Mansi Choksi & Sharmila Ganesan Ram, TNN | May 13, 2012

MUMBAI: Dr Aniruddh Malpani, an infertility expert in Mumbai, often invokes playwright George Bernard Shaw‘s conversation with French actress Sarah Bernhardt when inundated with elitist requests from couples seeking sperm donors. “Just think Monsieur… a child with my looks and your brains!” Bernhardt is said to have told Shaw. To which he had famously quipped, “But Madam, what if he is born with my looks and your brains?”

In India, it’s well known that couples shopping for sperm demand both looks and brains. What isn’t so well known, despite being fairly commonplace, is a more outrageous request: caste-based sperm. Three years ago, Dr Saurav Kumar, a Patna gynaecologist, created a furore when he told a newspaper that childless couples insisted on knowing the caste of sperm donors. But while one may be tempted to assume that caste biases are entrenched only in states likeBihar, the city’s infertility experts insist otherwise.

Dilip Patil, founding president of Trivector, an infertility solutions firm, says there is a definite preference for Brahim donors in Mumbai.Even among Muslims, couples want to know whether the donor is Sunni or Shiite,” he says. “However, going by Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines, we reveal only the religion of the donor, not the caste.”

Patil, who dismisses requests about caste as “byproducts of the Indian mindset”, happily obliged varying queries about educational and professional backgrounds, extra-curricular preferences and linguistic skills until a woman perched on stilettos tick-tocked into his clinic with a bizarre request a few months ago. “A Page 3 personality walked in with a strange chart in her hand. There was a list of Bollwyood actors such as John Abraham and Emraan Hashmi and each of them was graded as A+, A, B+ and so on. She asked my staff if there were donors in these graded categories and insisted that she was ready to pay anything. We told her that we could not accept such demands; this was not a clinic for designer babies,” says Patil, who was on the medical research team for the recent film on sperm donation called Vicky Donor.

Perhaps the designer baby syndrome is inspired in elite sperm shoppers by what happens abroad, where, says Dr Malpani, couples have the option of going through a whole “shopping catalogue” with details of various sperm donors. In India, however, the donor remains anonymous. All that couples are told is that it is “a young, healthy and fertile physical match”. Yet, they persist. “They want to match the primary characteristics such as height, skin and colour with their husband. Mostly, they want someone who is taller and a shade fairer than their husband,” says Malpani, who points out that this may be a “very consumeristic” approach.

While most couples are concerned about medical history of the donor (Patil’s clinic produces the medical history of three generations of the donor’s family), skin colour is another priority. “Certain communities prefer a fair-skinned donor,” says Dr Pai, adding that couples want them to find the closest skin, hair and eye colour match. During his fellowship in a semen bank in Australia around ten years ago, he had observed that they would bear the race of the donor in mind as the physical characteristics could differ depending on this. Similarly, in India, where the physical features of people from the North-East may differ from other regions, “we have to isolate donors based on these considerations”, he says.

While in a majority of cases, it is the gynaecologists who contact sperm banks and request for semen samples based on the client’s height, skin and hair colour preferences, some high-flying couples, especially NRIs, visit the sperm bank personally in their desperation. Infertility specialist Dr Arun Patil, partner at Medilabs, a leading sperm bank, says that around ten per cent of his clients, who come from a higher socio-economic strata, are curious about the donor’s background. Among these are people who ask for “the name of the college the donor went to” and tend to favour prestigious institutions such as IIT and IIM. Then there are also those who leave their photograph at the sperm bank so that the doctor can find the closest match.

In 2008, when Dilip Patil tried to popularise the concept of sperm donation in India through an awareness booth at IIT’s annual Mood Indigo festival, it was, he says, “an anti-climax”. “The students were so shy that they changed their lanes while passing by the stall,” he says. Patil, whose real-life anecdotes about convincing people to donate sperm made it to Vicky Donor, says that he used references about sperm donation in ancient mythology, props and money (Rs 500 per sample) to convert donors.

The success of the film, says Patil, has vindicated Mumbai’s community of sperm donors. One indication is in the increasing number of walk-in donations. “We had a 43-year-old father who was keen to donate his sperm. We told him he was too old to be a donor,” says Patil, “so he sent his son the next day.”