The elderly, half bent woman drapes a yellow shawl over her silver hair and hobbles down from the first floor of her two-bedroom house in Alewa, a village in the northern Indian state of Haryana.
It’s 2pm and squinting in the sunlight, she stares down the dusty road as a yellow school bus comes rumbling into view. The moment it stops near her house, the 76-year-old woman’s deeply creased face lights up. ‘Come my darling,’ says Rajo Devi, spreading her arms wide as the door opens. A little girl jumps out, laughing, and rushes into the woman’s arms to give her a hug.
‘It’s your turn to carry this,’ says six-year-old Naveen Lohan, thrusting her school bag into Rajo’s hands. At first view this may look like a devoted grandmother picking up her granddaughter from school, but actually Naveen is Rajo’s only daughter – the longed-for child she had when she was 70. It meant she became the world’s oldest first-time mother, delivering her through C-section after a 58-year battle with infertility.
‘I waited decades for this spring of happiness to come into my life,’ says Rajo. ‘Thanks to my Naveen I no longer have to bear the stigma of being a baanjh (Hindi, for infertile). The wait was worth it. For more than 50 years we tried to have a child naturally, but were unsuccessful,’ she says. Before Naveen came along, Rajo and her farmer husband Ballo Ram, 78, lived a life of misery. ‘We both were shamed and constantly ridiculed by our neighbours because we didn’t have a child,’ she says.
In many rural areas of India, childless couples are looked down upon and considered unlucky.
‘For years, until Naveen was born, my husband and I avoided attending local weddings and festivals because our neighbours used to poke fun at us for not having children,’ says Rajo. ‘There are a few other childless couples in the village – which has a population of 2,000 – but all of them are at an age where they still have a chance to have a baby normally.’
Rajo was 12 when she married Ballo, who was 14. When they failed to have children after 20 years of marriage, the couple, desperate to have an heir and overcome social stigma, did everything they could to have a child. ‘We visited local quacks, took herbal medicines and potions, went on pilgrimages... but I never once conceived. I was extremely sad that I could not have a child and was more upset to see my husband having to suffer the jibes from his friends because we did not have a child.’
When nothing worked, Ballo marched off to his in-laws’ house demanding that his wife’s parents find a solution. Desperate to save the marriage and assuage their son-in-law’s feelings, Rajo’s parents offered him the hand of their second daughter Omi, who was single and eight years younger than Rajo.
‘My family and some friends had been advising me to leave Rajo and marry another woman so I could have an heir,’ he says. ‘So when I found Rajo could not conceive, I decided to marry her sister.’
Although polygamy is illegal in India, for certain religions, in rural villages, the law rarely applies largely because most marriages are never officially registered.
Rajo was devastated but agreed to her husband’s second marriage. ‘I wasn’t happy about it but I agreed hoping that my husband would be happy if he had a child,’ she says. After marriage, the three lived together, but after 10 years Omi too failed to conceive.
Convinced that perhaps he was destined never to have an heir, Ballo and his two wives gave up hope. ‘I thought I’d never become a father,’ says Ballo.
Then one day seven years ago, a neighbour mentioned to Ballo that a 60-year-old woman had seen a doctor in the city and after taking medicine and injections now had twin girls. ‘The man told my husband that he had read about the family’s story in a local newspaper, about how the couple had something called In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) therapy to have children and suggested that we too could maybe try the same doctor and see if we could have a child,’ recalls Rajo.
Ballo promptly made arrangements to meet the family to find out more. ‘We visited the family that was blessed with twins to find out more about this medical marvel,’ says Ballo. ‘They suggested that we too could have a baby if we approached the doctor, and they gave us the address.’
Rajo admits they found it hard to believe that an elderly woman like her – she was 69 at the time – could have children. ‘But we thought of giving it a shot,’ she says. When she raised concern about her age, Ballo suggested that his second wife undergo tests because she was younger. However, medical tests found that Omi was suffering from hypertension – very high blood pressure – so doctors ruled her out as a candidate for IVF.
‘The doctors told us that the chances of a woman having a miscarriage were greater if she was suffering from hypertension,’ says Rajo.
The onus was now on Rajo to give the family an heir – even if that came at the cost of her life. She underwent a battery of tests and all of them came out clear. ‘I was not worried about anything happening to me. I had reached the stage where I felt it would be better to die than live the life of woman who cannot have a child,’ says Rajo. ‘I was willing to go to any length to have a child.’
Though conceiving through IVF at 70 appeared a suicidal step to many in the medical fraternity, Dr Anurag Bishnoi of National Fertility Centre in Hisar, Haryana, about 70km from Ballo’s village, was optimistic. ‘The social stigma attached to childlessness is terrible in parts of India. We have had cases of people feeling suicidal about it. Age is not the issue, it is whether the mother is tough enough physically and mentally. And in Rajo’s case, I felt she was a fine candidate for IVF because she did not appear to have any major medical condition.
‘After Omi was found to have hypertension, we checked Rajo,’ says Dr Bishnoi. ‘She had no problems. And more importantly, she was determined to have a baby.’
Since Rajo was past her menopause the doctor had to source an egg from a donor. Ballo was ecstatic. He sold the two buffaloes he had, took a loan and mortgaged the field he owned to raise the Rs175,000 (Dh10,276) required for the treatment. That would buy them one attempt, but the doctor said the chances of them having a baby were good.
