What with another full moon tonight – here is chapter 6 of ‘Eighteen Moons’.
Half an hour later we were deposited at the airport, this time outside the terminal for domestic flights. With Bharti and Geeta each holding one of the girls I followed, dragging three or four bags behind me while scanning the terminal for our check-in desk.
A couple of minutes later a short, rotund man came rushing up to us and shook my hand vigorously.
‘I am Sanjay, Bharti’s husband,’ he said, shaking his head from side to side and up and down in the by now familiar Indian head wobble that I was beginning to understand had many meanings and could be interpreted according to the situation. I took it that his beaming smile indicated it was a gesture of goodwill and benevolence.
‘Welcome to our airport Mr Andi. I am working in the international side of the airport with the immigration office and I am very happy that my wife is going with you. I will come to visit you with my son in a few weeks’ time.’
‘Oh, right, very nice to meet you Sanjay,’ I said. ‘We’re just looking for our flight.’
‘Allow me to show you the way, Mr Andi, and let me help you with your bags. You will find Goa exceedingly pleasant.’
Minutes later, thanks to Sanjay, who waved us off with many wishes for a happy trip, the five of us were checked in and waiting at the departure gate.
Our flight to Goa was only an hour and twenty minutes, and the girls behaved perfectly throughout. Once we were out of the airport the other end, bags once again in tow, we all piled into a taxi and headed for the apartment I had rented, which was in Panaji, a small and very picturesque city and Goa’s state capital.
About six hundred miles south of Mumbai, Goa is the holiday state of India, thanks to its many stunning sandy beaches. It was, for many years, a Portuguese colony, and the Portuguese influence had blended with the Indian in the architecture, the food and the local culture, giving the area its own unique style.
For a long time seen as a party-hangout and hippy paradise, during the peak tourist season from October to February Goa heaves with people hanging out on the beaches, eating the local seafood and practicing yoga, chanting or just soaking up the new-age vibe.
From March to June though, it’s less popular. It gets hotter and more humid in the build-up to the monsoon, which hits around mid-June. And this is also when the prices drop, so for our purposes it was ideal.
The apartment I had found was small but clean and comfortable and the landlord agreed to let it to me on a weekly basis, as I wasn’t sure how long we would need to stay. Within a couple of months, I fervently hoped, the girls’ passports would be through and we could go back to Mumbai and head home.
There were two bedrooms and the two nannies shared one of them with the babies, while I had the other. All four of them slept in a double bed, Bharti and Geeta on the outside with the babies between them in the middle, lying on a towel and swaddled in colourful strips of old saris that Bharti tore up.
Geeta, it turned out, was the mother of Bharti’s son’s wife and it was most definitely Bharti who was in charge. Geeta, who was of humble origins and illiterate, lived with Bharti’s family in Mumbai, dependent on them for food and bed, so she was obliged to toe the line Bharti laid down. Wages had to be handed to Bharti, who would then give Geeta her share, which turned out to be 1000 rupees from the 5000 rupees a day that I paid them.
The two nannies had childcare organised between them and I found myself rather on the outside – they were with the girls 24 hours a day and I felt virtually redundant to requirements. Grateful as I was for Bharti and Geeta’s help, this was slightly disconcerting
I began looking for ways to spend time with the girls without disrupting the nannies’ routine.
The high point for me was Bharti and Geeta’s shopping trip. Every two days I would give Bharti 2000 rupees and off they would go to do the food shopping, leaving me with Tara and Amritsar. I cherished those few hours, in which I would chat to them, feed and play with them. I loved to rock them to sleep in my arms and sing lullabies – although Twinkle Twinkle and Rockabye Baby were my only repertoire, and even then, I couldn’t remember all the words so I just repeated the lines I knew over and over. Luckily the girls didn’t seem to mind.
Even at this early stage their personalities were emerging and I loved playing games with them. I was a very doting and slightly soppy dad.
The girls were very easy babies; they had settled into their routine and woke like clockwork, every four hours, for their feed, thanks largely to Bharti. She did insist I do some of the feeds and I was very glad of this, but it was always under her watchful eye and not the same as those delicious moments when I had the girls to myself.
Kayla wasn’t coming down for a while after our arrival, and during that time I felt very much on my own. John and I spoke every day, and I longed for him to come and join us, but there was no movement from the authorities his end.
