singing too, but Rutu doesn't remember him having an impressive voice during the one time that she spoke to him (The donor process allows one conversation between the owner of the egg and the owner of the sperm).
Sprightly, bubbly Ahilya, the wondrous blessing in Rutu's life, is a girl who wins hearts with her vivaciousness and charm. In school, they all love her and is not treated any differently. "She's an extremely popular girl. I'm quite happy about all that. She's doing well. Everything has worked out by god's grace."
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com