By now, Rajo Devi, 71, is used to the media circus. A year and a half after she delivered her daughter Naveen — becoming one of the world’s ‘oldest’ mothers in 2008 — Rajo has had more than her 15 minutes of fame. “Yes I got pregnant. Sab theek hai, mein theek hoon (Everything is ok, I am ok),” she says, sitting at the National Fertility Centre in Hisar, where she has come today for her follow-up treatment. But why now? “It was God’s will, he had to give us happiness now,” she replies in a tone that almost sounds well-rehearsed, before she lifts her shirt to let little Naveen suckle at her breast. “See, I still have milk,” she says, pressing her breast, in an effort to convince me that she is still ‘fit’ to be a mother. In Haryana, the search for this “happiness” is not new. And for the wealthy Jat community, the easy access to an IVF centre and the ability to pay for it has only made it easier to realise their dreams of getting heirs. And of course, age is no bar.
Across the state, the story is similiar: Rajo and Balla Ram, 75, residents of Alewa village in the district of Jind, tried hard to get a child and even spent lots of money on various treatments. When that didn’t work, Bala Ram got a second wife, a few years younger than Rajo. That didn’t work either, and the ‘trio’ gave up.
Until, they hit upon IVF.
“We had lost all hope. A neighbour told us about Kapoora Singh and Chameli Devi, 60, who got twins after this treatment. So we decided to try it,” says Balla Ram, a local Jat landlord.
And they didn’t have to go too far to decide. About 50-odd km from Alewa is the village of Budain, where Kapoora, 80, and his 60-year-old wife Chameli are known by their ‘feat’. On a hot humid afternoon, Chameli has just put her two-year-old twins — Manish and Mansi — to sleep and is in no mood to talk. “We read about it in the paper. And I got pregnant. There was some trouble after they were born, but it was all fine after one operation,” she says, after some cajoling. Chameli says she got married to Kapoora after the two-storey house in Budain didn’t get “blessed” in all of six decades and two wives.
No one blames Kapoora, of course. “God didn’t want it,” Chameli says, after 80-year-old Shakti Devi, Kapoora’s first wife, admonishes me for even suggesting so. Three months into an IVF centre Chameli got pregnant, and the village got a reason to celebrate.
At the heart of most of these cases in Haryana is the National Fertility Centre in Hisar, one of the several such centres that have sprung up all over the state in less than a decade.
And the man playing ‘god’ is Dr Anurag Bishnoi, who has been ‘handling’ these cases since 2000. Two weeks back, Bishnoi’s centre hit mainstream headlines after Bakhtavari Devi, 66, of Hisar’s Satrod village managed to give birth to triplets. Bakhtavari’s husband Deva Singh, a wealthy Jat landlord, married thrice over, but in vain. After the media blitzkrieg over Bakhtavari and her triplets at the Java Children’s hospital in Hisar, the couple has refused to speak to any media and shut themselves off.
Expectedly then, Bishnoi, 36, is on the defensive. “If they want children, who I am to say no? Childcare is not my responsibility; it’s the society’s headache. They should establish a trust for such kids to take care of them once the parents are dead,” he says.
Trust or no trust, there’s enough money to boot. Bishnoi says most of these ‘elderly patients’ – about 20 per cent — are some of the state’s most moneyed Jat landlords. Many of them own more than 10 acres of land, which is sublet to others or shared between the extended family to cultivate, he says. Their only — and sometimes the last — wish is to have their heir. “The only motivation for such couples is to continue the family name and pass on the property. Obviously everyone wants a son, but they are happy with whatever they get,” he says.
But the birth of an heir can lead to many complications as well. Fifty-five-year-old Suraj Singh (name changed on request), got a son and a daughter two years back, after he lost both his two children in an accident. “I have many schools and enough property to bequeath. So, the birth of my kids hasn’t exactly made my close relatives happy. Nobody says it, but I know the mindsets,” he says.
Besides, Suraj Singh says after his kids’ death, the neighbourhood women “would turn their faces away everytime” the couple passed by. Such social ‘pressures’, he insists, drives them to these IVF centres, even if it’s at an age where they are expected to become grandparents.
Also, there’s a case to be made for the health implications of pregnancy at this age. Says Mumbai-based infertility specialist Dr Aniruddh Malpani, “Egg donation has made it possible for women to get pregnant at any age. But the stress of pregnancy at such an advanced age can’t be ignored. We try to counsel women beyond 45, but putting an age bar is a complex issue. It has to be a case to case decision.” Moreover, the jury is still out on the recent study in France says that IVF doubles the risk of birth defect in children.
In Haryana, however, these decisions are easy. After their deliveries, Rajo and Chameli’s uteruses were removed promptly when they complained of bleeding. As for Mansi and Naveen, the respective parents have decided to get them married off as soon they are old enough. Manish will take over the family land. And Dr Bishnoi will continue to play ‘god’.