This piece was published in the art and lit e-mag The Chakkar in November, 2023.
Simran averted her eyes from the single line staring back at her from the pregnancy test kit. A failed attempt, once again, like all of their attempts in the past six years. Seemed like a lifetime of waiting, an emotional roller coaster of hope and dashed dreams. She felt like a broken music record, the pin of her marital story getting stuck at the same groove, month after month.
The spotless, white tiles of the bathroom reflected her face. Was this her life? Monochromatic, mundane, moribund. Without the cooing and gurgling of a child. Without a house that sported finger-imprinted, crayon-brushed walls, and floors littered with toys.
Simran could quite imagine herself occupying centre stage in this hush-hush gossip of the neighbourhood aunties, whenever she stepped out of the house. But if she had to be honest to herself, Simran was not overly disheartened by the test result. And that was precisely what bothered her the most. Maa, Bauji, Inder, his parents, everyone had been waiting for some happy news from her end. And here she was, not feeling a thing. No disappointment, no sadness.
What do I tell Inder? And how do I face the others?
In the core of her heart Simran knew that Inder, her husband of six years, would be the least difficult to handle. Helming an automobile parts manufacturing unit in Jalandhar, Inder embodied all the traits of a good husband. In spite of his small-town upbringing, he harboured progressive views on life and marital equations. Simran still remembered how he would make his own tea and breakfast before leaving for work in the early days of their marriage, while she slept blissfully till ten in the morning. Or the fact that he never raised his voice while talking to her even if they had a disagreement. He would dutifully accompany her to her paternal home in Hamirpur village, spend time with his in-laws, carry gifts for her younger siblings, and unfailingly pick her up whenever she decided to return.
Her friends had always reminded her how lucky she was to have a loving husband like Inder. Inder, who held an engineering degree from Canada, who owned a double-storey house in the city, a swank car, a macho motorcycle. …Sigh… they all wished for someone like him! They had gushed over what had arguably been the best match for any girl in the nondescript village of Hamirpur—especially since Simran, with her close-set eyes, dusky complexion, and a mildly rotund frame, did not exactly meet the beauty standards set in her part of the world.
Simran tore herself away from her wayward thoughts and focussed on the present. She ran the tap and splashed water on her face. The cool water marginally calmed her swirling thoughts. Pouring herself a glass of water, she sat on the edge of the bed.
Inder had said he had a plan in mind, in case the results returned out negative again. Simran wondered what he had up his sleeve. A new doctor, perhaps? But Dr Poonam was family; and Inder would certainly not reach out to anyone else. Maybe he was considering a different line of fertility treatments?
A number of varied possibilities criss-crossed her mind. And almost simultaneously, she was assailed by a strange misgiving. What if, she wondered, Inder approached a baba or a tantrik? Weren’t they supposed to have psychic powers…the ability to look at one’s past, and read his mind?
Simran shuddered involuntarily. In spite of the salubrious weather outside, she felt warm and her cheeks flushed. Was she at risk? Would her past catch up with her present, and threaten to ruin her future? Her mind was a whirlpool where distant sights, sounds and voices eddied relentlessly. A wave of emotions washed over her which soon threatened to become a tsunami.
She felt confused, and angry. Where was the Simran who prided herself on her innate pragmatism, her common sense, and her judgment? Mawkish melodrama and hollow sentiments were never a part of her mental DNA. So how did a single medical incident trigger off such an intense chain of reactions?
Breaking down the walls she had carefully built around herself, Simran’s mind wavered and wandered. And she was tempted to walk down the breadcrumb trail of memories she had long kept buried in the innermost recesses of her heart.
The cold January breeze fanned the tangerine flames rising from the festive Lohri bonfire. The night sky seemed to lick the red-and-gold molten fingers, sprinkling fiery glitter all over the spacious courtyard of the Bhallas. Several neighbours and relatives had gathered here to celebrate the popular folk festival of Lohri. In this small village of Hamirpur, they had all lived long enough to blur the lines of distance and formality. Together, they formed one large extended family, united by heart, rather than by any material consideration.
All the villagers would eagerly wait for Lohri every year. It symbolized the beginning of happy harvest times and the intrinsic Bhalla bonhomie. Strains of earthy folk music wafted in. Women, dazzling in brightly-hued phulkari salwar, embroidered mojri, and long, swishing parandi flitted around, adding to the festive fervour. At a distance, a small group of men and women danced animatedly to the beat of the dhol, while the less enterprising ones huddled around the fire, savouring the signature munchies of peanut, sugarcane stalks and rewdi. Though the mercury dipped dangerously low, no one was complaining.
