The little bundle of joy lay deeply asleep, wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket. Her mother cuddled her in a protective embrace. She smiled when Laila ran a finger over her smooth cheek, oblivious of the threat to her security. Laila hugged her daughter. “You’re my dream come true, my darling,” she whispered. “How can I ever part with you?”
The case had dropped into Gautam Sinha’s lap, on one of his visits to Bombay . Being at a loose end, this handsome lawyer from Kalyan had gone to the club to play a game of billiards, and then have a drink or two with his friends. His old pal Rohan walked in.
“Gautam, am I glad to see you!’
“Why the sudden affection?”
“Meghna and I have a serious problem. In fact, she’s on the verge of depression. You see, she can never have a baby because she has some congenital abnormality of her uterus. So we opted for a surrogate mother, and have paid her well. We were looking forward to having this child. Meghna spent a packet getting the nursery ready. But now the girl refuses to part with the child. Tell me what are we to do?”
“Sue her, of course,” advised Gautam
“Then I want you to fight this case for us. I know you’re good at you job.”
“I’m not guaranteeing anything. It depends very much on the judge. Mothers too have rights you know. Do you have some written contract?”
“Yes. The doctor has got it for us, and I have the receipts of money given.”
The small courtroom was packed to capacity. It was going to be a sensational case in more ways than one. Laila had refused the help of a lawyer. She would appeal to the humanity of the judge. The Judge seemed preoccupied. He knew he would need the wisdom of Solomon to settle this case. Whatever decision he made, one party would suffer.
There was stark fear in her eyes as she looked at the prosecutor.
“Good God! It’s Shamsunder. I’m finished,” she thought.
But there was no recognition in his eyes. Only a determination for revenge.
“She has broken the agreement she made with me too,” he thought,” For three years I have lavished this woman with gifts galore. I’ve paid her a heavy retainer to make herself available to me whenever I came into town. But she had vanished for the last nine months, and the frustrating part was that I couldn’t trace her. Now she’ll know that no one can trifle with Gautam Sinha.”
“You may call your first witness, Counsel.” said the Judge.
Dr. Pal of the Pal Assisted Reproduction Center took the stand.
“Do you know the lady in question, Doctor?”
“Yes, I do know Laila,”
“Tell us the circumstances under which you met her, and what was the nature of the work she undertook for you?”
The doctor told of Meghna’s inability to carry a pregnancy, and her request for a surrogate mother. She had placed an advertisement to that effect in the paper, and Laila had voluntarily offered herself.
“So there was no coercion on your part?”
“None whatsoever. The terms and conditions were explained clearly. She was merely a vehicle to carry the baby, and had to relinquish any claim to it the moment it was born.”
“Did you investigate her background?”
“Yes. She said she was a young widow, and would never marry again. But she wanted to experience the thrill of motherhood, even if it was for a little white. It was not the money that interested her. The fact that she was helping a couple have a baby was more important.”
“Could you enlighten this court on how you arrived at the conclusion that Laila was suitable?”
“She was beautiful, educated, poised, and financially well-placed. She was a widow with no encumbrances. Her health was excellent, and all her tests were normal. What’s more, she was willing and cooperative, and knew without a doubt that the baby was not hers to keep.”
Gautam’s second witness was Laila’s aunt Kalyani. He was determined to expose and humiliate the girl. Aunt Kalyani had adopted Laila in childhood. She was an attractive woman with a large circle of friends, many of them in high places. Though the source of her wealth was suspect, it had ensured her acceptance by society.
Kalyani made sure that Laila had a good early education at a convent in Panchgani. Later she was sent to a Finishing School in Bombay , where she learnt poise, good grooming and manners as befits a society lady. Aunt Kalyani then moved her into an apartment, where she was surrounded by the trappings of wealth. Her clients were selected with care. Most of them were rich middle-aged men who demanded absolute confidentiality.
But there was just one person whom she disliked and feared. He called himself Shamsunder. He was a tyrant who demanded absolute acquiescence from Laila.
Gautam knew he was taking a risk by putting Kalyani on the stand. She was a shrewd woman who could turn the interrogation against him.
“Is Laila your daughter? What is her profession?”
“My adopted daughter. She works as a librarian in a private library.”
“Can she maintain herself in such luxury on a librarian’s salary?”
