The silent consent

In writing about Sharada, a surrogate mother, Seena Mary Kurian highlights the bond that never fails to form between the mother and the child in her womb.

Sharada was busy wiping the crystal ware to a sparkling shine.

Occasionally, she used the same polishing cloth to wipe away the tears streaming down her face. She didn’t know why polishing crystals always brought tears to her eyes.

Every Friday, Sharada came to Ratna madam’s house to polish her large collection of crystal figures and to help with the evening party she hosted for the rich ladies from the club. But today, she was asked to pack them up carefully, and there was no sign of an evening party either.

Ratna madam had many maids; one for cooking, one for cleaning and one for giving her a body massage and hot bath in the afternoon. But none of them were allowed to touch the delicate decorations in the house.

She had once overheard madam telling her friends about her; that “she has a quiet nature and a gentle touch” and that she wouldn’t dare to leave her precious possessions in anyone else’s hands.

Quiet nature and gentle touch...is that why everyone feels like leaving their precious possessions in her care, including the life that is taking shape in her womb? Sharada wondered.

When her elder sister Bharati lay in the hospital bed in a tangle of tubes and wires, she had motioned to Sharada to pick up her baby sitting on the dirty floor. As she picked Lakshmi up and turned towards her sister, she got a glimpse of a magical smile that made Bharati akka beautiful again.

She was about to place the child next to her on the bed, when a collective wail startled her and wiped away the magic of the moment. She looked up in time to see Bharati akka’s husband falling over the bed shouting “Bharati!”...and that’s the last word he ever spoke.

When he was lifted from the bed, he did not struggle, for he had no strength left in him. It was as if, like a vampire, Bharati akka had sucked away half his life, just like she had snuffed out her mother’s, when she ran away with him years ago.

Gentle and quiet she may be, but Sharada never forgave Bharathi, not so much for her mother’s death as for her having to stop going to the convent school she loved. Sharada not only loved her books and her uniform, she loved the nuns and their uniform too. They were very neat and tidy and told stories of kindness and love.

Quite unlike her own mother who had only one story to tell; how Sharada’s father had taken one look at her, his second daughter, and left, for good. Sharada could never quite understand why she was unwanted, especially as she loved Lakshmi dearly, the little girl who was the only source of joy in her life. She wouldn’t mind having a girl baby again. She gently caressed her stomach. Girl or boy? Not that it matters.

Last time she had named the baby Lucky, while it was still in her womb. Because it had brought her and Lakshmi so many things, things she couldn’t even dream of. The couple, for whom her womb was being lent, was very generous and provided her with running water round the clock and got the leaking roof of their little hut repaired.

They brought light, sound and colours into their drab lives by way of electricity and television. The doctor who came to her house had explained everything before she made her sign all the papers.

Her half paralysed, hand-me-down husband — another precious possession Bharati akka had left for her — had also allowed his thumb print to be taken without any protest. Sharada’s meagre earnings as a housemaid in four different houses was hardly enough for food and medicine. Renting out her womb for a mere nine months had seemed a small price to pay for the benefits the agreement offered.

It was her ‘neighbourhood club’ that was her blessing and curse. The club assembled near the water pump every morning and afternoon; more out of necessity than anything else. This poor women’s club was no comparison to the dainty get-togethers Ratna madam had in her house every Friday evening.

In place of the polite talk and delicate manner of the rich ladies, they had petty fights dotted with loud shrieks of anger and laughter, quite unmindful of the world around them. No food was ever exchanged, only gossip. While they washed their dirty clothes in the open, they laid bare their private affairs for all to see and comment upon.

Sharada, the young girl with the quiet nature and gentle touch, never really enjoyed these social gatherings but they were inevitable as she did not have the luxury of running water at home. Not until Lucky brought her luck.

A few months after her hurried wedding to Bharati akka’s husband, the ladies had started pestering her. Some well-meaning women had suggested going to the lady doctor to fix the problem. She didn’t know that one had to go to a doctor to become pregnant. Getting married would bring babies, she had thought.

So she had gone to the doctor. Not that she particularly wanted to have a baby of her own. Lakshmi was quite enough. She was as good as her own. But, the taunts at the water pump had become unbearable.

