With an early Full moon this month, the Indian festival of Holi (the festival of light) is also an early one! And to celebrate this event, I am blogging the chapter of my book ‘Eighteen Moons’ that included my experience of the festival when I first lived in India in 2013. It was a couple of days after the births of Amritsar and Tara. This month’s Equinox also falls early on 19th March, seemingly the earliest astronomical start to spring in 124 years! So, here is Chapter Four of Eighteen Moons, entitled Happy Holi…
As I walked along Juhu Beach the night was warm and still, the city murmurings suddenly distant and overhead the full moon was crystal clear and luminous. It seemed auspicious, full of the promise of good things to come. Surely, I told myself, all would be well, John would arrive soon and we would take our girls home together.
I took off my shoes and held them in one hand as I walked on, the sand cool between my toes and the water lapping at the shore beside me. It was good to feel the sea breeze, and to have space to reflect on another unpredictable day in this extraordinary land.
That morning I had planned to set off for the hospital, as usual, to see the girls. I had visited them the previous morning and once again I had only been allowed a brief time with them during which, garbed as always head-to- toe pink, I held each tiny hand for a couple of minutes and gazed at their perfect faces; their minute noses, barely discernible eyebrows, rosebud mouths and delicate caramel cheeks, framed by tufts of jet-black hair. I hadn’t been able to send John a photograph yet – no cameras in the ward, nurse Ratched had admonished sternly when she spotted my phone – so all I could do was describe the babies to him.
After a few minutes I was hustled out by the nurses, who told me that the following day I could stay longer and perhaps even feed the babies. But what no-one had mentioned was that the following day was also the spring festival of Holi – when all of India would erupt in a riot of colour, celebration and excitement – and going anywhere would prove impossible.
When I came down to the hotel reception in the morning I had been greeted by the receptionist with a beaming smile.
‘Good morning Sir, Happy Holi, have a very good day,’ he said.
‘Thank-you, you have a good day too.’
What had he said? Happy Holi? What was that, I wondered. I stepped outside the hotel and looked around for a taxi. Strangely the usual ranks weren’t lined up and waiting. Puzzled, I walked down the road towards the beach, hoping to hail one as I went.
Suddenly I felt a slap on the back of my leg and I looked down to see a splatter of purple liquid dripping down the back of my calf. What on earth? I turned around. Behind me were three young men, armed with water guns and shoulder bags. As they drew level with me one of them reached into his bag and brought out a handful of yellow powder. He lunged towards me and smacked his hand onto the back of my head.
I yelled and put my hand up to my head, where I could feel the powder. The three of them were falling about laughing and reaching into their bags. Out came red, green and more yellow.
‘Happy Holi,’ they called, before hurling the powder at me and spraying me with their water guns which, it turned out, contained the purple dye.
They ran off and I stood looking after them, aghast and dripping a rainbow of colours that must have looked ridiculously comical.
I headed back towards the hotel. Whatever this was – some kind of bizarre tourist-mugging ritual? – I’d had enough. I only had a couple of meters to go to the hotel entrance, but my route was barred by another excited group of young men, also carrying bags and water guns and covered from head to toe in every colour of the rainbow. As they aimed their guns at me – pink and orange this time – I turned and ran towards the beach. But I soon realised there would be no escape. More and more people, all patchworks of colour themselves, were splattering one another and everyone else within reach.
On the beach music was playing, paint-spattered people were dancing and the colour-spraying was in full-flow. Intoxicated by the joy and craziness of it all, everyone was singing and shouting. Even the sea, normally a polluted, dull grey at Juhu, was a riot of colour.
I wondered whether to join in the dancing, but being a tourist, I was a key target. As more and more paint and dye came my way I turned and ran for the hotel.
I had left the lobby half an hour earlier, clean and freshly-dressed. I arrived back, gasping for breath as I hurled myself through the revolving door, looking like some kind of crazed hippy living out his psychedelic fantasies. I dropped to my knees and placed the palms of my hands onto the floor. My friend at reception smiled politely.
‘I see you have been joining in the Holi celebrations Sir.’ Diplomatically put.
‘Er, yes, well, something like that.’