After all, Lohri came but once a year.
Far removed from this heartwarming social interplay were two young souls entranced in their own little universe of love. In a secluded corner of the third-floor terrace, away from prying eyes and myopic judgements, sat Simran—the eldest child of the Bhallas—and Noor, the village school master’s daughter. Together, they celebrated their partnership with the same sizzle and passion that crackled in the flames in the courtyard below.
“Do you want to go down, Simmi? To join your family celebrations? In fact, it’s getting late – I should leave, too.”
Noor spoke in a caressing, dreamy voice, one that belied the intent of her words. Her petite frame was clothed in a simple cotton attire, a stark contrast to the shimmering silks and satins on display below. But her chocolate-brown, almond eyes set in a creamy, pear-shaped face were full of kindness and warmth. A fresh gust of wind blew, dissipating her signature jasmine perfume and loosening her dense, knotted tresses.
Best friends in school and in real life, to the world outside, there was nothing unusual in their bond — except for the vast difference in their social standing. For Simran, the world was her oyster, her affluent father reared her like a princess. But Noor? She was the motherless daughter of a village teacher who could barely make ends meet. While Simran was known for her sombre, reticent nature, Noor was blessed with an ebullient persona. If Noor relished spicy, tangy savouries, Simran craved sweet, sinful desserts. While soulful Sufi music was the oxygen to Simran’s soul, Noor shook a leg to foot-tapping bhangra songs.
But eventually, assimilating all their commonalities, and tiding over all their differences, Simran and Noor found themselves bonding like two long lost souls uniting after aeons.
Like a moth drawn to a flame, Simran and Noor found themselves irresistibly drawn to each other. They met amidst the sun-kissed, yellow fields flecked with tall mustard plants. Or, inside a decrepit, red-brick villa with a colonial charm. And even atop the old, abandoned tractor rusting behind the gurudwara. Every time they held each other, a wave of raw passion surged within both. Noor’s heady jasmine perfume announced her presence even before she arrived, thus adding to the magic and the heightened longing.
Throughout the Lohri celebrations, the girls sat on a worn-out charpoy, their arms intimately entwined, staring intently into nothingness..
“There are way too many people down there. No one has even noticed my absence so far.” Simran replied with a knowing smile.
“But I need to go, Simmi. I don’t want Bauji to alert the entire village about his runaway daughter.” Noor chuckled at the thought.
In their nondescript hamlet, their romance had a unique flavour. It was not one they had willed or gravitated towards, but one that had literally thrust itself upon them three years ago—delicious, irresistible, dangerous. They both knew they could not flaunt it in public, but savour it only in such stolen moments. And such opportunities were becoming increasingly rare and risky.
The girls rose. They hugged each other passionately and Noor planted a kiss on Simran’s cheek. Then, as she bent to pick her flowing, sequinned dupatta that had been cast away in a moment of passion, her eyes met those of Vanita Bhalla. Simran’s mother.
She stood at the entrance, her body taut. Deep furrows bunched on her forehead. Her face mirrored an unpleasant mix of anger and shame.
“A-Aunty ji. Happy Lohri!” Noor said. “I was just about to l-leave. Bauji must be waiting for me…”
Noor’s voice trailed off. She hastened to gather her dupatta, purse, shawl, all together. And clumsily dropped them all again.
Simran, meanwhile, stood rooted to the spot, her face flushed, eyes downcast. Noor silently sidled out. After what seemed an eternity, Simran found her voice.
“Maa, actually we were studying together for our test tomorrow…” She couldn’t continue. The words sounded too artificial and jarring, even to her own ears.
Vanita did not speak. Instead, she held up a firm hand signalling Simran to stop. Her usually ruddy face now had a deathly pallor. With a few grey strands blowing across her forehead, her face looked gaunt. In these few minutes, she seemed to have aged a hundred years. What she saw herself screamed volumes, and she felt no need to hear her daughter’s faltering defence. For Simran, it indicated a rough patch ahead. Or was it already a battle lost?
That night was interminably long and restive. The moon climbed higher, casting a pallid gleam on the Bhalla household. There was a cache of hurtful words, there were copious tears, conflicting emotions, and deep acrimony. A grim theatre played out on the stage of life whose denouement would forever alter the course of Simran’s life.
