On the campus of Sarder Patel University in Anand, India, there is a house where dozens of pregnant women dwell. Located on a quiet side street, the house is large and well-maintained and has a red and white mosaic of Ganesha, the Elephant God, adorning much of the upper level wall. Ganesha, the God of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles, is seated in a posture my kids call crisscross applesauce, what I once called "Indian style" but which, despite this instance of fairly precise nomenclature, is now considered politically incorrect. This place and all its inhabitants, the Indian women and their multicultural, plurinational cargo, are connected to a local fertility clinic, their rents, food and medical expenses paid by foreign couples who have contracted with them to carry and care for their gestating babies.
I was there last month to explore issues around Indian surrogacy and its international clientele, trying to understand this novel way of being in a family way. I met inspiring, kind, anxious and confused people, patients, surrogates and clinical staffers alike. It was an emotional trip, and I've spent many hours trying to digest the experience by reading through my notes, listening to my recorded interviews, and looking at photographs taken by the photographer who accompanied me, D.K. Bhaskar.
Among the images of fortresses and temples at dawn and dusk, the pictures of densely bearded Sikh worshippers in their neon temples, and multiple shots of carefully composed roadside snacks, there's one that I keep coming back to. It's of a surrogate I especially liked, a woman who smiled generously, spoke frankly, and admitted uncertainty about how carrying and delivering somebody else's children would impact her life, even while she was glad to be helping five other people: the single father paying for her stay, his twins crowding her uterus, and her two adult children, a boy and girl aged 18 and 22.
I noticed her as soon as I walked in the room. She was lying in her bed and looking out the window, a plastic water bottle wedged between her chest and belly. I approached her and Sonia, my translator, asked her in Gujarati if she'd mind being photographed. She smiled, revealing intensely crooked teeth and deep wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She said it was okay, that she was hiding nothing. She was a widow and therefore didn't have controlling or disapproving in-laws. She had leveled with her adult children about what she was doing and had their full support.
Most of the surrogates I interviewed were in their early to late 20s, although the official age range for eligibility is 22 to 40. This woman, Vendana, said she was 39, adding that she felt embarrassed to be so old and pregnant, that the last time she was pregnant, her life was so different as to be unrecognizable. But, she continued, that was a very long time ago when she was still married, part of a family and young.
I told her that in the U.S., many women wait until their late thirties or forties to have their first child. I added that I was 39, too, and that I still felt eligible to have more babies. I didn't mention that I'd be dipping into a supply of leftover embryos to do so or that I hadn't been able to conceive naturally, even during the prime of my reproductive years as Vendana had, 20 years before.
Sonia laughed as Vendana commented how different the American 39 looks from the Indian one. While not exactly a dewy beauty queen, it was clear that Vendana had been exposed to harsher weather and manual work, and fewer antioxidant rich lotions and salon visits than I. As opposed to Vendana's, my first few days on earth brought with them careful plotting on health scales, inoculations and gauzy outfits from thrilled parents and grandparents. Vendana's had been touchy, her birth occurring in a mud house, her parents and grandparents cursing her for being born a girl since it meant they'd need to scare up a dowry. Sonia added that some families consider a baby girl to be no more valuable than a stone.
Vendana had worked her whole life as a farmer, had been at it while I was learning to read, playing on jungle gyms, and refusing to eat onions just because I didn't like the word for them. She'd married and had two children as I tried out this job and that one, while I dated around and traveled the world. When we were both 30, Vendana had already lost her husband and was trying to figure out a way to raise her two kids, one of whom demanded a dowry of her own, while I was a newlywed who had recently learned she'd need to enlist expensive medical interventions to have biologically related kids.
Next month, I'll turn 40 (I'm not sure when Vendana's birthday is, but I wish her a happy one). For the most part, I've always believed age to be somewhat arbitrary, a mere number with little to do with this yoga-cized, moisturized, infertility-drug enabled mom. But meeting Vendana and comparing our spectacularly different worldly experience, I suddenly feel like I have grown way up, that I can only now realize how very blessed I am to live in a country that, for the most part, values childhood, girls, literacy, and health care. This year, as I fill my fairly unblemished lungs with air conditioned air at the trendy restaurant my husband rented out to celebrate my birthday, I will be thinking not only of the mark of time, but of place, class and gender.