The Birthmark - Part II MANJUL BAJAJ
Continued from yesterday ...
Marriage did not change Ulsha’s life. She still did most of the work in the day. She still slept with Bhushan at night. And Rajjoji still thought of her as Ulsha Minj, not as a daughter-in-law or as part of the family.
Ulsha too did not complain. This strange land with its hectare after hectare of flat mono-cropped green fields was so far removed from the landscape she knew as home that she had no expectations of it. She was grateful for the rhythm of the day’s work and for the sanctuary of her own room and her own man at night. A stranger in a strange land, she kept all emotion carefully at bay.
But spring has a way of stirring up changes, of ruffling surfaces, of teasing out happiness. Suddenly, by canals and on roadsides, the semul trees burst out in a riot of red flowers splashed against clear blue skies and in the fields mustard flowers began dancing defiantly upon the breeze. Ulsha too felt the first tremors of life in her womb and a strange turbulence in her heart – an odd sense that perhaps she too belonged here, after all.
‘Ma, you must hire someone to get the firewood for the next few months. Ulsha is with child,’ said Bhushan to Rajjoji.
The mobile testing van was not due in the village till two weeks later. Rajjoji could not wait. The very next day she made a trip to Phagwara, to a private nursing home, the pregnant Ulsha in tow. Rajjoji was relieved to discover it was a girl. Bhushan was still under the spell of this dark girl-woman and could be strangely obdurate at times. With a baby girl he would not question the decision, any more than he would the removing of weeds from the wheat fields or chaff from the grain.
But resistance came, unexpectedly, from Ulsha herself. She would not yield. She was defiant and not willing to let go of her unborn child.
Rajjoji watched helplessly. In all her years as a midwife she had not encountered this – a woman ready to defy her mother-in-law, husband and his family, all the traditions and conventions of their culture, all reasoning and arguments.
Strange, dark witch.
All around her Rajjoji could feel the sharp knives of betrayal. Kuljeet and Jeeto would not look her in the eye, not ready to take her side on this.
‘Are you not a woman yourself?’ Bhushan asked her in a loud, angry voice, tutored no doubt by his stubborn wife. What did that outsider know about their ways or of a woman’s dharma to safeguard the well-being of the family?
Even from her normally sympathetic husband Rajjoji did not get the firm backing she expected. ‘You had best handle it without involving the men,’ Bauji told her sternly when she tried to raise the topic with the family after dinner one night. He picked up his plate and took it to the washing area himself instead of waiting, as he did every day, for Rajjoji to bring him a lota of water to wash his hands with.
The doctors in Phagwara too turned their backs on her. She visited clinic after clinic, first in the area around the main bus stop and then around GT Road in Phagwara. She had referred countless cases as a midwife over the years to these very doctors. And now they were refusing to abort her daughter-in-law without Bhushan’s signed consent! They said it was too dangerous. Ulsha was three and a half months pregnant, the procedure was risky, she could die. The government had become vigilant of late, clamping down on these things. The clinics did not wish for trouble.
Ghee cannot be taken out with a straight finger, Rajjoji’s mother had never tired of repeating to her when Rajjoji was a little girl. If the world was not amenable to reason then Rajjoji really had no choice but to resort to subterfuge.
She quietly made a trip to the district hospital at Kapurthala and spoke at length with a pharmacist she knew from the old days. The pharmacist said that wonderful advances were being made every day in the field of medicine. A new morning-after pill had been released in the market, which of course would not be useful in her daughter-in-law’s case. However, he could put together a high dose of tranquillizer which Rajjoji could use as an injection before proceeding with the D & C. Things were less messy nowadays, he reassured her.
Even now memories of her early days as a midwife continued to haunt Rajjoji, often causing her sleepless nights. Back then the hand that cut the umbilical cord was routinely required to smother the infant too. Now mercifully these things were cleaner, more easily accomplished.
‘Son,’ Rajjoji said to Bhushan one evening. Ulsha was already over four months gone now but it could not be helped; an opportunity had to be created carefully.
‘Hmm,’ he answered, wary of all conversation with his mother of late. They invariably degenerated into a lament or an argument, both of which he hated.
‘Now that the harvest is being readied for market, I think you should spend the night in the fields. Two nights ago Baljit bhappa’s farm was attacked by marauders. Luckily they didn’t get away with much but who knows where they may strike next.’