I headed for my room and a very long shower. After which, unable to leave the hotel without risking another rainbow dousing, I settled myself in the bar.
Holi, I discovered, chatting to a friendly member of staff, is the Hindu festival that marks the arrival of spring. Known as the Festival of Colour (I think I got that part) it is a celebration of fertility and love as well as the triumph of good versus evil.
How could I object to a festival that was about such optimism and joy? Even if it did prevent me from seeing my new daughters for a day. I just had to hole up and wait it out. It wasn’t until the evening that things calmed down and I was able to venture down to the beach to walk under the glorious full moon as I described the day’s events to John.
The following morning everything was back to normal. Taxis lined up across the road and only the odd splash of colour on the road remained to mark the events of the day before.
I reached the hospital and headed for NICU reception, where the duty nurse confirmed that I could feed the babies.
Wonderful news, but I was a bit nervous. What did feeding the babies entail, exactly? I wasn’t completely sure.
Gowned up I was shown into the feeding room, where there were a lot of soft furnishings and some rather grubby chairs. The room was very hot and didn’t smell all that good. I took a seat between two women, both happily feeding babies and a moment later I was handed one of the girls and a bottle.
I had no idea what to do. I knew the contents of the bottle had to be emptied into the baby, but how?
Looking at the others in the room, I did my best to follow what they were doing. I tentatively nudged the baby’s small mouth with the teat of the bottle. She opened her lips and I put the tip of the teat against them and then waited. Nothing happened. Why wasn’t she drinking the milk?
I looked around for help, but the maternity nurses across the room were smirking. They clearly saw me as a source of entertainment. I guessed that not many new fathers spent time in this room. The nurses clearly thought that feeding was women’s business and I had no place being there.
I tried again. I was growing more and more tense and the baby – I was so nervous that I wasn’t sure whether it was Tara or Amritsar at that stage – was picking up on that. I nudged the teat into her mouth. She spat it back out again. We’d reached stalemate.
There had to be a knack to this, but they weren’t about to show me what it was. I was told to, ‘just give the baby the bottle’ and that was it.
Relegated to the failure ranks, I handed over both baby and bottle to a nurse and fled, under the scornful eyes of the assembled mothers and nurses. Standing outside I felt indignant. I wasn’t going to be beaten by this. How hard could feeding a baby be? I just needed to get the hang of it. I took a break, cooled down and then went back and asked to feed the other baby, who turned out to be Tara. They brought her and I tried again. I watched a
mother across the room. Her baby was sucking noisily at the teat. I pushed the teat more firmly into Tara’s mouth, and voila, she sucked. Only for a minute, but she did take some milk, before appearing to lose interest and go to sleep.
I handed her back and left. I would crack the feeding thing – I had to, I reminded myself. Soon the babies would be discharged, after which I would have sole responsibility for making sure they didn’t starve.
Galvanised by this prospect I went to look for Doctor Anita Soni, the paediatrician who had delivered the girls. I’d already spoken to her a couple of times and I liked her, she was I found her just coming through the ward doors.
‘Doctor, when will the babies be able to leave the hospital?’
‘Another week or so,’ she said. ‘They are doing well.’
She hesitated and then placed a hand on my arm and looked into my eyes.
‘I just heard you are here all alone. This will be difficult with two new born babies. I think you must consider the assistance of a nanny while you are here in Bombay.’
I was startled. I hadn’t thought about a nanny. But she had a point. I’d be on my own with two babies. And we were in a foreign country. There would be no Tesco or Waitrose deliveries in Mumbai. I didn’t even know where the local food store was. And what about baby formula and sterilised water and nappies and – what did babies in India even wear?
I needed to get focussed.
‘Would the hospital be able to recommend a nanny agency?’ I asked her.
‘No, I’m afraid not. I advise you to ask at the hotel you are staying in. If it is one of the hotels recommended by the hospital, they are sure to be able to suggest some options.’
‘Thank you for the advice.’
She smiled and hurried off and I turned towards the stairs. I had a week’s grace and an awful lot to do. She was a rather eccentric, larger than life character who was always laughing and waving her arms around dramatically.
