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A witty, moving and intensely personal retelling of a woman’s battle with infertility

When Rohini married Ranjith and moved to the ‘big city’, they had already planned the next five years of their life: job, home, and then child. After three years of marriage and amidst increasing pressure from family, they decided to seek medical help to conceive. But they weren’t prepared for what came next-not only in terms of the invasive, gruelling and deeply uncomfortable nature of infertility treatment but also the financial and emotional strain it would put on their marriage, and the gnawing shame and feeling of inadequacy that she would experience as a woman unable to bear a child.

 

What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing in My Vagina? is a witty, moving and intensely personal retelling of Rohini’s five-year-long battle with infertility, capturing the indignities of medical procedures, the sting of prying questions from friends and strangers, the disproportionate burden of treatment on the woman, the everyday anxieties about wayward hormones, follicles and embryos and the overarching anxiety about the outcome of the treatment. It offers a no-holds-barred view of her circuitous and highly bumpy road to motherhood.It was 8 a.m. on a Saturday and the reception area was already packed with couples at various stages of treatment. As first-time visitors, we paid the registration fee and went into a consultation room. A bespectacled, presumably junior consultant motioned us to sit down and began inquiring into our condition, reading out queries from a four-page data sheet in her hand and filling it in as the Q&A progressed.

 

There were questions on our medical history, the nature of my menstrual cycle, our lifestyle, hereditary diseases and, of course, the most critical query: how long we had been trying to conceive. That probably did not tick all the boxes, so what followed was a point-by-point probing of our sex life.

 

‘How often do you have intercourse?’
‘Once or twice a week.’
‘When was the last time you had intercourse?’
‘Last Sunday.’
‘Have you experienced any sexual dysfunction?’
‘No.’
‘Do you have any history of sexually transmitted diseases?’
‘No.’

 

Our tone was flat and deadpan, betraying none of the unease we felt, as if it were routine to discuss the schedule and specifications of our sex life. Of course, only I spoke.

 

Ranjith leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, and uttered a syllable or two when a question was specifically directed at him. He had come there only for me.

 

Once the patient history form was filled up the doctor said she would have to examine me and pointed to a bed in the same room. I knew what was coming and didn’t look forward to it, but agreed obediently. Removing my shoes, I stepped on a two-rung stool and climbed onto the steel examination table while she drew a curtain around it.

 

‘Please remove your pyjamas,’ she ordered.

 

I loosened the knot of my salwar, pulled it down along with my underwear and lay down on my back. She wore her gloves, dipped her index and middle fingers in jelly and inserted them inside my vagina, feeling the contours of my insides in rough, rapid moves. I held my breath, interlocked my fingers tightly and focused unblinkingly on the ceiling.

 

What’s Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina | Rohini S. Rajagopal

After a few seconds she noted, ‘There is nothing anatomically wrong with your body.’
‘Hmm,’ I exhaled. The only thing I cared for was the departure of the groping fingers and restoration
of dignity to my half-naked self.

 

Back at the table, she handed us a printout that laid down the next steps. ‘Please come back once you finish all the tests on this sheet,’ she said. We nodded dutifully and stepped out of the room, our to-do list in hand. We chose the diagnostics lab first. There were twenty odd tests to strike off the list—from HIV to blood sugar to the various hormones that govern reproduction. The phlebotomist1 indicated a student chair and asked me to place my extended arm on the foldable writing pad. He drained several millilitres of my blood into colour-coded vials. I did not fear needles and breathed easily through the prick of skin and tightness of strap. It was certainly easier than offering access to the inner recesses of my vagina.

 

Once I was done, Ranjith sat on the same chair and went through the same motions. Next was sperm collection. A male technician handed Ranjith a small plastic container with a white label on it. He asked him to make use of a room at the opposite end of the corridor with the sign ‘Sample Collection’ outside. Ranjith hid the cup in his closed fist and walked into the room. As the door closed I caught a fleeting glimpse of its interiors—peeling walls and a broken chair. I sat on the bench, facing the closed door, trying to block all thoughts. After fifteen minutes he emerged.

 

The final stop was ultrasound. I was led into a room overpowered by medical equipment and asked to lie down on a long, narrow bed. My salwar and underwear rested on hooks in the bathroom. A chirpy radiologist photographed the insides of my uterus with the transducer, noting down measurements of my ovaries on paper. Once or twice she yelped in delight at the images that appeared on the screen.

 

‘Excellent. A triple lining!’ she said. I maintained my breathless silence, again fixated only on when the ultrasound probe would be withdrawn from my vagina.

 

As soon as Ranjith and I stepped into the clinic, it was as if an invisible wall had emerged to separate us—husband and wife—snapping the lines and wires of marital communication. We walked around the clinic like zombies, taking instructions, undoing zippers, lowering underwear, offering arms for needles . . . It was like a spontaneous, self-imposed blockade. We resisted processing the happenings around us. We resisted conversation. We resisted each other’s eyes even, each feeling sickeningly guilty that the other had been dragged into such a distasteful setting.

 

We had come in expecting the privacy and safety of a cosy consultation room, but the fertility clinic turned out to be an open parade in which our self-respect and dignity were systematically poked, squeezed and drained out. It was only about one and a half hours later, when the stripping and skinning were complete, that we were ushered into the cabin of the doctor we had come to meet in the first place.

The story of unapologetic women and their quest for agency

Women Who Misbehave, much like the women within its pages, contains multitudes and contradictions-it is imaginative and real, unsettling and heartening, funny and poignant, dark and brimming with light.