It was good that his mother was thinking of other things at last. And she had a point -- too many gangs of migrant labour were now settling all over the region in their makeshift shanties. Some of them were getting a reputation for drinking and thieving. Besides, it had been a long while since he had slept in that little hut in the fields – the thought of doing so pleased him. He agreed without demur.
Bhushan out of her way, Rajjoji turned her mind to Ulsha. There was not much point trying to reason with that one. It was best to administer a tranquillizer whilst she slept and then carry out the abortion. Rajjoji did not care for histrionics at such a time – she had no taste for kicking, pleading, crying or hitting at such a time. Who knows what the girl would do, headstrong creature that she had turned out to be!
A bleary-eyed Jeeto, who had been woken up without warning and asked to follow her mother-in-law into Ulsha’s room, stood watching Rajjoji as she deftly administered the injection. Rajjoji had considered doing it all on her own but decided against it. She needed Jeeto’s complicity in this. These were not traditions whose weight any woman should try to carry alone. It was Jeeto’s family too and it was time she began to show some maturity in these matters.
Ulsha grimaced with pain as the needle went into her and opened her eyes, muttering something, but her eyes shut again, quickly and unseeingly. Whatever tranquillizer it was that Rajjoji’s syringe contained, it was quick acting. Ulsha’s body settled into a heavy, unconscious slump. Rajjoji asked Jeeto to undress Ulsha and ready her for the procedure while she herself went to boil some water and fetch the instruments – a dilator, a curette and a pair of forceps. She had seen the doctors use them hundreds of times. She herself was more comfortable with the more traditional methods but the wretched girl had not cooperated.
Jeeto worked silently and obediently, her heart beating unevenly in her chest all the while. As she saw Ulsha lying supine under the effect of the injection, she had a fierce desire to save her from what was about to happen. She wanted to run across to the fields and fetch Bhushan. He would surely stop his mother. But Jeeto was scared of defying her mother-in-law. Her mind was in turmoil but her hands continued to follow Rajjoji’s bidding.
Ulsha was ready when Rajjoji returned to the room. Rajjoji nodded grimly, her mind completely focused on the job at hand. Her eyes travelled over the supine girl’s muscular brown legs and all the way up her insensible body.
Then Rajjoji gasped loudly, suddenly unstable on her feet, her arms stretched towards Jeeto for support – it was as if an unseen arrow had entered her breast, making her heart crumple inside her in pain. She sat down with a thud on the floor, her hands clutched wildly at her palpitating bosom, her stricken eyes transfixed on a point below Ulsha’s navel.
‘The mark … the mark!’ she pointed out hysterically to the quietly watching Jeeto.
There was a curious, black, star-shaped birthmark just below Ulsha’s navel.
Rajjoji had seen that mark only once before, briefly, long ago. Yet it lacerated her dreams, raced through her nightmares, aborted her night’s sleep even now. Yes, briefly, too briefly, for her daughter had not lived through the night on which she was born. With her own bare hands Rajjo had dug her small grave in the backyard, while her mother had stood watching over her. All through that night she had stared numbly at the dirt stuck in her fingernails, unable to wash them. But now the scream she had stifled all those years ago was upon her lips – a tormented cry from another, forgotten life. She rushed towards the insensible Ulsha, held her and wept.
‘My daughter, my daughter,’ Jeeto heard her whispering repeatedly into the sleeping Ulsha’s hair and neck as she wept. For the next two hours she sat doubled over Ulsha, a deluge of tears gushing out of her body, as if somewhere inside her being a check dam had burst.
‘Let the child rest,’ said Rajjoji to Jeeto, her tears spent at last. She stroked the sleeping Ulsha’s hair one last time and walked out of the room. ‘She shall come to by the morning.’
But Ulsha Minj, strong as a horse, and wilful, failed to come to consciousness in the morning. She was lying comatose when Jeeto went to check on her at dawn. Two hours later, she had still not stirred and Rajoji had been overcome by the worst misgivings. Maybe she had made a mistake with the anaesthesia – administered too strong a dose, maybe there was some adulteration in the medicine she had bought, or Ulsha had gone into some sort of allergic reaction.
‘Run and call Bhushan,’ she ordered Jeeto, extremely distraught by now. ‘Something has gone wrong. We had better take her to hospital.’
