From Richard Parker to Wombs for Rent: Narratives that Transform

I often begin my classes on Ethics with a compelling case study.

Earlier, I would use the famous case history of Dudley and Stevens. This is the true life story of Dudley and Stevens, two sailors who had been shipwrecked along with two other men. When one of them, the cabin boy Richard Parker, fell into a coma, Dudley and Stephens decide to kill him for food. After a highly publicized trial, they were convicted of murder and sentenced to death (with a recommendation for clemency; the sentence was commuted to six months in prison.) You can read more about the legal aspects of the case here The Queen Vs Dudley and Stevens

This is a very compelling case study, as it helped me raise questions such as:-

(a) Was it right of Dudley and Stevens to have killed Richard Parker for food, even if it meant for their own survival?

(b) If yes, why? If no, why not?

Most people say, it wasn’t morally or otherwise right of them to kill him!

Others, of course, point to the fact that since it was the most viable option available to them, and probably, Richard Parker would have died anyway. Hence it was not only right, but also necessary at that juncture to kill Richard Parker.

I then go on to inject more and more complexity in the case by arguing the various ethical aspects of their action.

Questions such as:-

(c) But weren’t they encroaching up on the right to life of another human being? And that too for purely selfishly driven survival motives. So how can such an act be right? (This pitched to people who had said that it was right and necessary of Dudley and Stevens to kill Richard Parker.

And then there are other things that are considered. Situations like:-

(d) What if they had not arbitrarily ‘chosen’ to kill Richard Parker, but rather, drew a lottery. And herein Richard Parker’s name came up, and they killed him. Would that be permissible?

My students, usually the bright ones, attentive in class, answer back:-

But did all participating members agree with and consent to willingly participate in the lottery?

I am usually happy when they come up with this question. Not only does it signal that they are awake and actively engaging with the problem, but are thinking in the right direction.

I then raise about the question of Consent. I ask them:-

(e) What if, owing to his health, Richard Parker consented to being killed, or sacrificed, for the sake of the others? Would that be morally acceptable?

And there as well, are ones who now veer from the ‘No Zone’ to the ‘Yes Zone’, while a minority stoically holds on to their ‘No! It wouldn’t! One can’t encroach upon the life of another. Even with consent. Because according to such logic, ‘consensual murder’ and suicide would be acceptable. Which it isn’t and shouldn’t be!’

I slowly see how the debate shifts from questioning the ethical premise of Cannibalism, to arguing what would have been the best way to decide whom to eat.

So yes, such is how some of my sessions on Ethics meander. At times the discussions are heated, words fly like cannon balls and there is much in terms of cooling down required by the end of it.

Concepts like Consent, Free Will, Moral Responsibility, Social Contract and of course, the most important of all, Individual and Collective Happiness are churned and churned in the discussions until all that is left is a huge vacuum tailor made to personally reflect upon the various strands of thought that still hang n the room like thick cobweb.

While researching for one of my classes, I came across Yiyun Li’s marvelous short story collection, Golden boy Emerald Girl, last month. Even though I am very tempted to write about the book, I’d rather not interrupt the ongoing discussion.


One of the short stories, titled Prison intrigued me to no end. It was about a successful Chinese couple living in America who lose their sixteen-year-old daughter in a traffic accident and find their world shattered. When the husband suggests they go to China and find a surrogate mother so that they might have another child. The wife chooses an uneducated young woman whose only child had been stolen by a kidnapper several years before, and stays with her during the pregnancy with twins, fretting over imagined dangers to the unborn child.

I was thankful (once again) to this collection and to Yiyun for intimately putting forth a subject that made me feel very uncomfortably initially.

What does surrogacy mean, exactly? That you rent a womb like you would rent a house or a car? At first glance, that’s how it came across – A mechanical transaction between semen-and-ovary contributing parents and an individual with a host womb.

I realized what irked me was not the seemingly mechanical nature of the ‘transaction’, but the manner in which, such a transaction precluded the emotional and psychological baggage that may have been accruing from it. But then, I also realized, perhaps, the problem wasn’t the thing in itself, but the manner in which one saw it. In essence, representation was the issue here.

