Our first home was in a spanking new development, a fledgling township far from the bustling, belching, seething heart of the metropolis. An oasis of lush green with a huge lake around which lovely dream houses were cropping up with great alacrity; like iced cupcakes. They belonged more to a retired demography who wished to spend their golden years far from the big smoke. And then, there was the ilk of us. Newly-weds. Twenty-somethings. Our eyes lined with dreamy kohl, rearing kids in tiny, sun-filled flats with flowerbeds and open spaces in front, forming friendly Moms-and-Tots groups, trading recipes with novice cooks and learning to navigate around those pesky icebergs of nosey neighbors.
So, quite naturally, the hospital where I gave birth to my daughter was brand new too.
By some strange stroke of coincidence, in the October of 1984, three generations of our family were in the same hospital. Like I said it was a newly-started, sparsely-occupied facility still giving off the aura of fresh paint. My mother-in-law was admitted there with a fractured femur, and then there were my new-born daughter and me.
Till I was ready for labour we paid Ma daily visits while she convalesced after her surgery and it turned out to be a way more protracted process than we had initially surmised. In the bed next to her was a cheerful, buxom Punjabi lady who, immediately on seeing me, would joke that I needn’t go home after visiting my Mum-in-Law as I was so ready to pop my baby. She chuckled that I should just slip into the third bed on the other side of her and wait my time. She laughed at her own joke and it was such an infectious sound that we couldn’t help but join in.
Sure enough, as expected, the day finally dawned when I started my contractions and had to be admitted for the confinement. My gynecologist examined me, patted my hand and said my contractions were not strong enough, I had not dilated enough so I still had a long enough way to go. I accepted this verdict, I knew what a long-drawn labour looked and felt like. In the case of my first born, I was in excruciating agony for a good twenty-three hours till the tiny head, like one side of a gold coin, first made its appearance.
This was my second and I felt like an old hand in matters such as childbearing and rearing.
As she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my arm, the nurse, in her spotless white uniform, smiled and asked if my first child was a boy or a girl. “Boy”, I replied. “Looks like this one is a girl”, she opined. “I sure hope it is”, I said. Now, mind you, this predates sonography, ultrasounds and gender determination tests. So, naturally I was clueless about the sex of my unborn baby but I had big dreams of stitching baby dresses for a little girl, braiding pigtails and signing her up for Bharatnatyam or Kathak classes.
Clad in my hospital gown and resigned to a night of not much birthing activity, I padded over to my mother-in-law’s room. She was wide awake and asked me anxiously how I was doing. I looked over at the bed next to hers and to my deep shock, I found the covers drawn right up to the cold steel headboard, and the Punjabi lady’s lanky, salt-and-pepper plait hanging over the edge of the bed from under the covers like the tail of a mouse caught in a trap.
I looked over at Ma, in alarm. “She died a while ago”, she informed me. But Ma was more enamored with new life brewing in her family than death next door. More importantly, she didn’t want me to be affected by the passing of life when I was so close to starting a new one myself. Yet, I caught the moonlight from the window gently shining on the sadness and empathy glistening in her eyes.
Hospital rooms are strange places. They turn strangers into temporary kith and kin!
Despite my heaviness, I felt kind of empty as I waddled back to my room. And that’s when the first real contraction hit me. An iron fist clutched at my entrails with nauseating suddenness without any pattern or design. I gasped and almost keeling over somehow managed to grab the rails along the wall. A nurse from the nurse’s desk noticed my plight and rushing to my aid, walked me back to my bed.
There was no turning back from that point. My chick was ready to hatch. The contractions came fast and furious; each more agonizing than the previous. A tiny life was putting up a phenomenal fight to leave its soft watery confines and sally forth bravely to make a place for itself in this world. On that warm autumn night, exactly at 2 A.M., bathed in a clammy envelope of sweat and exhaustion I finally expelled my baby girl from my enervated body. With a lusty cry, she announced her arrival. Immediately, the lonely, lugubrious hospital with very few patients and certainly no other pregnant one, sprang into life.
The tossing, turning insomniac patients smiled quietly into the darkness, the sleeping ones woken by the young cry felt a strong spark of desire to live and fight death as best they could. And for the weary doctor stitching me up, the prospect of a shut-eye became a reality.
While the Punjabi lady continued her onward journey into the other world, a beautiful seven-pounder slid into place to start hers in this.
The nurse cut the cord and brought my baby over to me. “Now, Mommy meet your sweet little girl”, she said.
I looked at the pinkish head capped with soft down and then my still pregnant brain, further addled with pain and confusion, landed on the remnant of the umbilical cord hanging there looking exactly like a boy part and thinking her words to be some kind of joke, I exclaimed, “Oh, this is another boy!” The nurse threw her head back and laughed. “I’ve never met anyone before who could not tell the difference between a boy and a girl”. She chuckled, not unkindly.
The night wore on. I was moved to my room, where I promptly fell into a deep, fatigued slumber. The twittering of the birds in the trees outside prodded me into a semi-wakeful state. Dawn was yet to fully break and in the still nocturnal gloom, I peered into the bed next to mine. As far as I knew it was not supposed to have an occupant; I had the room to myself. Yet, I saw a white mound on the bed, not unlike the one I had seen earlier on the Punjabi lady’s bed. A supine and motionless form. My heart skipped a beat. What was she doing in my room? Did I misunderstand, she was not really dead after all? What’s going on? I knew something was skewing my vision and thought of the time when I mistook my girl child for a boy. I rubbed my eyes and when I opened them someone or something was still on that bed.
Now, anyone who knows me well enough knows deep in my heart I nurse a deep dread of ghosts and other-worldliness. Just as I was about to open my mouth to call for someone or reach for the bell next to my bed, the white mound moved, lifted itself off the bed, began to sidle towards the foot of my bed and then, by some bizarre, cosmic phenomenon the apparition split into two and each separate entity began to move towards the door. In unison. Just at the doorway, the bluish haze of the light from the hallway shone on them and I realized they were the two skinny nurses who had assisted through my birthing earlier in the night. Completely drained, they had climbed into the empty bed next to mine and fallen asleep before they even knew it.
Ah, I let out a sigh of relief and rang for someone to bring my baby to me. I had a whole lot to discuss with her.