The Incubation Chamber

“You have child bearing hips,” said Amitabh, as he steadied me when I tripped and nearly fell on rain washed path outside my house, just after we had returned after performing my father’s terhvi, (the thirteenth day after his death) in a nearby temple.  I flushed when he said, his hands still lingering on my waist, his eyes piercing in their intensity, forgetting the inappropriateness of the occasion, or maybe realizing it better than I did, “will you marry me Raina, and be  the mother of my children?” I seized at his words, as a dying man clutches at straws, compromised on my dreams and decided to trade   my ambitions for what life had offered me unexpectedly.

This proposal  offered an escapee from a household consisting of my widowed mother, and a sister with whom I would share the remnants of my father’s meagre insurance policy, a mountain of debts and a sadly depleted bank balance. It did not matter at that moment that Amitabh, my next door neighbour, whom I had never suspected of having any fondness for me, was only a journalist in a small town and earned  a salary which was just enough to meet my needs. But I knew that Amitabh  could spin a web and seduce me with words  “Just how many children do you want?” I had teased. “A dozen” he had retorted,  “I want a  cricket team of my own.” I had laughed and so had he at the very thought. But we stopped our family after just two children, perhaps because both were girls and we understood that that we could not afford a third child, even a longed for son. Or maybe  Amitabh cared for my health after all. But he was right on one score. Childbirth came to me quite easily.

“Almost as easily as laying eggs comes to a hen,”my best friend Roopa had sniggered when she had insisted on an epidural before having her only child, while I had given birth to my first daughter Leena without any  painkillers.  In fact I had given birth to my second  daughter Tara at home, just after the flash floods in Meerut had  blocked all the roads and paralysed the town. Amitabh had cut the umbilical cord with alacrity, as though he was an obstetrician and not a journalist. And then, after pushing the baby in my arms he had said with satisfaction, “had you being in an aircraft you would have made headlines.”

But things have changed since then. I am no longer twenty- five years, the age at  which  I gave birth to  my first-born Leena. I am thirty-five now.  I look and feel my age.  I had my third child today.  Although the actual labour was easy, for the first time I found  childbirth  exhausting. It is a boy this time. I feel like a saint with a halo around my head. Motherhood. Glorified Motherhood. I have achieved it yet again.

The hospital I am in  looks like a five star hotel. A bunch of red roses, fresh and dewy, fill up the flower vase. They are satin soft and crimson, my favourite among roses. I smell the fragrance and smile. The television is  screening Indian Idol five. I revel in the  coolness of the AC,  and the softness of the bed.  The nurse walks in with the baby just then. I turn my head away. I am exhausted.  It is not even an hour since I gave birth to him. “Here, feed the baby,” she urges. I protest. “I have just been through labour….I need to sleep.”   They had let me do that when Leena was born. But  this nurse is an avenging angel. “The colostrum from mother’s milk,” she insists, “is necessary for an infant. It saves him from diseases.” I wonder how much the milk powder lobbies would have paid her if she had been advocating formula. Anyway it is easier to obey her than to argue. I pick the baby and lift my blouse.

The room opens  just then  and Amit strides into  the room.  He is startled when he sees the baby in my arms. But he schools his face into a mask as he says solicitously, “You must be tired, why don’t you rest?”   Rest.  I have never really known rest. Which woman has?  There is nothing more that I want to do than  put my head down on the pillow and sleep. But the baby  is stuck to my bosom, like superglue. He tightens his finger around my hand. He has decided not to let go of me. In the battle of wills the baby wins. Amit turns away disappointed.

The nurse  comes to me and lifts  the baby who has now fallen asleep. I know that there are a myriad things she has to do. Take the baby’s weight. Bathe him. Vaccinate him. She smiles at me and says  conspiratorially,  “Do you want to watch Three Idiots?” “Is it on TV today?” I ask. She winks. “I rented the DVD from the DVD library, you can watch it on my laptop.”  I sigh. Everything is available on rent today. Amitabh   too had  rented a car when, on my insistence, he had taken us to Agra to see the Taj Mahal to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. “We should have gone there for our honeymoon,” I had said petulantly, when he had finally agreed.  “You know, I am not too fond of Shah Jahan, he made his wife Mumtaz Mahal undergo 14 pregnancies.  She died during  childbirth when she was expecting her 14th child.”   “It is an exhausting trip,” I had said, “maybe we should take the train to Agra. Leena is nine and Tara is just five years old”  “Don’t worry, I will rent a  car for a day,” he had said, “a luxury car, not our Maruti Zen,” and we had sped off with our girls for our first holiday in years. It had been an unforgettable holiday, in  more ways than one.

The  nurse returns with the baby and hands him over  to me.  I hold him in my arms and waves of tenderness wash over me. I never knew I would feel such a bond with him. He is magic. He lies with his eyes closed, his lips puckered, his head bald, his lips pursed.  Motherhood is such a glorious feeling. I have been a mother thrice but the magic never seems to fade. If we could have afforded it I would have willingly given my husband his cricket team.

