We stepped off the plane at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport into the sultry heat of an Indian night.
After queuing through customs, we got into a taxi and gave the driver the name of our hotel. As we wove our way through the streets, we could see why Mumbai is called the city that never sleeps. It was the middle of the night, but there were people thronging the streets and stalls selling food on every street corner. The noise of the rickshaw horns, voices calling and music playing was loud even with the taxi windows up. And the scent was almost overpowering; the air was thick with the aromas of spices, people, animals and traffic fumes. This was India’s biggest city, home to over 20 million people – and holder of all our hopes.
We were in a whole new world. I looked at John. Could this be happening – would this extraordinary place give us the children we longed for?
It was late October 2011 and it had been several months since my first conversation with Somya. Since then we had exchanged numerous emails, outlining all that would be involved and cementing our agreement. Finally, everything was in place and she told us to arrive at the clinic, where she would be waiting for us.
We’d got our tourist visas within a few days and booked our tickets the moment John could get a few days away from work. Remus and Gracie were safely settled in a boarding kennel and we were on our way.
The Rotunda Clinic was based in Bandra West, a middle-class suburb, so we’d chosen a hotel nearby. As we only had three days in India, we’d gone for five-star comfort and as we stepped out of our taxi outside the Taj Lands’ End Hotel, I was struck by the levels of security on show. There were at least eight guards on the door, every car was checked inside and underneath and all our things had to go through a security scanner. Not surprising, I guess, since this was only three years after the 2008 terror attacks which took place across the city over four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308. Hotels, cinemas, stations and other public buildings had been targeted. Now, clearly, our hotel – and as we later discovered, every other hotel and many public buildings – were not taking any chances.
Our room gave us a panoramic view across the southern Mumbai suburbs, beside the impressive Bandra-Worli sea link which stretched over the water towards the point known as Lands’ End and the famous Bandra Fort, a watchtower built by the Portuguese in 1640, when they occupied this part of India. Beyond it lay the Arabian Sea. All wonderfully romantic, but by then we were so tired that we simply fell into bed, exhausted.
The following day we took a rickshaw to the Rotunda Clinic. The route took us along the Bandstand Promenade which stretches for about a kilometre along the seafront. The Rickshaw driver spoke no English and our Hindi was non-existent, so I tracked the route on my phone and pointed to where we wanted to go. The only problem was, there were three different addresses on my Google map for the clinic. We picked one, hoping it would be right, and the driver dropped us off. But when we got inside, we were told – sorry, wrong place. Apparently, the main clinic was another 15 minutes’ walk away. It was a scorching 37 degrees and by this time we were hot and thirsty, but we walked slowly and, after going up and down the street a couple of times peering at the building numbers, we found it. No sign outside and no front door. We found a door at the back and a security guard pointed upwards.
‘Which floor?’ I asked. He nodded his head from side to side and smiled. We gave up and took the stairs.
The clinic was on the third level and Somya was there to greet us. It was nice to put a face to the name, after all the months of emailing. She was like an Indian version of actress Caroline Quentin; generously proportioned and friendly. She chatted to us for a bit, asking about our trip, and then we left her office and went to pay the fee for this stage of the process, the ‘drop off and cryo’ which basically meant freezing our sperm.
We sat in the waiting room until called to make our deposits. John went in first and emerged within five minutes holding a plastic beaker which was taken from him by a very short and unsmiling Indian nurse. He winked at me and sat down, after which the nurse indicated that it was my turn and handed me another plastic beaker.
Inside the small room I did a double take. All four walls were covered with posters and cut-outs of what can only be described as 1970’s Swedish porn. It was all big boobs and pouting blondes. So much for their gay customers! Come to think of it I’m fairly sure what was on offer wouldn’t have appealed much to many of their hetero customers, especially the Indian ones who might be there to begin the process of IVF with their wives.
All I could do was close my eyes, breathe deeply and think of – anything other than what was on the walls. Five minutes later I emerged with my beaker, which I handed to the nurse. Job done.
Somya assured us that we would be informed as soon as two suitable surrogates were found and that was it – we were free to go.
We had two more days in India and we spent them absorbing the myriad of colours, the scents, intoxicating and otherwise, and the vast panoply of life in Mumbai. We walked along the Bandstand, joining the crowds of lovers and families strolling along, taking the air and admiring the view. It was one of the city’s most popular hangout spots and all of Indian life was there. Small stalls sold peanuts in paper horns or coconut water, beggars held out their hands, joggers passed us, groups were going through yoga routines and women in saris of every hue floated past.