The good doctor talked very kindly to her, though she felt extremely uncomfortable and shy when she examined her behind the screen. The doctor said that she was still a virgin. Sharada had heard that word before. Some prayers at the convent used to say, “Holy virgin, mother of god,” referring to Mother Mary, who was Sharada’s favourite goddess at the convent.

So, being a virgin had to be something good. She was asked to bring her husband along the next time. The doctor was clearly surprised when Sharada came in, supporting her husband on one shoulder, with Lakshmi hanging on the other hand. Another doctor was called in and he was examined behind the screen. It took a long time. Sharada felt shy on his account and wished she had not brought him along.

The doctor asked her all the details of her family. It was good that Lakshmi was too small to understand. She did not want the child to know that she was not her mother. Medicines were given and they were asked to come back after three months. This time, Sharada went alone.

The doctor explained that the treatment to get a baby can be quite expensive. Sharada understood. The three months’ worth of medicines had already taken its toll. She had to borrow from Ratna madam, who had readily given the money when Sharada told her the reason. But how can she ask again?

Then the doctor said there was a way if she was too keen. If she were to bear a baby for another woman, she could earn enough money to have one for herself later. Sharada was shocked to hear the amount offered and the additional benefits. She was asked to think it over and to discuss it with her husband. She didn’t need to do either. However, on reaching home, she did tell him about it.

Not that she expected any response from him. His silence was taken as consent. She did not worry about giving away the baby. After all, it was not a baby that she wanted, but a pregnancy just to shut the mouths of all those women who taunted her. They said that her dead sister had put a “seal of curse” on her womb. So that she wouldn’t have another baby and neglect Lakshmi. How could they think that!

From the time of her birth, she had looked after Lakshmi, giving her the warmth of her breast, if not her milk. Just then, she felt a kick in her tummy that brought fresh tears to her eyes. “Yes, baby, you know me better than anybody else; you know my feelings, don’t you?” Sharada gently patted her tummy that was beginning to show. Soon, people will start noticing.

There will be a flow of advice and warning from well-wishers. Just like last time. And, at the end of it all — Sharada didn’t want to dwell on that memory — it was far more painful than anything else in her life, even her mother’s suicide or sisters’s death.

Sharada had only a glimpse of the baby. She tried hard to bring its face to her mind, but couldn’t. It is the thin, pale hand that she remembered. It had come out of the blanket the baby was wrapped in. Maybe Lucky was trying to reach out to her. And the cry; angry and urgent! Was Lucky crying for her?

Sometimes, in her sleep, that cry would startle Sharada and she would sit up, looking around her for the baby, only to find Lakshmi sleeping next to her. As she tried to go back to sleep, hugging Lakshmi, the child would hug her tighter, as if trying to console her. When she had this love of her Lakshmi, why would she pine for a baby which was not really hers?

Sharada had always wondered whether it had been a boy. Can one tell apart little babies by their cries? The doctor had flatly refused to answer any of her questions regarding the baby. “To you, it is as good as dead; the less you know, the better for you,” the doctor had said. She wanted to scream and strangle the doctor with her bare hands.

But Sharada had a “quiet nature and a gentle touch,” didn’t she? So she had merely pretended to be interested in the contents of the basket the doctor had placed next to her. Even when her heart was pounding a war cry and her breasts were bursting with the love and milk that she wanted to shower on the baby. In spite of the injections given to stop the milk and numb the pain, the milk and the tears flowed freely.

It was not as if she wasn’t forewarned. At every visit, the doctor had reminded her about the agreement and that the baby growing inside was not really hers; and that the egg from which the baby ‘hatched’ had been taken out from another woman whose womb was not good enough for the baby to grow in; and that it was just like keeping a duck’s egg under a hen till it hatched into a duckling. But nothing had prepared Sharada for the strong maternal pull and the sense of loss she felt, while her overflowing breasts yearned for the baby’s suckling.