I relied on calls from family and friends to keep me sane. First among them was my mother, who phoned me once a week from Australia, where she was living. Mum was a very colourful character; interesting, amusing and prone to exaggeration, she had always talked a lot – mostly about herself, seldom remembering to ask me about my life. But when I was in India this changed and I saw a more understanding and empathetic side to her. She was always interested and supportive and it cheered me to know that she was on my side and rooting for me. Her calls meant a lot to me, and she kept on calling, despite complaining how high her phone bills were as a result. She also called John once a week to see how he was doing. It was thoughtful and kind of her.
Friends called too, although international calls were expensive and Skype connections were generally not good, so I often relied on emails to keep in touch. One of the friends who stayed in regular contact was Liza, an old friend from university. She had two grown-up sons of her own and loved children, so when she found out that we were becoming daddies, she was over the moon! She emailed me regularly and occasionally phoned and it always cheered me to hear from her. Without these links to John, Mum, Liza and a handful of other close friends I would have felt so much more alone and abandoned.
At night in those first weeks I often used to go up to the roof terrace and spend time looking at the moon, huge and luminous in the clear skies of the pre-monsoon season. Up there I could be alone to watch the stars and enjoy any small breeze that broke through the heavy, hot stillness of the night.
During the day I sometimes went out to wander around Panaji, which was built on the banks of the Mandovi River and was charming, with its cobbled streets and colourful buildings.
Sometimes the nannies and I would take the babies to the nearby palm-fringed Miramar beach, but the sun was fierce so we had to keep them in the shade. At that time of year, the beach was relatively empty and totally unspoiled. The nannies would sit under the palm trees with the babies while I swam, the water was cool and it felt wonderful. It always amused me when we were there to see the local men running into the sea fully-clothed. They seemed to enjoy it just as much as I did, despite the encumbrance of layers of clothing.
Three weeks after our arrival Kayla showed up, with her babies and her nanny, Riah. It turned out the apartment she had rented was very close to ours, which was great. After that we met up every two or three days to chat over coffee or wander down to the beach, swapping stories of our lives before babies.
Kayla ran an adult party planning business, she nicknamed Boozy Bashes and when she realised, she was going to be in India for the long haul, she ran the business from there, flying Susie, who worked with her, out to join her for a couple of weeks.
Kayla and Jamie had needed a surrogate to carry their embryos to term, but they had decided not to tell most people back in the UK what they were doing. She had me in stitches describing how she used a prosthetic stomach whilst the surrogate pregnancy progressed in India. One morning, eight months into the ‘pregnancy’, she heard the doorbell and rushed down to answer it, completely forgetting to put on the, by this stage, rather large prosthetic. She greeted her friend and was chatting away when she looked down and suddenly remembered. With an, ‘Oh Fuck!’ she bolted back upstairs and strapped it on, returning minutes later as if nothing had happened. ‘Tea?’ she asked her rather bemused friend.
It was impossible to resist Kayla’s humour and energy and she made a real difference to those long weeks in Goa. She hated to be alone, so her mother joined her for a lot of the time in Goa, friends came out for holidays with her and her father, a kind and gentle former history teacher, came to visit too.
Although Kayla and I enjoyed spending time together, sadly our nannies didn’t. Bharti and Riah eyed one another with evident distaste whenever we all got together, which meant it wasn’t always easy having outings with babies and nannies in tow. Kayla and I tended to meet on our own and use it as a freedom break from our domestic scenes.
Kayla and I were taking a stroll on Sinquerim Beach on June 7, shortly after she had arrived, when she nudged me.
‘Andi, look at that.’
I followed her gaze upwards.
A huge, ominous black wall of cloud could be seen to our left, moving slowly north.
‘Wow, that looks…alarming.’
As we stood, transfixed, thunder claps pealed and lightning bolts shot across the sky.
‘I guess that’s the monsoon coming, then,’ Kayla said.
‘I guess so,’ I agreed. ‘Think perhaps we’d better get back home?’
We made our way hastily back to the apartment, convinced that either the world was about to end or serious rain was on the way. We didn’t have long to wait. The skies opened and the rain bucketed down in sheets, heavier than anything we’d ever witnessed back in the Home Counties. It would continue for the next four months.
Over the days that followed we got used to enormous thunderstorms. I remember rocking Tara and saying ‘Thunder’ as she looked up at me, seemingly unafraid of the racket going on over our heads. I stuck my tongue out and she mimicked me, making me laugh.