We were very conscious of the dramatic contrast between rich and poor. Next to our luxurious hotel there was a shanty town, its tiny ramshackle shelters and narrow alleyways teeming with people, most of them children, dressed in rags.
It was the same everywhere we went; behind every glamorous building – and there were many of those – there was a desperately poor community struggling to survive. It made us feel uncomfortable, although later on during my time in India I became tougher and more immune to the constant pleas for money. Working it out as a Westerner is difficult, but there is no choice other than to toughen up.
Wherever we went the air was filled with a thousand scents; food cooking, bodies, animal dung, stagnant water, rotting vegetables; it was a sensory overload.
After three days we flew home knowing that, if all went well, we might soon be back. The dogs were hysterical with joy to see us and more hyper than ever.
We picked up the threads of our lives, aware that it might be a long wait for our surrogates. We had requested two at once, so that they could have parallel pregnancies. And to complicate things even further, we had stipulated that the surrogates could not be married women. Our research had taught us that our surrogate mothers needed to be single so that our children would be born with British Citizenship by descent. British law dictated that if the surrogate mother was married, her husband would be classed as the child’s father. The genetic father to the child was only recognised by the UK authorities if the surrogate mother was single. But while there were quite a few married women coming forward to be surrogates, very few unmarried girls would want to have a stranger’s child before marriage. That left young widows – a small pool – and divorcees, an even smaller pool, since in India marriage is generally for life. ‘It will not be easy to find what you are looking for,’ Somya had said, shaking her head from side to side. We could only wait and hope.
We had hoped to be treated as a couple, but despite the clinic’s supposed positive attitude to same-sex partners, we were told that we had to be treated as two single people, quite separate from one another. I felt let-down when Somya explained this, it was clear that in her early conversations with me she’d been telling porkies when she talked about us being treated by the clinic as a couple.
We agreed to let it go – as long as the pregnancies worked out, all would be fine. We just had to keep the end-goal in mind.
As we waited for news, we began making plans. We had decided that, in preparation for starting a family, we needed a country base. Or at least John decided, and I got on board because I remembered how happy I’d been in the Somerset house, The Laurels, where I’d lived as a child. We wanted the best possible childhood memories for our children and the peace and safety of village life seemed preferable to the London rat race.
We still planned to live in London, because of John’s job, but the flat, although it had three bedrooms, was fairly small and it had no garden. We pictured the children going to the small school around the corner from the flat and then piling them, with the dogs, into the car to go to the country for weekends and holidays.
At the same time, we decided to get married – or to enter a Civil Partnership, which was the closest thing available (full gay marriage was two years’ down the line). We had been common-law partners for 17 years by then, but John especially felt that to do things properly we should make our union formal. So, on June 1 2012, quietly and with no fuss, we got hitched in the Brydon Room in Chelsea Town Hall. The Brydon room is a large, stylish room with huge windows hung with elegant drapes. There to witness the ceremony were my mother, who came over from Australia for it, plus John’s family; his mother Hazel, stepfather Michael, sisters Sara and Judy, their husbands Gerry and Phelim and niece and nephews Georgia, James and Theo. We also invited around 20 of our good friends. The registrar was a wonderful, rather theatrical gentleman, whom everyone instantly adored.
A couple of weeks later we put down a deposit on our country home. Long River was a beautiful old house in Berkshire which had been converted into several separate homes. John had found it and he insisted I go to see it. We both loved it at first sight, with its dark panelled wood, impressive architecture and large garden.
The home we chose was spread over three storeys, with a majestic flight of stairs and an enormous living room looking out over the terrace to the large garden. We pictured our children running around it at the weekends. This was where we would give them a secure and happy life and wonderful childhood memories.
By this time, we had waited eight months for the clinic in India to find our surrogates, and there was still no news. We had to content ourselves with choosing an egg donor. We had agreed that we would like the same donor for both pregnancies. Donating eggs for a fee was a far easier process that carrying the child, so there were more candidates and the clinic sent us about 20 to choose from. For each we received a photograph, medical statistics and some information about the woman’s education. No names. Many were young women doing it to make extra money for their weddings.