The next few days were a hotbed of activity. Simran’s marriage was fixed. The groom held impeccable credentials. The extended family busied itself in the marriage preparations. All her pleas, her suicidal threats fell on deaf ears. Senior Bhalla was a man who brooked no dissent, especially if it came from the women of the house.
Noor, of course, was hysterical.
“But Simmi, how can you do this?” she said, when they met again on the third-floor terrace. “What about me? About us? You know you can’t make for a regular bride. You are differently wired. Why do you want to ruin all three lives, Simmi?” Noor refused to believe Simran’s account of how hard she had tried to stall the proceedings.
Simran turned away. She did not want Noor to see her blinking away her tears. Here she had just started savouring the heady euphoria of first love; the next moment, it was gone, cruelly snatched away from her for reasons beyond her control.
“Noor, I tried. Believe me, I did. But you know Bauji, he refused to even listen.” Simran choked on her tears as she spoke. “But always remember this, my dearest Noor. You are, and will always remain, my deepest and truest love, ever. God willing, we shall meet again, when the time comes.”
That was the last Simran ever saw Noor. Soon the village was rife with rumours that the respected teacher’s daughter had eloped with somebody.
Simran’s marriage remained the talk of the small village for quite a while. She moved to Jalandhar with Inder, and played the perfect wife and daughter-in-law. She performed her conjugal duties, almost with a mechanical precision. And like a machine, they were devoid of heart, of any emotions. While Inder’s raw heady machismo could make any girl swoon, it failed to tingle Simran’s synapses. But she bore it all, like the proverbial cross of the albatross around her neck.
The first two years elapsed peacefully. Inder was an avid traveller, hence Simran got to visit exotic Indian destinations that she had watched only in YouTube videos. He was a caring and patient husband while his family adored Simran. Her parents felt relieved.
During monsoon, when the jasmine plant in their garden flowered at night, the moist breeze blew in its redolence, and along with it, a gush of memories. Fragrant memories of her beloved Noor. But the ever-prudent Simran allowed herself to soak in them for a few fleeting moments before resuming her masquerade of a happy housewife. Guilty pleasures, she called them.
Once, Simran’s younger sister visited her at her marital home in Jalandhar. While catching up on various Hamirpur news and gossip, her sister recalled an incident that left Simran dumbstruck. Apparently, a distant relative’s son had come out as gay, leaving the entire community in a tizzy. Simran’s father, while denouncing the incident with the harshest of words, boasted of his own parental success with Simran.
“These are all passing fads, things that today’s young generation often experiments with,” he had said. “Remember Simran’s sudden disclosure? That she was different…that she fancied girls, and not boys? Different, my foot! Look at her today: happily married like any respectable girl should be.” Simran’s mother had gloated, too, for Simran, she believed, had been the perfectly obedient child. A dream daughter.
Incidents like these made Simran want to retch in disgust, scream in sheer exasperation. But all she did was put a lid on her bubbling cauldron of conflict, and go about her regular life as if nothing happened. At such times, she felt like a dormant volcano: calm on the surface with an inferno of molten rankling within, just waiting to erupt.
The red flags started appearing in the third year. Simran and Inder’s repeated attempts at starting a family failed. Both families began to probe deeper. Neighbours and friends discussed them in hushed tones. Visits to the clinic, hospitals and diagnostic laboratories replaced long drives and weekend getaways. And after three more years, and after a burgeoning stockpile of pills, shots, diets, semi-surgical procedures and unsolicited advice, Simran was left exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
“What are you saying, Inder? Such fancy and far-fetched things happen only in movies, not in real life!” Simran was left momentarily stupefied by Inder’s proposal. “How could you even make such a suggestion?”
“Step out from under your rock, Simran, and look around,” Inder said. He appeared strangely excited and energized, as if this were his Eureka moment. “The world is changing every day, medical technology is progressing by leaps and bounds, nothing is impossible anymore.” He spoke fast and so passionately; Simran felt this was a throwback to his younger, vivacious self, which had mellowed a little in the present times.
It was only after they had exhausted all options for a natural childbirth, Inder said, that his Poonam maasi had suggested surrogacy. “It’s a last chance at having our biological child,” he said. “Our own flesh and blood. Honestly, I feel we should give it a try.”
