Cream-colored cotton, with a red zari border: the ideal sari to wear to her nephew’s christening ceremony to be held next week. Two weeks ago, she had glanced casually out of the bus window and there it had been, the star of the display case. There had also been a couple other saris, women’s dresses, and children’s clothes in the case, but none could hold a candle to this beautiful creation. She had gone into the store and checked it out, too; it was as beautiful up close as it had been at a distance. The cotton fabric with tiny red flowers scattered on it was cool and soft, not rough and starchy. Its price: Rs. 650. Today at noon, she would be paid Rs. 800 for overtime; she would go off-duty at 2:00 p.m., and the sari would be hers by 2:30. Anu had everything planned; she was that type of a person. She had to be, as the Head Sister of Pediatrics at the Government Medical College Hospital. If she were not organized or strict in enforcing rules, nothing would get done.
The bus was now traveling on the bridge. Underneath, railway lines wound into the morning mist like metallic ropes. On the other side, the slums that were the eyesore of the city were coming into view in the early light. With many years of experience as a nurse, Anu switched to breathing through her mouth to avoid the evil smell of rotting garbage and waste emanating from them. She stared straight ahead. She hated the sight of the rough and dirty dwellings with their mud walls and roofs of plastic sheets, palm fronds, and broken tile. She loathed the government for allowing them to proliferate and letting people live like pigs. She especially hated the fact that these people wouldn’t work hard enough to pull themselves out of their bad situations, instead of wallowing in apathy.
Anu herself knew genteel poverty, having grown up in a family with six kids living on one meager income. She had worked very hard at nursing school to avoid the hand to mouth existence she had experienced as a child. Now that she was married and had two children of her own, she was all the more determined to be financially well off. Right now, her husband and she were saving every extra penny for furnishing the new apartment they had just bought on loan.
The overtime payment would have gone into the same fund, too, if Anu hadn’t fallen in love with that sari. She hadn’t had a new one for a year, so she figured that she was due. This payment had been unexpected, so it was like a bonus. And she knew that her husband wouldn’t mind; he was not as strict about the household budget as she was.
Getting off at the hospital bus stop, she walked through the gates to her ward. She always tried to get there before 6 a.m., because the beggars who lined the walls during the day wouldn’t be in attendance yet. Well, if they weren’t so lazy as to sleep until eight, they wouldn’t be so poor, would they?
As usual, Anu was dressed neatly in her white uniform and on duty ten minutes early. The few extra minutes gave her time to assess the new arrivals to the ward. Today, there was a burns case in bed 2, a dengue fever in bed 5, and a head trauma in bed 10. Pinning on her nameplate, she walked past the first two, but paused beside the third when she realized that the patient looked familiar. One look at the mother sitting on the floor beside her child’s bed and Anu recalled where she had seen her.
The mother was a laborer in the construction project going on in the hospital compound. Like many others, she worked for a daily wage, carrying bricks and cement bags on her head. But she was unique in some ways. For one thing, she was pretty. Wavy blue-black hair rose from a widow’s peak and framed a face with large eyes and a sweet mouth. But she never flaunted herself, choosing to do her work quietly. She also had a little baby girl, whom she brought with her everyday, keeping a careful eye on her as she worked. This was hardly unusual: how could someone working for 30 rupees a day afford childcare? The toddler was a sweet and biddable child, all smiles and dimples, and had become the nurses’ darling as she played with improvised toys near the construction site. What had happened to this child?
Moving away from the bed, Anu asked a nurse who was working nearby. Yesterday afternoon, the child had been playing near the scaffolding. She had not moved from where she had been told to stay. The bricklayer had been setting out bricks just as he had done for the past ten years. Yet a lone brick had somehow escaped his grasp that day, and, bouncing off the outstretched hand of another worker, fallen right on the head of the two year old playing below. An accident just waiting to happen had happened.
Nodding her thanks for the information, Anu moved on.
Now familiar with the patients, she slipped effortlessly into her routine. The waking children had to be taken to the bathroom or given bedpans, fed breakfast, and then their medicines. Beds had to be remade and everything readied for the doctors to go on their rounds. Keeping an eye on the activities of the nurses and orderlies, she glanced over the list of prescribed medications and frowned in irritation when she noticed that the head trauma had been given expensive drugs. It was the clandestine practice in the hospital to farm out the cost of drugs for those who could not afford them onto others who could. Anu, who was a slave to protocol, awaited the day that she would become Matron and could put an end to this unfair practice. Meanwhile, she would just have to live with it, she thought, and stepped forward to rebuke an orderly who was dragging a sheet on the ground.
It happened during the rounds.
The head trauma, who had not moved since she was brought in, suddenly went into convulsions. In spite of the best efforts of the two pediatricians on duty, nothing could be done. Time of death: 9:23 a.m.
Nothing to do now, but ask the mother to remove the body. Someone else needed that bed.
The mother, however, was unresponsive. She sat there, staring at the body of her child, stunned by the turn of events. There were none of the usual hallmarks of grief, the tears, the wailing that usually characterized women of her class. Why should there be? The child looked beautiful as ever, and peaceful, as if she was asleep. It was Sunday, and none of the other laborers were around. With nobody around to egg her on, or to comfort her, it was pointless for the mother to cry.
