Saturday, October 01, 2016

# Infertility Not A Taboo

Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India  –  1940 -1954

As the daughter –in-law of the wealthy landlord  Kannammal was always expected to be draped in pure kanjeevaram silk.  The nine yards that demurely draped her, would slightly reveal her tender and shapely calf muscles, hovering just a little above her anklets and the curve of her hips in a way that even women who glimpsed at her would envy the tender and youthful sensuousness that she emanated.  Her hair, well oiled and drawn into a thick long plait that fell well below her knees was always adorned with jasmine flowers.

She was barely 15 when she was married into the household of Sabesha Iyer in Kumbakonam. Her father had left no stone unturned to pull off a grand wedding . Her wedding trousseau consisted of the finest silks and abundant amounts of gold jewellery in dowry, befitting the social and economic status of the family that she came from and the family that she was going to be married into.

Srinivasan, her husband was studying Mathematics at the local college. He was aloof and lived in a world of his own. It made Kannammal extremely nervous.  In her days a woman’s happiness quotient was determined by how she got along with her mother-in-law and how well her husband treated her.

Fortunately for her, her mother-in-law was reasonably kind to her.  It was her husband that she was never able to figure out.  He would burst into fits of rage without any provocation or sulk  for days and months together for something seemingly petty.  If she got him his coffee, it was either too hot or too cold.  At times he would fling a hot cup of coffee on her face scalding her skin,  because  it was not to his liking.  Her skin or the coffee, she would not be very sure of. It left her baffled.

His clothes that she was expected to maintain were too dirty, too crumpled or misplaced exactly at the time and place he needed them.    If he did badly in his exams at college, he would accuse her of having mentally tortured him with her emotional drama just the day before the exams.    

But the worst amongst them was when he would silently slip out of their bedroom under some pretext after everyone else in the household fell asleep.  If she begged him to stay, he would accuse that she smelled like cow dung or snored like a circus lion which rendered it unable for him to sleep with her in the same room.
It was something that chipped away her sense of self-esteem and delivered the biggest blow to her feminine self.  When other women complemented her on her sensuous beauty or her thick long hair of which they were in awe of, she would feel they were belittling her. For the man she expected to be adored by, never took notice of her sensuous beauty.

It was too personal for her to cry out her woes to anyone in her marital home.  She was too proud to speak about it to anybody in her parent’s home.  Neither did she have friends to confide to.     
As years rolled by, women of her age moved on with marriage, they had children one after the other. Her childlessness began to be discussed during social occasions and by relatives who came visiting. 

She fasted, feasted, prayed and went on pilgrimages.  Her husband reluctantly accompanied her to pilgrimages.  Fortunately for her, her sister-in-law, Susee was also going through the same pangs of childlessness  for many years after their marriage.  
On many  occasions, Subbu and Susee would accompany Kannammal and Srinivasan for a pilgrimage to a temple to pray for the birth of a child. Astrologers would compete with each other to predict the probability of birth of children in their horoscopes.
It was ten years since Kannammal marriage to Srinivasan.  She alone knew the misery that she was going through and was convinced no one would understand, leave alone believe her if she ever spoke about the strange ways of her husband. 
And moreover he was an extremely congenial host to visitors who came visiting, generous to people who needed help and charming to elderly women who considered him the apple of their eye.

It was a battle that she was destined to fight alone.  And it was to no avail. 

When her sister-in-law Suseela became pregnant the pressure mounted on her.  She was now subjected to crude insensitive remarks by the women of her own household.   Those who were not crude and insensitive to her pitied and sympathised with her.  They treated her like a diseased woman. The older ones called her a barren bitch and cursed her right on her face.

In all this she would silently cry at the backyard while drawing water from the well or under the pillow. In both these places her husband was never seen around. She would contemplate jumping into the well and ending her life. Despite all the doom and gloom in her marriage something always held her back.

She clearly knew it was not her fault. She also knew that no one would acknowledge that fact. 