“Our dream can be within our reach, Simran, only if you agree. Besides,” his face clouded and his tone turned grim, “my parents are already considering my re-marriage. I have stalled that for now. They are undoubtedly fond of you…but they, too, have certain dreams and expectations from us. And we need to respect that.”
Simran’s face fell. The words ‘unexplained infertility’ screaming from the reports of all the diagnostic centres had singed her soul multiple times in recent years. But it was only today, at this moment, that she realized the actual implication of her condition. She lived in a community where a woman, however loved by her family, could cement her position only after she bore children. Without a biological offspring, her worth was limited: she was like another supermarket product, destined to be discarded after a brief shelf life.
“So, when have you planned it for, Inder?” Swallowing her pride and crushing her feeble voice of hope, Simran decided to take the plunge.
“As soon as Poonam maasi works out the finer details and dates.”
Dr Poonam Sharma was a renowned obstetrician and fertility specialist of Jalandhar who had shot to fame with her enviable record of successful surrogacies. Childless couples from all over Haryana and Punjab would flock to her well-equipped clinic to realize that one common and precious dream of becoming parents. Her sharp medical acumen bore fruit in many cases, either through fertility treatment or in extreme cases, via surrogacy.
And luckily for Inder, she happened to be his mother’s younger sibling.
“Besides, when the doctor is family,” Inder continued, “we are bound to receive personalised attention. Rest assured, she will find the best possible surrogate mother for our child. Our child, Simran!” His voice choked as he spoke, “A piece of you and me, cocooned within another woman’s body for just those nine months.” He explained that the surrogacy would be like a short transit or a pit stop, only to give them a lifetime of joy and completeness. “I can’t wait for it, Simran…can you?! I’ll call Poonam maasi right away and tell her that you finally agreed!”
Inder looked heavenward, muttered a prayer, and dashed out of the room, brimming with a child-like energy and optimism.
Simran went and stood in the balcony. The cool breeze washed over her, acting like a balm for her disturbed mind. Things were spiralling so unpredictably; she needed time—and solitude—to process her thoughts.
The next few days passed in a haze. A battery of tests, blood work, and monitoring ovulation dates took up the entire day for both Simran and Inder. Simran went about this regimen like a zombie, with an air of complete stoicism and clinical detachment. Both their families lent invaluable support in these trying times. A number of time-consuming technical creases were ironed out for them, courtesy the doctor aunt.
Inder had coordinated with the doctor, the counsellor, and the selected surrogate. He mentioned in passing that the surrogate was quite a ‘strange lady’, a poor widow seemingly in need of cash. But in the transactional world of ‘rented wombs’, this lady had, quite surprisingly, refused to discuss matters of money.
The doctor and the counsellor had both been hopeful that Simran, with her endearing nature, would be able to convince the surrogate mother to arrive at a reasonable agreement.
On the appointed morning, Simran shuffled her feet and looked around uneasily in the counselling room at Dr Poonam’s clinic. Shedding her usually nonchalant, confident façade, Simran appeared high-strung and tense, not sure of what to expect from the stranger. Inder had suggested a no-holds-barred introductory dialogue between the two ladies. It would help break the ice, he felt. Later, he and the doctor would join them.
Just as Simran was pouring herself a second glass of water, she caught a vaguely familiar whiff. She held the glass tight but couldn’t bring it to her lip. The mild jasmine fragrance seemed to linger and draw closer with every passing second, just like the drizzle of memories that threatened to drench her at this very inopportune moment.
Simran felt a shortness of breath. She wanted to bolt out of the closed room into the open, to run away from that scent, and all the things it reminded her of. But her leaden feet refused to budge. And then, as if on cue, the door swung open and she found herself facing the prospective surrogate—and her long-lost friend.
Noor. The same Noor, but a little different. Noor’s once beautiful, flawless face, now streaked with lines of age, spotted with eyes that had lost their sparkle.
The next few minutes witnessed a mish-mash of tears, regrets, questions, and complaints, often punctuated by smiles and an over whelming joy and relief, the pent-up emotional outpouring of the past six years.
Once they overcame the initial meltdown, the words flowed. Simran pelted her with a barrage of queries. She was at her wit’s end trying to make sense of this miraculous, and somewhat incredible, coincidence. But simultaneously she wondered how Noor had possibly fulfilled the surrogacy precondition, of the woman being married and having borne a child before.
Noor inhaled deeply.
