Manjula bore five children. Then her children added to the brood with five more. It wasn’t her fault at all. But she worked a job as an ayah in a maternity hospital that paid her only Rs 12,000 a month. It covered her rent, food and her husband’s respiratory troubles. What little remained went towards tobacco. So she begged the new mothers to part with what small change they could. First, she layered them with sob stories, one for each grown-up daughter of hers to maximize her taking. Even her no-good husband got a teary background.
On Tuesday, Manjula, who had been rostered for the graveyard shift and hated every minute of it, arose at 2.00 a.m. to open the front door.
The calling bell had rung four times.
There had been fewer pregnancies this January, a month of slipping revenue streams for the hospital. Nighttime cries were still harder to come by. Manjula was prepared to welcome a false alarm. In which case, the girl would be sent back home after a stress test. The morning brought with it a fresh crew of ayahs who played by the rulebook, refusing gifts but only because the doctors were on their rounds.
The girl on the other side of the door was runt-looking, haggard and her eyes were sagging from pain. One hand—Manjula counted a silver and a gold ring on the girl’s fingers—was on her belly that tended down to her abdomen.
Manjula took the file the girl shakily handed her, examining the swell. Manjula could tell that it was a boy; it wasn’t just how the baby was enwombed, it was also the mother’s bearing that deepened Manjula’s augury. The girl held herself upright like a stalk being curled backwards by a breeze.
There was no husband mentioned in the girl’s file, an omission that was frustrating from a bureaucratic standpoint. Who to call in with the good news, bills, etc.? The girl’s 39-week fullness, God forbid, didn’t hide a secret.
The girl was breathing through her mouth, and soon asking for a doctor in English. Manjula had learnt enough stock phrases from her oldest grandchild and understood the exclamations for what they were. But she didn’t need a language to see that the girl was sweating.
Manjula turned on the fan switch in the corridor.
The girl’s name was Preeti. She wore a beige maxidress that furrowed down to her knees, cupping her shaved calves. It was the first thing that Manjula noticed: no poor girl could afford a salon. Preeti’s flipflops screamed a top brand, and a perfume sprang from her burnished skin like a nerve agent.
High-born girls hardly preferred this place. At first, Manjula thought Preeti had wrongly stepped through the door instead of the multispecialty clinic down the street. It was less her worry actually; and she reasoned that it wouldn’t do well to sit in judgement.
Preeti retched, but nothing issued. Manjula went to the pantry and got her a vomit cup. Preeti vented into it, the sick a liquid green color. Manjula kept petting Preeti’s back and rested the girl’s nape against her palm.
“You’ll be alright,” Manjula said, and went to collect the head nurse in charge.
The shining cross on Preeti’s neck suggested a faith or an accessory Manjula couldn’t decide yet. It could be a charm, too, like the one her first daughter took to wearing, a protective, metallic tine, after she was found raped twenty summers ago.
The nurses’ station was drowned in the glow of phone lights: YouTube videos of dogs jumping through a hoop, Kapil Sharma footage, and cookery shorts. They were turned off at the sight of Manjula who made herself look more urgent. Chairs moved. Nurse Swarnalatha got to her feet and rushed out with Manjula. Two more nurses flowed out behind Nurse Swarnalatha. Together they handled Preeti into the labour room, an annex that led off from the corridor through two more slide doors.
The dilation was 7 centimeters, Nurse Swarnalatha noted on the white board and logged it as ‘Stage 2.
Three more centimeters to go, anytime now.
They attached Preeti to the heart monitor, and oximeter. When they IV-tubed her, Preeti almost fainted.
Nurse Swarnalatha ordered the two nurses to have the special bedroom ready for after the birth.
“Tidy up, keep gloves cleaned, needles sterilized, sutures, too,” she said to Manjula and left.
Manjula tried casting her mind back to the last time when a girl lay on the birthing cot at this hour.
The doctor was on her way, she told Preeti. It could take fifteen minutes, and Manjula only needed ten of those.
“My second daughter has twins,” she said, diverting Preeti from her breathing which was getting raspy.
Nothing from Preeti.
