'It's flesh trade of sorts'
Kishwar Desai's Origins of Love throws up several questions on the issue of surrogacy, with India as the nucleus. Its tentacles and implications cross borders and creeds, as Fiona Fernandez discovers, from on an email interview with the author
Was there an event that you came across/ an episode that acted as a kickstart to work on this book?
I had come across a lot of stories in the press in the UK about outsourcing ‘babies’ to India and the build-up of the whole surrogacy industry. When I came to India, I was surprised to find that there was very little discussion about it, even though most of the time extremely poor women were being used. There was no criticism — and no effort by the medical practitioners to make sure the assisted reproductive technology bill was passed — so that there was some regulation of the whole business, which is now worth, according to some estimates, more than $2 billion. These issues were disturbing, and slowly, the novel began to take shape in my mind. But this is very much an international story, and so it is based between India and the UK.
A topic such as this demands huge amounts of sensitivity and understanding; what sort of journey was it for you?
I had to pull together different strands in the story: the doctors, the hospitals, the agents who supply the surrogates, the black marketers, the sperm clinics, the surrogates themselves — and most importantly, the commissioning parents who are desperate to have children. So, I had to weave a really complex plot - this is more complicated than in my first book, as I had to bring in varied emotions and different points of view. On the one hand, there are cold-blooded people who treat it like a business but on the other hand you have the very emotional plight of the women whose bodies are being used. It is a flesh trade, of sorts — and so it had to be handled with all the moral ambiguity that the issue throws up.
Are there true-life episodes from where you have drawn, while working on the book?
Absolutely! As in Witness the Night, none of the episodes are made up but what I did was weave them into a single narrative. Even the episode of the container with embryos being held up at the airport is true — but of course, what happens with those embryos is something I connected, through fiction, to the main plot. I want the reader to get involved, emotionally, with the story, which deals with the trauma of childless couples, while pointing out the dangers of what can happen if they fall into the wrong, unscrupulous hands.
Where does India stand on the global map when it comes to surrogacy issues and rights?
India is one of the few countries — where a medical practice is going on — and thousands of babies are being born through surrogacy without any regulation. For instance, in the UK, there are strict rules and so it would be very difficult for a childless couple or a gay couple to find surrogates in the numbers and as cheaply, as they do in India. And according to the law in the UK, surrogacy has to be altruistic though there are occasional private agreements between a surrogate mother and a couple. But the law supports the surrogate in the UK, as well, and she has rights. In fact, recently there was a case where the surrogate refused to give the baby to the commissioning parents and the case went to court, where the judge supported her, against the parents. This would be impossible in India where the rights of the commissioning parents and the medical community are stronger than that of the surrogate, mainly perhaps because she is economically marginalised, anyway. In fact even the draft ART bill, which is still to be presented in Parliament is worrying as some critics feel it does not protect the surrogates enough. Besides, we should have a proper debate about what surrogacy actually means, and should it be permitted as a commercial business. That public debate has not taken place is worrying. I do hope my novel will spark that debate. Science is changing the way we have the next generation and we should be aware of the implications.