They lay side by side, on the enormous bed. He was curled up in the fetal position, softly snoring beside her. The marital ritual was over. The last two years had seen them grow apart, each silently brooding over their fears and frustrations, unable to communicate, and reluctant to discuss the widening fracture of their marriage. Romi lay still as a statuette, wrapped in her own dismal thoughts. She was awake for most of the night. Sleep, when it did come, was the sleep of exhaustion, neither restful nor refreshing.
“When did I last have a good night’s sleep?” she wondered. “It makes me irritable and cranky. People at the office, have begun to notice, and Jatin doesn’t care.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks, when she thought of the early years of her married life.
“They make a happy couple,” people had said. “Young, intelligent yuppies, so much in love with life and each other!”
Romi and Jatin were engineers. Both were brilliant, keenly competitive, and therefore always at loggerheads during their college days. Each vied with the other for the foremost rank. Studies were pursued with a one-track mind, hoping only to excel.
But there were fun moments too. The Engineering College functions were the talk of the town. If Jatin could dance, Romi could do it better. If Romi could sing, so could Jatin.
And so, to the other college mates, the two were a pair of ‘nuts’, always plotting to outwit each other, fencing when they should be holding hands, at war when they should be making love; ecstatic only when they were baiting each other.
But at the Graduation ceremony, the prospect of parting for good, brought about an incredible transformation.
“ Life will not be the same again, when I’ve no one to compete with,” Jatin said, “ I feel lost already.”
“ I feel the same,” mumbled Romi, “ I’m going to miss you ever so much.”
Her eyes were suddenly brimming over, and Jatin diffidently offered her his handkerchief, hoping she wouldn’t fling it back in his face. But she reached out for it and dabbed her eyes.
“Come now,” Jatin said, tenderly putting his arms around her shoulder. “It’s not the end of the world. May be we could meet sometime, have a meal together, and get into a few arguments, to keep us in form.”
“But we’re going to be miles apart, you in the east of India , and I in the west.”
“That’s not such a great distance, unless of course, you’d like to move to the east, near me.”
“ That wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.”
There were the usual rumblings in both homes. But this was just formality. Both belonged to rich and progressive families. Caste difference hardly mattered. The marriage too, was a streamlined affair, with none of the pomp and pageantry of the wealthy.
Romi and Jatin made a fine pair. They were dedicated to their respective jobs, upwardly mobile, both feet planted firmly on the ground, and anxious to make their presence felt in the changing world of engineering. Romi was also blessed with a good mother-in-law.
“Ma, I’m so glad I have you to run the place. I’m no good at housekeeping. I’d make a complete hash of it. I think I’m the luckiest girl in the world. A loving husband, a caring mother-in-law, a well run home – What more could anyone want in life!”
Mrs. Das was pleased. The girl was a rare combination of beauty and brains, culture and wealth.
Romi and Jatin had very few friends. They were not fond of socializing. An occasional bash was all they could squeeze into their hectic schedule. Then they would really let down their hair, and freak out. But usually they preferred to take off by themselves, to some remote hideout. Those were blissful moments.
As time went by, Mrs. Das began to feel a twinge of worry. Her friends threw veiled hints, that the house had been empty for too long. The patter of little feet was long overdue.
“I’ve never interfered in their lives,” she thought, “ But perhaps they won’t take too unkindly to some maternal advice.”
That evening, she broached the subject. She felt awkward to intrude into something so private.
“Don’t you both think it’s time you started a family?” she asked timidly. “People are beginning to talk.”
“To hell with people,” Jatin answered, “It’s none of their goddamned business.”
“I’d like to have a baby,” Romi said. “Perhaps we both need to see a doctor. We haven’t been using contraceptives. But the baby just didn’t materialize.”
Jatin abruptly got up and moved away.
Later in bed, Romi asked, “What made you so irritable at the dinner table?”
She could feel him tense beside her.
“Because you made me feel that I’m to blame, and that’s not fair. You wanted to humiliate me in the presence of my mother.”