In Li’s Prison, there is a scene wherein the two women are in a public market place. There they are approached by a young beggar boy. The pregnant woman insists that the boy is her missing child, causing such a scene that the boy’s guardian takes him away. When the two women get home, the girl demands that the woman give her half the money promised so that she can buy the boy back from the beggar man. When the woman asks the girl to sit down so they can talk about it, she threatens to run away and sell the twins. The story ends with a standoff as the woman thinks, “This was the price they paid for being mothers…that the love of one’s own child made everyone else in the world a potential enemy.” She knows that the relationship of trust she and the girl has developed during the pregnancy is crushed and that they will remain each other’s prisoners.

The story left a strange sadness on my tongue.

I again started looking around and came across a wonderfully shot documentary, Wombs on Rent. It encompasses a gamut of complexities that make up, and are often lost, in any discussion on the subject. Shot over a fourteen month period, the documentary has as its frame narrative, an American/White couple who come to India in search of a surrogate.

Here we are introduced to Dr Nayna Patel at the Akansha IVF and Infertility Clinic. Slowly, the camera veers from the personal to the intimate, until you realize that you are sitting in one of the surrogate mother’s house, watching her four children play, watch television, study, while the two time surrogate mother recounts, albeit happily, and if not that that, then at least, gladly, how becoming a surrogate provided her the necessary means to educate her children. The fact that their father is an unemployed alcoholic adds an unspoken irony to the story, without marring the gladness on her face. Stories of numerous surrogates follow.

Ramu Makwana

There is Ramu Makwana, Yunam, Manisha, and Vasanti and so many more. Their stories are somewhat similar – they agree to ‘do this’ to help their families escape poverty. And you realize the grim realities of our smaller towns, so often eclipsed by the glitzy grand narratives of Gurgaon and Delhi and Mumbai.

What stands out in these stories, however, is the subtle courage, the emotional stamina, the willingness to let their own bodies become a haven, a site for germinating, fulfilling  and even nurturing someone else’s dream.

I hadn’t imagined that this is how it worked. But it does. And this is what the documentary does best. It captures the human essence of the ‘transaction’, which is not only mechanical, but moral, emotional and pragmatic. Of course, there are strong economic reasons compelling it, but then, what we see in front of us is how two things are brought together and everything  transforms into something else. I think capturing this transformation, this change, this psychological displacement from place A in one’s mind to place B – that is the real triumph of the film, as it is this that one is liable to miss out so very easily, when looking at surrogacy through neutral eyes.

Finally, there are two threads that the film leaves us with.

There is a shot of the Margarita Crown, holding her newly-had baby, Mathew, sitting in a plush hotel room, telling us, “Of course, I will tell him about all of this when he grows up”. There is also a scene wherein we see her ‘visiting’ her surrogate, Vasanti’s house. We know now that the film is coming full circle.

Margarita Crown

In the last shot, we are told that Ramu, one of the surrogates we had met earlier, and who had suffered some complications, had had a miscarriage. She was to remain at the clinic for a while longer. And mind you, this is the same woman, who had said, I know I will get attached to the child and it will be hard for me to let go, and yet, I will.

I knew the film had done his job when I felt myself asking, no one in particular, so what happens now? Do they try again? Does She try again? Yes, she got the money, but will it ever be enough to assuage the pain, the vacuity that miscarriage leaves one with, the pointy, bristled feelings that one can’t name.

I would strongly recommend Wombs on Rent to everyone who wants to grasp the technical, medical, social and moral complexities surrounding surrogacy. But most of all, it brings to light that the inherent humanity of an exchange that otherwise seems so very perfunctory and mechanical and therefore transforms the way you have known or understood surrogacy. And I strongly feel that is one of the many hallmarks of good (if not great) film making.

Oh, and yes, the fact that I happen to know Ishani Dutta, one of the main people associated with the film makes me all the proud.

Watch the film here. Wombs on Rent

Read more about Ishani Dutta here Ishani Dutta Carrot Communications


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