* * * * *
Mother and son sat in the ambulance side by side, like strangers with nothing to say to each other. The other man inside Bhushan’s body went on staring at the traffic and asking the driver almost mechanically if it was likely to get any better soon. All his thoughts were focused on the traffic. It was like a bad dream – this ambulance, this journey, this woman heaving and sobbing on the seat opposite him. If only he could wake up it would all be alright. He would tell Ulsha about his dream and she would stroke his face with her fingers and smile away his foolish nightmare.
Rajjoji continued to mutter furiously. Every prayer she had ever learnt from childhood onwards fluttered off her lips in a garbled, incoherent sequence, her mind flittering nervously from one to the other in the hope that something would work.
‘Look Maji, it’s started raining!’ exclaimed the driver.
Rajjoji stared out of the window, not wholly comprehending the driver’s words.
Bhushan uttered an imprecation. Rain would slow them down further.
Within minutes the rain was lashing down on all sides around them, streaming down the dark glass windows of the van, rendering the landscape outside wavering and unsteady.
Then the road ahead turned strangely white and it took a minute for them to make the connection between the pelting sounds on the roof and windshield with the oddly whitened road. They were in the middle of a hailstorm. Who would have expected such a downpour in April?
One by one the tractors and trucks scurried off the highway in search of shelter for the produce they were taking to the market. The road was clear. Even the policemen at the octroi post had abandoned it and gone inside to avoid the unseasonal storm. Jalandhar was only a few minutes way. A small miracle had happened.
An hour of waiting and praying outside the emergency ward and then it was over.
Both mother and unborn child had survived, the doctor said. It seemed like a scene from an old film or TV serial to the man inside Bhushan’s head. And then Bhushan felt himself exhale, a long breath of relief – he could feel his lungs hurting as he began to breathe again.
The other man inside his head had left abruptly. Bhushan staggered in relief and moved to sit down. He had only then noticed that there was a line of chairs along the waiting room wall.
Rajjoji fell on her knees and wept in gratitude.
In the days that followed she thanked her God again and again for revealing to her the birthmark below Ulsha’s navel, just in the nick of time. It had prevented her from committing a heinous crime.
* * * * *
It is not clear who started the rumour and how it spread, whisper by whisper, across the villages of the region till it grew indisputable, a new article of faith among its women.
Perhaps it was Rajjoji herself when she said, ‘Shh sister … don’t talk like that! We have been given a chance to redeem our sins!’ to Gurdip’s weeping mother, when she came rushing to Rajjoji with the news that her son was hell-bent on marrying a Manipuri girl.
News of a star-shaped birthmark spread through the adjoining villages.
There had been a sign from God that their stolen daughters were being returned to them. Slant-eyed, snub-nosed, with alien features and complexions, carrying with them the blessings of distant wood, mountain and river spirits, they carried in their veins fresh blood to redeem the race.
Doabe di dhiyaan laut aayian. The daughters of the doaba are returning. From village to village, the murmur spread. ‘Mothers of the land, stand ready to open your arms and hold them to your bosom, they will help wash away your unspeakable sins,’ the voice of God seemed to proclaim. Midwives and nurses were refusing to assist in abortions. Dutiful daughters-in-law were refusing to go for amniocentesis and ultrasound testing. In the villages and in the towns too women were waking up to the beauty of their daughters and combing their plaits lovingly before sending them off to school.
It was no longer fatal to be female.
When Ulsha Minj delivered her baby girl, there was no one keener to welcome her granddaughter into the world than Rajjoji.
‘Does she have a birthmark like yours?’ she asked Ulsha even as she scanned the newborn baby’s body eagerly. Ulsha looked back at her in puzzlement, unaware of the crucial role played in the history of her new homeland by the scab on a small wound inflicted on her belly while collecting the thorny kikar wood.
The scab, having fulfilled its destiny, had long since fallen off.
[Manjul Bajaj is a poet and writer based in India. For much of her adult life Manjul has worked as a consultant in the field of rural development and the environment but is now focusing on her writing. She lives with her husband, two sons and a dog. She is the author of the novel Come, Before Evening Falls and Another Man’s Wife, a recently released collection of short stories.]
October 26, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), October 26, 2012, 9:55 AM.
Beautiful story! Very much enjoyed reading it.
2: Jagmeet Kaur (San Diego, California, USA), October 26, 2012, 11:33 AM.
Loved this story ... so loaded with raw emotions. And touches a number of important current issues as well. Has had me engrossed in a whole slew of thoughts ever since. Love this entire series as well on sikhchic.com. More, please ...!