That afternoon I came back at feeding time, prepared to give it another try, only to be told that the nurses had just fed the babies. ‘I’m sorry,’ an unapologetic nurse told me. ‘The babies were very hungry, they could not wait.’
I settled for half an hour watching them sleep and then told the nurse I would be back in the morning at feeding time.
As I left, I ran into Alon and Saul with baby Avi and they invited me for a coffee. We found a coffee shop nearby with a shady back yard and settled down for a chat. It was the first chance I’d had to talk to others in the same situation. They told me they hoped to be back in Israel within four weeks.
‘What? Four weeks!’
‘It is normally four weeks for us in Israel,’ Alon repeated. How long do you expect to have to wait?’
I was stunned to hear it was so easy for Israeli parents. I gave them a rueful grin. ‘To be honest I don’t know. The time on the government website advising on international surrogacy said six weeks when we first began. Then it was eight weeks and now it’s saying four months.
Saul winced. ‘Oh, that’s tough. Imagine if you have to stay here for four months. And you are on your own.’
‘I won’t be for long,’ I said, sounding more confident than I felt. ‘John will be here soon, and hopefully we can get the passports for the girls in less than the stated time.’
‘Really hope so,’ they nodded sympathetically.
Alon looked thoughtful. ‘You know, we met another couple from the UK yesterday on the ward, they also had a twin birth, the day before your daughters, I think. Maybe you should have a talk with them as they will be probably in the same situation, yes?’
‘Absolutely.’ I was very keen indeed to meet another British couple who would be fighting the same battle.
After Alon and Saul said goodbye and headed off to their hotel, I went back to Juhu beach and phoned John.
‘Find the other Brits,’ he said. ‘That could be so useful, and give you some company too.’
The following morning, after another determined – and ultimately doomed – attempt at feeding the girls, I waited in the reception area to see if I could spot the British couple. No sign of them, but ten minutes later I got talking to a couple from Denmark, Tobin and Thomas. Their daughter had been born a few days earlier and they were waiting for her to be discharged.
‘We’re staying at the Marriot Hotel,’ Tobin said. ‘The Lakeside Chalet one. We know the couple you mean, they’re staying there as well. They have a boy and a girl and I think they’re taking them home from the hospital today. Why don’t you nip down to the main reception and see if they’re there?’
I thanked him and shot down the stairs to reception. At the counter stood a couple, each of them holding a car seat with baby in situ. I went over to them.
‘Are you guys from the UK?’
They both turned to me.
‘Yes,’ they exclaimed. ‘You too?’
‘Yes. My girls are upstairs, they won’t be discharged for a few days. But I heard about you guys and wanted to say hello. Seems we might be here for a while so it would be nice to know some fellow Brits. I’m Andi, by the way.’
‘Kayla,’ the woman, blonde, attractive and friendly, held out her hand.
‘And I’m Jamie.’ The man was a little older, his grey hair tinged with pond green.
‘See you’ve been enjoying Holi,’ I grinned.
‘Yes,’ he said ruefully, raking his fingers through his hair. ‘Damn stuff won’t come out. Think I might have permanently green hair now.’
‘Suits you darling,’ Kayla laughed. ‘It’ll soon be all the rage.’
‘These two are Millie and Max, by the way,’ Jamie said, indicating the babies sitting serenely in their car seats like two mini-Buddhas.
‘Hello guys,’ I waved down at them.
‘We’re staying in the Lakeside Chalet hotel,’ Kayla said. ‘Where are you?’
Over on Juhu Beach, but I think perhaps I ought to move to your hotel,’ I said. ‘Everyone seems to be there.’
‘Oh! do come,’ Kayla said. ‘Jamie will have to go home soon and I could do with some company. And the Lakeside gives a 15 percent discount to surrogate families.’
‘Why don’t you come over this evening and join us for a beer,’ Jamie said. ‘We’ve got a nanny booked so we’ll have a babysitter and we can head to the bar for an hour or two.’
‘That sounds great,’ I said.
