When I met her, she was in the twilight of her life. Or November, if you please. The attacks for reminiscing would strike her once in a while. She would talk about her childhood and her youth. She would narrate interesting times in her past. The village life, the farms. She had learnt to read a few years ago when she was working as a companion to a doctor’s ageing mother. She was ever ready to learn new things. Dynamism and enthusiasm in a different form.
She had a story.
She was born in a village in central Maharashtra. Her mother died when she was just 7 years old. Her father and an assortment of some aunts brought her up for another 5 years. She was married at 12 and transferred to another village. Married in a hurry, to the first good fellow who walked that way. Her husband was a labourer on the farm then. A simpleton himself, he had his own ideas of life. He worked hard and sincerely at the landowners farm.
Days went by. They had their first baby. A girl. The family rejoiced in moderation. Life went on. Cooking, working at the farm, housekeeping. Contraception was not popular at that time. Within a year she was pregnant again. Another daughter was born. This time there was no rejoicing. She got back to work after her puerperal rest period, the child tied tightly around her back. Within a year and a half another child was on the way. This time once again it was a baby girl. Now everyone was very openly disappointed. Her husband was dejected. He prayed for a son the next time. He did fasts and religious rituals for a son. She shared his ideas and desires, longing for the son. So, she shared his rituals and prayers. Random relatives gave unwarranted advise and they followed whatever they were advised. Meanwhile, the daughters were growing without any schooling, all resources reserved for the son. After a gap of 2 years this time she was pregnant again. Gods must have been pleased with their yearnings and they were blessed with the son. Rejoicing and celebrations. The son would now be an extra pair of working hands and would help with the sharing of the family burden of the family of daughters and the old parents. After he grew up, of course. Not now.
A year went by. The son was a toddler now. The eldest daughter was helping in the housework. That’s that. She thought. And within weeks she found out that she was pregnant. Again. She had not heard about termination of pregnancy in those days. But she had heard about family planning as the government had started promoting it. This should be the last one she thought. At the end of nine months she delivered a baby girl! Her husband was quiet for many weeks after that. Hesitantly she brought up the topic of family planning. He refused. He withdrew. He would not discuss for days. She asked again. He said he wanted another son, to look after all these sisters. She was devastated to hear this. What was she to do now?
Another year, another pregnancy and another daughter followed.
For the first time she began to think. She listened. She questioned. She wondered about her rights and duties. She questioned the freedom of her choice.
Meanwhile, life went on. Looking after the children – Five girls and a boy now. The youngest one still feeding off her. The eldest two daughters helping a bit, responsibility thrust on their tiny young shoulders.
In the morning she would cook, sort things out at home for the kids with an assembly line routine. With the zhunka-bhakri-loNcha lunch pack, she would go to work in the fields, with the baby strapped to her back. Money had to be earned after all. She would come back in the evening, energy still flowing, and cook for the evening, see what the children had been upto, feed them all, feed the baby. Her husband would come back a little later. They would have dinner and go to sleep. The routine was on again. Life was just going on. His thoughts were still the same. We will wait for another son, he insisted. Things seemed endless.
One evening, she did not come back. She and the baby. The husband came home and found the vessels empty and the children hungry and worried. No work had been done. The younger kids were crying the eldest was quietly confused.
Where was she? What had happened? He went to see if she had gone to the temple. She wasn’t there. Had she got hurt somehow? Was she lying unconscious somewhere? The neighbours. He hadn’t asked them. He rushed there to see. But they hadn’t heard of her since morning. They had seen her leave the house with her shidori. Now he was frightened. Well wishing villagers and friends gathered. They formed search groups and combed the village in the quickly fading dusk light. They continued till late night. She was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, well meaning women fed the kids and put them to sleep, mumbling ambiguous possibilities. Reaching dead ends everywhere, everyone decided to take a break and resume the search the next morning. He was so exhausted, he drifted off to a worried sleep as soon as he lay down.
Next morning the women were back with their words and attitudes to help out the children. The men came back for the search. They searched the local medical center. Someone said, report in missing persons to the police. Someone said wait, what if she has run away with some man. Someone said she might have gone to some relative. They asked everyone about her. They went to the ST stand to ask around. A lady with a baby in her arms. Had they seen her anywhere.
It was by noon that someone reported something. She was seen somewhere near the highway last morning sometime. But they were not sure if it was her. It was a lady waiting for a bus – with most probably a baby in her arms. And some small bag or something.
Despair, shame and disaster. Where had she gone like that? Giving up her home and her children and her husband? The ambiguous words became clearer now. They were so sure. The children’s confusion mounted and they began crying. The gloom increased. His face darkened in hopelessness. Who will look after his life now? What about the kids? And the shame!!! Oh! The shame!! Curses on her. What a woman! What will he tell the children? What will he tell his relatives?
The evening was spent in the villagers consoling him in all ways. Good and bad. The night was spent in darkness. The children had barely eaten. He got drunk and drifted in anguished slumber.
The next morning however dawned with some other news. She had been spotted in the next village. Someone who knew someone who knew someone in that village had passed the news. She was in the rural hospital there. Admitted for something!
With mixed feelings of relief and dread, he got a few people together and rushed there in someone’s vehicle, making sure to have a woman in the group, just in case she needed looking after. It must have been the longest two hours of his life – by the time he reached the village and located the hospital. As they entered, they faced a large crowd gathered there for some reason. There were banners put up everywhere of some health camp. Ignoring everything he kept asking for her name through endless inquiry counters. He was finally directed to a ward. The whole procession of villagers followed him.
And there she was. Lying on a bed in a dimly lit ward. Her baby in the hands of some woman, whom no one knew. He saw her and was silent. Shocked and relieved at the same time. She sat up in her bed with some difficulty. And with downcast eyes she informed him: I got myself operated for family planning. There was this free health camp for the surgery. I heard it from some women in the fields. So I came here. No more babies now!