Manjula dragged the sharps disposal bucket with her feet. Then she raked her gloved hand through the forceps on the tray. She did this with her back turned to Preeti. The girl, Manjula sensed, was unresponsive, but not so much that she wouldn’t hear her out.
“The twins were breech, ma’am,” said Manjula.
Her leverage increased after Preeti sounded concerned at this.
“All three healthy, but two mouths extra to feed,” added Manjula sullenly. “You will have normal delivery, ma’am. No Cesareans here.”
“I don’t care. Get it out,” Preeti said.
Her feet jerked and banged the railing of the cot. Manjula pressed her thumb to Preeti’s heels massaging them up and down. She hit a rhythm, taking in the instep and pedicured toenails that were varnished a red. Her sole was tender as if she never walked the ground.
“Relax, you are lucky,” Manjula said.
While changing Preeti out of her dress into the hospital’s blue gown, she had glimpsed the stretch marks. “Your second child will be easy,” said Manjula.
“Oh right, you would know everything.”
“Not really, ma’am.”
Preeti shook her head. “You don’t get the irony, clearly,” she said more to herself, and went quiet. “I have had nightmares…”
“Nice ones, ma’am?”
“No, those are called dreams. What I had was something else…my baby being born with a defect…you know…like the father, like the first girl,” Preeti trailed off in agony.
“You will have a boy…”
“Is the doctor coming or not?” Preeti reddened, her fair skin puckering around her nose.
Around here, everyone shared everyone else’s work, well almost. Manjula told Preeti of her stint as a doula, hoping that it would appease her, and when it did, the image of herself taking out babies came to her like a redemptive vision.
“How many did you deliver?” Preeti said.
“Four babies. It was before I got married.”
Preeti winced. Her fingers plucked at the bedsheet.
The baby inside her shifted.
“I have five daughters…a husband on oxygen at home… Difficult…Mumbai a big city…can’t live on my salary…” Manjula paused.
Preeti was drifting in and out. Manjula tapped her cheeks and prodded some colour into them.
Later, when the doctor arrived, it was quick. They urged Preeti to do this together with them, and when she resisted, they wanted her to, at least, do it for the baby. Manjula hovered around her head, chanting ‘you are okay, beti’. She blew on Preeti’s head, her breath cleansed, for this purpose, of tobacco. Preeti was pushing and pushing, until she couldn’t any longer, when, for a second, her face relievedly sank. Her constipation had finally given away to a gushy emission on the cot. Manjula left her outpost and grabbed a towel and wiped Preeti down before the doctor refocused Preeti’s attention.
The boy came, and he was normal. Twenty digits. Whatever apprehensions Preeti had had before seemed of little value, almost laughable in the light of the boy’s grace. Manjula held up the boy and dropped him on to Preeti’s beating heart.
After two hours, Manjula wheeled Preeti from the labour room to her bedroom, a 10-by-10 cell that had a non-working TV, and no air-conditioner, though she would require neither. Preeti was less interested in the other conveniences, but Manjula pointed them out as from a catalogue hastily. A ziplocked bag of toiletries, a digital thermometer, double-ply tissues. Preeti was half here and half back in the labour room where her son was being screened for jaundice.
“Your boy will be soon here. Chottu has a name?”
“What?” Preeti had come in with a small bag and she seemed hassled that it was missing. It was an orange one with straps, and zippered pouches on the side with a gilt-handle.
Did Manjula see it?
“It is a Christian Dior,” Preeti repeated, and fought to lay the blame on no one but her forgetful self.
When Manjula produced the article from the wall cabinet, Preeti took ahold of it and pulled her smartphone out to fast-scroll through her WhatsApp messages.
“Where are my manners,” Preeti said, remembering. “Thank you. You see, this bag is everything I own right now. I have no money.” It could have been an overstatement except that Preeti assured Manjula it wasn’t.
“Ma’am, if you poor, then I am…scum,” Manjula said. The word leaping out of her. Scum. It also described her state of mind at the time. She had been straining to bend this girl for two hours, make her give, not a whole lot, just enough for an extra tub of curd to buy home. She only felt cheapened.
“Listen, if I was rude earlier, I am sorry. I was, I guess, out of my mind…” Preeti let her thoughts slide.
