Holding a palette in her left hand and a paint brush in her right, Eleena Banik stands poised before her easel. Tilting her head to the left, she steps back and looks at her painting – a mother cuddling a child next to a bright yellow sunflower. A moment later she moves closer to the canvas and adds a few deft touches to the petals of the flower.
On the floor below the easel sits her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Amaravati, busy scrawling on an A4 sheet of paper. A box of crayons lies open, its contents spread all around her. A moment later, she carries her work of art – plenty of colourful squiggles – and proudly presents it to her mother. “Beautiful,” Eleena says, hugging her.
It’s 6pm and artist Eleena, 40, carries the little girl downstairs to the kitchen of her well-decorated villa in Ekdalia, an upscale area in the heart of south Kolkata, where she gets busy preparing a dinner of luchi – a deep-fried flatbread – with chicken curry and a vegetable curry. But she’s not expecting her husband to walk in after a day’s work.
The guest who is coming to dinner is her friend, film-maker Anindita Sarbadhicari, and Anindita’s one-year-old son Agnisnato.
The common thread that binds the two women is that both are single, and both had their children through assisted reproduction technology (ART) – a concept that might be gaining traction in the West but is still relatively new in India.
While Eleena had her baby with help from a doctor in Mumbai, Anindita had hers in Kolkata. What sets the two women apart in a country such as India where tradition frowns upon unwed mothers is the fact that both have gone to great lengths to make it public that they have had children through IVF and that they’re happy with their decision.
“Why did I opt to have a child through IVF? Because I believe that women should be able to choose how they want to become a mother,” says Eleena confidently. “And now that science has advanced so much, you really have so many options.”
An alumna of the prestigious Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, Eleena has held exhibitions in New York, London and Moscow, and is known for her strong views on maternity. “I used to often have heated debates with friends at the dinner table about single motherhood,” she says. “In fact, I once also wrote an article for a newspaper in Kolkata titled Let’s Grow Up where I argued that if a woman wanted, she could choose to bear a child without getting married after undergoing artificial insemination.”
So when the time came for Eleena to make a decision about having a child, she decided to practise what she preached. “I wanted to have a child of my own but I wasn’t keen to get married just for that because I had not found the right person.” A divorcee, Eleena admits that while it was relatively easy to make her friends see her point of view, it was not easy convincing her mother Shukla Banik, 74, a widow, that she was doing the right thing.
Shukla was not against her daughter’s wishes, she only wanted to make sure that Eleena was clear about what her action entailed before she went ahead and had a child.
“The questions my mother, a retired bank employee, asked me were relevant – how did I intend to bring up my child in Indian society where people inevitably enquire about the paternity of the child? Also, wouldn’t I find it financially stressful to do it all alone?”
For a couple of months, Eleena and her mother discussed these and other potential issues she could face if she went ahead with her plan. “I told her I had a reasonably good bank balance. I also told her that it was my dream to have a child of my own. Finally, seeing how desperate I was to experience motherhood, feel the baby’s movement in my stomach, hold the baby after birth… she realised I could handle pregnancy and raising a child.”
But the next step – finding a doctor to help her – was a bigger hurdle.
“I approached a well-known fertility expert in Kolkata who was shocked when I told him my plans,” she says. “He found the idea of a single woman wanting to get pregnant totally against the Indian social system and rather rudely told me to get married first.”
A few other doctors she consulted also refused to take up her case. “Once I even disguised myself as a married woman – sporting the typical red-and-white bangles Bengali married women wear – but the doctor asked me to take my husband along to the next sitting,” says Eleena. “I was surprised by their attitude because I was sure that I wasn’t doing anything illegal.” Although there is no law in India that prohibits a single woman from undergoing IVF procedures and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines state that no ART clinic should refuse to offer its services to single women, many doctors refuse to treat single women “because of their traditional mindset,” Eleena says.
Finally, the artist approached a clinic in Mumbai, which agreed to take up her case. The necessary tests were then done to deem her a suitable candidate for an IVF procedure.
However, Eleena’s first attempt with IVF in early 2011 was a failure.
“The glimmer of hope I had disappeared in a week when I had a miscarriage,” she says. Although upset, “I became more determined,” she says.
As soon as she felt better, Eleena returned to the clinic for a new session. Luckily for her the second time around was a success. “My pregnancy was incident-free and I actually enjoyed the nine months I was carrying my baby,” she says.
Having her daughter Amaravati at full term on May 6, 2012 was “one of the most beautiful moments of my life. To hold her, hear her cry, hear her gurgle… I just couldn’t stop looking at her. I felt she was the representation of all my dreams.”