Now, Ratna madam was going away for a while; that is why she was asked to pack up the crystal figures carefully in plenty of cotton and tissue paper. She had also asked Sharada to pray that she came back with a healthy baby. But, madam surely could not be pregnant, could she? In the blissful days she was carrying Lucky, Sharada had plucked up the courage and suggested to madam to go meet her doctor, who would surely give her a baby.

That is when madam had confided to her about her ‘eternal curse’. How, early in her marriage, she had recklessly got an abortion so that she could travel around the world with her husband. Only to find out later that her womb had been irreparably damaged. And that all those expensive crystal figurines she had collected from various countries constantly reminded her of her folly. And that keeping them all polished and sparkling was her way of punishing herself.

Sharada had felt sorry for her. Ratna madam had been very kind and generous to her and had never spoken a word in anger. She reminded her of the nuns in her convent school and Sharada had always felt strangely comforted in her house. That was why she kept this one job, even when the doctor had insisted on her giving up work as a maid.

The couple who had borrowed her womb was very particular that Sharada remained happy and relaxed throughout the pregnancy, so that the baby would be born healthy. That’s why they made sure that, in addition to food and medicine for the whole family, Sharada had electricity and water at home, and even a wheelchair for her husband so that he could move about the house without her help.

The money given to her after the delivery had lasted for quite some time. Only when Lakshmi started school did things start to become difficult again. She wanted the best for Lakshmi and had got her admitted to a good school. Never mind that it was an expensive school.

And that Sharada had to resort to renting out her womb again. This time, there were no questions or answers, nor was there any need for lengthy explanations or words of caution. She gave her silent consent while signing on the dotted line, quite aware of the pain that awaited her in the end.

Sharada had always felt that Ratna madam deserved a baby. She had even prayed that some such miracle should happen. Maybe madam should borrow a womb to bear her baby. Is it necessary to be a foreigner to borrow a womb? Sharada didn’t know. Ratna madam is rich, and generous too. She definitely could afford it.

Perhaps she has already borrowed a womb. She could be going away just to pretend to be pregnant, till the baby arrives, wrapped in a fluffy blanket. The doctor had once told Sharada about how some foreign ladies, who borrowed wombs, would pretend that they were actually pregnant.

They would question the doctor closely on the surrogate mother’s condition and try to look the same way. Some did it to feel like a mother and bond with the baby. Others wanted people back home to think that they had the baby normally. Either way, it made good sense. So, that could be why Ratna madam was going away. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became.

Then, out of the blue, a crazy thought occurred to her.....maybe, just maybe, she, Sharada, could be carrying that very baby! Ratna madam’s baby in her womb!!
Is that possible?!

No.
But, is that impossible?
Not really.

Who would be a better choice to nurture this precious baby, if not Sharada. She placed the half-wrapped crystal lotus on her lap and hugged herself around the tummy with both hands.

“Oh, darling baby, you better be Ratna madam’s baby, then I can always be with you.” Surely, when she came back with the baby, who else would she trust the baby with, but her, Sharada, with the “quiet nature and gentle touch.”

She remembered the story of baby Moses that the nuns at the convent used to tell. The Hebrew mother who was forced to abandon her child had waited around with an aching heart to see what would happen to her baby. Then, a miracle happened.

A princess rescued that baby and adopted him. And she appointed the child’s own mother to nurse the baby. With a little timely help from his sly sister, of course. If miracles can happen now, she, Sharada, might get to nurse her dear baby at her breast. She should avoid that injection that stops the milk, though.

In a moment of excitement over the anticipated possibility, Sharada forgot herself and got up, letting the half-packed lotus slide off her lap. She heard a muted clink and to her horror found the crystal flower broken to pieces within its package.

She hoped with all her heart that madam hadn’t heard the sound. Not that Sharada was a sly girl. But, right now, she couldn’t risk madam finding her clumsy. Not when so much was at stake.

She had to be that girl with the “quiet nature and gentle touch,” to be trusted with the precious baby. Saying a silent prayer, she wrapped the package in more tissue paper and buried it deep down among the other packages in the carton. “It is for you, baby Moses, you wouldn’t mind a little slyness to help a miracle happen, would you?” she whispered, touching her stomach gently. There was no reply. The silence was
consent.

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