Anu sent over an orderly to help remove the child’s body and joined the rounds again.
Cases came and went; problems cropped up and were dealt with; the war against sickness raged on relentlessly.
By two o’clock, Anu was changing into her street clothes and experiencing the familiar mixture of tiredness and contentment after having put in a good day’s work. Today, added to it was the excitement wrought by the increase in the girth of her purse. She had collected the overtime payment from the bank during her lunch break. Radhika Silk Palace beckoned, as did a certain cream-colored sari with red zari.
A few minutes later, Anu stood in the bus shelter. As she waited for the bus to arrive, her eyes ran idly over the opposite side of the street. Suddenly, she gasped in outrage.
There, among the beggars lining the street, sat the laborer with the dead baby on her lap. The cloth spread in front of her made her intentions blatant. Even as Anu watched with blazing eyes, a passer-by threw a coin onto the cloth. That did it.
Anu came out of the bus-shelter like a fire-breathing virago, intent on giving the woman a big chunk of her mind. To beg was bad enough. But to use a dead baby as a ploy to extract sympathy and money was an insult to life itself. She was formulating words that could best capture her intentions and cause the utmost shame to the mother, when she was prevented from crossing the road by a sudden spurt in traffic.
Three town buses came up one after another, blocking her path, disgorging and taking on passengers, forcing her to pause in her righteous march.
Standing there, waiting, she racked her brain for more pithy insults, but it proved recalcitrant. Instead, it wandered off at tangents, recalling disjointed events and creating a disturbing picture. The recent death of her father-in-law, her husband having to pay his share of the cremation expenses, an impudent medical student commenting on the beauty of the laborer and her recent widowed state, the absence of any companion …
By the time Anu managed to cross the road, she had changed her mind about what was going on.
On this side, as it were, things appeared radically different. The woman was seated, not next to the other panhandlers, but at a short distance away from them. She sat quietly, her head bent, worlds removed from the aggressive and gossipy people around her. The cloth in front of her was spread hastily, not draped neatly as with the others. And her baby was covered almost completely by the folds of her sari as it lay on her lap, except for one little foot peeking out from underneath.
Anu stopped in front of the woman.
“How much do you need?” she asked abruptly, with a glance at the hidden child.
The woman recognized her after a second and tried to stand, but collapsed back down in response to a firm gesture. When the question was repeated, she tried to answer, but her voice, unused for several hours, failed to cooperate.
“400 rupees.” Anu barely made it out.
“How much do you have?”
“At home? Can you get a loan, an advance? Sell something?”
The woman slowly shook her head, dead eyes giving credibility to her claim.
There was about a rupee’s worth of coins on the cloth. Dear God.
After barely a second’s thought, Anu spoke: “Wait for me.”
Swiftly, she walked to a little tea stall nearby and returned with a small banana and a glass of hot strong tea. She knew that grieving took energy.
The woman looked at the food with dawning wonder and raised a questioning gaze to Anu. A mother herself, Anu nodded, giving permission for the woman to eat, even as her baby lay dead on her lap. The way the small repast was wolfed down in an instant confirmed Anu’s hunch that the woman had eaten nothing since the accident had occurred.
Helping her up, Anu led her to a waiting autorickshaw. The driver stood with averted eyes. Normally, he wouldn’t permit dead bodies in his vehicle, but the combination of Anu’s gimlet glare and the 200 rupees that she had held out had been overwhelming. The normal fare was forty rupees.
The vehicle began to move, and the woman adjusted the baby’s position on her lap. Anu opened her purse, took out 400 rupees and held it out. The woman looked at the money for an instant, before taking it gently and silently. Only the flare of her nostrils and a solitary tear running down her nose gave an indication of the emotions kept in rigid check.
As the auto took the exit near the foot of the bridge to enter the slums, Anu was busy totaling up expenditure in her head. In this woman’s community, they probably had to give the pallbearers a token payment. The priest would have to be paid. Normally, fireworks were set off at the head of the funeral procession to celebrate the soul that had passed on. Poor mite, the baby had had nothing when she lived, at least she should get a good sendoff. She took the last 200 rupees of her overtime money and thrust it into the woman’s hand.
“For the priest, flowers and such. And firecrackers. Definitely firecrackers.”
Red, swollen eyes regarded her for a moment, the inevitability of the events to come finally registering.
Just then, the auto stopped. The street was too narrow to go further into the slums. Never mind, there was no need to go any farther; they had reached their destination.
Heads were peering out of windows and people were emerging from the crude shelters they called home, as the woman took faltering steps up to her hut.
When her foot crossed her threshold, a heartrending wail finally tore loose from her throat.
“Aiyyoh! En rasathi!” “Alas, my princess!”
The auto began its journey out of the slum and over the bridge, and soon passed by Radhika Silk Palace.
Through the window, the cream-colored sari with its red zari border looked especially lovely as it caught the afternoon sun.
Anu gazed at the display case, but didn’t see the sari. She was looking at the little pink dress displayed next to it, something that she had never noticed before.
It was just the right size for a baby girl.
|Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com|