Did she face any criticism or raised eyebrows from friends and acquaintances?
“Oh yes, there were quite a few situations,” says Eleena. “Once while I was pregnant, an acquaintance made a rude comment about the paternity of my child and while I was furious and wanted to rebuke her, my mother told me to just ignore her.”
Shukla, who lives with Eleena and is a doting grandmother to Amaravati, says, “I told Eleena to turn a deaf ear to it because I think there is nothing wrong in what my daughter has done; no one has any business pointing fingers at her or her child.”
Eleena too has learnt not to get agitated over such comments. “The good thing is it was the first and the last time anyone made a disparaging comment about my baby. I’ve had such positive responses to my decision from almost everybody I’ve met. I am happy with my decision and with my baby, and I think that’s what is important.”
However, Eleena knows that the road ahead is not going to be easy. “I think the toughest thing for a single mother in India is taking care of her finances,” she says. “Since I am an artist, my income depends on how much of work I’m able to sell.”
During the last stages of her pregnancy and immediately after her delivery, she was unable to get back to her easel, which meant there was a dip in her earnings.
“If the government provides some kind of social security to single mothers during this phase, it could be helpful,” she says. But rather than wait for that to happen, post-delivery Eleena has gone on to create a series of works. “My daughter was the inspiration for my new project,” she says, of a series of paintings of a mother and child for a solo exhibition titled Infinite Adventures, Yes I am a Single Mother.
The exhibition kicked off on January 21 in Kolkata and has been eliciting good reviews.
Eleena says she came to know about Anindita, 39, after reading an interview about her in a local newspaper. “I saw a report about single mums and was pleasantly surprised to read that Anindita, much like me, was single and had opted to have a baby through ART,” she says.
She contacted Anindita in December 2013 and the two have since become good friends.
Anindita’s reason for opting for a sperm donor to be the father of her child was because “there wasn’t a man in my life at the time I decided to have a baby.
“And, instead of adopting a child, I wanted to experience pregnancy – to feel a child growing inside me, to give birth, to breastfeed…” says the film-maker. A product of the well-known National School of Drama and Film and Television Institute of India, Anindita, 40, had always wanted to have children but “I was sure I’d get married only if I met the right man,” she says. Although she had a brief relationship with a German film director while working in Berlin, “it did not work out and I’ve really not been able to find the right person to marry”.
The short-film-maker says that she had made it clear to her parents – mother Ila, then 65, and father Supriyo, 68, both actors in the Kolkata-based Left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association – that she would opt for donor insemination if she didn’t find the right person to marry. “And my folks were always supportive,” she says. In fact, she says, her mother would cut out and keep any article on assisted reproduction that she came across in newspapers or magazines for her to read.
The defining moment came in 2011 when Anindita, who was 36 at the time, saw a documentary on IVF on television. “I had always thought that getting pregnant through IVF would be easy. But the women in the documentary, some of whom were in their late 30s, said that they were unable to conceive after even 11 attempts. That really scared me. I realised my biological clock was ticking and that if I delayed any longer, I might never get pregnant,” she says.
She immediately scheduled an appointment with her gynaecologist to find out more about the technology and whether she could undergo the procedure.
However, like Eleena, she faced stiff resistance from the doctor.
“The first doctor at a reputable IVF centre I visited in Kolkata turned me away, refusing to treat me because I was single,” she says. After much looking around, she finally found Dr Rohit Gutgutia, clinical director of Nova IVI Fertility, in Kolkata, who was willing to consider her case.
Dr Gutgutia admits that it was not the first time a single woman had come to him with a request to have a child.
“A few women had approached me before Anindita with the same request. But when I sent them for psychological counselling I found that mentally they were not ready to have a child,” he says. While some of them were dealing with a marital break-up others were under severe mental trauma due to personal issues.
“It appeared that they wanted to have a baby to console themselves and to take their minds off the issues that they were facing at the moment,” he says. “Anindita was the first person who could convince me with her confidence that she would make a good parent. She had her parents’ support, which is important. She also had the financial means to bring up the child on her own. So I agreed,” he says. Once Anindita found a clinic that was willing to help, the rest was easy.
Initially she opted for the relatively uncomplicated process of intrauterine insemination (IUI) – where fast-moving sperm are separated from more sluggish or non-moving sperm in a laboratory procedure called washing and then placed into the woman’s womb around the time of ovulation. The procedure takes a few minutes.
A less invasive process, it is also less expensive and painful than IVF – where the egg is fertilised by the donor sperm outside the body in a test tube and then the fertilised egg, called the zygote, is implanted in the uterus.
