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Anindita Sarbadhicari, a Kolkata based filmmaker in her 40s, remembers the exact moment when she conceived her child.
“The date was 3 May 2013. I was inside the operating theatre, and Hariprasad Chaurasia’s soulful music was playing in the background. I had a second embryo transfer—I actually saw the little white dot entering my body—and it resulted in a successful IVF pregnancy,” says Anindita, speaking to The Better India.
Six months later, on 21 November 2013, the light of her life, Agnisnato, which means the one who has bathed in fire, was born. He was a few months premature but survived the ordeal of rushing into this world.
For Anindita, it was the culmination of a life-long desire to become a mother and raise her own child. But she brought him into the world entirely on her own. She wasn’t married and didn’t have a partner. Her decision to enter motherhood was a choice she controlled from the start.
It’s an attitude that has driven all her choices in life.
Born and raised in Kolkata until high school, she went onto study theatre at the National School of Drama (NSD) followed by a film direction course at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.
Living what she calls an “extremely bohemian life,” she travelled the world on her own, made documentaries, feature films and even a couple of romantic drama series for Bengali television.
“Of course, I believe in love. I am an incurable romantic, and through my work, I do tell a lot of love stories as well. Admittedly, pure romantic love is never that good in real life. But I have not given up on the real thing and still am looking for love, commitment and a partner. But women have a biological clock as well, and I always harboured a dream of being a mother. As a woman, nature has given me a beautiful gift. While I can fall in love at the age of 70, becoming a mother after 40 is very difficult,” she says.
The Journey Towards Motherhood
Despite not having a male partner, Anindita began discussing the possibility of having a child from her early 30’s with her gynaecologist friend. Also considering the possibility of an assistive reproductive procedure, she did a lot of research on it.
“It was not like I was against adopting a child. But I wanted to experience the magic of creating a life within my body. I wanted to feel the heartbeat and the little kicks in my womb. Had I not been able to conceive a child biologically, I would have certainly chosen to adopt,” she recalls.
First, she tried a less invasive procedure called Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), a fertility treatment that involves placing sperm inside a woman’s uterus to facilitate fertilisation. However, things didn’t work out. Disheartened, she took a one-month break. Following that, she returned to her gynaecologist and told her that she wanted to try IVF.
By December 2012, she began her IVF injections. Although she got pregnant, everything fell apart once again in February 2013, when she had a miscarriage.
“When I started bleeding one day, I knew there was something wrong. I had no choice but to drive myself to the clinic through the pain and get myself admitted. The choice of not having a husband or a male partner has its downside as well. It can get very lonely. Yes, my parents, who were extremely encouraging and supportive throughout the process, were there. But they were old, and I didn’t want to burden them with my insecurities. Going through that journey required a lot of inner strength and self-belief,” she recalls.
Fortunately, all that self-belief finally paid off.
“Like a Light at the End of a Tunnel”
Although during her pregnancy, both Anindita and her mother braced themselves for uncomfortable looks and judgement, what she underwent was a joyful and “humbling experience.”
“Since I am a filmmaker who is relatively well known in the city, the news of my pregnancy was broken by the media in great detail nearly five months into it. Today, I may have to explain the process through which I got pregnant, but not back then. There wasn’t a single person in the city to whom I had to explain my pregnancy since everyone knew about it either through reading the newspaper or word of mouth. And I was overwhelmed by my neighbourhood’s response!” she says.
From calls congratulating her to boxes of chocolates from her neighbours and letters from different corners of the state, the news had spread far and wide.
By the time Durga Puja came around, Anindita was visibly pregnant, and both she and her mother had their guards up. Although they were once again prepared for awkward looks and uncomfortable questions, the reaction she got from many women touched her heart,
“I was touched by how welcoming they were—we received so much of love and attention. One of them even took charge of bringing coconut water for me everyday because apparently, it’s good for pregnant women. Others would send chocolates, cards, write poetry, and it was all amazing. When my son was born, a septuagenarian even wrote a letter saying, ‘Your news comes like a light at the end of a tunnel,’” she recalls.
First Stumbling Block
The troubles began when Anindita began trying to put her son in school.
“It was my (our) first school interview, and the principal of one of the topmost schools in Kolkata asked me, ‘So, Anindita, why didn’t you get married and why did you have a child this way?.’ Thinking about my child’s future, I did not get angry or aggressive. Instead, I patiently answered her question. My guess is that she was shocked by my profession and life choices, and my son did not get admission. However, I faced an even bigger humiliation in DPS Megacity, the next reputable school I tried,” she recalls.
Despite furnishing a birth certificate, a letter explaining how her son was born and the hospital’s discharge certificate, officials at DPS asked Anindita to provide an affidavit stating that ‘the child has no father and that he is born through IVF.’
This was a clear violation of a 2015 Supreme Court order allowing single mothers the sole guardianship of their children.
“When my son was born, it was the first time the Calcutta Corporation had issued a birth certificate without a father’s name. It took me just two hours to get it. Considering the ease with which I got the birth certificate even before the 2015 Supreme Court order, I thought getting my child admitted into a school in 2017-18 would be a walk in the park. But instead, all three reputed schools in Kolkata (which by the way had women principals) where I had tried to get my son admitted put me through such a humiliating experience,” she says.
