Whenever Uma thought of that woman, she was gripped with fear. The woman, who had lived in this house and died in this room and on this very bed giving birth to a child. It had, of course, occurred to her that she should simply move to the other room. Maybe sleep on the floor. But it was not so easy to admit her fears to others. Certainly not to Manish, her husband or even to Maji, her mother-in-law, who was never tired of relating the story of the woman who had died.
When she came to this house she was pregnant like you. She had moved from the big city to this small town with her husband, who had been transferred to his company’s new factory. The last month of pregnancy was particularly bad. She would lie down to sleep at night but get up every half-hour grabbing her chest and saying she couldn’t breathe. The air was thick with cement dust rising from the factory. People would tell her that she would get used to it — like everybody else, but she never did. Unable to sleep at night, she would try not to stir too much so as not to wake up her husband. He was already so overburdened with work that he would start snoring as soon as he lay his head on the pillow.
But during the day she would complain to him. She couldn’t breathe freely, she would say, she would not survive the childbirth. He would hear her out and curse the day he was transferred to this miserable place. There was neither a hospital here nor a doctor. What could he do? His mother was long dead and so was hers — there was no place he could have sent her. So he just tried to console her or laugh away her fears. After some time he simply stopped listening. How long can one listen to the same refrain?
But this is my story too, Uma would think to herself, except that Manish’s mother was alive and so was her own. The rest of it seemed like her own life story.
Then suddenly she became obsessed with cleaning. Unable to sleep at night, unable to breathe, she would spend hours scrubbing the floors, dusting and decorating the house. She started painting canvases and hung them on every wall. The furniture given by the company was locked away in the store. She got a carpenter to specially make this bed. The bed was long and wide, and of excellent wood, but only about six inches high, to create a sense of space. She would be able to breathe better, even get some sleep at night. But that never happened. The air was still thick with cement dust. She would rub her chest and toss all night. Sometimes she felt her unborn baby was stuck in her chest, at other times she would feel it had died and was rotting away inside her. But without a hospital or a doctor or an X-ray machine, she would just have to wait for the pains to begin and hope the baby would push its way out. But she was unfortunate. The baby’s head remained stuck inside the mother’s body and they both died. Later, people in the big city said that if the head had been pulled out with forceps both mother and child would have lived. But they died here in this room, on the same bed on which you are lying. Poor unfortunate woman!
But wasn’t this the story of every woman? Wasn’t it the story of womanhood, of displacement by marriage? A woman is the only commodity that can be uprooted and flung away with the hope that she will take root again. And who is to be blamed for it? The woman herself, because she seeks a tree around which she can grow like a creeper. She never aspires to be the tree.
No, Uma could not say all this to Maji, for she knew what Maji would say, why did your parents not think of all this before marrying you off? And she couldn’t tell Manish. He would write it off as pregnancy blues. What could she say, she was not even thinking coherently anymore.
When she died, her husband was heart-broken. He moved in with a neighbour the very next day and applied for a new residence. When he left this house, he did not take the bed with him. He said he could not bear the sight of the bed that had been witness to her desperate screams before death claimed her and the baby. Poor, unfortunate woman — she had got the bed made with such care.
When the midwife announced that both mother and child were dead, he entered the room weeping and saw the bed soaked in blood and her lifeless body lying on it. He screamed and fainted, and everyone stood horror-stricken. Her eyes were still wide open, the pain and terror still frozen in them. have you seen those beautiful babies she had painted? Her husband took them all with him. He only left this bed behind. Isn’t the bed really nice?
Uma would turn pale on hearing the story, her breath coming in gasps. Her head would spin and a ball of fear would rise from her stomach. Exhausted, she would collapse on the very same bed. Neighbours and others who visited the house fed her fears with their own brand of wisdom. An officer’s wife would say, “Don’t have your confinement here. Seven of the ten women that the midwife in this godforsaken place attends die. I had both my babies in the city at my mother’s. Why don’t you go to your mother in Delhi?” A clerk’s wife would say: “Why did you take this house? It was lying vacant for six months. No one was willing to move in here. That woman’s ghost… and you are pregnant as well. Why don’t you go to your mother’s for the delivery? Won’t your mother-in-law agree?” A woman would tell Maji to send her to her parents and Maji would sigh, “Her parents are so busy.”
This was not true. Her parents and younger sisters were caring, but city life had made them remote to the reality of this far-flung town in Bihar. They just could not imagine a place with no doctors or medical facilities — where the cure-all potion for any ailment was an aspirin or water boiled with tulsi leaves. For them a woman dying in childbirth was a gimmick for a formula film or pulp novel. They just could not imagine childbirth with the help of a midwife and a pot of boiling water. The unbreakable nexus between class and place just would not let her sisters see the reality of this industrial town in Bihar.