Anindita had a few conditions regarding the kind of sperm donor. “Apart from him being disease-free, I wanted him to be tall, intelligent and dark skinned because I have a dusky complexion and wanted the kid to look the same.”
She feels there is nothing wrong in laying down such rules.
“If a woman has the financial means and emotional strength to deal with the procedure I see no reason why she should not be allowed this choice,” she says.
Again the doctors did not have trouble agreeing to her wishes. In India many fertility clinics double up as sperm banks and the doctors quickly found a donor who matched Anindita’s demands.
Says Dr Biju Singh, Anindita’s obstetrician, “Most of the sperm donors are aged between 20 and 25 and are often students. A donor is paid between Dh60 and Dh100 each time he donates. We see to it that the donor is physically and mentally healthy, has a good IQ level, and is free of any kind of diseases, among other things.
“Anindita wanted the sperm from an intelligent man and she was provided with that.”
Anindita says that the doctor mentioned to her that with age the success rate of IUI drops drastically. But she did not want to undergo the more painful procedure of having a child by IVF.
“However, I found it very hard to deal with the disappointment when even after four cycles I did not get pregnant through IUI,” she says.
Depressed and not wanting to waste more time, she decided to opt for IVF. However, her first attempt ended in a miscarriage at seven weeks. “I did not have the heart to inform my parents at the time so I went on my own and checked myself into the hospital,” she says.
“After that I left Kolkata and spent some time at a friend’s house in Delhi to recuperate mentally and physically. A month later, I returned ready to start afresh. I was definitely not willing to give up.”
Luckily for her, the second time proved lucky.
“I quite enjoyed my pregnancy and could not wait to have my baby to hold, cuddle and pamper,” she says.
Help and support was forthcoming from all fronts.
From the day the news about her pregnancy appeared in the media – she gave interviews freely – the congratulatory notes, phone calls and support began pouring in.
“I remember attending a local festival immediately after the news about my pregnancy came out in the local and national newspapers,” says Anindita. “I was a bit apprehensive about meeting my neighbours, not sure how they would react. But I was pleasantly surprised when all my neighbours came up and congratulated me. In fact some elderly women hugged me and gave me advice on taking care during pregnancy. I was overwhelmed. All of them were very supportive and protective.”
Agnisnato was born by C-section four weeks premature. “I still remember him crying loudly as soon as he was born and I thought to myself ‘good, his lungs are OK’,” she says, smiling.
Anindita’s father Supriyo, a retired government employee who helps look after her baby when she is busy with her shoots, says, “When Anindita told me she was going for donor sperm and IVF I had one condition. I felt since she is someone who is appearing in newspapers and television all the time it is important that we tell everyone about the entire procedure when her pregnancy started showing. I felt this way she would be respected more for her decision.”
He says he is happy that he has been proved right. “Now when people come up to me and say that my daughter is very brave I feel proud.”
Anindita says that she spent Rs1 million (about Dh60,000) for the entire procedure “from my own savings, and I am broke after that.
“I am scripting my film so I really need to devote time to it. Not having a permanent job is financially difficult but not impossible. I am glad I have used this time to start my film school, Abhinay, which allows me to keep a manageable schedule and devote time to my son, too.”
A main worry for her was what she would write in the column for ‘Father’s name’ on the admission forms when it came to enrolling her son in school.
“You are expected to write the father’s name on the form in every school,” says Anindita. “But I have been in touch with some teachers and principals who have told me that their schools in Kolkata are open to my son Agnisnato. We can leave the column blank.”
Anindita says that she opted for having a baby through ART “not to make a social statement, but because I wanted to become a mother.
“And I am very happy with my decision. I’ve always wondered why only married couples can have babies. Should I be denied the joys of motherhood just because I have decided not to get married?”
Both Eleena and Anindita say that having a child was the best decision they made. “I feel so happy to return home and see my son, my own son, playing,” says Anindita.
Eleena says, “Watching Amravati doodle and play or even to just see her sleeping by my side is so fulfilling.”
Inspired by the stories of the two women, Bengali film-makers Sudeshna Roy and Abhijit Guha have made a film Ekla Chalo Re (You Walk Alone), which had its television premiere on January 18. “We took up this subject because single women becoming pregnant through donor sperm is still a taboo subject in our society,” Sudeshna says.
Both the single mothers believe that every time this issue is written about or discussed in the media it helps to create a better world for their children.
Agnisnato’s grandparents look after him while Anindita is working. Cuddling the little boy, Ila, Anindita’s mother, says “I want a granddaughter now. That would complete the family.”
Anindita smiles. “I plan to adopt a girl,” she says. “Although I’ve had my embryos frozen, I don’t think I am physically prepared to go through another IVF.”