It didn’t rain all day long, thankfully. But each day we had to wait for the deluge to finish before we ventured out and about. Goa had a special charm at this time. Almost devoid of tourists, we saw it as the locals did. It grew greener and more verdant and flowers in impossibly exotic colours bloomed everywhere.
Panaji was a peaceful town where everyone went about their business and I often went down to the fish market first thing in the morning, alongside the locals, to get some prawns or fish for us. First thing in the morning was the only time to go – because the fish market had no refrigeration and therefore was very, very smelly. Celebrity chef Rick Stein once did a programme based in Goa and he commented on the smell in the fish market – there is, I suspect, no worse smell on the planet. As the day wore on and got hotter the fish got smellier and smellier and, of course, cheaper. But this was a bargain to avoid. The only safe fish were those straight off the boat first thing, so I was happy to pay more.
I had been in Goa for six weeks when the documents arrived from Somya. Several calls urging her politely to please get a move on had made no difference whatsoever. But eventually a package was delivered containing our surrogate Rehanna’s divorce and marriage certificates and her identity card, the girls’ prenatal scans and (as the obligatory six weeks had now passed) the signed and notarised document stating that Rehanna did not want to be a mother to the surrogate children, which we would also need later for our UK Parental Order.
I was hugely relieved to receive all of this. Of course, there were ridiculous fees involved, but at least we now had what we needed in order to apply for the girls’ passports. Once I had checked and double-checked them, I sent all the documents to John via FedEx so that he could pass them on to the Home Office, which processed the passports in Hong Kong. Those papers would have to travel halfway around the world – I only hoped they would enable us to get the passports we needed in order to go home.
Beautiful as Goa was, I was all too aware that I was there simply to wait…and wait…and wait. And the waiting was hard. I missed John, missed home, missed the dogs and felt sad about John missing out on his daughters. I couldn’t help feeling that the whole, horrible delay was so unnecessary and pointless. But since there was no way around, we just had to get through it.
It was around this time that John had a bit of a tricky situation to sort out. We had agreed from the start that we would not tell anyone who the girls’ biological father was. It felt like the right thing to do – they were our daughters, together, and that was all anyone needed to know. But it left John with a dilemma, because he then couldn’t tell his family, or anyone else, about the problems he was having with the medical visa.
He considered telling his close family the truth, but he didn’t want his elderly mother to worry, so he kept it to himself and told them that all was well, he would be visiting us soon. But as time passed, he realised that he had to either fess up or somehow create a fictitious visit to us – otherwise people would begin to wonder why he wasn’t coming over to see me and meet his daughters.
In the end, telling his family in Ireland and his office that he was going to India for a week, he spent a week holed up in the London flat. He let his phone battery die and after his ‘return’ told the office that he’d accidentally left his phone in the UK. The London neighbours were told that he was going to India the following week. So, everyone had the story that he was going to India to meet the girls and of course they were all delighted for him.
So far so good – but that begged one important question: photos. How was he going to show them all pictures of him with Tara and Amritsar? I got a panic call from him asking me to photoshop him into some photos and send them over. I’m a dab hand with graphics, so I took some photos of me and Bharti with the girls and then cut Bharti out and put John in. The results weren’t bad, except that Amritsar looked slightly larger than life and John appeared to be holding her at a slightly strange angle. I sent them over and to our amazement, no-one noticed. His family, staff and the neighbours were all just too happy that we were together, with our children, and his mother proudly showed off the photo to the rest of the family.
And how did he explain the delay in the girls getting out of India? He told everyone that the passports would take a very long time as all kinds of checks had to be done, to do with people trafficking. Which was, sort of, close to the truth.
I could hardly believe that we pulled this stunt off. It was impressive. My only worry was that keeping our troubles secret meant he had very little support his end. There was no-one he could turn to when he felt miserable. But John’s way was to stay stoical and keep busy – he worked flat-out for every single day that I was in India.
I still hoped at this point that it would be straightforward from here on – get the passports, apply for the exit visas and off we would go. Kayla was in exactly the same situation and the only way we could check on progress was to call a premium phone number that cost dearly and told us nothing. You had to call, give your reference number and hang on, only to be told that they couldn’t give us any idea of when the passports would be issued. We were in limbo.