When Manish was transferred here, he did suggest that Uma should go to her parents for the delivery. But her parents were taken aback at the suggestion. Her sisters reacted as though riots had broken out in the city! Their social
life — revolving around parties, movies, plays or just sauntering about the college campus — slackened only during the riots. There was no place in it for running to the hospital or attending to a wailing baby. It would be strange to cart a big-bellied woman around in their sophisticated circles, and it wouldn’t be right, to leave her alone at home. Anyway, bringing a child into the world was the personal problem of a couple and not something that others had to bother with. Uma couldn’t really blame them. Before marriage she too had been unaware of life beyond the city.
“What kind of a place is this?” she had asked the women on her arrival. “There is a factory, houses, furniture; but no hospital or doctor?”
“There is a dispensary and a private general physician. If it’s a serious case, the company sends the patient to Patna. Of course, there is no lady doctor — midwives take care of child birth. Yes, the maternal mortality rate is quite high but that’s true for most villages in our country. But now they are planning to build a hospital here — maybe in two or three years….”
But Uma’s baby was due next month and couldn’t be asked to wait. Nothing was in her hands — she felt like going to Patna, checking into a hotel and finally moving to a hospital to deliver the baby. That woman would not follow her there. But how would she go? She had spent all her savings on her wedding, and on having a good time afterwards. Now she was completely dependant on Manish. Manish could not afford even the cheapest hotel in Patna. And there was no need either. What’s so difficult about having a baby? If all women died giving birth to a child, the rural population would not have grown so much.
Anyway, just because one woman died during childbirth in this house, it doesn’t mean the house is cursed. Women just like to gossip, that’s all. I don’t have time for such rubbish, said Uma to herself, I am new here and exhausted. I have no problems breathing and no woman’s ghost haunts me. This big wide bed is so comfortable! If I don’t sleep well at night, how shall I work the next day?
Then Uma developed a slight fever. Her body was wracked with aches. The day would pass somehow but when she lay down on the bed at night, she couldn’t breathe. At times she would shake Manish awake and say, “I’m choking! I can’t breathe….”
“Don’t be foolish,” he would say. “The polluted air makes it difficult, but no one has choked to death here! Try a different position – maybe sitting up will help. I had asked you to go to Delhi….”
Uma would be silenced and Manish would go back to sleep. It was a big bed, as big as four coffins put together. The dead woman lay between her and Manish. In the stubborn hope of defying destiny and breathing freely, the dead woman would be next to Uma, who would stare at her wide-open eyes. Death had taken the light out of them but not the longing.
What pain and terror she must have gone through, Uma thought, that even death could not shut her eyes? The woman would smile softly but the fear never left her eyes. Uma felt that the woman’s unborn child had entered her own womb. In long conversations with the dead woman, Uma promised her that she would take care of the coming child as her gift to the woman.
The woman would stop smiling and her eyes would fill with so much longing that it would leave Uma terrified.
She lost count of the nights she spent with that woman. When she could take it no longer, she would get up and roam around the house. Manish would sleep comfortably beside the woman, while Uma drifted from room to room. And for want of anything better to do, she would start dusting the house.
Soon Uma developed a consuming interest in cleaning and doing up the house. A small town, no matter what else it may lack, is rich in nature’s bounty. She would spend most of her day in the fields and jungle, gathering attractive branches, roots, bamboo shoots, flowers and leaves to take home. She would arrange some in vases and make a collage out of the rest. The vases she would place on low stools on the floor and the colourful collages on the walls. She would sweep the floor and the walls obsessively. She would cut out pictures of bonny babies from magazines and paint motifs of the rising sun and sunflowers around them. She wanted to fill the house with laughter and sunshine so that death would not dare enter.
Some nights her body would collapse from exhaustion. She would merely surrender her tired body to the fever that raged within and would lie on the bare floor. Lying on the sparkling clean floor gave her some relief. Maji would take her to her own mattress on the floor. When her husband’s corpse was put on the floor, Maji too had stepped down from the bed.
Massaging Uma’s head with oil, she would reassure her, saying, “Don’t get so nervous, have faith in God. I gave birth to ten children, only four survived. Three daughters and one son, my Manish. It is God’s will. Leave everything to God.”
But Uma was exhausted. The dead woman would come and stand by her feet and stare at her with terrified eyes, making her shiver. Maji and Manish would discuss whether she should be taken to the doctor. Would it be right to have her checked up during her pregnancy? The fever would subside before they came to a decision.
For a month, Uma kept cleaning and decorating the house. Then one night at the beginning of the monsoon, it finally happened. She suddenly felt something burst inside her. A stream of water ran down her legs and onto the floor. Someone shrieked. Perhaps it was that other woman.
Maji rushed in shouting for Manish to go at once through the rain and fetch the midwife. When Maji tried to take Uma to the bed, she screamed, “I will not lie in this bed. Bring me another bed. Not this bed.” She could see the woman lying on the bed.
