I’LL have a daughter this time too. I know it! Right from the first month of my pregnancy every symptom suggests a girl—my womb is heavier on the left, I lead with my left foot, my left breast is heavier than the right, and I long for the same foods as I did those other times. All my aches and pains and my drowsy state tell me that the little feet I hear belong to a girl. All the previous five times, I have had the same sensations.
“You want a son, don’t you? Then you must go to the Potdar Hospital,” a woman who had nothing better to do suggested, fingering my sore spot, and I followed the advice despite many misgivings. I got some treatment in Potdar where they gave me drugs through my nose. I thought hell can’t be any worse than this! I simply put up with it all in the name of hope.
My mother-in-law has begun persuading my husband to remarry. He joked to me about it before, but now he is serious. When I suggested that we adopt a son, he was really angry. He said an adopted child is never your own.
Right outside the maternity ward, Jyoti sat thinking of all this. When she felt the labour pains coming, her face distorted, she doubled up and clutched her waist, biting down on her lip. Then as the pain subsided, she went back into the circle of her thoughts, exhausted. Even her mother-in-law did not come with her this time. Her husband told her off-handedly, “Take mother with you.” Mother responded angrily, “Why? Just to bring home the good news that she has had yet another girl? The hospital isn’t far. She can go by herself.”
It was nine o’clock at night. Jyoti ate a few mouthfuls, prayed to the Kulaswamini who protected their home and went to the hospital. Her labour pains were intensifying and she was frightened. Besides, her heart beat wildly because she knew she was going to deliver a girl. That’s right, it would be a girl.
Aaiiii…. Jyoti could not hold her pain in anymore. She held down with her thighs in agony. By the time this wave died down, her face was covered in beads of sweat. The pain subsided and she looked ahead as her body relaxed. She saw two women coming down the hospital corridor towards the maternity ward. So this must be the other one in this ward. She seemed very young; a first-timer. Jyoti wondered who the older woman with her was—mother or mother-in-law. Both came closer. The older one went inside, leaving the first-timer outside on the bench. Mai, the hospital midwife, was inside—an expert at delivering babies! When Mai was around the doctor was always at ease. Mai could handle four or five deliveries all at once—she was that good! She called the doctor only when there was a caesarean section to be performed. Otherwise Mai took care of everything. She was as sweet tempered as she was talented. Durga Kaku, the other midwife in the hospital, was not like Mai. She couldn’t keep a sesame seed moistened in her mouth. She paid more attention to the tips she collected from the pregnant women than to the women themselves.
The first-timer was sitting just a short distance away from Jyoti. Jyoti watched her carefully. Her face looked like a dried and distressed kevda. She looked weak and her eyes were sunken. Her forehead was high and clear yellow. Her labour seemed like the hissing of the cobra—sharp and fast. She was going to have a boy, for sure. The symptoms were clear.
Mai came out. She peered at the first-timer carefully. Then she turned to Jyoti and smiled, “Looks like both of you are going to deliver at the same time. I will need to telephone the doctor.” Mai went back inside.
The older woman sat next to the first-timer. The first-timer was beside herself with pain. She was spinning like a potter’s wheel, while the older one sat there like a lump of clay, not consoling her, not caressing her back… and with no kind words. Jyoti wondered what kind of woman would do that. Anyone else would be moved and affected by the sight of this pain.
Trying hard to keep her heavy eyelids open, Jyoti looked at the first-timer again. She was sure the poor woman would have a son, how fortunate! She wished it would be the other way around. She should have the girl and Jyoti should have the boy. If not, she should probably just exchange the babies. What if she really could?
For a few seconds Jyoti thought that was a funny idea. She gave way to another wave of pain and as it passed she saw this idea was getting stronger. Like a harmless breeze becoming a big storm, the idea gripped her mind and ran amuck. Her whole being shook at the thought like a candle flame in the storm.
What’s wrong if I do this? She thought about how awful it had been for her through all her pregnancies and all those girls. The neighbour who had been showing her superficial sympathy will have her nose out of joint. All her husband’s office mates who circled him like crows because he has five daughters will probably have seizures just hearing the news. Her girls will dance for joy. All of them feel so sad during Bhau Beej and her husband will, of course….
Lost in her thoughts, Jyoti forgot her pain. She got up and marched straight inside. Mai was getting two delivery tables ready. There was only a curtain separating the two tables.