“Come on. Stop imagining things. I never meant to accuse you. Obviously one of us is at fault. Or may be both. We’re both good engineers, but we certainly don’t know a lot about Biology. Perhaps we need to learn about our bodies.”
Jatin was silent. He didn’t reach out for her as he usually did.
“I’ll go and see a gynecologist tomorrow,” Romi said. “I’m not getting younger, and the sooner we have a family, the better for the children. The job can always be put on hold.”
“Yes, you do that,” he mumbled, “But I’ll be damned if I visit any doctor. You know quite well, that I’m no impotent nincompoop. If I hadn’t given you a good time in bed, you’d be the first to complain.”
Romi had never seen her husband so upset before. He was over reacting. She had cast no aspersions on his fecundity. She had only stated facts.
“After all, it takes two to make a baby,” she thought, “ And it needs to be conceived in love and not in anger.”
The Gynecologist had a string of degrees to her name. Romi had expected an elderly lady, but the woman behind the desk was perhaps her age. Romi stated her business briefly.
“ You’ve come to the right place, Mrs. Das. This is the Infertility Clinic, and we are here to help you. Let me first tell you that investigations for Infertility take a long time. We like to interview both partners together, rather than the woman only. And our investigations always begin with the male.”
Romi looked worried. A small crease appeared on her forehead. The observant doctor placed her hand over Romi’s. It felt warm and reassuring.
“I understand,” she said, “ Your husband refuses to come. You’re in good company. More than 50% of women coming to this clinic share your problem. The men think they are invulnerable.”
Dr. Rekha took a thorough history of Romi. At the end of it she said, “The chances of either of you being infertile or subfertile is equal. But there is a negligible percentage, where infertility is unexplained. Let’s start with your investigations.”
She explained to Romi, the things that needed to be done.
“ Go ahead, Doctor, you run the whole gamut of tests. I’m not nervous.”
Between Romi and Rekha, there was instant rapport. She gave the impression of being efficient, and Romi felt confident.
At home, the cold war with Jatin continued. He showed no interest in Romi’s account of her visit to the doctor. Also, his lackadaisical attitude in bed irritated her. What was once a joyful union now became a chore. Romi began wishing that night would never come. There were other changes too. They had always enjoyed each other’s company, but now Jatin went out alone. Romi didn’t complain.
One evening, she drove home early, from office, only to find that Jatin was already there. As she entered the porch, Jatin’s voice carried through the window.
“ I’m not to blame, Mother. The doctor says I’m a perfect specimen of health. It’s Romi. Either she doesn’t want to have a baby or she can’t. Professional women are always selfish and self-centered. She couldn’t be bothered with a child.”
Romi had heard enough. She quietly got into her car, and drove away.
“I need to think. Why has Jatin turned against me? And why the lies?”
After a while, she pulled up at a café.
“I’ll go in and have a cup of coffee,” she thought. “I must compose myself before I go home.”
She took the table near the window, and looked out, her mind in turmoil. At first, she was not even conscious of a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, a penny for your thoughts!” said Dr. Rekha. “Do you always go home so late?”
“Not usually. I felt like a cup of South Indian coffee,” she said.
“May I join you?” Rekha asked. “I couldn’t go home for lunch. And I still have a lot to do at the hospital. Thought I’d grab a bite before I fall to the floor.”
The doctor sensed that all was not well with Romi.
“ Are you worried about your tests? I’ve just been through the reports. Everything is fine. No structural deformities, hormones within normal limits, you’re ovulating. So you’re bound to get pregnant sooner or later unless……”
“ Unless what?”
“ Unless the fault is with your husband. You better persuade him to have his tests done. There is no need to despair. Even those with low sperm counts can now be treated. I’ve got to rush now,” Rekha said apologetically. “ Drop in soon for your results. We can talk again.”
Jatin was his normal self when she returned.
“ How come you’re late today?” he asked. “ I was wondering what kept you.”
