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The baby question

Answers can range from the stoutly defensive to the patently insincere

brunch Updated: Jan 13, 2018 23:05 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
Rehana Munir,baby,Punjab
(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

A few years ago, I was waiting on the ground floor for the lift in my then building. When it arrived, it released a gentleman easily in his 90s, wearing a too-long silk kurta and too-short shorts. He was bent over and using a stick. We’d never met before. He asked if I lived in that building, and whether I was married. I replied in the affirmative, both being true at the time.

A fertile conversation

Then came the big one. “Bacche?” delivered from the strategic position between me and the lift door, leaving no room for escape. “No,” I said hurriedly, flashing a smile that I hoped would convey a comfortable acceptance – if not an active abetting – of the situation. Of course, it missed the mark. “Girls of your generation are infertile because of a lack of ghee. In our Punjab, we give our girls a lot of ghee. It’s the best cure.” Having imparted his secret wisdom, he moved smilingly on.

I’m no stranger to random conversations. It must be my face. I’ve been told it’s “open and accessible”. But I worry it might be too open, if nonagenarians who forget to put their pants on find it perfectly okay to give me unsolicited fertility advice. Leaving aside my alleged congeniality, something about the baby-obsession in our culture allows everyone and their grandfather to weigh in on this most private of subjects. I, for one, feel it is best addressed in the recesses of one’s own mind. And open as I am to change, my own decision on this matter has remained constant over the years. As much as I love children, I’ve never wanted to have any of my own.

Baby evangelists

‘Never’ might be taking it too far. For a few early years, I harboured the notion of adopting a child. There are so many children who need homes. I would be a parent to one. I did well to untangle the idea in my own head, thanks to some deep thinking and conversations. On probing the question, I realised my vague interest in the matter was fuelled by altruistic reasons: giving a needy child a home. Noble as the idea of adoption is, it can only be seriously considered if the impulse to be a parent is present in the first place. But this impulse, considered the natural childbearing proclivity of women, is not actually universal.

“Girls of your generation are infertile because of a lack of ghee,” an elderly neighbour told me. “It’s the best cure!”

Yet, even in 2018, everyone from an unknown neighbour to a well-informed psychoanalyst thinks of the nurturing impulse as a given. To choose not to have a child is the exception to the biological rule: everyone who can have children, will/must. Enter women like myself, who fully appreciate the biological imperatives of our sex, and yet choose to remain child free (also a limited term, though not as judgmental as childless.) I’ve been told by knowledgeable men that a woman’s body is made for procreation. How choosing not to have children messes with our internal mechanisms. How having babies will rid me of migraines, existential angst and nightmares. I’ve heard new fathers exult in the wonder of their creations and offer parenthood as The Ultimate Experience. (New mothers, in my experience, are less evangelical.) And my response ranges from the stoutly defensive to the patently insincere.

Kailash Jeevan for the soul

It’s all quite naive. Prescribing motherhood as a sort of Kailash Jeevan for the soul – the answer to everything. I often wonder, though, behind all the energetic avowals whether there isn’t an anxious search for community in this most singular of experiences. I hope enough people question their deeper reasons for having children in a frankly insane world. And yes, one needs to populate the world with happy, clever, noble souls. But the odds against such a positive reversal are so scary, that I’m putting my money on pre-existing people looking after each other rather than counting on an army of imminent saviours.

“How selfish.” “So cold.” “Such a pessimist.” “How lazy, unimaginative, soulless.” Heard these, too. In my 20s, I’d launch a vigorous counter-attack. Blurt out how having children is the selfish choice. I don’t believe that anymore. If I had a strong impulse to have babies, and the means to raise them right, I would. Though I’m not sure I’d try ghee if I faced trouble in the process.

From HT Brunch, January 14, 2018

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First Published: Jan 13, 2018 23:05 IST