Karan Johar may be the last of his ilk to exercise the surrogacy option
Column in Business Standard, March 10, 2017
For reasons right or wrong, filmmaker and TV star Karan Johar tops it for getting eyeballs. There’s always kuch kuch hota hai in his layered life. Shortly after producing his bestselling memoir An Unsuitable Boy written with journalist Poonam Saxena (Penguin; Rs 699) he’s announced impending fatherhood of twins, at 44, through a surrogate. His book — candid, vivid, unusually self-analytical — is remarkable for one persisting confession. He’s not had much sex.
Born the only child of late-marrying parents, his privileged Malabar Hill childhood was high on puppy fat and low on self-esteem. “The thought of sex made me awkward; it almost rattled me…For me to address it, talk about it, discuss it was a big no-no.” Exhausted by his sexless life he finally lost his virginity to a male escort in London at 26 — “a very nerve-wracking experience”. If someone hits on him, says Mr Johar, he freezes. “And if I am not interested, I become like the stern principal of a school.” For a middle-aged man so rich and famous, who, after a good-humoured history of hints and guesses, came out as gay, his record in the love and sex department is poor: About one-and-a-half unsatisfactory relationships.
Sceptics may say that his unrequited quest for love may at last find emotional sustenance with the acquisition of children. Several of his Bollywood associates have taken the surrogacy route, among them Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri Khan, Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao, and Tusshar Kapoor. If it sounds like a film fraternity trend, each case is different, stemming from either a voluntary need, or involuntary childlessness, to fulfil an elemental human desire. Mr Johar could be the last of his ilk to exercise such an option. Being single and gay, his is the most discriminated against category if a proposed legislation on surrogacy becomes law.
The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, tabled in the Lok Sabha last November after Cabinet clearance, places all kinds of restrictions on who can be, or biologically use, a surrogate mother. It bans commercial surrogacy, that is, paid-for wombs, as exploitative. Married couples, having proved infertility for five years, can go for “altruistic surrogacy”, without pecuniary benefit, but they should try and persuade a close relative, a married woman with a child of her own, to bear their child. Unmarried couples, single and gay aspirants are altogether out of the picture; and woe betide any foreigner who comes knocking in search of Indian surrogates.
When the otherwise helpful but conservative foreign minister Sushma Swaraj propelled the Bill, well-known NDTV anchor Rupali Tewari penned a piece, soundly and stirringly argued, rebutting the changes. (“I Used a Surrogate. And Am So Grateful and Proud”, ndtv.com, August 28, 2016.) In her account she debunks many myths surrounding surrogacy, even among the educated elite, and movingly describes her husband and her deepening anguish at not being able to have a child. After many failures, surrogacy was their “last resort”. Their surrogate, a mother of two, was “one of the happiest, most positive personalities I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting”. When their baby girl arrived after nine anxiety-filled months, “years of suffering and disappointments vanished in a matter of seconds”. Yes, Ms Tewari says, checks and balances, and a crackdown on clinics flouting the rules, must be enforced. But banning the practice is regressive, discriminatory and against freedom of choice.
It isn’t an inexpensive procedure, costing between Rs 15-25 lakh. In recent years several close friends and relatives have chosen surrogacy over adoption, one reason being long wait lists at adoption agencies and cumbersome, often bureaucratic procedures. Every commissioning parent I know describes surrogacy as a fulfilling, mutually beneficial experience. In the case of a niece, a relationship so warm and accommodating developed with the surrogate after her first child, that she returned to the same mother for her second.
At the heart of the matter is a simple question: Does the government have a right to impose moral sanctions on responsible people — married or unmarried, gay or straight — in taking a deeply personal decision?
High-minded public leaders eager to thrust strictures should look around and note the number of political surrogates that abound. Like British colonials, who deposed legitimate rulers and planted puppet kings, what is V K Sasikala but a surrogate for Jayalalithaa? And does that make her successor E Palanisamy a puppet of a puppet? In his book The Accidental Prime Ministerpolitical writer Sanjaya Baru makes a case that even the venerable Manmohan Singh, as his prime ministership wore on, increasingly became a surrogate for the all-powerful Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.
Despite his innocently unsexy and lonesome life, Mr Johar — and hundreds of thousands of the childless — speak in one voice when they say: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.