The doctor confirmed the date. Our daughter had chosen the wettest Friday in July to arrive. The rains gods seemed immensely pleased, lavishing us with regular downpours. Monsoons were extra welcome this year. The heat had been too much to bear and another year of parched fields would have shattered the city’s morale. The equally steady flow of well-meaning advice on child rearing was pouring from every quarter. I dutifully listened to all. The bookshelves were lined with parenting books. As if my mother and Amazon didn’t have enough recommendations, even the maid chimed in with suggestions. The nursery slowly filled up with every delivery. The wallpaper and curtains had taken the longest to decide till we realized that the baby would not care much and Facebook forgets eventually. He worried about the size of our small car; a baby seat would not have enough room.
A sedan would suit the princess but not our budget. It will have to wait but not for long, I hoped. At work, my colleagues had been helpfully adjusting their schedules to accommodate my work from home requests. The news of a baby’s imminent arrival tends to make people nicer.
My mother reached a day before and we went about making more space for the boxes of baby paraphernalia that came with her. My daughter owned an enviable wardrobe already. The night was spent discussing, planning and wondering about everything that could go wrong. All reports were scrutinized and debated. The excited rain had not let up. Just a few hours to go. No one slept. Friday morning came and we felt only half ready. My mother brought out the mandatory puja thali, the curious neighbours watched as vermilion was applied to our foreheads and we were fed curd and sugar for good luck. First stop was the court where an unusually helpful officer carried out the registration process. We were the only ones who were dressed in bright festive colours. That turned a few eyes.
The dusty corridors, lazy pace and the dull legal machinery couldn’t dampen our spirits that day. Armed with the agreement, we made our way to the adoption agency. She was all of 3 months, freshly bathed and all set to start her new adventure. The onesie that we had brought along was a snug fit. It was a rookie mistake. We had a lot to learn. Someone opened a pack of sweets. I was practicing holding her. Everyone helped. There was another round of arti before we bundled up the little ray of happiness and settled in the car. The baby car seat could wait just this once. I wanted to hold her as long as I could. The steady movement of the car lulled her into sleep. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I had never seen anything so beautiful. She didn’t have my eyes or my smile but we had matching hearts. As we drove home, I mentally ticked my list. Doctor’s appointment for vaccination- check, court documents-check, one happy dad and mom-check.
Kamla has been through labor five times before but the pain is still unforgiving, shaking and splitting her body. The village lady doctor, Doctorni, fans Kamla’s face with a tattered punkah in the tiny two-room hospital in Bihar and asks the nurse to boil some water. The nurse sets an aluminum pot on the kerosene stove in the corner of the room. The heat of the stove adds degrees to the oven-hot June afternoon. The nurse wipes her brow, and sits on the floor, which feels cool after the phenyl-water mop. Doctorni makes sure that the floor of the hospital is always mopped clean. She dresses up in clean saris and goes knocking at each door in the village to vaccinate the children and to teach them to wash their hands properly. “Hey Bhagwan, listen to me,” Kamla prays between contractions. The pain feels more than what she has experienced before. Has her body forgotten? But, she doesn’t let her screams out because her daughters are waiting outside. The strings of amulets from fakeers and pundits bite into her neck and arms.
The bitter taste of the guaranteed baby-boy potion that she drank every morning lingers on her tongue. The sacred ashes from the temple smeared on her forehead run down her face with the sweat. The angry, accusatory faces of her husband and mother-in-law after each delivery swim before her eyes. They hadn’t even looked at her girls’ faces right after their birth. Kamla could not disappoint them again. They needed a male heir for their family’s name; there were no other valuables to be inherited. Some faith, some prayer, please work.
**** Doctorni had delivered all of Kamla’s five daughters. She warned Kamla against carrying another baby; her depleted body had no material to form more humans. Kamla had fainted twice in the last month while cooking a pile of rotis on the choolah under her tin roof. Her first-born daughter, aged 13 years, had sprinkled water on her face, while other girls ran for the Doctorni. “You have to live for your daughters,” Doctorni had told Kamla. “Please stop.” Kamla, as always, just looked down at her feet.
**** “Push hard, you are strong,” Doctorni says. Kamla pushes and prays. The nurse massages her feet and says soothing words. Finally, the piercing cries of an infant who seems shocked to be out in the world. “It’s a boy,” Doctorni shouts, her voice a decibel unknown to everyone. The nurse holds the baby up for Kamla, her hands trembling with joy. Kamla whispers thanks to Bhagwan and asks to touch the baby. “Wait, there’s more. Push again.” Doctorni says. “What?” The nurse says. “Yes. Another baby.” Kamla restarts her pushes and prayers. Another infant cry. “It’s a girl,” the nurse says softly with her head hung low. Doctorni is silent. Tears pool from Kamla’s eyes into her ears. “Mukti!” She shouts, now smiling and pointing to her infant girl. “That’s her. This daughter has brought me freedom.” ***
Baby sat fuming on her bed, refusing to have oats for breakfast. She wanted ice cream, and no amount of coaxing and cajoling by Sheetal seemed to have any effect on her. Sheetal was jittery, having already gotten late for work. They had recently moved to Chennai and were finding this bustling city life to be very hectic as compared to their quiet life in Cherthala.
They had not yet found a full time help for Baby and had to settle with someone who arrived at 8 am and left sharp at 6 pm in the evening. Managing Baby was getting increasingly difficult but there was no way out. “Here, look at this….” Sheetal said, holding up the smartphone which had been purchased especially for Baby, who had only recently discovered the wonderful world of apps. With hundreds of songs, pictures and games, smartphones carried Baby into a different dimension. Not that it held her attention for too long. But, by smartly changing the apps every few minutes, it was easy to make Baby do small activities…..having oats, for instance.
This time Sheetal chose YouTube and played a soulful old song, which was her mother’s favourite. Baby held the phone in her hand, looking at the screen intently, lost for a while. This was the moment Sheetal was waiting for! She quickly pushed a spoonful of oats into Baby’s mouth.
Spoon after spoon she fed, hardly allowing Baby to swallow each gulp. She’d have to do it before Baby got distracted. And distracted, she DID get! Soon, Baby was refusing to eat any more, changing songs on YouTube- one old one after another! Sheetal looked at the clock; it was already 7:55 am. No way would she be able to feed Baby AND get the 8:15 bus on time. She’ll have to hand it over to Mala, her household help, who would be arriving anytime now.
She couldn’t wait all day for Baby to eat. Fed up, Sheetal banged the spoon on the table and got up. Just as she picked her bag to leave, Baby gave out a squeal of joy! “Raja!” Baby said, holding the phone with one hand and caressing the screen with the other, eyes dripping with love, a smile fixed on her face. “Raja….Raja”, she kept on mumbling, a beautiful song from decades ago played on the phone. “Amma, naan vandhuten…I am here! Give me the bowl… I will feed her,” said Mala, entering through the door. “No, I’ll do it!” said Sheetal, her mind racing back to when she had not been around to take care of her father who battled with Schizophrenia…and lost. Her father, Rajendran or ‘Raja’ as her mother used to call him. Her mother, Baby Kutty, who now no longer recognized anyone and had probably mistaken some actor in the song for her husband, her Raja! Exhaling heavily, Sheetal sat back, smiling, taking another spoonful of oats to feed her mom. There could be no love without some patience!