‘I thought being born in a test tube was normal’

I was frozen before I was born — what can you expect of a person like me?

Written by Pritha Chatterjee | Published: September 18, 2011 3:34:57 am

I was frozen before I was born — what can you expect of a person like me? This is a standing joke between my family and me. I always knew I was a technological innovation. But the recognition of being the first test tube baby that cleared Dr Subhas Mukherjee’s name — the person who brought me into this world — came eight years ago,around my 25th birthday. The sole photo album of my childhood has the doctor’s photographs,he and his wife with my parents and me. Sadly,I have no memory of him. He was forced by circumstances to take his own life when I was not even three years old,but his wife continued visiting us. She called me her husband’s only child.

Today,people say I am brave to talk about it,but it’s so easy to voice my opinion,as compared to the ordeal my parents and Dr Mukherjee went through. They were the brave ones,their lives were scarred by the controversy,that followed my birth. They were called names,and Dr Mukherjee was ostracised by the scientific community and the West Bengal government. I was sent away to my grandparents’ house to avoid the scrutiny for the first few months after my birth. There I was christened Durga (my pet name),since I was born on October 3,the first day of the Durga Puja in 1978. My life was normal,being the first test-tube baby was incidental. I grew up in a jovial Marwari neighbourhood in Kolkata,went to La Martiniere’s School,and attended a girls’ college.

But I was a curious child,bursting with questions. My parents have always been truthful to me,and never glossed over the details of my birth. I was about seven years old when my father first told me that Ma had difficulty in conceiving,so we had to take some help from Dr Mukherjee. I learnt how Dr Mukherjee worked out of a small lab at his home,and my parents went there for treatment. It was simply told and I came to accept it as a fact,as did my friends. I never thought being born in a test tube was anything but normal,because there was nothing extraordinary about my life otherwise. My parents,on the other hand,have never quite recovered from the trauma they faced after my birth. They still shy away from media attention.

I was taken on a tour of the clinic that Dr Sunit Mukherji (the cryobiologist in Dr Mukherjee’s team) had set up in Dr Subhas Mukherjee’s honour,when I was less than 10 years old. I saw the instruments,and that was where the joke about me being frozen before my birth was first made,by my father. Strangely,I still don’t know how much Ma and Baba had to pay to have me.

I was about 13 years old when journalists started coming to our house again. By then the controversy surrounding Dr Mukherjee was well-known. My father hated the idea of people photographing me. My friends were appointed my bodyguards. Together we would discuss the technology behind me. We were kids,we did not really understand the trauma behind it. I am told I always wanted to be a doctor when I was young,and then a psychologist. I suppose that’s where the questions came from.

When I was about 20-22 years old,Dr T C Anand Kumar,who was widely celebrated for having delivered the first test tube baby in India eight years after my birth,started visiting our home. Dr Sunit Mukherji had contacted him,and given him my doctor’s old notes. Dr Kumar was one of the bravest people I know. He opposed Dr. Mukherjee vehemently,yet he was the one who painstakingly went through those notes,and accepted that he had been wrong. He convinced the Indian Council of Medical Research,and commemorated Dr. Mukherjee on my 25th birthday.

I did my MBA from Symbiosis University,Puna and got a job with Perfetti Van Melle as a marketing personnel. Around then,Dr Mukherjee was given the recognition he deserved years before. My colleagues bombarded me with questions,about why I had concealed my identity. I always tell people,that I don’t walk up to you and tell you my favourite colour because it won’t make a difference to your life. The story of my birth is something like that.

I got married five years ago,and though I am yet to have children of my own,I’ll tell them my story when they come. One of my closest friends just gave birth to a test-tube baby,and it made me very happy. I am not qualified to be a champion of IVF. I am neither a doctor,nor a psychologist,but I believe that I need to speak up for it,if only to clear a good man’s name.

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