“Have you gone mad?” Manish cried out, “Where will I get another bed from at this hour?”
Maji had lost her nerve and she cursed her only son for the first time in her life, “You hopeless fellow, one must listen to a woman in labour! Get a cot from somewhere. Beg if you must, or steal, but get a cot.”
Manish suddenly remembered the old cot lying by the mango grove. The chowkidar and his friends would sit on it, chewing tobacco and playing cards. It must be lying out there in the rain. He went out and brought it in.
The wooden planks of the cot were soaked through. Uma felt a little queasy lying on the dripping wet cot plastered with withered mango blossoms, but soon her sweat mingled with the rainwater and she was overcome by the waves of pain rising inside her. She felt something crawling all over her body. She knew the dead woman had crawled out of the bed in the other room and joined her in the wet cot. She could feel the woman’s cold blue fingers leading trails across her body, but instead of soothing her, they stung. She screamed in terror. But pain seized her again, rising in waves every few minutes. “Something is crawling all over my body,” she screamed. “It is stinging me!”
The midwife laughed, “Where did you get this rotten cot from? It’s crawling with ants! Where is that fine bed on which I attended to that other woman?”
“No! Not that bed,” shrieked Uma, “My child will die if I lie in that bed!”
The midwife shrugged. She held Uma’s hands and urged her to push hard. The pain was excruciating. Uma begged the dead woman to leave the cot. “I will bring your child alive into this world, I promise you….” she mumbled. “Forget your terror and leave my narrow bed.”
She shut her eyes, clenched her teeth and dug her nails into the midwife’s hands, drawing on all her willpower for the final effort. The baby arrived in the world in a great spurt of blood. “It’s a girl,” the midwife said.
Uma’s face glowed with pride. The pain forgotten, she whispered, “I have won. I have heard my daughter cry.” She opened her eyes but instead of seeing the baby, she saw the dead woman, her eyes still terrified. Uma realised her mistake. “Not my daughter, your daughter,” she said in the tone of a prayer, “Just look at her. How healthy she is. Stop worrying about her. Wipe the terror from your eyes. Bless the child and go.”
The woman laughed in a manner that made Uma’s blood freeze. A shiver shot through her and she broke into tremors.
The midwife turned to collect her fee and go, but warned: “Call a doctor. She is losing a lot of blood and the fever is rising.”
Maji panicked again, “Never mind the lady doctor, Manish. Just go and get any doctor. We can’t let her die!”
Once again Manish rushed out into the night, cursing the rain.
“Nothing has changed,” the dead woman said. “My will power was no less than yours. But my baby died before me. This time you will die first and the baby afterwards.”
“Don’t say that,” Uma made an effort to speak through her pain. “She is your baby, born through my womb. She will live. Just take one look at her.”
Manish returned with a young doctor. He examined her and said, “It is too late. The kidneys have collapsed. This was a hospital case.”
“The baby?” Uma asked anxiously.
The dead woman bent over the baby. Her eyes lost their wide and vacant look, and they welled up with tears. When she looked at Uma, her eyes were brimming with the pain of love, not terror. Uma felt her fears ebbing. She opened her arms and the woman came into her embrace.
Putting her head on the woman’s breast, Uma said, “I don’t want to die, I want to live.”
“I wanted to live too. I tried very hard.”
“Yes, I know your story. I have heard it all too often.”
“Forget that, now it is your story. This story ends only to begin all over again. Just look at her.” She turned Uma’s face towards the baby.
“Yes, the woman born just now lives,” Uma said, sinking fast. She turned towards the baby for a last look. Her eyes remained wide open.
“Her life went out of her eyes too,” Maji said, trembling.
The room fell silent. No one dared move. Just then the baby started crying. Maji moved forward towards the child and summoned up the courage to reach out and shut Uma’s eyes.
Maji picked up the baby girl from amidst the ants and rushed to the other room to place her on the tiny bed that had been made with such great care.
Translated from Hindi by Nirupama Dutt.
MRIDULA GARG. Hindi fiction writer. She is a freelance writer and was Member, Board of Directors, Centre for Science & Environment, 1990-95 . She has received many distinguished awards which include Maharaja Vir Singh Puraskar, from M.P.Sahitya Parishad, Delhi Hindi Academy Sahityakar Samman, and the Seth Govind Das Puraskar. Her published works are Uske Hisse Ki Dhoop, Vanshaj, Anitya, Main Aur Main, Kath Gulab, (all novels); Duniya ka Kayda, Tukra Tukra Admi, Glacier se Shahar ke Naam Samagam (all short stories); Ek aur Ajnabi (play). Has translated a few novels and stories into English.
NIRUPAMA DUTT : Popular writer and translator. She is a frequent contributor to newspapers and journals. Actively involved in promoting translations.