Amit returns an hour later. But this time he is  not alone. This time  he has brought  Anita with him.  Anita looks like a mannequin and dresses like one. She is tall. Too tall, I think carpingly. She is nearly six feet. She is thin, a  mere 52 kgs.  I would have called her anorexic had I been a doctor. She has a narrow pelvis, and fibroids in her uterus. She definitely  does not have child bearing hips. She  snatches  away the baby from my arms. Her possessiveness  astounds me. But I guess it is her right.  For he  is her  son, not mine, although I have carried him  in my womb for nine long months.  A DNA test would prove that Anita  is the mother and Amit is the father of the baby. They have merely rented my womb for nine months.  I am the incubation chamber.  They chose me because  I have been a mother twice over. And they know that I find childbirth easy.  I see  them leave with the baby, without even turning back to look at me. Anita thinks I have betrayed her, by feeding the baby. It had been decided that after he was born I would have nothing to do with him. But motherhood had tempted me, and the nurse had insisted.  I know they will not be back. Anita has booked a room in the private ward of the nursing home where  she will learn to look after her baby.   I never knew it would hurt so much to let him go.  The pain I feel is heart wrenching. This is how it must feel when one has a heart attack. I feel if someone has actually squeezed my heart hard leaving me gasping for breath. I put my head down and weep. The Nurse lets me cry.

“I must go to the Ophthalmology ward,” I say  a little later, getting up from my bed suddenly. How could I have forgotten?   “You can’t,” growls the nurse, as protective of me as  a tigress guarding her cub, “you have  been through labour just now.” “I need to,” I insist,“there is nothing left for me to do over here, let me go.”   She looks at my set jaw and relents at last. But she will not allow me to walk. She  goes out to fetch a wheel chair, and seating me in it, briskly wheels me away. I pass through a maze of corridors with pastel walls, smelling of the mild fragrance of room fresheners, till we reach  the Ophthalmology ward. We enter Room No 202 where my first born Leena sits on the hospital bed. Leena is staring at the blank wall in front of her, although  there is a television set by her side screening a film. Leena turns her head towards the door when I enter and smiles when I say softly, “Leena my love.” I envelope her in my arms and crush her slight body against mine. I can smell the talc on her body. Johnson Baby Powder. She has never been able to outgrow it.

I feel a surge of emotion I cannot name.  Love? Tenderness? Hope? Fear? Pity? Or a blend of all five? She clings to me with a fierceness which is totally uncharacteristic of her.  We hold on to each other like two victims  being sucked  into a whirlpool.  “It’s alright Leena,” I assure her, “you will have the eye  operation soon.” I see a strange expression flit across her face. I realize it is fear. She is plagued by the  fear that the operation may not be successful. She has known for a year what it is to live in a world of darkness.  I have taken  the gift of sight for granted. How can I  condemn her to a sightless world?  I feel a searing anger against God, who in one single moment destroyed my world, took away my husband and daughter Tara,  and rendered Leena blind.  What madness had possessed me when I had pleaded with Amitabh to take us to Agra  for our tenth wedding anniversary?  I think of our returning Agra to Delhi that foggy morning, when visibility was near zero.

I remember   the head on collision with the truck, with  Amitabh dying at the wheel and my daughter Tara dying in the hospital later. I cannot forget my daughter Leena,   regaining consciousness  after the accident and saying, “why is everything dark, why can’t I see your face Mama, why can’t I see?”  I recall the miracle of escaping the accident without  even a scratch on my body. “A miracle,” said the doctors. A nightmare, I thought instead.  I never even had chance to mourn Amitabh  and Tara. I was crushed by the responsibility of looking after Leena and finding money for the operation  to restore her sight which had been destroyed by the shards of glass piercing her eyes. “There is a chance, a fair chance that we may be able to restore her sight,” the ophthalmologist  had said cautiously, “but it is a very delicate operation and it will cost  a great deal of money.” Money. I had not much of it when Amitabh was alive and almost nothing when my husband died.  A moment was all it had taken to let my world crash. Amitabh had left behind  no money, no LIC Policy, not much Provident fund and no pension.

Amitabh had not expected to die after ten years of marriage. He and I had hoped to grow old together. I laughed at the irony of it all. I had exchanged one prison for another. The ten years with Amitabh  had been  my years on parole.  There was nobody I could turn to. Not to my mother or my  elder sister who worked as school teacher, who had never married while I had made my escape. It was  in the waiting room outside the doctor’s clinic that I had read Anita and Amitabh’s advertisement in  a woman’s magazine seeking a surrogate mother and I realize that I had something after all. A womb to rent,  which would pay for Leena’s operation. Amit’s offer had been more than generous. Not the five lakhs which I learnt is what others were willing to offer, but ten lakhs because he knew that I needed five lakhs for Leena’s operation alone.  It was an offer  I could not refuse. “Forgive me, Amitabh,” I had whispered silently when I had  accepted Amit’s offer, “But I have no other choice.” And so I had decided to rent my womb.

Leena’s operation is scheduled for day after tomorrow.  If the operation fails I may have to rent my womb  again, and yet again. But  I know I have child bearing hips.  And I find childbirth easy.


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