Banging an aluminium pot on the floor of the room that doubles as a kitchen, 34-year-old Kanuben Sanghod yells at her husband Ramsingh, who is sitting crouched near the doorway of their small, dusty one-room hovel in Zari Bujarg village in Dahod, Gujarat, west India.
‘I just cannot keep delivering children every year,’ she says, disgust writ large over her creased, weather-beaten face. ‘Eighteen children in 18 years of marriage! Boy or girl, I’m not going to have another child.’
Her husband Ramsingh, a farm labourer, looks away. The couple have 15 surviving children – 14 girls and a boy. Three kids died immediately after birth.
Ramsingh’s dream is to have at least two sons.
‘I have 14 daughters and only one son, two-year-old Vijay. I want one more so that the two boys would together be able to share the family’s social and financial obligation towards their sisters’ marriages,’ says the 46-year-old man, not fully aware that he is contributing to the country’s soaring population growth graph.
At 1.2 billion, India is the second-most populous country in the world after China (1.3b) and is expected to have more people than China by 2022, according to a United Nations report.
‘In our community – Sanghod – we are expected to have two or more sons,’ claims Ramsingh, who is uneducated. ‘If something unfortunate happens to one son, the other should be able to take care of the family and fulfil its social obligations, such as getting his sisters married off and arranging for the dowry. I have 12 daughters who are yet to be married. So if there is another son, he shall be able to share social responsibility with my other son.’
In this tribal community, dowry is not as prevalent as it is in some parts of India. But Ramsingh had to spend about Rs100,000 (Dh5,450) on the weddings of two of his daughters – Sevanta, 18, and Neeru, 16. ‘I raised the funds by selling some of my cattle and took loans at high rates to pay for the wedding expenses and gifts for the bride and the groom,’ he says.
Neeru is expecting her first child, even as her mother is expecting her 19th.
The couple’s third-born Saranga, 15, is the eldest unmarried daughter in the family now. Although she is aurally challenged, she helps take care of her younger siblings – Baigan, Vijay, the only son, Manisha and baby Surmta.
Four daughters – Payal, Munni, Asina and Kinjal – attend the primary school in the village, about a kilometre from their home. Two of the girls – Hansa and Joshna – look after the family’s livestock, which includes three cows, while two other daughters – Ranjan and Meena – do sundry jobs in nearby cities.
Zari Bujarg village, situated on the borders of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, has an overwhelming number of tribal people, who rely on farm work for sustenance.
Ramsingh, a small-time farmer, earns around Rs200 per day, which is barely enough to feed a family of 16. They grow seasonal vegetables on the 1.2 hectares of land that he inherited from his father. ‘Two of my daughters have migrated to the cities to work. They send in some money occasionally to help me,’ says Ramsingh.
His wife Kanuben is a homemaker, but she takes time out from doing daily chores and taking care of the kids to go out to the field to help her husband in farming. The elder kids also pitch in.
The family has a hand-to-mouth existence. The only possessions they have are a few steel and aluminium utensils, a rope cot and a tin trunk that holds some of their better clothes. The family lives in a one-room mud-walled and tile-roof house.
‘I have just two pairs of saris and we truly live a hand-to-mouth existence,’ says Kanuben. ‘The children too have very few clothes because all the money we earn goes to provide for the food.’
Though the tribal-dominated village has a majority of illiterate people, many of them did try their best to dissuade Ramsingh from having such a large number of children.
On an average, a family in the village has between five and seven kids, but Ramsingh’s family is an exception.
ND Bamniya, a government official and social worker in the village, says: ‘This is a tribal-dominated village and most people here are seasonal labourers. Ramsingh never went to school, so he has no idea that having more than two children puts extra burden not only on the family, but the entire country, which is sitting on a ticking population bomb.’
President of Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Parishad (All India Tribal Council), Somjibhai Damor, explains that though girls are not shunned in tribal societies, having a son is considered essential to carry forward the family name. ‘In our tribal society, it is believed that there should be at least one son as he takes the family forward,’ he says.
Ramsingh admits he doesn’t remember all his children’s names, but he is still determined to have another son
Though Ramsingh is financially not very sound to provide for such a bigger family, he wants one more son. There have been instances when the mother and her daughter both were pregnant at the same time, much to their embarrassment.’
The couple’s second daughter 16-year-old Neeru, who was married last year to a farmer, says she has to face humiliation in her in-laws’ house because of her ever-growing family.
‘People tease me saying: “Heard you are going to get another baby brother soon? What if you deliver before your mother?” she says.
Ramsingh’s eldest daughter 18-year-old Sevanta, who is married but is yet to conceive, doesn’t visit them often so as to avoid answering demeaning questions. ‘Several of our neighbours often humiliate me by saying: ‘‘How is it that your mother is delivering babies one after another at 34 and you are struggling to have one at 18”,’ she says. Ramsingh admits that several of his friends have suggested that he stop increasing the number of members in his family. ‘But my dream is to have two sons,’ he says.
‘The children are mine and I am not shying away from my responsibility towards them. Though there is no fixed income to my family, I’ve never faced any problems due to the large family. My financial situation is not well. So I did not think of having another wife who can deliver a male baby. But I told my wife, we must have two sons.’
The only son that they have now – Vijay (which means success) – is doted upon by his siblings and parents alike.
His sisters fall over themselves to carry him and play with him on a makeshift swing that they have put up in the yard. ‘If there is some delicacy that is prepared on a festive occasion, Vijay is the first to taste it,’ says his sister Hansa. ‘He also gets a lion’s share of it.’
‘We really love him a lot.’
Of the two litres of milk that Ramsingh’s cows provide, Vijay gets a full glass to drink. The rest of it is sold. ‘Vijay also gets to enjoy ghee with chapattis and rice, while his other siblings have to manage without that. ‘Our mother takes extra care of what Vijay eats and how he dresses,’ Hansa says.
Kanuben agrees that she has a soft spot for her only son.
‘I got married when I was 15 and always wanted to have a male child. Now I am expecting again and I would be really thankful to God if it is a healthy baby boy. My body is worn out,’ says Kanuben.
All her children were born naturally and she says she never experienced any major issues during the pregnancy or delivery of her 18 children.
‘However,’ she says, ‘I’m not willing to take any more risks after this one.’
Ramsingh on his part is keeping his fingers crossed. The farmer admits that it is hard to remember the names of all his children.
‘I have 14 children,’ he says, then quickly corrects himself saying: ‘No. No. I have 15 actually. I keep forgetting their names. It is hard to remember so many names. But I can surely recognise them and I’m proud of that.’
So would he be upset if he ends up with another girl?
‘It has to be a baby boy,’ snaps Ramsingh.
‘If it is a girl, I will try again. And if my wife is unwilling, I will take a second wife.’