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Oleander baby

Krupa Ge | Updated on January 27, 2021

Killing her softly: On the day of delivery, bearing poisonous oleander tied in a bunch inside the folds of her sari, her mother-in-law would wait   -  ISTOCK.COM

On the day the oleander baby was born, there was a steady, happy drizzle. Madhu woke up feeling unsteady. The young mother wanted this, her eighth child, to be a boy, like the shepherd god Krishna, who brought the rain with him when he came.

Madhu sat in the verandah of her father’s bungalow, picking stones from rice. She sat outside because no one else was around. When there was a crowd, which there always was in that large house, she was forced into one of those stuffy windowless rooms. She’d wait there for the day to pass her by, bored. Watching television, going mad with anticipation. She was not allowed out, to flaunt her too-big a tummy, ever.

Her sister was in the kitchen, making gravy with the fresh sankara meen the fishmonger had brought in that morning. Madhu loved the scent of coconut and garlic in a thick gravy of red snapper. She’d be drooling as her mother made it, restless for a taste test. On that day though, years after her mother had died, as she awaited motherhood, Madhu had a queasy feeling. She placed the palm leaf tray on the floor and started to pace up and down. She walked breathing heavily, and then she retched.

She called out to Veena, who knew the drill — run to the garden, pluck a few leaves off the lemon tree, crush and hand the broken, fragrant, green mess over. Madhu stood smelling the leaves briefly, before vomiting again. With Veena behind her, just as all the other times, holding Madhu’s hair back, faithful as only sisters can be.

It seemed she just wasn’t meant to eat that damn fish that day for, just as Madhu sat down for lunch, she felt that warm trickle between her legs.

“Call the midwife,” she said to Veena, and gave up on lunch altogether.

The drizzle had turned into a heavy downpour outside. The cold, damp Athangudi tiles on the verandah floor sent a shiver up her back. She was at once both hot and cold. Alive and dead. Ember and ice.

It was only the two sisters at home that Sunday. Madhu had it all planned, and had sent everyone away.

She boiled water in two vessels and spread out the Pattamadai mat that was given to her at her wedding on the floor. She took the sacks of rice the midwife insisted she use as pillows. Found the sickle they used on weeds in the garden. That’s what the midwife had used to cut the umbilical cord each time it had been a girl, instead of the blade she’d brought with her.

Madhu went through her nutmeg wood trunk and found another small blade, which she sterilised and hid under her mat. Streams of water leaked down the roof into various parts of the house. The monkeys had grown violent, as if they too knew something was up, and had broken too many tiles on the roof that year. She lay waiting, with the sound of water for company.

Madhu’s husband was at the port. Even though all the other women in her family went to their maternal home only for the birth of their first child, Madhu had come for the eighth time. The first three times, a simple visit to the gynaecologist’s home had been enough to find out it was a girl. The doctor spoke in code.

“Start saving for this child.”

“You will have someone to pass on your mother’s jewels to.”

“Goddess Lakshmi will grace your home.”

After three abortions though, inexplicably, the doctor threw her hands up, packed her bags and left town, overnight, without telling anyone. They’d only cajoled her a fourth time, was that any reason to run away? Shouldn’t doctors remain unaffected by life and death?

When abortions were no longer an option, her mother-in-law started to come down to Madhu’s father’s home with her, and wait, in secret. Whenever Madhu missed a period, she was smuggled into her large maternal home in the dead of the night. The entire pregnancy kept secret. It was not easy, but they did what they had to. There was no other way. On the day of delivery, bearing poisonous oleander, tied in a bunch, inside the folds of her sari, her mother-in-law would wait. Or she’d be ready with oil for a bath that would bring on pneumonia. Or cold, wet clothes, to wrap the tiny one in. To relieve her teeny shoulders of the burdens of this world.

Instead of the village midwife, a distant, poor relative Kumari came to keep things hush-hush. Kumari brought giggles Madhu’s way for she always came praying to the heavens, begging for a boy. She would leave picking a fight with the goddess.

“Are you not a mother? Can you not hear our prayers, Amma?” she would ask, before walking away in disgust at the sight of yet another girl fated to go no sooner than she had been born.

Madhu was largely unsentimental throughout these pregnancies and learned to quietly grieve and move on. But something about baby number eight seemed to have undone even her. She lay, that day, listening to the rain. Plotting.

When Veena came back with Kumari, the old woman took one look at Madhu and announced, “At least three more hours,” and went back.

Thunder, lightning, and pain kept the sisters up through the night. A cyclone loomed large over the Bay of Bengal. Madhu walked up and down the stairs of her large house, waiting. Still plotting.

When Kumari came in finally, her hands were cold, her heart was heavy. Her body stiffened at the sight of this very pregnant woman. She did not meet Madhu’s eyes. Though Madhu looked straight at her. Her gaze bore into the woman. No words passed between them. Yet, somehow Kumari had learned what was on Madhu’s mind, as she prepared to sit on the young mother, to bring about childbirth.

She brought her hands together and said a prayer: “Enna kaapathudee Amma.”

Primrose heard a sharp cry in the distance.

Stormy arrival: “Can I see her one last time?” Veena asked... “The girl from the rain” - ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

***

Twenty five girls were to be adopted that day from the nursery. The Chief Minister herself would give the girls away to new parents, with a kiss and a wave. It was on this crowded day that she came to the clinic.

“Can I see her one last time?” Veena asked.

“Who are you talking about?” Primrose, who was bored of this charade of mothers, aunts and relatives wanting a peek at the girl they’d abandoned at the nursery, asked.

“The girl from the rain.”

The receptionist stood up. The only infant to have come to the nursery that day in the midst of a cyclone was also the only one to have never received a guest. Everyone had heard of her in the village. But no one had come for this baby.

“Come, come with me,” the receptionist said, looking at Veena.

“Are you the mother?” she asked.

“No.”

Primrose led Veena to the cradle.

“You look like your Amma, why, you look like her so very much,” Veena said, and held the girl to her bosom.

Primrose gave her hot tea and waited. When Veena got up to leave, Primrose said, “It was raining very badly that day.”

Veena nodded.

Primrose waited.

Veena sat down.

“It poured and poured that day. The eesal on the walls had told me it would rain and I’d told my sister for two days it would and she’d laughed. ‘That’s good then,’ she said, ‘Krishna brought the rains with him, didn’t he?’” Veena said, biting her lips. “When she prayed so vehemently for a Krishna, poor Madhu did not know that Draupadi, who too, was dark and beautiful, was a Krishna too.”

“When I came back with the midwife that day, my sister was ready. Too ready, I thought. She had prepared the entire house. For this horrid death that I knew was coming. She gave birth, after hours of struggle, to this big girl with so much hair on her head and body too, that at first, I’d mistaken her for a boy and said, ‘You will live after all’. Two seconds later I bit my tongue. The midwife went out into the rain and wept. She then ran away throwing her hands up in the air, crying: ‘I will starve to death but not do this again.’ I stood there not knowing what to do. My sister then handed me a sickle, stained by life and blood. And then she gave me her daughter. Then I too knew what they both had known. Sickle in one hand, infant in another, I came here running in wind and rain. I left the baby at your doorstep, and ran home to my sister. And there she lay. With a boy in her arm.”

 

Krupa Ge lives in Chennai, and her debut novel ‘What We Know About Her’ will be published by Context/Westland in April

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Published on January 26, 2021
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