Manjula wished Preeti was put together with more resolve for her own sake.
Manjula said: “Most mothers come and curse. They hate child. All low-lives.”
Preeti rolled her head towards the wall. She stared aimlessly at the only framed print that showed a flower bed of chrysanthemum.
“They like no expenses for the child…you can’t be unhappy,” Manjula continued.
Preeti forced a smile onto her lips.
“I am divorcing. He has left me…hmm…let’s see what my bag has.” She frisked her bag for the plunder—food court coupons, expired Hindustani concert tickets, chocolate wrappers, hair-tangled barrettes.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Manjula said.
“Don’t be. We were planning a trip to Goa. Never got around to it.”
She waved the vouchers of a glamourous resort in Goa, all expenses paid. “You need them? Take them. Want to try the jacuzzi? These are still valid.”
Manjula sat down on the edge of the spare cot that was meant for the kin. It couldn’t fit a grown man and she had always wondered at the point of it.
“Keep them,” Manjula said. She had got into one of those, yes. But a jacuzzi, it wasn’t. Holi time, she was lowered headfirst into a cement tub filled with pichkari waters. That was when she was a girl of eight, if recall served her right. Why the rich people had to act juvenile, she never got it. At any rate, it was cash that she thrilled to, not a vacation.
Manjula was about to go. Before opening the door, she gestured to the button-press wedged on the wall behind Preeti at arm’s reach.
“Call me if emergency or anything.”
When the baby was brought in, Preeti remained awake, next to her boy’s skin, coining sweet nothings.
Manjula went home at daybreak. She had slept on the mosaic floor of the pantry as usual and stopped at her usual wine shop on the T-junction for her chews. The tobacco sold here worked her gums so smoothly that under its influence she could face anything that came after. Even her husband. The man spoke—or wheezed—only between the breaks that his machine took. He slept inside the hut where the noise of the oxygen concentrator didn’t disturb the neighbours. As Manjula entered, she sighted him on the road out front, his bare back against the long pole that staked her hut.
He was sobbing.
“Do wipe yourself. Your dhoti is not on your waist,” Manjula said.
As he tucked the dhoti in, she glanced at the machine. It wasn’t hibernating. The thing had died on him after sputtering.
“I heard it, again,” he said, following her with his gaze to the kitchen. This time he imitated the animal’s crescendoing roar.
Paying mind to his hallucinations had cost her before. She had got the concentrator opened once—wasted two hundred rupees—to prove that no groaning beast lived inside the machine.
“None of your daughters likes you for treating me this way,” he said.
She had heard versions of this one too.
“All they can do is talk,” she said. “Can they do half the work I do here?”
She hated herself and then him for making her cuss their daughters out. “Eat,” she said.
She placed his bowl of poha and sat down beside him on the mud floor. The house had one room divided into a kitchen and a hall. Once it contained seven of them. After her daughters left, it was down to two. And very nearly one, last year, when his lungs yielded up. In the end, a large part of him survived. He wasn’t dying, wasn’t living. She had often asked herself if she wanted to know the answer to her husband’s condition. The real condition, the one that had to do with his undiagnosed head, where the wiring was coming loose.
She watched him scoop the rice flakes into his hand. He licked his fingers, one at a time, then the cup of his palm, hungrily.
“You going to prepare for civil services,” he burped.
Lately, she had learned to replace him with an English phrasebook. “The sex in it is good,” she said whenever he teased. He didn’t like it that she was upgrading herself. If she wasn’t going to earn a degree at 55 years of age or become the state district collector, would she care to explain to him why she shouted aloud those hoity-toity sentences in English?
“Thirty years you were a lorry driver. All that time you never knew to read signs,” she said.
This amused him, and he giggled. “I am not the one regretting,” he said.
She pressed her hands down on her knees and got up. His breathing had thinned. He was adenoidal again, not snoring. A big meal could jam the airways. But it was the heaving laughter that was his undoing. It served him right, maybe. She dragged the concentrator from the door and plugged it into the socket in the kitchen. It thrummed to life: the animal was howling again. She slackened the canula all the way up to the cot and laid him down for the fix.
“There you go, nothing the matter with it.”