 

At a party to celebrate her friend’s wedding anniversary, a young woman spills a dangerous secret. A group of girls mourns the loss of their strange, mysterious neighbour. A dutiful daughter seeks to impress her father even as she escapes his reach. A wife weighs the odds of staying in her marriage when both her reality and the alternative are equally frightening. An aunt comes to terms with an impulsive mistake committed decades ago.

 

In this wildly original and hauntingly subversive collection of short stories, Sayantani Dasgupta brings to life unforgettable women and their quest for agency. They are violent and nurturing, sacred and profane. They are friends, lovers, wives, sisters and mothers. Unapologetic and real, they embrace the entire range of the human experience, from the sweetest of loves and sacrifices to the most horrific of crimes.

 

Here is an excerpt from the book, Women Who Misbehave:

 

 

It is a Friday evening, but you can’t head home and settle in front of the TV with beers from your fridge and mutton biryani from the dhaba across the street. It’s already been a long day and doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to ending. You now have to go to your friend’s home for a dinner party. Well, she isn’t really a friend. She is a former colleague, so you can blow it off. But you’re not an asshole, and she has invited you to celebrate the three- month anniversary of her wedding. You care neither for the occasion nor the husband. Still, you board an auto and head her way because you are a good person.

 

The two-storeyed bungalow-style home has a wrought- iron gate and a small garden. It is conveniently located a hop, skip and a jump from the bustling Hauz Khas market. You can’t help being envious. They probably just stand on their balcony and holler for all sorts of vendors to come rushing with platters of pakoras, samosas and hot jalebis straight from the fryer. You, on the other hand, live in the hinterland by yourself because that’s what you can afford on your salary. Which is really why you tip the dhaba boys so generously every time they deliver your order. You cannot risk angering the one source of palatable food in your neighbourhood.

 

You reread the directions your friend texted you this morning. You are to go straight upstairs and neither loiter around the ground floor nor accidentally ring the bell. The husband’s widowed mother lives on the ground floor, and you’ve been warned that she has little tolerance for anyone under the age of seventy.

 

You walk past the tidy square garden until you hit the mosaic staircase. With each step you take, the strain of jazz music grows stronger. The stairs lead you to a heavy black door, and you let your finger hover over the bell. You’re no expert, you don’t know the names and types of woods in this world, but you can tell this is expensive. And you’re happy for your former colleague, you truly are. After all, how many people your age, and with practically the same goddamned salary, get to disappear behind a door like this every evening?

 

You take a deep breath and press the bell even though your throat feels like it is closing in, like flowers whose petals clam up at night. We are done preening for you, sucker! You hear the momentary lull in conversation, but you have already recognized the voices. You quit these people a few months ago in pursuit of a flashier salary, but now you have to spend an entire evening with them. You press the doorbell again. Urgently. As if you are here to take care of serious business.

 

Tanu opens the door, her face awash with happiness. Marriage hasn’t changed her, at least not on the outside. She is dressed simply in her usual blue jeans and a pale T-shirt, her outfit of choice for practically every occasion. She gives you a hug and you breathe in a cloud of familiar smells— lemon verbena soap, sandalwood perfume. Mahesh slides up beside her, his shaved head hovering like an egg over her bony shoulder, his arm possessively gripping her tiny waist. He smiles too and says, ‘Welcome, welcome. Please come in.’

 

Women Who Misbehave | Sayantani Dasgupta

You say ‘thank you’ although you can’t help but think that the deep lines under his eyes and the tight way his skin stretches over his face make him look less like Tanu’s husband and more like a creepy uncle. Somehow, the fifteen-year gap between them is more pronounced this evening than it was on the day of their wedding, when you saw him for the first time. But you were too drunk then, and so all you remember is how after a few drinks Mahesh began telling everyone what he would like to do to every man who had ever hurt Tanu. You had giggled along with the others, but, secretly, you had wondered what it might feel like to be the object of such passion. You catch Mahesh’s eyes sweeping over your black shirt. His gaze doesn’t linger on your breasts—maybe if you weren’t so flat-chested things would be different—but out of habit, you surreptitiously glance down to check that the buttons haven’t come undone.

 

‘Black really suits you,’ Mahesh says. You laugh because you haven’t mastered the art of accepting compliments. You follow Mahesh and Tanu into the drawing room where a cluster of familiar faces acknowledge you with varying degrees of nods and smiles. It’s a smartly put-together room—stainless steel and white leather, with tasteful accents of bamboo. Two love seats face an enormous couch and the side tables have neat stacks of expensive-looking coffee-table books, lit up just so by stark, Scandinavian-looking lamps. On one of the love seats, Pia and Projapoti are smashed next to each other, gazing into a glossy book of black-and-white photographs of umbrellas. Their romance is as new as it is tumultuous, so you tell yourself to forgive them if they ignore you. But they don’t. Pia looks up to give you a cheery wink and Projapoti, who took you under her wing when you first joined the company, sets downs her drink, stands up and wraps you in a hug.

 

Rani is sprawled on the couch. Swathed in a voluminous pink and red sari, she looks like a porcelain doll. Her eyes are closed; her lips are pressed together. She is the picture of calm, a far cry from the perpetually anxious person she is at work. Auro, the only other man in the room besides Mahesh, is on the other end of the couch. He was hired to replace you, and you trained him during the last week that you were there. But from the cocky, two-fingered salute he gives you, you would think it was the other way round. He slides towards Rani to make space for you on the couch. You sit beside him, and as if to deliberately ignore your irritation, Auro stretches languorously and crosses his long legs at the ankles.

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