That afternoon I went for a stroll around Mumbai. I was going to be there for a while, so I wanted to get a sense of the place. I hadn’t had a lot of time for sightseeing, which was a shame since I was in such a vibrant and exotic city. As I walked through a street market selling every kind of spice and vegetable under the sun, I thought about Kayla and Jamie. I felt hugely relieved to have met them, they were friendly and would be good company and they were also relying on the British government to give their children passports and allow them to come home with their parents. It didn’t seem so much to ask, but it could apparently take months to achieve.
I walked into the bar of the Lakeside that evening and saw Kayla chatting to another couple. I went over.
‘Andi, hi,’ she smiled. ‘This is Sophie and Pete. He’s just been posted here and they’re waiting to find a house to rent. Jamie’s at the bar, I’ll go and tell him to get you a drink.’
As I watched her head over to Jamie she stopped twice to speak to other people on the way.
Clearly Kayla, outgoing, sociable and high-energy, knew everyone in the hotel. Jamie was quieter, more reserved, but equally warm.
‘I’m glad you’re going to be about,’ he confided. ‘Kayla will need a friend when I go. It won’t be easy managing here on her own.’
‘I’ll be happy to help her,’ I said. ‘But to be honest I think I’ll probably need her more than she needs me.’
‘Either way it’s a good deal,’ he laughed. ‘You’d better move over here tomorrow.’
I agreed. The next day I checked out of my hotel and moved into a room at the Lakeside Apartments, as it was known by its residents. It had five floors, each with some 20 one-bedroom suits, a couple of two and even three bed apartments and a laundry.
It overlooked the Powai Lake, right in the middle of Mumbai. The lake was created when the British dammed a tributary of the Mithi River in the 1890s to create an extra source of drinking water for the city. Sadly, the water was now too polluted to drink, but I was glad of the lake, every now and then it sent a cool breeze wafting through my windows.
Over the next few days, in between hospital visits and feeding sessions, I went out and bought the baby things I would need; formula, nappies, vests and baby grows, baby shampoo and lotion, bouncy chairs and a cot. In fact, the list, compiled under Kaylas’ direction, was so extensive that I was amazed. How could two very tiny people need so much stuff?
‘You’ll be surprised what they get through,’ Kayla said darkly, when I questioned the need for quite so much infant clothing.’
‘I haven’t stopped being surprised since I got here,’ I replied.
By the time the girls were ten days old I was longing to take them back to the hotel with me. Visiting them in hospital for half an hour at a time, with nurses constantly hovering about, was frustrating. I want to get to know them properly and that would only happen when I had them in my care. So, I was pleased when Doctor Soni told me the girls were doing well and could go home the following day.
I arrived at the hospital bright and early the following morning with two car seats.
Before we could leave there were documents to be sorted and, inevitably, bills to be paid.
I also needed the girls’ state-registered birth
certificates. I spent at least two hours going between the registrar’s office in the hospital, the accounts office and the ward, where I needed Dr Soni’s signature for a form before the certificates could be issued. She couldn’t be found, and I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t be taking the girls home that day after all, when the registrar’s office said they would get the signature and then send an ‘agent’ to the hotel with the birth certificates, for a fee of 300 US dollars. Reluctantly, I agreed, knowing that I could spend many more
hours in the hospital and still not have the certificates.
This was the first time an agent was mentioned to me, but certainly not the last. As I was to discover in the coming weeks and months, there was an ‘agent’, for which read middleman (or woman) for just about every step of every transaction, all eager for their ‘fee’ for something that should have been
Once this arrangement had been put in place, I paid the fees for the babies’ care and for Rehanna’s caesarean and her hospital stay. It was £1200 for each baby and £600 for the caesarean a total bill of £3000. All these ‘extras’ had not been mentioned by Somya when she outlined what it would cost us. I winced at the thought of telling John just how fast the bills were piling up, but there was no choice.
Finally, I was done and the babies were brought out by two nurses and tucked gently into the car seats.
‘You need two people, one to carry each baby’ Nurse Ratched said stiffly. ‘We insist on this.’
‘Well I have only me, so I’ll just have to take one in each hand,’ I replied.
She huffed and puffed, but in the end, since a second person was not about to materialise, they let me go. I said goodbye to the staff and thanked them. Five minutes later I stepped outside into the heat of the Indian morning, one car seat gripped firmly in each hand.
I was about to become a full-time dad and I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pull it off.