Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018, Featured Writer, Preethi Warrier

Mothers of a Lesser God

As the rickety bus climbed up the Kannan Devan Hills, I stretched my hand out of the window, to feel the gentle drops of rain falling on my palm. The weekend in Kochi had been scorching this year, I was relieved to be back in Munnar, forever pleasant and beautiful. But my weekend journey to Kochi was inescapable, old parents kind of need you around often.

As the mist rose far away on the green hills, I closed my eyes, the fragrance of damp earth wafting in the air. But then, there was that image again, my baby’s face, his small fingers, his little eyes. I tried to push it away from my mind, but his soft cries kept ringing in my ears. It was more than a year, but every time I visited Kochi, the house brought back those memories, haunting and depressing reminiscences, which I knew would linger for long, till I could busy myself with the school.

The bus was packed that evening, I was lucky to have got a seat. As evening set in, the bus got flooded with locals from the tea estates; ladies with tea baskets on their heads, laughing, gossiping, giggling. I tried to relax, but the loud chatter kept me awake.
I was gazing listlessly out of the window, when I felt somebody sit next to me. Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t bother to see who it was, but the gurgle of a baby and a sweet voice talking childishly, caught my attention.

I turned around to find a beautiful young girl of twelve or thirteen, with a baby who was perhaps six months old, tied around her chest on a sling. She placed the tea basket down and tried to put the disturbed baby to sleep. Too young to handle a baby, she shifted uncomfortably on the seat, trying to hold the basket with one hand, and the baby with the other.
I smiled. Poor girl, with many other children and chores to handle, her mother perhaps had left the infant with her eldest daughter. Meanwhile, the bus continued its bumpy ride along the narrow hilly roads and the girl desperately tried to rock the crying baby to sleep.

“Give him to me,” I offered.
“Thank you chechi (sister).” she happily handed the baby to me and somehow miraculously, the baby stopped screaming and dozed off in a minute.
I looked at the angelic face, mine would have been a little elder. He would have slept on my lap like this.
I tried stifling my tears when I heard her asking, “Chechi, aren’t you a teacher in that school near the church?”
I replied in affirmative.

“Which school do you attend?” I enquired, just to make conversation.
“I used to attend the municipal school downhill, but it’s been a year that I haven’t gone to school. I have to look after the baby.” she looked sad.
I wasn’t surprised. It often happened in their families, when the count of the children grew, the girls had to sacrifice their education and go to work. I didn’t wish to drag the conversation, so I busied myself with the baby, gently patting him.

“He is so happy with you, do you have a baby too chechi?” She enquired.
Her sudden query kind of shook me, pulling me back to a world I tried to abandon. Without looking at her, trying not to weep, I just said “No”.
But the tears flowed down my cheeks unrestrained. I fixed my gaze at the gentle rains, perhaps they could wash my tears away, but nothing helped.
How could I tell her, what it meant to lose your child, especially when it was not you, but the system who decided your fate?
If only I could tell her, that my husband and me had been the happiest couple on earth and how our joy had multiplied when we knew we were going to be parents.

Like all other expecting parents, we were in a world of our own, making plans, redesigning our house, choosing names… But things turned chaotic after we received our baby’s five month anomaly report. None of the scans before had detected this, and we weren’t aware of the complicated medical terms but it turned out, my baby had a rare heart condition and wouldn’t survive for more than a week after being born.

There were more scans conducted till the doctors confirmed the report. With our hearts broken forever, with all our dreams shattered, my husband and me agreed to perform the inevitable, pregnancy termination. Words could never do justice to what we endured then, but then there was no option and no point in continuing.

But destiny had other plans. The doctors refused to perform the abortion; they said it was too late. The law in our country had a legal termination limit of twenty weeks and I had crossed that. An abortion could prove fatal for me.

What ensued was worse than a nightmare; we moved court, begged with the system to save me from the pain of bringing my child into this world, only to watch him pass away slowly, before my eyes. But then certain laws in our country were extremely stern, laws which forced a mother to carry a sick child for nine months, bring it into the world and watch it choke to death. I was no exception. He was born, tiny and delicate, only to be taken away from me, to God’s abode just a few hours after he had entered my life. And here I was, my whole life marred with the unending agony of the most painful goodbye.

