Rohini S Rajagopal
“When you are denied something, its value is grossly overestimated in your mind.
I rejected all the gifts in our life and dwelled on its single deficiency.
Pregnancy was an exclusive club and I wanted to break in.”
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.
I came across Rohini S Rajgopal’s book on Instagram, (I think). Always curious about Indian memoirs, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was about infertility, a topic that I am particularly interested in because I have experienced it. After reading the book, I reached out to Rohini through social media. We had a great phone conversation and she graciously agreed to respond to my interview questions.
I read many memoirs but very rarely can I nod my head every few pages and say “I have felt exactly the same way”. This is one such memoir. Rohini’s chronicle of infertility transported me to a time (25 years ago) and a place (Washington DC) where I had experienced many of the medical interventions and procedures that she describes so vividly in her witty, yet moving memoir.
The pressure to have children is an undeniable one. It is everywhere – outside and inside, through biology, through society, through subliminal messaging that you have internalised growing up in a society that believes that the purpose (not outcome) of marriage is procreation. No matter how you slice it, a married woman who hasn’t produced a child five years after marriage is given ‘the look’. Even when people don’t openly pry, there is gossip, innuendo, and sly questions about “are you on treatment”?
What Rohini has managed to do through her detailed account of struggle with infertility is to shine a clear light on what happens at the personal, psychological and marital level when a couple commits to the harrowing journey that is infertility treatment. The burden and consequence of the choice is disproportionally allocated to the woman.
The title of the book is an indicator that Rohini will use words that make us uncomfortable, explain terms that are unfamiliar and take us into a territory that most couples who worry about birth control may not understand. Yet, there is so much that is endearing, not just for Rohini’s self-deprecating humour where you are constantly rooting for her but also for her no-details-spared descriptions when you want to hold her hand as her losses mount and her dedication to the cause occasionally falters.
For anyone who is undergoing infertility or is curious about the difficult journey to motherhood that some women face, I highly recommend this book.
Question 1: Do you have a formal background in writing?
No, I don’t. I have a master’s degree in English (Media and Communication). After that I did a variety of jobs that involved editing and writing, but I never saw myself as someone capable of producing something original and creative. Definitely, not a full-length book. It was one of the biggest leaps of faith that I had to take. I knew I had a story worthy of telling, but I wasn’t sure if I had the ability to tell it in an effective and engaging manner.
Question 2: What came first? The idea for the memoir or the material?
The material, of course. I was on the verge of what looked like my third, back-to-back miscarriage. I made a promise to myself that if this one goes through, I will share my story. This book is the result of that promise.
Question 3: How did the idea to write this memoir originate? Did you come up with it or was it someone else?
I felt a very strong inner compulsion to share my experiences. Though I tried my level best to ignore it, squash it, dismiss it, the desire to tell just kept rearing its head. So I quit my job and decided to devote myself full time to responding to that inner call.
Question 4: Why did you write this detailed account of a difficult time of your life? Who/what were your primary motivations for writing this memoir?
There were several motivations. I talk about them in the book. But primarily there were two
- Intrinsic – It was a way of being seen, understood, acknowledged and recognised.
- Extrinsic – I felt obligated to other women and men who were traversing the same path. Since I have drawn comfort from the journeys of others who had travelled before me, I felt that I must pay it forward by sharing my story.
I hoped that someone would derive hope or comfort or inspiration from it.
Question 5: Did you write this book in parallel as events transpired or much later?
No. I started writing about three years after my son was born. There was no time or mindspace to devote to writing before that. But I had retained the hospital folders – all the results of blood tests, ultrasounds, images of the embryos for reference. I also opened a word document and put down all the important dates and events. I wasn’t sure if I could rely on my memory alone. And then I sat on these for three years without adding a single word or sentence.
Question 6: How long did it take from start to finish for the book?
It took about a year to write the first draft. I shared it with family and friends and then made edits based on their feedback. I also pitched the manuscript to Jayapriya Vasudevan, my literary agent. Her team gave me more professional feedback on structuring, characterisation, blending the medical information with the personal narrative, etc. So it took another year of refining, before it was in the shape to be shown to publishers.
Question 7: How did you organise the chapters – did you write chronologically or at random and then pieced them together?
I first began writing randomly. I would sit down at my laptop everyday and just let the words, emotions and thoughts spill over. I did not bother with structuring or even coherence. There was so much bottled up inside, that it was liberating to just let it flow. After putting down about 20,000 words I sat down to organise my content. So I retro-fitted most of that material into the first nine chapters. The rest of the book was written in a more intentional manner. I wrote plot outlines for all the remaining chapters. Therefore, the second half of the book was easier to write and I feel it has a better rhythm.
Question 8: Did you read other medical memoirs to choose this narrative style?
I read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Complications and The Checklist Manifesto. I love the way he interweaves science with human stories. I also read Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and Bottle of Lies by Katherine Eban which can be loosely classified as medical thrillers.
One of my other favourites from this time is Wave by Sonali Deraniyangala. She is a professor of Economics who lost her entire family during the Tsunami. The book is the story of her loss and grief. It’s an absolute gem. I also kept going back to Amitava Kumar’s Writing Badly is Easy.
These books served as research and preparation for my own. Even during writing, when I felt stuck or confused, I referred to other books in this genre to find a way out. The chapter that took the longest to finalise was the first one. I wasn’t sure where to begin and reading other books helped me find a compelling starting point.
Question 9: How did you decide what goes in and what stays out? Were there any concerns about how your extended family would feel about the level of detail you have shared?
I was worried about reactions from my family. So, I shared the first draft with all those who figure prominently in the book. Fortunately, no one expressed any reservations.
The book looks at all these people and relationships through the prism of infertility – so what you read in the book is only one angle, one slice of our reality. It does not depict the full 360 degree view of what my relationship is with these people. And I have tried hard to represent others who are a part of my story with compassion, understanding and generosity. I was very wary of it sounding like a rant or a settling of scores.
Question 10: What was the easy part?
Question 11: What was the difficult part?
Question 12: What was your path to publication? Did you have an agent?
I reached out to Jayapriya Vasudevan through a common friend. Fortunately, she saw some potential and offered to represent my work. That moment was a big turning point – only after a name like Jacaranda Literary Agency came on board I believed that my book could have a reach and future beyond my social circle.
Question 13: Did you learn any lessons – during writing and after publication of our memoir – any surprising or unusual takeaways?
The decision to quit my job and start this book was the first time in my life that I threw caution to the wind and followed my heart. It is so incredibly rewarding when you do something for its own sake not concerned with its outcome. That was a big revelation for me. I realised the only person I need to ‘please’ is myself.
Question 14: What is the one thing you want the reader to remember from the book?
That infertility is real and painful and comes with no guarantees. Yet, it is nothing to be ashamed of. When we lay claim to our suffering, loss and supposed ‘inadequacies’, we take back the agency, power and selfhood that has been denied to us.
Question 15. Any words of advice to aspiring memoir writers?
I would say focus on writing the best version of the book you are capable of writing. Do not hesitate to edit, revise, rewrite, dismantle and rebuild your manuscript. Seek feedback from beta readers whose judgment you trust and implement it if it makes sense to you. Focus on the writing because that’s the only thing that is under your control. Finding a publisher, reaching a wide cross section of readers, gaining recognition – those are all dependent on various factors that no one can guarantee. So, direct your energies towards what is under your control. A good book will find its audience.
Question 16: What next?
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Photo credit Rohini S Rajagopal