The phrasebook had been put together with thin flashcards. They were wrapped in a rubber-band and smelled of money. She fished them out from underneath her pillow. There were twenty of them, in her granddaughter’s neat squiggles. Manjula was read to, because she couldn’t parse the alphabet. She memorized the sounds, the beats—it was how her granddaughter packaged it. “You will be learning to sing in English,” she said. What a whiz, she was, and only twelve years of age. Manjula admired the girl for stopping by after school hours. The girl missed out on fisticuffs and Kho Kho for her sake. Out of guilt, Manjula cooked her samosas to even the deal. She turned out to be worthy of her granddaughter’s labours. All the alien words and sentences, magically, stuck; she was surprised at her Marathi giving room to English.
She put them back. The flashcards were useless without her granddaughter. Today, Manjula had been promised a new word in ‘t’ and real-life situations that would demand its usage. Her granddaughter had recorded her voice on her smartphone.
Manjula played the last lesson.
The sheet will be cleaned…We will stock up on drugs soon…
She thought of Preeti, and how her granddaughter could grow up to be like her in all the best ways imaginable. Owning jewels, holding her own in life’s worst crisis, like a divorce, and offering kindness to strangers…
She heard herself snore soon and awoke when her head flagged. In another two hours, she had to get ready for the hospital. How long had she been sleeping? Behind her the husband had begun screaming from hunger. Ignoring him, she went out of the door, tying her still-black hair into a bun. Her chawl was bathed in a grungy twilight. She lived on a by-lane that dead-ended with her thatched roof. The lone streetlamp on the street wouldn’t be turned on until later. She first heard the motorbike idling at the garbage pit and thought nothing of it. Then came the grunts. Two guys disembarked; the one on the pillion she could roughly make out as double-fisting two empty liquor bottles, which he proceeded to throw into the rubbish. The rider leaned against the retaining wall with one outstretched hand, unzipped and shuddered to piss.
The apparitions froze in the dark for a moment which allowed Manjula to size them up: one was thick-jawed and wore a jibba that hid the waves of flesh on his waist; the other one, who was righting his pants, was no more than an undernourished adolescent. She squinted at them, a tightness growing in her chest. Her granddaughter would have to walk a hundred feet home past these bums! Manjula computed the ugly possibilities as would most likely occur in that short distance that her granddaughter would cover. A hand on a private part of her, a cuff, a pinch, leading to God knows what. She was horrified that her mind could go to these places. Her lack of mental filters was only one of her problems. The other problem—the two guys weren’t getting on the bike again, and seemed, instead, to be holding a conversation—was how to get them to leave without sounding like a maniac.
Of course, the sociopaths never reformed, not ever. But she had changed. Manjula’s cut had scarred over after her first daughter’s assault. These days she drew on a tolerance she had developed when her daughter healed and married. Her daughter’s daughter was a teacher in the making and that was all that mattered.
And there she was, her brainy granddaughter, walking towards her!
Nervously, Manjula kept a talking head going: Shyamala, you can dance around them. They won’t harm you. Come to grandma.
Up close Manjula recognized her own daughter, the pendant’s gleam sharp as ever.
Did the lucky charm save her daughter from these men?
Her daughter carried in two brown bags with biriyani.
Inside, Manjula’s husband wordlessly opened one of them. In between mouthfuls, he rained complaints that he had been forgotten for five hours and that he was married to a cruel woman.
“Don’t eat yourself to death,” was all that Manjula said to him and to her daughter. “What happened to Shyamala?”
Her daughter settled down on the floor and gave the news.
“Shyamala came of age when?” Manjula said.
It had been two days. In typical fashion, her daughter had taken her time with it. Her sane, hard-working and reticent daughter preferred her younger sisters to her for confidences. Manjula wasn’t excluded as much as set aside for a later date.
“I have been going around with a bowl to everyone,” her daughter said, “for the puberty ritual.”
“Yes, and I can’t collect enough money.”
Her daughter was a mall cleaner. She did a double shift on weekends to put Shyamala through an English medium school. Once Manjula had brought up her daughter’s lame husband who painted banners for a political party. When not seen with a brush, he distributed hand-printed flyers out of a tempo. Her daughter had shut Manjula up, tsk-tsking further criticism.