It wasn’t easy for John either. He was working in London and travelling back to Berkshire every evening to look after the dogs, leaving home at 6.30am in the morning and getting back at 7pm and often later. A kind neighbour had offered to feed Remus and Gracie and let them out three times a day, but John had to be there overnight, so no matter how late work finished, he couldn’t stay in the London flat.
He was still receiving blank expressions and non-committal answers from the Indian High Commission over his visa. He would arrive there with a picture of the girls, stick it on the window at the enquiry counter and say, ‘These are my children, I would like to see them!’ Each time someone different would come to the window and John would ask, ‘Do you even know who I am?’ ‘Yes,’ they always said. ‘You are Mr Leighton’. But despite this the answer was always the same, ‘You will have to wait. We have checks we must make before the visa can be issued. No, we can’t tell you how long’.
John was filling his time, and working out his frustration, by decorating our new home, room by room, ready for our return. At that stage, working in the evenings and weekends, he fondly imagined that there was no way he would get through the whole house before he could join us. I only hoped he was right.
He would send me images of colour swatches so that we could choose room colours together, and then photos of his progress which was, at times, frankly chaotic. He may have been the world’s best organised man at work, but as a decorator he had a way to go. The theory was fine; he even had spreadsheets of the jobs he had to do each weekend. But in practice, bored by hours of woodwork painting, John would move on to the next room, so that eventually he was midway through every room in the house. And of course, our lovable mutts didn’t help. At one point, Remus walked through a tray of paint, left on the floor, and left green emulsion pawprints all over the cream carpets. John thought it was Gracie and wiped her paws, not realising that Remus was still trailing paint over the house.
At that point in time our lives couldn’t have been more different. John’s routine dictated by work and the dogs and his self-imposed decorating schedule, mine by nannies and the babies and waiting.
To fill the time Kayla and I took a few trips, sometimes with, sometimes without our nannies and babies. She had found a friendly taxi driver who took us to see a spice farm and an elephant sanctuary.
Then there was the time we visited the Hindu Shantadurga Temple, dedicated to Shri Shantadurga, the goddess of wealth, wisdom and fertility. This time we had Kayla’s parents, four babies and three nannies with us. And as the day progressed, I realised I was causing something of a sensation among the local population. Men were coming up to pat me on the back while women looked admiringly at the babies. When someone started taking photos and congratulating me the penny dropped. They all though the four babies were mine, and as the father of quads I was being elevated to the status of fertility god as I lead my entourage around. I had to laugh, especially as I wasn’t biologically the father of any of the babies, which was still a source of grief.
Afterwards we went to the nearby beach and had ice cups – sweet coloured syrup poured over ice, which Riah said reminded her of her childhood.
Occasionally we ventured further afield, to see something more of India. In mid-June we left the babies with the nannies and Kayla and her assistant Susie and I flew up to Pune, to visit the Aga Khan’s magnificent palace, built in 1892 and famed as the place where Mahatma Ghandi was imprisoned with his wife Kasturba and secretary Mahadev Desai in 1942. Gandhi was there for almost two years, during which time his wife and secretary both died. The palace was given to the nation in recognition of Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Gandhi’s ashes remain there, and there are memorials to him and his wife.
We walked around the exquisite gardens and spent the night in a plush hotel nearby, where we relaxed and drank cocktails and did our best to forget our frustrations with the unwieldy bureaucratic systems we were up against.
Back in Panaji it was wonderful to cuddle the girls again, and all seemed to have gone well in my absence. But a couple of mornings later I came back from an outing to the fish market to find Bharti and Geeta at opposite ends of the apartment and an atmosphere I could have cut with a knife.
Geeta had always been under Bharti’s thumb. She was, I imagine, ordered to come with us on this trip to help Bharti, despite being paid only what Bharti considered her worth.
Now it emerged that Geeta had suggested Bharti go back to Mumbai, leaving Geeta to look after the babies – and to keep the wages. Bharti might have considered this, except that to allow Geeta to keep all the money was unthinkable.
The two of them were now in a stand-off. If Bharti moved, Geeta would move as far as possible from her. This went on for the next 24 hours and made life impossible, so I told Bharti quietly that perhaps it was best that Geeta should leave. It turned out that she was already booked on a bus, leaving the next day. I thanked Geeta for all she had done and slipped her an extra couple of thousand rupees, behind Bharti’s back, but truth to tell I was relieved that the hostilities were over. And a few days later Bharti’s mother Lalit arrived to take Geeta’s place, after which, much to my relief, peace reigned in the nursery.