Once upon a time while making UGC programmes for Doordarshan, Kishwar Desai came up with an episode called “Romancing The Maps” to teach geography. Today, with two persuasive novels in her kitty, she can afford to laugh at her first step towards bringing two disparate worlds together

In the stories of Kishwar Desai, fact and fiction become consummate bedfellows. It is the starkness of the issues she raises that pulls you in and then the characters take over. Sometime back, it was “Witness The Night”, where her gutsy protagonist Simran grappled with the issue of female foeticide. This time, it is not as a black and white as Simran faces the murky side of one of the supposed boons of science. Kishwar is exploring “Origins of Love” in the days of invitro-fertilisation and surrogacy. Beneath that beguiling smile, there is a feisty social commentator biding to arrest your attention. Is it Simran? “I wish I could be her,” asserts the journalist-turned-author.For Kishwar, the major reason for writing a character like Simran was that she was so fed up with the For Kishwar, the major reason for writing a character like Simran was that she was so fed up with the books where the women are only young and gorgeous. “I wanted to have a character who is middle aged. It is not that her life is over just because she doesn’t have a man in her life. She has the ability to enjoy herself. She has the ability to help others. We don’t see such characters in our literature but we do meet them occasionally in life. I also wanted a heroic character. I wanted somebody who is a female hero. In our literature you don’t really find a woman heroine. It’s time we create such characters because only then our children will draw inspiration from them. Sometimes, when you don’t get inspiration from real life people, it is good to get inspiration from literature. I believe Simran has something new to say. And literature travels. Wherever I have been, people want to know more about Simran. What will Simran do next?”

A career in journalism must have helped. Hailing from Jullundhar, Kishwar has seen days when there used to be pin drop silence whenever a female journalist entered the Press Club in Chandigarh. But then, she has also worked with editors like Vimla Patil who hired her when she was four months pregnant. “Being a journalist, I am aware of the problems of India. Unlike many authors, I have worked in small towns and villages and know what India is all about. While making programmes for UGC, I have been to coal mines, have enjoyed dal bhaat with locals and have reported from smaller centres for news channels. So when I started working on surrogacy, I had an idea of the characters involved. I spoke to a lot of people and read extensively. Then characters began to take shape.”

Is the issue really going out of hand? “In the U.K., every week there is a story on surrogacy. A lot of parents have put their stories on the Internet and many of them are sad. Fertility is declining because of stress and changing lifestyles but the want for one’s own kids is still very much there. And science is proving to be an ally. I wanted to have a female protagonist who doesn’t want her own kids and then juxtapose her with people who desperately want them. In India, there are a lot of women who don’t want a biological child. Sushmita Sen has proved that adoption is also a way of life. We need not be uptight ki apna hi bachcha hona chahiye. There are plenty of children in this world who need a home.” So in a sense we are reinforcing our stereotypes through science. “I am not against surrogacy but we should talk about it and keep other options open. The ethics of science are also equally important. Right now, it seems as if commoditisation of babies is going on. Also, the society should understand that it is the body of our women that is being exploited. We should protect it. Do it ethically, within the realms of law.”

She unravels the complex layers which show how poor women are being exploited. “Women become surrogate mothers because they are poor and desperate for money. When the contract is signed, the commissioning parents, doctors and the baby are very well protected but not the surrogate mother. If she dies during the pregnancy, the family only gets a compensation of one or two lakh. The researchers have told me, the priority is always to save the child. You can implant more than one embryo in the surrogate mother. Usually, doctors implant three or four embryos to make sure that at least one child comes out and extract the rest of the foetuses apparently through a process which is highly invasive.”

The draft bill is yet to be presented in Parliament and Kishwar says there are many grey areas to be looked at still. “When there will be a proper debate, a lot of issues will come out. In the meantime, what’s happening is, IVF clinics are coming up. Many foreign couples come to India because surrogacy is banned in their country. They are ready to pay but they don’t want a legal issue. In the U.K., it is very difficult to get through to a person who is ready to surrogate. There, it is actually illegal to pay somebody for surrogacy but you can have a sort of private understanding. But the mother has the right to keep the child if for some reason she changes her mind, for instance, if she believes that the commissioning parents are not responsible enough. Here, such things are not even discussed. The moment the baby is born you have to give it away. In the contract it is mostly written that the mother won’t dispute, won’t take legal action. If your health is affected, there is no recourse. Indian parents don’t even want anybody to know that they have a baby through surrogacy. It takes to be Aamir Khan to make it public.”

Will it help? “It will help only if there is a law. Doctors are operating on their own. There are around 2000 IVF clinics in Delhi alone. You don’t know where the parents are coming from. Anybody can come to the country and commission a child. If somebody wants to adopt, there is a huge legal process but the authorities don’t seem to mind when somebody comes and plants an embryo in a surrogate mother. What if some of them are paedophiles? And then, there are those bizarre clinics where the embryos come but the parents don’t come. The embryos are sent by courier to be planted in a surrogate.” She found it through a newspaper headline which said: ‘Embryos held at Mumbai airport.’ “The customs stopped it. A lot of things are happening but we don’t know why they are happening. I decided to write a novel because a novel is read by a lot many people.”

One of the critics has found the factual part much more persuasive than the fiction element. “I am puzzled by that review but then, critics are critics, we should respect what they have to save. I feel it is a powerful story.”

Another point that is raised is that she doesn’t seem sure whether she is writing for an Indian audience or she has an international reader in mind. “It is definitely for an international audience because it is an international issue. Hardly any records are being maintained. In the U.K., you can’t keep it anonymous any more. If 20 years later somebody comes back to find out his or her mother, it could be very traumatic for the person.”

Kishwar agrees Vicky Donor raised the issue of sperm donation in a very positive way. “There are some good clinics as well but there are a lot of men who are doing it for fun. There is no regulation. Recently, there was a guy, who fathered a thousand kids through donation. The children might fall in love not knowing that they are actually siblings. We are playing with nature. Vicky Donor is a lovely film but there are lot of other issues. Accidents do happen. In England, a mixed race child was born to a White because a wrong embryo was planted.” The recent observation of the Bombay High Court in the case of the death of an egg donor proves what Kishwar is talking about is happening around us. “It is a complicated process. The girls are put on heavy medication to harvest the eggs.”

Another concern is that it is turning out to be a business model. Kishwar says, in Hyderabad, there is a whole ancillary industry that has cropped up. “There is a hospital, a hostel to keep the surrogate mothers and a hotel for commissioning parents. Then there is a tour operator who takes the parents around in free time. There is an agent who tracks the possible surrogate mothers. We need to have a discussion. Can you operate in this country without the law? What if couples get divorced during the process? What if the child is born with some disorder, who will take his or her responsibility? Then there are homosexual couples.”

Being an Economics graduate, the research must have been tough. “I spoke to renowned gynaecologist, Naren Patel, who went through the medical details in the novel. Then I discussed the issue in detail with three researchers, who are working on the ground. I also met two surrogates anonymously.”

With Simran in hyper mode, Kishwar has put her book on Manto on a pause. “Right now, Simran is in Goa working out a case on young girls involving exploitation of their sexuality. Young girls don’t have a childhood anymore.” We are waiting…