“Simmi, once you abandoned me, I saw no point in staying back at the village,” Noor said. “The memories were too overpowering. The scars were too deep. Bauji got me married to the first person that came our way. I couldn’t care less. He was a middle-aged widower, a drunken lout. All of 43…to my 21! Of course, he didn’t ask for dowry, and we were so thankful for that.” Noor gave a small, wry laugh, one that drove Simran to tears. She clasped Noor’s palms tight as the latter continued.
“Those four years of married life were a living hell for me,” Noor continued. “He… Simran, he laid his hands on me. We were poor, too, Simmi. And worst of all… we lost our ten-month-old child …”
Simran allowed a moment of silence to pass between them.
“Just when I had lost all purpose of living, my husband passed away,” Noor said. “I bet I’m the only widow in human history who has actually celebrated the death of her husband! I returned to our old house in Hamirpur. Bauji was no more. Thanks to the goodwill and respect he earned, I secured a clerical job in the village school which continues to be my bread and butter even today.”
“And that, in short, is the story of my life, Simran.”
“But of all the other options available,” Simran asked, still bewildered, “why on earth did you choose to become a surrogate?”
Noor threw back her head and laughed bitterly. “It pays to have the connections at the right places, Simmi dear. There’s someone at the village who works here as an evening attendant. She remembered you and told me about your medical condition. She has all the inside news. Of course, I had to charm my way to the heart of your doctor who took pity on me and assigned me my first case… yours! She was even willing to tweak a few rules when she heard my back story.”
They continued speaking about their shared childhood memories. But now, Simran was only half attentive. A slew of uncomfortable doubts impinged upon her mind. How did Noor suddenly surface from her self-imposed hibernation? And why was she so keen to help them out, especially since money was not the impetus here? Was it a genuine intention to help, or was she trying to make a comeback—to make up for her unceremonious exit from Simran’s life?
Noor’s face had hardened by this time. Her eyes gleamed with a strange, unkind light. Simran suddenly felt she did not know this Noor at all.
“Please tell me the truth,” Simran could feel the tears welling up in her eyes, her voice quaking as she spoke. “What will you gain by coming back into my life? Destiny had made us part ways many years ago. Our paths no longer meet. Let us not bring skeletons out of the cupboard.”
“Actually Simmi, I’m quite excited about the prospect. Dr Poonam and Inder ji are already doing the paper work. I have decided to bear your child so a part of me stays with you all your life. I truly hope the little one looks like me. So, whenever you see your child’s sweet face, you will remember your beloved Noor—and her unflinching love and loyalty towards you.”
Noor faced Simran with her head held high “And yes, I’m not charging you a single rupee for my services. I want you to cement your memories of us through your child. That, Simran, will be my highest remuneration. Not a bad deal, I suppose?”
The door opened, and in walked Inder and Dr Poonam. Noor got up to greet them. Simran could hardly move, unable to comprehend this sudden twist of fate.
Simran had come to like the stability her marriage offered and genuinely wanted it to work. She had even tutored herself to accept the option of surrogacy as a last resort. It was a small price to pay, she had told herself, when compared to the endearing moments a child would bring. The family would be happy, and complete.
She was, however, not prepared for Noor’s re-entry into her life. Almost like a haunting from her past. What if Simran found herself gravitating towards Noor yet again? Besides, the very thought of their child—her and Inder’s—gestating in Noor’s body, completely demotivated her. It was she, Simran, who had crossed the Rubicon by opting for a settled married life, leaving Noor in the throes of uncertainty. Was it Noor’s turn to cast the die now? Was this vengeance, in the garb of love and concern, where an innocent new life would be made a pawn? Where Simran could only watch as a helpless bystander, tethered to her secret past, bound by familial honour.
Somewhere in the background, she heard Inder’s delighted voice and a few disjointed words. “Simran, aren’t you happy? Noor ji, we’ll be forever grateful to you for bringing light into our dark lives. We promise to look after you and…”
Simran’s head started spinning. Just when destiny seemed to offer her a sliver of hope, her vision of fulfilling her spousal obligations came to a grinding halt. This was the second time that Noor’s presence had catalysed an emotional whiplash in her life.
A nebulous scene floated before Simran’s mind: two little piggy-tailed girls going to school, hand in hand. Two young girls consumed by the flames of passion on a secluded terrace, one cold, wintry night.
PC: Nazim Jafri on Unsplash