By Gargi Mehra.
Minutes after giving birth, Nisha set eyes on her little tot, swaddled in a standard-issue white towel foisted on them by the hospital. It hadn’t yet sunk in – this miniature beauty was hers, formed from her own flesh and blood and DNA, built from an infrastructure system more complex than that of the pyramids, as much a part of her as her eyes or her toes. How had such a bundle of perfection emerged from her womb?
“Boy or girl?” she asked the doctor, through the haze of medicines coursing through her system. “Girl,” he said, and Nisha muttered a prayer of thanks to the three-hundred and thirty million gods that watched over her every minute of every day.
From far away the sounds of a commotion drifted into the labour room. At first she thought the elders were squabbling, perhaps about the name or who would get to hold the baby first. But as the effect of the drugs wore off, the walls of the room came into focus, her hearing sharpened, and it dawned on her that they must be in raptures, unable to withhold their joy any longer. Uproarious laughter issued forth, and one of the nurses, as she bustled about her work, told Nisha that her family members were extremely boisterous.
She heard the loud baritones of her father. “We are blessed! The Goddess has come to our home!” His voice rose above the wailing of infants that pierced the air. She pictured him raising his arms to the sky in gratitude to the deities above.
She smiled, her eyes still closed as the doctors sutured her nether regions. Dissolvable stitches, they said, and asked her to wait when they were done. A slight laugh escaped her lips, the way they had issued this instruction as if she might swing down from her perch and sprint out the door, out of the hospital to a distant place where the wailing of newborns couldn’t be heard.
Soon she was wheeled out on the gurney, where her parents and in-laws clustered around. Her father wore the half-smile that he conferred on customers who were driving a hard bargain. Her mother-in-law appeared to be suffering a toothache. Only her father-in-law showed off a toothy grin, while her mother pressed her lips tightly together.
Smiles did not light up their faces.
Her mother wrapped the infant in a light lime-green quilt they had carried from home. It had been a rule in their household for generations – the baby must be swaddled in hand-me-downs, and not the dirty, infectious duvets (so her mother said) stocked by the hospitals.
In their semi-deluxe room, Nisha unfurled her arms like rose petals, and her mother delicately placed the baby in her waiting lap. Her parents and in-laws gathered around, cooing at the baby.
Her father said, “We will name her Khushi.”
Her father-in-law nodded in agreement. “Good choice. Happiness – she will always be happy.”
Nisha cradled the baby in her lap, smiling down at her. The baby blinked her round black eyes. Her cheeks resembled gulab jamuns, soft and plump. Nisha gently pulled her cheek and it bounced back in place. Her baby’s lips parted – was it a smile?
One by one the elders left, ostensibly to field the numerous phone calls buzzing their smartphones to life. When the door closed behind the last of them, she grabbed her phone from the side table, and googled ‘do babies smile’.
“Don’t fiddle with gadgets when you should be paying attention to your child, my dear,” her mother said, settling into a threadbare armchair positioned in the corner of the room.
Nisha ignored her, and continued to trawl through the search results. The many-headed creature called The Internet convinced her that babies didn’t smile, and if they did, it was probably just gas built up in their tummies, or a reflex action. An urge to check the infant’s diaper overcame her, but she stopped herself.
Presently a nurse appeared in a flurry of white. The mother needs to squeeze out colostrum, she said, and began undoing the front buttons of Nisha’s gown. She pinched Nisha’s breasts and nipples, until the yellowish liquid seeped through. Nisha squealed, and the nurse furrowed her brows. “You just went through labour,” she said. “What could be more painful than that?”
“That’s precisely why I don’t want to suffer any more!” Nisha retorted. Can’t you give me a break, as the Americans say, she wanted to add, but refrained.
A few deft manoeuvres later, the baby had latched on, and was suckling the fresh milk. The nurse, seemingly satisfied with a job well done, instructed her to continue the feeding until the baby let go, and exited the room.
Her mother rose to stand near her, arms crossed in front of her bosom. Nisha felt the effect of her gaze swallow her.
“What happened, Ma?”
Her mother straightened the folds of her saree. “It would have been better if you had a boy.”
Nisha searched her mother’s face for signs of humour or irony, but there was nothing etched in its severe lines except contempt. She looked down at the baby suckling at her breast. “If you want a boy you can get one at the shop.”
Her mother turned wide, astonished eyes at her. “What do you mean? Which shop?”
“Why, isn’t there a shop where you can get the child of your choice? No? What a shock, Ma!” she laughed, without mirth.
“Oh, stop it. Stop making fun of something so serious. You don’t know what you are saying.”
Her mother fiddled with her spectacles, setting and re-setting them on the bridge of her nose, as she tended to do when an enormous rage overcame her. Nisha knew that explosive anger too well – she had suffered it for thirty-two years and counting.
Nisha shifted her position to one of more comfort. “In this day and age if you talk about wanting boys, Ma, I don’t know what I can say to you.”
“You don’t understand. The first should be a boy. How else will the business have an heir?”
“The business already has an heir.” Nisha stroked the soft lanugo on the baby’s arms.
Her mother sucked in her breath. “Fine. Do what you want.”
She stalked out of the room, closing the door behind her. Almost as if they were mutually exclusive, her mother-in-law entered.
The same forced smile of earlier was plastered on her mother-in-law’s face, as if she had taped the apples of her cheeks to her ears to hold them up and create the illusion of a smile.
“Is she latching on correctly?” she asked, and leaned forward to admire the baby. “Oh, she is, very good!”
She caressed the baby’s head. “Your mother looked angry. Is there any problem?” she asked, without meeting Nisha’s eyes.
“She is saying I should have had a boy.”
Her mother-in-law pursed her lips. “Hmmm.”
Why was she acting so thoughtful as if she were solving a tough problem of differential calculus? Nisha counted the seconds. After the expected pause, the older woman said, “I guess she’s right, in her way.”
Something exploded in Nisha’s head. “After three attempts and so many complications, I finally have a child! A normal healthy child! Shouldn’t that be enough for you? What does it matter if it’s a girl or a boy?”
The door opened and her husband stormed in, followed by her mother who maintained the slow pace so as not to rupture the pleats of her saree.
Ravi pointed to the door. “Do you know your voice can be heard outside? Why are you shouting, anyway?”
“Don’t tell me – tell your mother. She is saying I should have had a boy!”
Her mother-in-law opened her mouth to protest, but Ravi cut her short. “It doesn’t matter! You cannot yell at her. You must show her respect no matter what she says.”
“I am not going to respect stupid things that I hear!”
Her mother chimed in. “Really Nisha, you cannot say things like this. And be careful of the baby.”
The infant had stopped its suckling, and was looking around the room with its large eyes. Nisha hugged her closer to her chest. “Oh yes, Ma. I am careful.”
Ravi said, to no-one in particular, “Let’s go. She has gone mad.”
Angry tears spilled from Nisha’s eyes. “Yes, go! Leave the room!”
And they did. They walked out single file, Ravi stopping to hold the door open for the ladies. Nisha watched them go, and when the door closed, she turned back to her baby.
The child gazed at her, one of its chubby hands on her breast as if giving her an affectionate hug. Nisha raised the baby’s little fingers to her lips, and bestowed a kiss on her forehead. The baby sought out her breast, and latched on once again. Her heart filled with a mixture of bittersweet pleasure and pain.
Next time. Next time she would have a boy.