We chose a woman we felt looked wise. She was in her mid-twenties, she’d had no medical problems and she seemed ideal.
Our children would be British citizens and British culturally, but they would be half Indian, so of course we planned to tell them about their Indian heritage too.
In late July, a few weeks after we had married and found Long River, Somya wrote to say that two surrogates, both in their mid-twenties, had been found. Both would have the fertilised eggs introduced at the same time. Eight eggs would be fertilised, four with John’s sperm and four with mine and four would then be implanted into each surrogate. This was more than would be allowed under British law and I presume the clinic did this in order to guarantee a better success rate.
We were told that the ‘conception’ date would be August 7. On day 5 of embryo creation, they would be transferred to each of the surrogates. After that they would let us know if there were signs of pregnancy. We already knew (by this time we knew so much about the whole process that either of us could have won Mastermind) that pregnancy hormones would be detectable after about ten days and the heart beat at six weeks. So, we wouldn’t have long to wait. We held our breath.
There was no email on the day of creation or the day of embryo transfer. And no word for the following few days. I walked the dogs for hours, cooked up a storm, scrubbed the flat – anything to help the time pass.
I was alone at Long River when the phone rang. I snatched it up.
‘Greetings Mr Andrew.’
‘Hello Doctor Somya, is there any news?’
‘There is good news. John’s surrogate, Rehanna, has tested positive for the pregnancy hormone and her levels are good. We will monitor her over the next few weeks and keep you posted.’
‘That is wonderful news. Thank you, but what about my surrogate?’ At this point I could barely breathe.
‘Sadly, you were not so lucky on this occasion Mr Andrew, I am sorry. The pregnancy has not continued.’ And with that she hung up.
I was stunned. I sat on the sofa, staring at the phone.
John was going to be a father. And I was not.
It felt impossible to take in.
I thought of my father’s words, ‘as long as you give me a couple of grandchildren’. Now it looked as though I couldn’t do that. I felt bereft. For a short while I just sat and wept. Then I pulled myself together and rang John with the news.
He was thrilled, but he realised I was gutted. ‘Let’s talk when I get home,’ he said.
That evening it was tough. I was happy for John and heartbroken for myself. He was euphoric but trying not to show it.
‘It will be our child, you know that, don’t you?’ he said.
I did know – we had agreed all along that we wouldn’t tell anyone which of us was the biological father of any children we might have. They would be ours, together, no matter what. That thought did comfort me. But it still hurt badly.
I called Somya back a few days later to ask if the egg donor would be willing to try again. She came back to me soon after to say that yes, another attempt would be possible. We would have to wait three months to harvest another lot of eggs and a new surrogate would need to be found, but they still had my semen frozen and it could be done. That knowledge cheered me.
Eight weeks later she called again.
‘Mr John is expecting twins,’ she announced. A twin pregnancy would be 35 weeks, she said, so the babies would be born in late March.
Wow. Of course, we’d known that there was a possibility of twins, but the reality was a real wake-up call. Time to get ready for fatherhood.
We kept the good news to family and a few close friends. Both our mothers were delighted. Having got their heads around their sons being gay, they hadn’t expected grandchildren from us. When she heard the news that we were, in fact, going to make her a grandmother, John’s mother, forthright as ever, said to him, ‘Are you sure you and Andi are capable of bringing up kids?’ ‘Why wouldn’t we be?’ he told her. ‘We’re responsible adults, and our children are wanted, unlike so many in this world.’
We spent the next few months driving down at weekends to work on Long River. It needed decorating throughout and we wanted to do it ourselves, as a labour of love, taking our time and choosing colours as we went along.
As Rehanna’s pregnancy progressed, we were sent regular updates and scans, although we weren’t told whether we were having boys or girls. In India parents are banned from learning the sex of their babies so that parents can’t choose to end pregnancies if they discover they are expecting girls. There is still a huge boy-bias there, since sons will care for parents and daughters will simply cost money to marry off.
We didn’t mind at all what sex the babies were. We loved the idea of a couple of girls. Or boys. Or one of each. We spent hours discussing names. We needed to have two boys’ names and two girls’ names ready, just in case.