“Mai…,” Jyoti called out. Her whole body was shaking. Words seemed too thick to get through the sieve that was her jaw.
“Is the pain getting worse Jyoti?” asked Mai without turning around. The next moment, Jyoti turned and stood before her. “Mai… for me please… will you do this for me?” Jyoti’s teeth chattered as if she were cold.
Mai had heard many pregnant women begging and pleading with her to deliver them from their pain. Mai expected this to be a similar plea. So she looked at Jyoti smiling kindly and continued getting her tray of forceps and other tools ready.
“I will do everything I can. Tell me, what would you like me to do?”
“Exchange our babies.”
“What?” The tray in her hand rattled.
“The woman sitting outside most definitely will have a boy. And I will have a daughter. If that happens exchange our babies,” Jyoti stood her ground stressing every word.
“What on earth are you saying? Jyoti have you lost your mind?” Mai turned away as she put her tray down. Like a falling tree branch, Jyoti simply collapsed in Mai’s arms and started sobbing.
“Mai, I am going to be driven mad, really mad. Only you can save me. Please oblige me with this one thing. Take pity on me. I am begging you to help me. You can have my gold bangles. The necklace, the ring and anything else… but please do this for me.”
“Jyoti, look, come here. Lie down on the table, will you? It isn’t right to get hysterical at such a time. You need to calm yourself. Pray, pray. You’ll get a son. Don’t be so afraid. Come.” Mai took Jyoti’s hand and helped her lie down on the table. But Jyoti was not just another pregnant woman waiting to be delivered any more. She was holding cowries in her hand, prepared to gamble.
She pressed Mai’s hand and said, “There isn’t much time, Mai. Please think about it.”
“How do you know that she is going to have a boy and you a girl?”
“That’s what I think is going to happen. If it does—then I ask that you do what I ask.”
“You don’t even know anything about her…”
“Mai, is it time for her to be brought in yet?” asked the older woman from the threshold. For a second, Mai looked at Jyoti and said to the woman outside, “Wait just a moment, please.” The older woman left. Jyoti was watching Mai’s face with a fluttering heart as if she had just placed a flower on the idol with all her hopes and was waiting for a sign.
“Mai, how is the older woman related to her?”
“She’s her mother.”
“Her mother?” Even in this condition Jyoti was stunned.
“Look Mai. The two women seem very well-off. Their clothes and their demeanour suggest that. I am sure my daughter will be fine in their home.”
“No, please no buts. Aaiiii, I can’t stand this anymore!” Jyoti convulsed on the table. Her thoughts disappeared as the pain seemed like a million ants stinging her at once. She fought the pain with as much strength as she could muster. Her time was near.
Outside, the young first-timer struggling with her pain was being brought in by her mother. The door closed. Both were wracked by pain on the two tables. Between them was the curtain and Mai. Jyoti was praying with all her might, “God, please grant me a son. I’ll call him by one of your names. Mother goddess, Jagdamba, I’ll make you an offering of necklaces, please bless me. Give me a son.”
An incredible wave of pain was rending her body. She stiffened. Her life seemed to gather in her throat and her voice cracked. Beyond her suffering, she felt a new life emerge in this world, to thrive and to flourish.
With great hope and much effort she opened her eyes and lifted her head. As soon as she saw Mai’s face, she knew, and her neck collapsed. Her mind was numb with despair. Almost instantly, pain transferred itself from her body to her mind. One ended the same time as the other started. She simply stared with blank eyes. Mai showed her daughter to her, then washed and wrapped her in cloth.
Just then the other woman screamed and Mai ran to the other side. She was thrashing her limbs, trying to strike her stomach. Mai stopped her and said angrily, “It felt good then, didn’t it, and now…. stop it …. lie down quietly. Don’t thrash about. Whatever theatrics you’ve done already are enough.” But none of Mai’s words seemed to reach her. She kept screaming. Jyoti’s ears were intent on picking up the first-timer’s movements. “God, please, at least give her a son,” Jyoti prayed intently.
Finally, she too was delivered. As soon as she heard the baby’s cry, Jyoti sat upright, moved the curtain aside and asked eagerly “What is it?” Mai looked at her with wide eyes to shut her up, but she brought the baby boy for her to see as quickly as she could. Mai too seemed shaken up. Both looked uncertain like unseasoned thieves. Jyoti’s face lit up as if the baby boy was her own.