Sabesha Iyer, her father-in-law  was getting impatient with Kannammal’s barrenness.  He summoned the family astrologer one last time to check the horoscopes.

The stars in the horoscopes that seemed to match up during the process of wedding now seemed to have taken a totally different turn.  It was predicted that  while Kannammal would never bear a child, her horoscope had  the stars juxtapositioned in such a way that it would bring untold misery to her husband.  The astrologer, paused, hesitated and added that the marriage to Kannammal had brought about a ‘dosham’ (curse) that  could be fatal to her husband Srinivasan in the next few years.  

It  was a statement that left Sabesha Iyer springing into immediate action.  It was almost 14 years since his son had married Natesa Iyer’s daughter.  He shared a great deal of camaraderie with the landlord from Agaramangudi. But that would not stop him from sacrificing his son to the curse of a barren woman.
He sent in a word to Natesha  Iyer. He offered  that, while his daughter could live in her marital home all her life, it was only prudent for him to look for a second wife for his son. A woman  who could bear him a child and carry on the family lineage.   The letter was carefully worded to convey that it was more a decision he was conveying and not a permission that he was seeking.  

The astrologers were summoned and the horoscopes of eligible girls from all over were sought.  Most families were reluctant to give their daughters in marriage as the second wife unless they were really hard up on money, could ill afford a decent dowry or if the girl was outright ugly or had got herself into a scandal that had tarnished the family name. 
The women always knew that more often than not when a woman is considered barren, the fault could as well be with the man. However in those days and time, a man had his honour to behold. Unlike a woman’s menstrual cycle, private matters of men were not discussed in public.  For that matter they were not even discussed in private. 
It was almost an year before the proposal from the family in Tiruchy came.  The bride was an orphan and was raised by her uncle who was a priest in the temple at Samayapuram.  There was not much by way of dowry that they could afford. Sabesha Iyer, recognizing the dearth of potential alliances and the urgency with which he wanted to fix the alliance agreed to the match.

It was when the families got together that Srinivasan, the groom-to-be spoke up for the first time in front of his father. He said he was clear he did not want to marry the second time. He offered that he would adopt a child from anyone in the extended family to carry his family lineage. 

Sabesha Iyer was aghast. He had never expected his son to disapprove a decision that he had taken. He was doubly hurt because his son never let out a whiff of his disinterest in the second marriage all the while and when he did express he spoke up in front of the bride’s family.  The Bride’s family did not seem to mind the disinterest the groom was exhibiting towards the marriage.  They were equally in a hurry to get their niece married off at the earliest opportunity.      
After a few weeks of dissent, Sabesha Iyer overruled his son’s  protest and fixed up the date for the wedding. The wedding preparations were on, although the pomp and flamboyance that marked all other weddings in the family was missing in this one.

Kannammal sunk into depression and cried silently into her pillow every night.  What added to her woes, was  that her father-in-law suspected that her husband was acting on her advice, which she knew was far from the truth. Her parents and her brother   refused to acknowledge the second marriage and insisted that she stay put in that household and claim her rightful share as the daughter-in-law of the family. 
Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time. In other households, when a man married the second time, the woman from the second marriage would adjust and accommodate until such time she became pregnant and delivered a child.  Once a child was born,  the first wife’s barrenness would be proven and she  would be relegated to being a domestic help and subjected to disgrace and taunt all her life. But that was a better option than to go back to her parent’s home, only to be subjected to the same treatment over there. 
Kannammal noticed that her husband was growing sullen and depressed through all the wedding preparations.  He exhibited his disinterest and started to vociferously protest  against the second marriage.  Momentarily Kannammal would assume that it was his love or rather pity for her that made him protest against marrying the second time.  But she brushed aside all such thoughts, as she knew  that it had nothing to do with her as much as it had to do with him.
Only she could not articulate what it was. At that time. 
One evening when the monsoons had just broken out in June 1954, three days before the scheduled date for his second marriage, after a nasty fall out with his father, Srinivasan jumped into the well at the backyard of the house and killed himself. 