For boys we chose Caleb and Oscar. Names that we both liked. For a girl we agreed on Tara. I have always loved the name and it has an Irish connection (think Gone with the Wind) and the same meaning in Hindi and Gaelic – star, so that was a dead cert. The other name we chose was Amritsar. It’s the name of the Sikh holy city, where the famous Golden Temple is, but I just loved it as a name. I told John about it and he agreed that it was beautiful.
‘What are we going to be called,’ I asked. ‘Only one of us can be Daddy.’
We mulled it over and eventually agreed that John, as biological father, would be Daddy and I would be Dadda. Later he would tell me that he was jealous, because babies say Dadda long before they say Daddy.
That Christmas we invited all our neighbours over for drinks. They were mostly middle-aged and elderly and one jovial old chap said, ‘When we heard a gay couple was buying, we thought, oh good, no children!’
John and I looked at one another.
‘Er, well, actually…’ we both began.
As we explained that we did in fact plan to have children, and that actually we had a couple on the way, his face fell.
In the midst of mounting joy and excitement, there was more heartbreak for me. The second attempt, in early December, did result in the detection of the pregnancy hormone. But a week later Somya rang to say that the embryo had no heartbeat. To add to my anguish, she asked us for £1000 to carry out an assisted abortion. We were stunned, why would it cost so much? But we were in no position to argue so we transferred the money and I grieved once again. Pregnancies had failed with two different surrogates. Was I the problem? Or was it simply bad luck? There was no way to know. I asked Somya if I could try once more.
‘You may not know this Mr Andrew, but the government here in India has banned commercial surrogacy for all single people, including those who are gay. Only heterosexual couples married for a minimum of two years will be allowed to use the services of a surrogate. We are unable to proceed with any further attempts.’
For me it seemed that the journey to having my own biological child was over.John assured me we would try again, but I couldn’t see how. I had to find a way to put my sense of loss behind me and concentrate on our future. The twins’ birth date was just a few weeks away and we began collecting nursery furniture; cots and prams, blankets and baby grows, double of everything, for the flat and for Long River.
The birth would be on March 25. ‘If you are here on that day you can meet your babies straight away,’ Somya told us. ‘Then you can take them home with you.’
We knew it wouldn’t be as simple as she made it sound. It might take weeks, possibly even months before we would be allowed to bring the babies to England. They would need British passports before they could get exit visas. Two months earlier the UK Government website advising on international surrogacy had stated that the passport processing time in India was six weeks. A month later that had been altered to eight weeks and that had since changed to three months before settling for four months or more!
We greeted these announcements with increasing dismay. The change in surrogacy laws appeared to be affecting even the British end of things. Unless they were just being bloody minded, which we thought was entirely possible. We were going to have to be prepared for quite a wait.
Our plan was to travel out together and to spend two weeks getting to know the babies. Then John would go home to work, visiting when he could, and I would remain in India with them until we could all travel home together.
‘Mr John is the father so he will need a medical visa,’ Somya advised. ‘You Mr Andrew, not being related to the twins, may apply for a normal tourist visa.’ I winced. She certainly had a way with words.
John duly applied for his medical visa, while I got a tourist visa again. Then John was told by the Indian visa processing centre in Middlesex that they were unable to process his visa as the new surrogacy rules did not allow for anyone not heterosexually married for two years to travel on a medical visa in connection with surrogacy. They explained that he would have to resolve this directly with the Indian High Commission in London. This he attempted to do, but at every turn he was stalled. Vague promises were made that the visa would eventually be granted and meanwhile they would not allow John, while the medical visa was pending, to revert to a simple tourist visa. He appeared to be, in effect, banned from going to India for the birth of his children.
With the deadline for the birth drawing close and no sign of the visa, we became increasingly frantic. In an attempt to break the deadlock, John went to the Indian High Commission in London, where he waited for quite some time in a small, empty room. When eventually someone spoke to him it was to say, ‘We have no update on your visa application – it is still pending’.
John, even-tempered and calm in the face of most provocations, was reduced to shouting, ‘But my bloody children will be born in seven days, in India and I need to be there.’
The response? ‘We will notify you of any outcome in due course.’
When he came home and told me what had happened, we were both torn between dismay and disbelief. We sat slumped and despairing, wondering what on earth to do.
Eventually John, ever practical, took his head out of his hands.
‘There’s nothing else for it,’ he told me. ‘You’re going to have to go alone.’
(Eighteen Moons is available exclusively through Amazon Kindle, just search within Kindle for ‘Eighteen Moons’)