News of Jyoti having delivered a boy spread like the wind among her relatives. Her husband came bounding to the hospital. He ran in to clasp her in his arms for joy, then picked up the baby boy, held him close, and planted kisses on his face.
“I knew we would have a son this time. I had made a vow to the Kulaswamini, and she has blessed us. My office mates had laid bets because they thought I was going to have a daughter again. Now, let them eat their words—after all, we have produced a son.” Jyoti stared blankly at her husband babbling with joy. She felt like the rock in her heart was not about to soften at this sight.
It was two o’clock after midnight. Jyoti was in the bed with the baby cuddled at her side. Her mind wandered to the other bed next to hers. A baby was crying and she wondered if it was her daughter. Between the relatives, her women friends and their constant comings and goings for the last couple of days, she had not been able to fully see her daughter at all. Jyoti got up from her bed slowly and carefully and went to the next room to look for her baby. It was her daughter who was crying. The young mother was asleep with her back to the baby. The older woman was snoring on the floor.
Jyoti went quickly to the bed and picked up her baby holding her to her bosom. The baby rubbed her face against her breast wanting to nurse. Jyoti felt a quick stabbing pain moving from the tip of her breast to her heart. She felt choked.
“This baby is crying isn’t she? Let me take her.” Jyoti was taken aback to see Durga Kaku standing behind her, all dishevelled.
Next morning, all her five daughters came to see their baby brother. Watching the girls coo over the baby made her forget that he was not hers.
“I’ve brought you some hot homemade badamacha shira,” said her mother-in-law pushing the container towards her, “Come eat while it is hot.” She turned her attention next to her grandson. So now she gets badamacha shira… but all the other times… Jyoti sighed, thinking about it all. She recognised her daughter’s wail once again just as she was about to eat. Her hand froze. The cry was getting louder. Jyoti felt her daughter was asking to be taken to her real mother with all her might. Jyoti got up. She realised that her daughter had been crying since last night. What kind of mother is that woman, she thought angrily. The young mother was still asleep and her mother was nowhere around.
“ Aho bai! Your daughter is crying. Pick her up.” The young mother turned around to see Jyoti was talking to her and turned her face away again. “ Aho, get up. Take care of the baby,” said Jyoti again raising her voice. She picked up the baby herself and wished she could slap some sense into the young mother. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, the older woman came in and stood before Jyoti saying, “What is it? What happened?”
“The baby is hungry. Ask her to feed her.” The older woman ignored Jyoti’s plea, and took the baby from her as if she had pulled some clothes off the line and draped the child over her shoulder. She walked up and down slapping the baby on her back.
“Aho, she needs milk….” Before Jyoti could say anything further, the older woman said, “Go, leave us.”
Jyoti returned to her room frustrated. Durga Kaku walked in saying, “She will not feed her.”
“Why not? Doesn’t she have any milk in her breasts yet?” Jyoti asked forcefully. Durga Kaku closed the door to her room and whispered, “She is in trouble. That girl is unmarried. Somewhere along the way she got into trouble.”
“Really?” Jyoti croaked, her tongue glued to her mouth.
“Last night her mother was telling the doctor that they don’t want to keep the baby. They were asking her to give the baby an injection or something.”
“Yes, they don’t want her to live. She is the fruit of sin, isn’t she? What if people find out? So they want to abandon….” Jyoti could not bear to hear the rest. She ran to the door crying hysterically, “No, no, this can’t be. I won’t let that happen. That is the sin… murder.”
“Jyoti, why are you so upset?” said her mother-in-law, surprised.
Kaku peered at her face intently and Jyoti somehow pulled herself together. Trying to smile she said, “But they shouldn’t do that. What has the poor baby done? Why must she pay for her mother’s sin?” In her own mind, Jyoti blamed herself thinking, what have you done? You’ve sinned too. Just to have a son , you abandoned your baby girl . Did you think twice about what her future would be? Her thoughts were getting really destructive and violent like Shiva’s tandav and her brain felt numb with the stress. She was filled with remorse and her eyes filled with tears. She thought about her own mother. After all, who else could she seek comfort from?
However, she asked, “Where is Mai?”
“Mai has taken a month’s leave and she is gone.” Jyoti’s tears fell into her hands.
Watching her tears, her mother-in-law noticed her wrists, “Jyoti, where are your bangles?”