On 30 November 2017, when she had first sought to get her son admitted into DPS Megacity, they had first asked her to write a letter to the principal explaining how Agnisnato was born and why the father’s name does not appear in the document. Six days later, the school’s admission office asked Anindita to furnish her private medical records. Although she was getting increasingly irked by their attitude, she still agreed.
“But two days later, the admissions office said that these documents wouldn’t be enough. They said I needed to submit an affidavit stating why the father’s name is absent and how he was born. That’s when I had it and put my foot down. All the documents they had sought from me for the past 8-9 days were not required as per the Supreme Court’s ruling. It states that my name on the birth certificate is enough,” she recalls.
In response, she sent an angry email to the school and forwarded the same to a journalist friend. This news was picked up by national news publications. Unfortunately, that became her undoing because the schools became more guarded.
Subsequently, she went to the state Child Rights Commission, and they wrote a letter to the schools expressing their objections. But the schools paid little heed to their letter because the Right to Education applied for children who are above the age of six. But she wasn’t going to back down.
“I fought this discrimination for seven months, and there were times when I felt for the first time in my child’s existence that I was failing him. As I reached June, which was two months into the school session, I got a little desperate. There were teachers in school who wanted to admit my child, but their administrations refused. They didn’t want my son admitted there because of who I was in life and the choices I made,” argues Anindita.
Fortunately, a friend, who was also a single mother, suggested a school that was a little far away, in South Kolkata.
Within 15 minutes of her meeting with the principal on 25 June, he asked when her son could join. On 27 June, Agnisnato started school. It was a long and hard struggle, but totally worth it.
The Challenges and Joy of Single Motherhood
Anindita doesn’t have a nine to five job, and can choose when she works. So, for the first few years of his life, she decided to exclusively devote her time to Agnisnato.
But just when she started getting back to work, her mother passed away, and Anindita had to take greater responsibility for her home, and her father, who will be turning 80 this year.
“My advice to prospective single mothers taking this route is to ensure that you’re financially very secure. I have never hired any help and do everything myself, and it has been a beautiful journey so far. I truly wanted him in my life. Everything I do is for him, and I love every nanosecond of it. I do not mind not working or earning less because he’s my priority. So, I can live without expensive cosmetics, designer labels, and just need enough for food and petrol. Fortunately, I have my own house as well, but I chose to cut down on my needs and prioritise my child completely,” she argues.
While Anindita insists that managing time to raise her child is not very difficult without a regular job, she also doesn’t get a paycheck at the end of every month.
Nonetheless, she has saved up money for him, which is “untouchable” no matter the circumstances.
“Even if I discover tomorrow that I have cancer, I will not touch that money. Thus, managing finances is critical because I don’t have anything to fall back upon like maintenance, alimony or child support. Since he’s little, what I also do is take him along when I am shooting. I don’t even need a babysitter. Seeing my work, he realises how hard his mother works and gets to see what I do for 14-15 hours a day. He understands the value of money and how much effort I need to put in to buy him things,” says Anindita with a hint of emotion in her voice.
After her film ‘Every 68 Minutes’ starring Adil Hussian was launched on 3 March, she could see the pride in his eyes.
“I can only thank my mother for this. She was a working woman herself and taught me to take pride in my work and ability to earn. I wanted to instill those values in my son,” she says.
Are there questions about the father? No. Agnisnato doesn’t ask about his father because he doesn’t know life any other way. In fact, he makes his mother ‘Father’s Day’ cards as well.
“Sometimes, he jokingly calls me ‘Mama-Papa’. It’s not like he doesn’t know everyone else has a father, but when I asked him ‘don’t you want to know about your daddy’, he replied ‘you’re my daddy’. His friend asked him during the last parent-teacher meeting ‘do you have a father at home’. He replied, ‘I have a dog and my grandfather at home,’” she recalls.
As he grows older, the tone of that question will change, but Anindita is confident that he will sail through because she was very transparent about her entire journey right from the start.
“All the parents of his friends in school know about my journey into motherhood. The world around him is already sensitised to his origins, and by the time he grows up, the questions would have been answered, because I wanted it to be like that, not just for my child and I, but anybody who is like us. Since the birth of my child, I have hand-held a lot of women undertaking similar journeys because their families would not support them,” she says.
Nonetheless, she is under no illusion of the challenges that single mothers face.
“In 2020, the strongest weapon we have as human beings is choice. A woman can choose to be, or not to be a mother, and that should be celebrated as well. Yes, I suppose some people sneer at me, but they don’t exist in my world,” she says.
It remains unclear whether the strong longing for a child is driven by our genes or a social construct. But for many women across the world, the choice of having a child is often driven by social convention or unforeseen circumstances like unplanned pregnancies.
Anindita bucked both situations, and chose to become a mother of her own free will. And she didn’t need an active heterosexual man to help her become a mother or raise her child, while successfully navigating the awkward corners of social convention.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)