Cuddling her baby close to her chest, Daljinder Kaur bends to kiss him gently on the forehead. Wrapped in a white flannel blanket, two-month-old Armaan is fast asleep. Seated near Daljinder, her husband Mohinder Singh Gill looks on fondly.
‘Armaan is truly the best gift we could ever get,’ he says. ‘He’s the answer to all our prayers.’
At a time when most 70-year-olds would be relaxing and enjoying their retirement, this couple in India – Mohinder Singh Gill, 79, and Daljinder Kaur, 72 – are busy parenting. Brushing aside her grey hair and adjusting her spectacles to peer at her son, Daljinder says, ‘he’s our everything.’ The boy was born through C-section two months back.
‘My advice to childless couples is to never abandon hope ... never give up, no matter what the circumstances are,’ she says. ‘Take advice from specialists and get the help that’s out there.’
The couple say the boy is the best gift they could receive after more than a 45-year struggle to be parents.
Farmer Mohinder and his wife Daljinder, a housewife, married in September 1970. They wanted to have children, but Daljinder suffered three miscarriages.
They went on to live a lonely life in their two-bedroom flat in a wealthy part of Ranjit Avenue, in Amritsar, in the northern Indian state of Punjab.
When after several years they were still childless, his traditional family suggested that he remarry so his new wife could produce an offspring.
‘However, I was determined not to marry again. I am committed to my wife and we decided to live as best as we could without children,’ he says. Over the years, taunts and veiled barbs from neighbours and family members continued. In many traditional Indian households, a family is considered complete only if the couple has a child – preferably a male child.
‘Many family members and friends also suggested I adopt a child, but I never wanted to,’ says Daljinder. ‘I was happy to accept childlessness as our fate and firmly believed that if I was meant to become a mother one day then I would, no matter what my age.’
Then three years ago, Mohinder was out on an errand in the neighbouring district of Haryana when he saw an advertisement of the National Fertility and Test Tube Baby Centre. Based in Hisar, in Haryana, the centre offered an option for childless couples.
‘We thought we’d give it one more try. So I made an appointment and we both met the doctors,’ says Mohinder.
Dr Anurag Bishnoi, 42, embryologist and owner of the Centre, says he initially refused to take up Daljinder’s case considering the possible complications associated with her age. ‘We take cases depending upon the medical condition of the woman and before proceeding, we do a battery of check-ups and tests to confirm if she is fit to conceive and carry the child. But I haven’t come across any woman of her age who was so determined to have a child.’
The doctor admits that Daljinder did look ‘weak when she first came to us, so we suggested she take a fitness test.
‘But I was pleasantly surprised to see her fitness report. She was what we term “all-fine” at her age.’
‘Her determination to have a child and the fact that she kept returning to our centre compelled me to work on her,’ he says.
Cuddling her child, Daljinder remembers those days. ‘The doctor initially refused to take my case considering the possible complications and risks at my age,’ she says. ‘But I was determined and kept going back, hoping and praying he’d agree and I could become a mother.
‘The desire to have my own child was so intense that I was prepared to take any risk. Like any woman, I always wanted to be a mother. The loneliness was killing me. I had everything – a loving husband and a reasonably good life – but nobody could fill that gap of a child. Only a childless woman can understand the pain I was going through.’ The couple’s first in-vitro fertilisation attempt in 2013 resulted in failure. The next year, they tried again, but that too was a failure.
‘We again began to believe that maybe we were not destined to have a baby,’ says Mohinder.
But Daljinder was reluctant to give up and she quickly signed up for a third attempt at the centre. And last year, 20 years after she had attained menopause, the 72-year-old woman conceived with donor egg and sperm.
The couple have been criticised by neighbours for ‘irresponsible behaviour’, with questions being raised on who will take care of the baby after their deaths.
Daljinder’s pregnancy was without any complications and on April 19 this year, she delivered a boy weighing 1.9kg.
Although the frail and grey-haired woman claims to be 72 (she reportedly told doctors she is seven years younger than her husband Mohinder, 79), because she has no clear birth records of her own she may not be able to claim the record for being the oldest mother in the world.
The current verified record for being the world’s oldest mother is held by Maria del Carmen Lara, who delivered twin boys in Barcelona in 2006 aged 66.
Dr Bishnoi’s clinic has been in the news in recent years over the age of his patients. In 2008, Rajo Devi, who was believed to be 70 years old, gave birth to a baby girl. She is said to be suffering from severe health conditions.
Two years later, another woman named Bhateri Devi, 66, gave birth to triplets.