“ I had some work to finish. Did you get back early?”
“ No, usual time,” he bluffed.
That night, he took her in his arms as though nothing had happened.
“ Have I imagined it all?” wondered Romi.
“ I like you to meet some of my friends tomorrow. We are having an informal get-together,” Jatin said.
Romi had half a mind to refuse, but seeing the imploring look on his face, she knew he was trying to make amends for a guilty conscience.
“ Okay,” she said, “ It will be nice to go out for a change.”
Romi knew many of the couples, but some were strangers. As they were all so friendly, she felt herself unwinding. Booze flowed freely, and everyone seemed to be having a whale of a time. She stuck to her glass of sherry, and refused a refill.
Jatin was quite merry, with the whisky inside him. Dinner was a sumptuous affair. This was followed by a video show, which everyone seemed to be enjoying.
“ Good Lord!” thought Romi, “ Is this a blue film or am I being unusually prudish?”
The guy sitting next to her was becoming a nuisance. She could feel his hands creeping up her thigh. She wanted to signal Jatin that it was time to leave. But horror of horrors, she found that he had already slipped out.
“ Relax Romi,” the man was saying, “ It’s all in the game. Don’t play the innocent with me. Jatin’s gone off with my wife, and it’s only fair that I have you. Now don’t say you’ve never heard of wife swapping parties? It happens all the time in high society. No strings attached. It just helps to take the monotony out of married life.”
Romi had heard enough. The video was still on, but the room was deserted except for the creep who kept pleading, “Come back, Romi. You’ve diddled me out of my fair share.”
Romi went home and fell into bed, sobbing for most of the night. She must have fallen asleep towards morning. When she awoke, Jatin was standing there, glaring at her in a rage.
“ You stupid prude! You had to spoil the evening. What’s so great about you anyway? You’re just a barren hussy. You can’t even start a family.”
This was the last straw. She would have to teach Jatin a lesson.
“ But wait, I’ll bide my time. I’ll make him eat his words,” she thought.
Though she was fuming inside, Romi pretended that all was well between them. Jatin appeared contrite, and blamed his behavior on the booze.
A few weeks later, Jatin phoned home from office. He was very busy with a project, and would be working late.
“ Romi, please do me a favor. I have left some diagrams in my drawer. I need them urgently. Could you send them over?”
She was rummaging through the files, when she came across a doctor’s bill. Why had Jatin been to a doctor, when he had never been ill for a single day since their marriage?
Then it struck her. Perhaps he had gone for investigations too. The date showed that it was nearly a year old. Romi took down the name, address, and telephone number of the doctor. She didn’t know what she would do. To barge in on the doctor, and ask for details about her husband’s investigations, may not be the wise thing to do. He could claim the privilege of confidentiality in the doctor-patient relationship, or he could report the matter to Jatin. Perhaps Dr. Rekha could help. Romi decided to seek her advice.
“ Yes, I know Dr. Rohit Duggal. We were classmates,” Rekha said. “ Perhaps he’ll oblige, though it’s ages since we talked to each other. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try.”
Dr. Duggal was pleased to hear Rekha’s voice.
“ What a pleasant surprise, young lady! It’s wonderful to hear your voice again. But I know you aren’t calling to inquire after my health. What can I do for you?”
“ I have your patient Mr. Jatin Das sitting beside me,” Rekha bluffed. “ He has been tested for Infertility, and was certified cent per cent normal by you. Could I have the reports of his tests?”
“ Wait a minute. I’ll have to look up the books. When did he say he came to me?”
Rekha gave him the month when the bill was issued.
It took only a few minutes, for Dr. Duggal to give her the reports.
“ What did you say Mr. Jatin told you? That the tests were within normal limits?” the doctor asked Rekha. “ If it’s the same guy who came to me, he’s azoospermic. I advised him to have a testicular biopsy. But he never came back. You better send him back to me,” said Dr. Duggal.
“ Yes, I will. And thanks so much for the information. You’ve saved his wife unnecessary investigations.”