“Don’t cry chechi…” I was jolted back to reality. I wiped my tears and smiled at her.
“So, you were in Munnar too, from childhood? I was always here. I know almost everyone here, but I started seeing you in the bus stop only recently.” she chatted away.
“No” I answered, “I am from Kochi, my husband works in the ship, you know. He travels far away, so I took up a teacher’s job in your Munnar. It’s such a beautiful place.”

She smiled, her beautiful face glowing. I didn’t mention that I had spent a month in Munnar almost a year ago, in a clinic, to fight depression. I had fallen in love with the hills, the clouds and the people. I always loved rains, in some way I believed they had the power to cleanse your heart of all sorrows. Nobody knew me here and I believed, the fresh mountain air and the peaceful life could heal me. It was taking time, but I liked it better than anywhere else.

She continued talking, “I cry often too. All my friends go to school. They sing, they dance, they gossip, they study. But I am stuck with the baby. My mother is very sick, she is bedridden since many years. Earlier, my father was good, but then few years ago, he started drinking and now every night, he returns home drunk, abusing me and my mother …”
I stopped her mid-way, “How many siblings do you have? Can’t you take turns to look after the baby? Why should only you miss school?”

She looked at me with her eyes widened, “I don’t have any siblings, chechi. This is my child.”
All I could do was stare at her, I realized I hadn’t heard wrong. Frail and innocent, like a delicate flower, what had happened, a child marriage, or… I shuddered at the thought.
Sensing my feelings, she carried on, “My mother coughs all the time, she is on bed and she hardly moves around. I would cook before going to school and take care of her when I returned. After she slept, I would finish my homework and study, I loved school. Father would return home late in the night, scream, shout, puke and then sleep. One night, I was studying when he returned. I closed my books and entered my mother’s room, but he pulled me close, closed my mouth, tore my clothes… I don’t know, it was so painful.”

We wept together, silently. I stroked her hair gently, trying to soothe her, trying to absorb her misery. She stopped after a while and spoke again, “My mother was very upset, but then she advised me to put the incident behind me and go on with my life. I went to school regularly, but one day I was summoned by teachers and principal madam and they took me to a doctor. Doctor Madam said I was going to have a baby.”

“Didn’t you tell your teachers and the doctor? What did they say?” I almost shouted.
“Yes, I did. They came to my house and informed my mother. My mother hugged me and wept a lot. The next day, the police came home and arrested my father.” she said in between sobs.
I was glad, “Serves him right. Is he in jail now?”

“No. They didn’t put him in jail. My mother said she would never talk to me if I accused my father. Who would earn for us if my father went to jail? Who would feed us? So, both of us told the police that we didn’t know anything and my father still stays with us.” she lamented.
“But the baby? What did the doctor say?”

She looked away forlorn, “Father and mother requested the doctor to stop the baby from being born. Principal Madam and my teachers brought home some lawyers and people from the news channels and papers. All of them promised my parents that they would fight for me and the baby wouldn’t be born. They promised me I would go to school again, like my friends. I didn’t want to have a baby, I don’t like children, I don’t like this one too. But the court said, it was too late, the baby had to be born or else I would die. So…”

The conductor shouted the name of a stop and the bus stopped. She hurriedly collected her sleeping baby from me, I helped her tie him tightly to her sling. She picked her basket, waved to me and hurriedly alighted. The bus moved ahead and I watched her at a distance, walking away into the twilight.

All this time, I felt I was the only one. But now I know I have her, younger and weaker but bound to me by destiny. Motherhood is a journey every woman is entitled to, a mother gifts, nurtures and protects life. But what did that make of mothers like us, mothers who in fact wanted to protect their children, but were compelled to give birth, because it was the law? No mother wishes to slay her child in her womb, but wasn’t it perhaps better than bringing him into a world of misery and hopelessness? I wondered, why the law, meant to guard its citizens, condemned us mothers to such wretched lives.

In a nation where murderers go scot free, corrupt flee and rapists get pardoned, mothers like me and her are punished for having carried our children in our wombs for more than the time set by the law… that fixed time, decided by someone, somewhere, oblivious to our woes. And the funny part is, this law is different in different countries, for different women. But then…
Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? The words fluttered and flew in the wind.

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