The doctor found a girl who was willing to donate an egg – her fee was included in the package. Ballo’s sperm was used, while Rajo had to take a series of injections and medication to prepare her body for the pregnancy. The identity of the donor was concealed. Barely two months after the first appointment the fertilised egg was implanted in Rajo’s uterus.
During the first month of pregnancy, Rajo continued to work in the fields against the doctor’s advice. ‘I feared that if I sat in a chair all day, I would have problems,’ she explains. ‘Since I had no backache or knee problems, I continued to work. I was worried that if I stopped I would fall ill and wouldn’t be able to deliver a healthy baby.’
Around 40 days after the IVF procedure, it was confirmed that Rajo was pregnant and Ballo was over the moon.
‘After hearing the news, my husband sat by my side and would caress my stomach,’ she says. ‘He would even talk to the baby and spend hours with me. He told me that no one would call me a baanjh anymore. It was the first time I had seen the tender and emotional side of my husband in our 55 years together,’ says Rajo.
Initially the neighbours thought the Lohans were playing a prank when Rajo announced she was pregnant. But when they began to see her bump, they celebrated with the couple. Omi too was happy and offered her support. The Lohans took care and followed the doctor’s advice about regular check-ups and scans. Ballo would take Rajo to the clinic, which is 90km from her village, by bus.
‘It seemed that he had fallen in love with me again. Those days he would be very caring and loving to me. He would get restless, even if I caught cold. I loved being pampered after leading a life of dejection, rejection and humiliation for five decades.
‘My pregnancy was without any problems. I had absolutely no issues… maybe I had been hoping for this for so long that I was willing to undergo anything,’ she says.
But eight weeks before the delivery date, she suffered a mishap. Though doctors had advised her against lifting heavy objects during pregnancy, Rajo continued toiling in the fields and at home.
Once while lifting a heavy bag of fodder for the buffaloes that they raise, she slipped and fell. ‘I started bleeding profusely. My husband and his friends, who were playing cards nearby, rushed towards me after hearing the thud and took me to the hospital. I thought that I would die. But thanks to Dr Bishnoi, he handled the situation well and brought me out of danger. Nothing happened to my baby or to me,’ says Rajo.
Dr Bishnoi remembers Rajo being rushed into the ICU. ‘A surgical team was on standby in case of emergency and we tackled the problem,’ says Dr Bishnoi.
Rajo had to remain in hospital for a month until she delivered the baby by caesarean section. ‘I can never forget the moment when I first saw Naveen,’ says Rajo. I was unconscious for several hours after the C-section, but when I woke up, Dr Bishnoi was by my side with the baby in his arms. He placed her next to me and I was overjoyed. Although I was weak, I hugged her and nearly wept with joy.
‘Seeing Ballo’s happiness was easily one of the best moments in my life.’
As for Ballo, he could not believe his eyes when he saw little Naveen. Offering a silent prayer, he hugged his baby close to his chest.
As soon as the news of Naveen’s arrival reached the village, Alewa broke into festivities with neighbours dancing, playing the dhol (a percussion instrument) and distributing sweets. The partying, which cost the Lohans Rs350,000 (Dh20,500), continued for 10 days. The road leading to the Lohan’s house was spruced up, a canopy was erected and decorated with lighting. A part of the terrace was converted into a community kitchen that served vegetarian food for around 5,000 guests made of family, friends and neighbours.
‘When I returned from the hospital, I was overjoyed to see that Ballo had arranged for the house to be cleaned and decorated to welcome Naveen and me. I was tired but I could not wait to pamper my little one and shower her with love.
‘Omi too helped a great deal in caring for the little one. Suddenly, the house, which had never heard the sounds of a baby, appeared to have come to life. The cries of the baby and the giggles when she grew up a bit were so soothing to our ears.’
Did Ballo ever feel he was too old to be a father?
‘I have the strength of someone half my age,’ says the wizened man. ‘I work for around 10 hours. I play with my child, run after her and try to keep pace with my little angel,’ he says.
Is he or his wife worried that they might not see her grown up?
Ballo says, ‘Naveen is the epicentre of our lives. So even if I am gone before she attains marriageable age, my wives will take proper care of her.’ He also says that he has extended family who would help look after her.
Immediately after the birth of Naveen, the Lohans were planning another child, hoping to have a son, but they didn’t have enough money and were worried about Rajo’s health, so have abandoned the idea.
‘There is no doubt that Naveen is a gift to us. There is also a hard truth that she is a girl. One day we will have to marry her off and send her to her in-laws’ house. There was a lot of social and family pressure to have a boy,’ says Ballo.
He says he’ll do everything to see that his daughter is happy and that he has enough to leave behind for her. But despite the fact that Naveen is a girl, the family have decided to raise their daughter as their son. ‘She’s our daughter and son, too. We’re sending her to a convent school. She speaks English, Hindi and Haryanvi and has a keen interest in painting. I want her to become a doctor someday and serve society,’ says Ballo.
However, conceiving a child at 70 has taken a toll on Rajo’s health. She has been treated for ovarian cancer and is still undergoing tests. ‘All I want is to see her grow up while we are still alive. We are all getting older and frail by the day. Age is catching up with us. I just hope she grows up fast, outpacing our ageing. Once we see her married, we can die in peace,’ she says.
‘Every day, I silently thank God for the gift he gave us. I cannot hug her and kiss her enough. I look forward to her returning home after school so I can play with her and feed her and cuddle up next to her. Our life is complete now.’