“ What did he say?” Romi asked anxiously.
“ Your husband has no sperms at all.”
“ I can’t believe it. He’s healthy, and certainly not lacking in libido.”
“ There is a difference between libido and infertility, Mrs. Das. Now there’s only one way you can have a baby – artificial insemination by a donor.”
Romi’s face flushed with excitement. “ That’s exactly what I’ll do. So go ahead, Doctor.”
“ But your husband will have to consent. He could create problems later, like charging you with infidelity, or suing me for impregnating you with sperm from a bank.”
“ How can he consent, when he refuses to acknowledge that he is sterile? You’ve got to help me, Doctor,” she pleaded.
“ And lay my head on a chopping block?”
“ Let me tell you something. Jatin is so desperate that he took me for a wife-swapping party, and was happy to have me team up with his friend, for the night. That is what made me suspicious. He thought he could fool the world, if I did succeed in getting myself pregnant.”
“ Well, if that’s the case, I’ll stick my neck out for you.”
A few months later, when Romi announced her blessed state to Jatin, he all but collapsed with surprise. But there was not much he could do. He had bragged about his potency to Romi, and sworn to his mother that he was not at fault. There was no way he could back track now. He was a prisoner of his own lie.
“ I thought you wanted a family very much,” said Romi. “ But now that I’m pregnant, you don’t seem too happy about it.”
“ Of course I am, darling,” he said, without a trace of enthusiasm. “ I’m looking forward to becoming a father.”
Romi knew that he was baffled.
“ Could she have taken a lover,” Jatin wondered. “ How else could this have happened? How will I ever know? What a coward I am, not to come clean and take her into my confidence!”
Plagued by doubts and suspicions, Jatin barely spoke to Romi. She knew pretty soon, a private investigator was trailing her. The guy was a novice, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Romi smiled at his amateur attempts to hide, whenever she looked directly at him. What made Jatin’s life even more unbearable, was the happiness of his mother. She just could not do enough for Romi. The tastiest dishes were painstakingly made for her. Mrs. Das fussed over her, and attended to her every need.
Romi gave birth to a beautiful girl. Jatin kept up the semblance of a doting father. But inwardly, he was being consumed by doubts and fears. Romi bided her time for about three months. Then one day, she abruptly announced, “ Jatin, I’m leaving you. I can’t keep up the pretense that ours is an ideal family. Not for your sake or for your mother’s. This way, we’ll only end up hating each other. I need a break.”
” But the child?” he asked.
“What of the child?” she challenged.
Jatin turned away before she could see him wince.
Mrs. Das couldn’t stay away from her grandchild.
“ None of this foolishness between you both, can prevent me from enjoying her company,” she said.
She insisted that the child be called Parinita, Pari for short. She brought back glowing reports of the child’s milestones, after each visit. Jatin listened silently. Inside was the terrible pain of rejection.
“ But the fault is mine alone,” he thought. “ I and my stupid ego. If only I had unburdened myself to Romi!”
It took a whole year, before Jatin could summon up the courage, to call on Romi.
“ I’m sorry. I wasn’t honest with you. I guess it was my stinking pride. Or was it cowardice?
I can’t live without you. You’re the only one I love. The child needs a father, and I’m offering myself for the job. She will be ours.”
“ But you’ll still have doubts. You’ll still keep wondering who fathered the child. You’ll start doubting every casual encounter of mine, with another man. Wouldn’t that destroy even the memory of the good times we’ve had together?”
“ No, I won’t ask any questions. I want you home only on your conditions.”
“ I’m glad you’ve learnt your lesson, Jatin. I am just one of the many millions of women, who suffer because of cowards like you. But I’m not stupid enough to send you away, because
I love you too. There is a time to be angry, and a time to mend. Frankly, I don’t know who the father is, and I’m not bothered about finding out. She was conceived with the help of a sperm bank, and it should make no difference to our relationship, if we mean so much to each other.