“Did you ask Shyamala if she wanted the celebration?” Manjula said.
“It is not up to her. Listen, if you can’t help, it is…”
“…no, no,” Manjula said, fearing that she was being unkind, “It is just that Shyamala wouldn’t like a big get-together. She embarrasses easily.”
Her daughter was on her way out.
“Don’t storm out,” Manjula said. “How much are you short?”
“More than half if you care to know. Five thousand rupees.”
Manjula ran the numbers in her salary account and couldn’t meet the capital. She did have something else though. A few days ago, she had received a glossy card in a courier marked in her bank’s initials. She retrieved it from her purse where she had stowed it expecting to lose it later.
“It is a credit card. I don’t know how to use it. But the limit is Rs 50,000.”
Manjula was sure of one thing as her daughter took the card. She would have to be pushy with the new mothers from hereon if she wanted to clear the debt.
Preeti’s cheeriness was evident when Manjula knocked and entered the room.
“The baby has no jaundice. He latched,” Preeti said.
She had packed her stuff. Manjula saw the hospital-issue products gone, eaten up by Preeti’s Christian Dior bag. Her discharge date was two days away. Yet Preeti behaved like she was on the verge of leave-taking.
“Had some rest?” Manjula said.
“None at all, thanks to the little person.”
The drugs were leaving Preeti’s body. Her eyes were getting acquainted with what she termed as the ‘shabbiness’ of the place. Last evening, after Manjula left, the nightmares had recurred.
“Correction,” Preeti said. “It wasn’t a nightmare. I did wake up to these moldy walls and a ceiling that leaks.”
She pinched the flesh on her wrist, as if she were shaking off the effects. The seam where the drip had poked her had clotted blood. “The nurse who did this couldn’t find the vein. It hurt. They aren’t trained, are they?”
Manjula knew the nurse, the one who watched the dog shows on YouTube. If Preeti had been a little less mean about it, Manjula would probably have brought it to the notice of the management. Now, she wasn’t even going to tell the nurse.
“Anyway, I am out of here soon. Goodbye cockroaches,” Preeti said.
Manjula registered shock.
“Yes, I saw one in the toilet,” Preeti said. “You should go take out the corpse before the next occupant gets a heart attack. Clean it, please.”
Manjula set about it with a bucket, and a phenol-dabbed mop, though she could swear there wasn’t a cockroach, dead or alive. Job done, she emerged only to be informed in a tone that was both grating and condescending that Preeti hadn’t been served her morning tea. And off Manjula went to fetch a bubbling cup from the pantry.
As she settled the cup on the table, Preeti breast-fed her boy and spoke, rather loudly, into his tiny ear.
“Your father and big sister are coming soon to take us home. Yay.”
She waited a while, and when Manjula didn’t ask, took a deep breath to announce that she and her husband were getting back together. There had been a reassessment of the past, a burying of egos. Matters were put to rest, could Manjula believe it, in this boring hospital setting! The husband had visited that morning with their girl. He had kissed her forehead and held their boy fondly. She had made him promise them a holiday in Goa.
“They will be here to see the boy today. Let me give you something for your troubles.”
“I don’t accept baksheesh, ma’am.”
Manjula left the room, taking herself to the pantry, for a much-needed shot of black coffee. After Preeti’s confession, she was dying for one. No, she wasn’t disappointed at all. There would be other mothers, her low-lives, ones who weren’t two-faced. As she went to the front desk with her dispenser cup, she happened on a tall man and a girl not more than 5 years old giving their names to the receptionist. The girl had a Cadburys bar scrunched in her hand like a handkerchief and looked briefly delighted with the treatment she was meting out to it. Was she sad or angry at someone? As they passed through the corridor, they made a synchronized clicking noise on the mosaic, their clubfeet turned inward, moving towards Preeti’s room.
Karthik Krishnan is a financial journalist based in Hyderabad. When not writing, he plays the flute. His Pushcart Prize-nominated short story is forthcoming in Fiction on the Web, and he was recently listed as one of the shortlisted contributors for Spellbinder Magazine in its autumn issue.