“I took them off and put them away in a bag when I came here.” Jyoti spoke a quick and unrehearsed lie. She was looking at the baby boy. She wanted to pick him up from among her girls and take him back to the young woman and say, “Here. Take him. He is yours. Now do what you will with him.” The baby was moving his little arms. His little pink mouth was open as if he was telling her he wanted to live.
Durga Kaku and her mother-in-law were deep in conversation. “The man who committed this sin, the father of the unfortunate baby girl, disappeared, I heard. So what are they going to do? To avoid more shame and gossip, they are leaving the hospital tomorrow,” said Durga Kaku. Jyoti was waiting for her mother-in-law and her daughters to leave them.
As soon as they were gone, she went to see her daughter. The baby was in the cradle this time. The young mother was lying in bed with her arm over her eyes and her mother was sitting on a stool and dozing next to the bed.
“How’s your baby?” Jyoti’s question woke her up. She looked at her with her drowsy eyes. Jyoti waited a while before she said again, “What have you decided to do about your granddaughter?” Both mother and daughter looked shocked as if someone had pulled the cover off a naked body. The older woman looked around and sat up frowning. She didn’t like Jyoti’s forward, meddlesome attitude. Jyoti waited for an answer and then said, “What I have heard is true, isn’t it?”
“What have you heard?” said the older woman abruptly.
“Just this, that you don’t want the baby.”
“Who told you that?” The older woman growled looking over her shoulders.
“Never mind who did, but it is true, isn’t it?” The older woman was subdued by the passion in Jyoti’s voice.
She dropped her voice as she said, “Look, the circumstances are very difficult…”
“True. But why did you let things get out of hand in the first place? Is it fair that you should sacrifice an innocent life because of it?” Jyoti’s tone of voice sounded like that of an attorney making a point in court. The two women looked uncomfortable. The older woman really hated Jyoti for her presumption. She wondered why this strange woman was meddling in their affairs. She had reproached them many times: pick up the baby, feed the baby, what are you going to do with the baby. In any other circumstance they would never have tolerated her arrogant presumptions. But right now they felt like their hands were caught under a rock.
The older woman then asked for sympathy, “If you were in our situation, what would you have done?”
“I would have raised her. I would have fought to gain her respect in society,” said Jyoti looking directly at the young mother. She wished to challenge this woman’s sense of pride and justice. The older woman laughed sarcastically.
Jyoti lost her temper and raised her voice, “Do you think your sin will be expiated by the sacrifice of this innocent baby? Is it reasonable to try to erase one sin by committing another?” The older woman looked at Jyoti with distaste and got up. Jyoti lost her nerve. She caught the older woman by her hand and said, “Forgive me. But I really think you shouldn’t do anything terrible. You should be humane.” The older woman kept quiet.
“Send her to an orphanage or let someone adopt her….”
“Who will adopt her? If she had a baby boy, someone might have stepped up.” Jyoti heard her saying this and was disturbed.
“Aho, bai, your son is crying,” another new mother was calling out to her.
The older woman saw the distress and pity in Jyoti’s eyes. She sighed deeply and said, “Go, you need to attend to your son.”
Jyoti dragged herself to her room. The baby was bawling inconsolably. She watched him with distress. His voice did not seem to touch her heart. Her breasts remained dry.
The next day her husband returned with their daughters. As he picked up his son from his cradle, he noticed his wife’s face. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling all right?” he asked surprised.
“Yesterday, you sent the food back untouched too. Is something wrong?” asked her mother-in-law with concern.
“Oh! Nothing.” Jyoti made an effort to smile. She went out on an excuse to get some water. She heard someone say, “They are taking their daughter now.” Jyoti felt unstable on her feet and the water pot in her hand fell to the ground.
She saw the two women taking the baby girl out, all wrapped up. Jyoti ran towards them screaming, “Please don’t kill her. Let her live. Please, let her live.” The two women stepped out of the door. Jyoti’s husband stepped up to support her and stopped her from falling down. Her mother-in-law placed the baby boy on the bed and ran to her daughter-in-law. Other women standing around were surprised but praised her, “She has five daughters of her own, but she cares so much about this unknown baby girl. She must really care about girls.”
Her husband helped her to her bed and placed her son on her lap saying, “Aga, don’t be so upset about the girl. Whatever is written in her destiny will happen. What can we do about it?”
Like spears many eyes were focussed on Jyoti—her husband’s, her daughters, her mother-in-law’s, and of all those who were standing there. In the midst of it all her heart seemed bruised. She wondered who she would ever be able to show her bruised heart to.