On the tenth day after the death of her husband, Kannammal for the last time was draped in a silk saree and all her wedding jewellery. Soon the women gathered in the room, removed her ‘Thali’, the wedding chain,  broke her bangles  and tonsured her head.  She resigned to the numbness that permeated her soul as her waist long hair fell in one single swoop when the barber ran the scissors over the back of her neck.   

On the tenth day after the death of her husband, Kannammal for the last time was draped in silk saree and all her wedding jewellery. Soon the women gathered in the room, removed her ‘Thali’, the wedding chain,  broke her bangles  and tonsured her head.  She resigned to the numbness that permeated her soul as her waist long hair fell in one single swoop when the barber ran the scissors over the back of her neck.  

Her nine yard silk sarees were burnt down as no woman would take them since they belonged to an inauspicious barren woman. She wore a pale cotton saree and covered her tonsured head .  It was a costume that she would wear all the rest of her life. Every new moon day she would shave the hair off her head and keep it tonsured.     

She came back to live in Lakshmi Nivas with her brother Subbu and his wife Suseela. For the rest of her life, she would oversee the  birth  of the children and grandchildren for everyone in the extended family and the neighbourhood.

While the other women in the family were bogged down with back to back child birth she raised the breed of children, weaning them away from their mothers,  cleaning them, burping them, potty training them and filling their childhood with many wonderful stories and lullabies that put them to sleep.  Her lullabies particularly in the Ragam Neelambari  were transmitted from one mother to another across generations and formed a part of the family folklore.

Sunnyvale – California, USA  2000

Over the years, Kannammal, by virtue of being single, mobile and without encumbrances carved a role for herself  by travelling all over and staying with relatives. She was the one they relied on to be the extra help whenever anyone in the extended family needed help for a few months, owing to illness or child birth. Over the years when she raised scores of other people’s children and grandchildren with a cheerful disposition, she had made herself indispensable  to any young woman who needed a helping hand after child birth. 

It was thus that Kannammal, still going strong  despite her age travelled to Sunnyvale, the heart of Silicon Valley to  help her youngest brother’s  daughter who had to get back to full time work as a software programmer and needed help babysitting her new-born twins.  

Queer Parade – San Francisco – 2003

It was a long weekend in California. Meera, her niece and her husband Rajesh wanted to take Kannammal for an outing to some place nice. This was the third year that she was doing her six month stint of baby sitting on her tourist visa. Every alternate six months Rajesh ’s parents would fly down on a tourist visa that enabled them to stay over for six months to baby-sit their grandchildren.  It was a convenient  arrangement that worked well for everyone.
Kannammal was more than a baby-sitter to Meera and Rajesh. The easy going maternal warmth, combined with a progressive outlook made her an instant hit with anyone from a different generation to relate to her. She had a knack of listening to people and reading their minds. Increasingly Meera and Rajesh found themselves seeking out to her to unburden their worries and life dilemmas with her.  They would enjoy the long philosophical discussions in the evenings about life in general.

For the long weekend, Meera and Rajesh were suggesting to her a few places where they could drive down with the twins.  Kannammal said she wanted to go to Downtown San-Francisco on Sunday. She had an event to attend.  

Meera and Rajesh  were perplexed. As far as they knew, she had not had any social life whatsoever in the six months that she would  come to live with them. What event could she possibly be interested in , that too in San Francisco ?

In the first year that she was there babysitting her brother’s grandchildren in Sunnyvale, where her niece worked as a software programmer, Kannammal  stumbled upon some strange words  in Television news and newspapers.  Over the years she had picked up a decent English vocabulary. But this was the first time she stumbled upon the words like ‘Gay’ and ‘Homosexuality’.  Soon she began to decipher the news headlines and all that was happening with a group of people with a different sexual orientation who were fighting for their rights which was the television news headlines in California. In some states across USA and in other countries that were relooking their legislations for people who were not heterosexually oriented. She watched and followed the news about them keenly over the next few years. 