India’s medical council has been lobbying for a bill banning fertility treatment for women over 50, citing health issues for the mother and child.
The fertility centre has been accused of helping old couples to conceive as a publicity stunt.
While the Punjab couple are rejoicing with their newborn baby boy, the decision to have a child in their 70s has attracted a mixed bag of reactions from across the globe.
While some doctors in India have slammed the fertility centre on ethical grounds for helping Daljinder to conceive so late in life, others have thrown their weight behind the couple, arguing that having a child is their right and old age should not be a hurdle to becoming parents.
Dr Narendra Malhotra, President of the Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction (ISAR), says: ‘The Gill couple has a combined age of 150 years, whereas the rulebook of the Indian Council of Medical Registry [ICMR] says that the combined age of a couple ambitious for a child through in vitro fertilisation should not surpass 100 years.
‘This decision of both the couple and doctor to help them has delivered a wrong message. The doctor involved has done this for the third time in spite of warnings. In the previous cases, one woman died after one year of giving birth; in the second case, the woman was bedridden shortly after the birth.
‘The lifespan of the Gills may not be more than seven to 10 years more and to help people of their age have a baby is unethical and might only make a child live an orphaned life. It is nothing more than cheap publicity activity as any IVF centre can do this, but to abide by the guidelines is of utmost importance. We have released an official statement and condemned such an exercise.’
Dr KK Gopinathan, gynaecologist and obstetrician, agrees. ‘While it is the right of a woman to have a child, it is also important that the rights of the child are protected when undergoing such a procedure,’ says the head of Cimar Fertility Centre in Edappal, Kerala, a well known FOGSI (Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India) recognised advanced infertility training centre in South India. The doctor believes that raising a child until he becomes a responsible adult could be extremely difficult keeping in mind the advanced age of his parents.
‘I believe that the rights of the baby are very important and should be safeguarded when considering such a procedure,’ he says, adding that the maximum age he would consider IVF treatment for a woman is 55. Dr Gopinathan admits that science has advanced to such great levels that getting a woman to conceive using IVF methods at even 90 ‘is not impossible.
‘However, doing it just because you can and then publicising it is not right,’ he says.
On his part, Dr Bishnoi, who conducted the procedure on Daljinder, defends his commitment to help women over 70 to conceive. ‘I don’t consider age as the factor when I see my patients as I’m only concerned about their pre- and post-pregnancy health. In India, couples without children don’t feel part of the society and they sometimes face terrible consequences. When I see a woman who has struggled to become a mother and has been depressed for decades, it gives me the ultimate happiness to put a child in her arms.
‘There is no better thing in this world for a couple than having a child and for those who do not, it’s the worst kind of punishment. A 60-year-old woman from a rural part of India is as healthy and fit as a 48-year-old woman with an urban lifestyle. And as long as my 60- and 70-year-old patients are fit I’ll continue to help them.’ The centre currently sees 6,000 women a month; 30 per cent of those are aged above 50.
‘Death cannot be controlled; nobody can guarantee a person’s life,’ he says. ‘We have often seen young women dying during childbirth. We cannot deny treating these women just because they might not live to see their children grow. For many, the joy of motherhood is far more important than seeing their children grow up to marry.
‘I feel it’s my duty to help women become mothers no matter what age and cherish their role as a woman.’
The Gills’ neighbours are shocked and worried for the child’s well-being. Swaraj Singh, 50, a businessman, says: ‘It’s not a very sensible decision to have a baby at this age. My parents are of their age and I see them struggle with health conditions every day. Having a child at this age will surely affect the life of the child. Who will care for the child after their deaths? ‘To have a baby in this world and raise him needs a lot of responsibility and it is unfortunate to see such irresponsible behaviour from our elders. I am not saying they would not be able to take care of him, but they are actually in an age where they themselves need someone to take care of them.’
However, Daljinder and Mohinder are unaffected by the opinions of others. ‘Who doesn’t want a baby? It’s a dream for every human to have a child,’ says Daljinder. ‘It’s easy for people to point fingers but ask any woman who has been living a life like me without a child and see how it feels.’
‘I used to get emotional whenever I saw women holding a child in their arms and playing with them. I am aware of my age but you can’t change destiny. I’m really happy; let people talk. I suffered the pain of being lonely so the criticism doesn’t affect me.
‘I don’t really feel our age will impact our baby’s childhood or how we raise him. We will ensure he goes to a good school and gets a good education. We will support him in every way until whatever age we are alive.
‘He is a blessing. We named him Armaan [wish] because he was our only desire. I feel complete now.’