“You forget Sir that she has a wealthy, tax-paying mother. I give her whatever she needs.”
“Did you know of her intention to rent a womb?”
“Sir, that sounds very crude. The word is surrogacy. Her intention was to bring happiness into the life of one sad couple. I tried to dissuade her, knowing that it would lead to complications such as this.”
“So you had an idea that she was going to renege on the contract?”
“On the contrary, I hoped that this misadventure as I perceived it, would be over soon, and Laila would get back to a normal life.”
There was pin-drop silence when Laila took the stand, still carrying the babe in her arms. Suddenly all fear left her.
“Your Honour,” she addressed the judge,” I don’t have a lawyer to defend me. I will plead my own case. I request you to be my interrogator and my judge.”
“What is your objection to having a lawyer?”
“Sir, you will know when I finish my story.”
Her voice rang loud and clear in the silent courtroom. It all began on Laila’s twenty fifth birthday. A friend had invited her to judge a Baby Competition.
“If only I could have a child of my own!” she thought, as she looked at the happy faces of the tiny tots and their proud mothers.
That evening, she casually brought up the subject of marriage, with Aunt Kalyani. The older lady’s mocking laugh jarred on her ears. Laila couldn’t believe what she said. This woman who was always so elegant, so proper in her ways, why did she sound so coarse today?
“Darling, if you’re harbouring even the faintest idea of marriage forget it. Marriage and our profession are kind of mutually exclusive. I don’t think there’s a man in all the earth, so magnanimous as to forget that your body has been on sale.”
“I don’t sell my body or my mind. I only sell sex.”
“Don’t be so naïve, my child, only the pure become wives.”
“And suppose I give up the profession?”
“The stigma cannot be erased away.”
“Suppose I move out to somewhere far away?”
“Your sins will catch up with you sooner or later.”
But the longing to experience motherhood resurfaced when Laila saw Dr. Pal’s advertisement for a surrogate mother.
“I felt rotten to lie to Dr. Pal about my being a widow. She would not have selected me otherwise.”
When Aunt Kalyani came to know of the pregnancy, she was livid.
“You’re ruining you life and figure for nothing. Get it out. It’s not too late,” she advised.
Laila hid herself in a convent for the duration of her pregnancy. The nuns were kind. But as the pregnancy progressed, her moods changed. She worried whether she would ever get back her sylph-like figure, which had bloated into a convex dome. Her feet were swollen, and at night when the cramps in her calves refused to subside, she cried.
“Aunt Kalyani was right. I am a sentimental fool to agree to this madcap scheme. I want it over and done with.”
The delivery too was a nightmare, and Laila prayed that she could walk out with no complications. But when she heard the baby cry, something stirred within her
“I’ll send it to the nursery right away,” said Dr. Pal.
“That’s not fair. I must see my child and hold her in my arms at least for a few minutes.” Laila begged.
“Laila, be reasonable. This child doesn’t belong to you. Your job was done the moment it was born.”
Dr. Pal had reluctantly placed the child in her arms. The new mother studied each feature carefully.
“The father must be a handsome man,” she thought. “Soon I’ll have to sign away my rights to this child. I hope she’ll be happy with her new parents.”
She felt a gush of tenderness for the little helpless bundle, and grudgingly handed it back to the nurse.
When the day finally arrived, Laila couldn’t bring her self to sign the document.
“I can’t do it. I’m the mother and I want to keep the baby. They can take back all their money and gifts.”
There were many moist eyes in the courtroom that day. But Rohan, the father of the child was furious.
“This God-damned woman has taken us for a ride. Have I fathered a prostitute’s child? What irony! ”
“Your Honour,” Laila begged, “I’m going to turn over a new leaf. My past is behind me. I promise to live clean. I have a job as a librarian, and I can support my child.”
“I know how you feel,” said the judge, “And I’m inclined to leave the child with you. “
“That will not be in the interest of the child,” protested Gautam. “This woman is a prostitute.
I think the judgment is tragic.”
The judge glared at the lawyer for silence. Then he turned again to Laila.
“Madam, I need a written declaration of your promise. If you default, the child will be taken away.”
“Thank you, your Honour. I’ll protect her with my life.”
“And one more stipulation. The child is never to know the circumstances of her birth.”
Laila hugged her little daughter.
“Good bye Shamsunder,” she said, as Gautam walked away in a rage.