That weekend they drove along the Golden gate bridge and to downtown San Francisco. The city was buzzing with activity. It was not unusual, because that is how most cities are over the weekends.  After they checked into the hotel, Kannammal said she wanted to retire soon and start early the next day. She seemed anxious.

As they set out the next day, the streets were filled with the events that the Queer pride activists had put out all over San Francisco. People from all over United States and the rest of the world had gathered to give support and gather momentum and recognition to the Queer pride movement that was gaining attention and discussion.

After lunch, later in the afternoon they drove down to  Civic centre where the event was going to be culminated.  Meera and Rajesh were excited as they were spotting well known movie stars, musicians, artists, wealthy  businessmen and many other famous celebrities among the crowd.

Little did they know that they had travelled with one. 

When the old widow wearing a pale white saree from India stood up behind the podium and spoke, the world took notice.

In her speech she said she wished the Queer pride movement would soon gather  momentum the world over.

Perhaps, in India as well she wished.
Perhaps not, she was convinced. 

Most Indian languages particularly the ones that Kannammal  spoke, never had these words in their vocabulary. Atleast she had not known them. It was almost as if nothing of that sort existed in that time and in that place where she came from.

In her days she could not articulate what it was. But that was in 1954.

Had she known them in her days, she could have made better sense of her destiny. 
Even if she had not been able to do anything about it, she could have consoled herself that...

It was not her fault.
It was not the fault in her stars.
It was not even the fault in that poor man’s stars.   

For she alone knew.

What it felt like to be boycotted and be called barren and infertile
What it felt like being married to a man who was not a heterosexual ... 
What it felt like to live a stifled existence in a loveless, sexless and a childless marriage...
What it felt like to live and die as a widow and a virgin... 

In her time, she bore the cross. and the ones that crucified her were more often than not from her own gender, from her own clan and her own kith and kin. 

Women were women's own enemies, she had often said. 

Men wage wars, travel to far away lands and kill strangers or get killed by strangers. 
Women on the other hand stifle and kill the spirit of fellow women in their own homes, clan and neighbourhood. 

Her heart went out to thousand's of women who endured emotional and physical torture for being infertile even in this day and age.  

But her heart pitied the men, who plagued by the fear of losing their social standing yielded to the ghastly acts of cowardice by not making peace with their own selves, not speaking up and making their wives bear the cross.     

She wished for a world without fear and where the head is held high. 

She wished for a world where young men as well as women came out and spoke out without shame or fear and would not be judged. 

She wished for a world where there was no shame attached to the act of sex, sexual orientation or infertility.

She wished for a world where there was freedom of choice. 

Marrying or not marrying, having or not having children could be entirely a personal decision left to individuals. 
Her’s was a  example of a life that was wasted being a victim because of stifling social and moral constraints imposed by the society. 

She died a few years later, but not before she spoke up and made a difference to the world.

A lot has happened since then, but still a lot needs to happen ....

This blog is to #SpreadAwareness about Infertility through Infertility Dost, India’s first website that facilitates couples to brave infertility with support and knowledge. You can find other links  on Write Tribe.


P.S : For the records this post is a mix and match of fiction and reality. Neither the photographs nor the story represent any single real character or incident. However the  resemblance to any real life situation is entirely possible only because there are real incidents far more ghastlier than these that have happened to many individuals in various hues and forms over the last century and continue to have in this day and age.  


  1. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I hear about Kannammal ....

  2. tears streamed down my cheeks as well.
    Many authors have written different literature addressing these stigma however those have reached a very minute section of the society and governments too never payed heed to them.

    Solute you Jayanthi for creating such an awareness. really wish that many hands join you to do more in this area.


  3. Thank you so much for this, Jayanthi.
    Just letting you know that I read and appreciated your post.


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