The bleeding heart — it scares us all. That cry for help could have been my own! The very thought sends a chill up the spine. Perhaps, the pain of these tender, unguarded moments binds us all.
Ashok was well cognisant of the muffled groans of his wife, Viveka, but these piercing cries were new. She was tensed up, feeling ignored and taken for granted. Ashok’s conduct on the birth of both their children was governed by the whims of his mother. How could he willingly accept his mother’s dictates? His continuous presence in the hospital at the time of the delivery was simply out of the question. ‘What has a man got to do on such an occasion?’ queried his mother. If only he had been brave or caring enough to stand up to his mother! All that her husband could contribute to her anxious and lonely moments was to deliver the tiffin at regular intervals. The desire, the will to share, the oneness of it all, was missing. The agonies and ecstasies of motherhood were Viveka’s alone.
Viveka resented Ashok’s sublime indifference. He could spare only a cursory glance at the newborn, then turned his back on them and was gone. But Viveka refused to give up. She saw yet another light! The magazines those days were full of the new found equation between husband and wife. The traditional taboos were giving way to an open, shared living. She was delighted to point out how the husbands, not only in foreign lands but also in India now had awakened to the innate necessity of providing psychological and emotional support during various stages of motherhood. A little look, a tender touch, a smile, an encouragement here and there; was that too much to ask? ‘Oh! Ashok, I could have smiled away the pains, the lingering doubts!’
Only last week Viveka had read an article that detailed the account of an experiment on artificial insemination, in which fathers-to-be, carried the weight of a child in the womb tied to their backs so that they could understand and appreciate what the women felt during the nine months of their pregnancy — the weight according to the child’s growth. Ashok’s response was typical — sublime indifference. To him, the cricket match on television held more attraction. Amma — the mother-in-law, however, reacted loud and clear. In a stinging voice, she made known to one and all, her poor opinion of the new generation of daughters-in-law the world over. From her high pedestal, she not only looked down upon their unashamed lack of decency, but also questioned their very value system.
‘In our days, we were blissfully unaware of the pregnancy for the first three months, and when the reality dawned upon us, we went to great lengths to hide the fact from prying eyes. From conception to the actual delivery, it was all a very hush-hush affair. And now this new breed takes pride in announcing the pregnancy during the very first week itself! I know what they are up to! They want to browbeat their husbands into tamely catering to their slightest whims. The cunning, conniving lot! How they show off their swollen bellies! Chengiz Khan could not have been prouder of his conquests!’
This time Ashok accompanied Viveka to the hospital and as usual, he was uncomfortable. Suddenly, a cry from the labour room startled one and all. Ashok had no fears on Viveka’s account, ‘The abortion is a simple affair’, the doctor had assured him, ‘once the lower half of the body is anaesthetised, one becomes immune to pain.’ These frequent cries still disturbed him. Most of the men around him looked scared. The villager sitting next to him, happily puffing away at a bidi observed, ‘These women are a strong breed, don’t you worry, Lord Rama will take care of everything.’
Viveka had been furious. A team of doctors had visited their locality. The males were to be operated upon, not only free of cost but there was also the added incentive of a hundred rupees cash to every volunteer. ‘How very insulting!’ thought Ashok. ‘What downright rubbish you talk,’ Amma had intervened ,‘they say a man is no more a man after the operation.’ He himself wanted to stay back. It was all so very humiliating.
Only if Ashok had gone! Not only would Viveka have been spared all this torture, this total embarrassment, they would even have got a hundred rupees in the bargain. He could have bought a lot of fruits. What an irony, now they have to spend money on Viveka’s abortion. But even the men were having a good laugh at the cost of those who had consented to the operation. The glint in their eyes boasted of their own superiority. They were surely a class apart.
Last night there was a turmoil. Both of them were restless, impatient, and quick to blame each other. Sleepy as he was, Ashok wanted to get away from visiting the clinic. He was tempted to bring in his mother. The knowledge that his mother would pounce upon the first opportunity to have a go at him, refrained him from doing so.
Viveka had broached this subject hesitantly, ‘Shall I go through with the abortion?’ ‘Do whatever you wish,’ snapped Ashok.
And he turned away from her. His indifference egged her on, ‘As if it is always as I wish. Whenever you are in the mood, do I dare say no?’
‘You don’t have any sense of shame or decency!’ Viveka was cut to the quick. There was no stopping her now, ‘You are pretty hesitant to discuss it with your wife in the privacy of the bedroom – but what will you do when you have to go through all the details with the nurses and doctors? Will you not be ashamed then? Have you paused to think of my torment when they scrape me inside out?’ She sobbed. Ashok was unable to express his sympathy. Finding himself unable to make up his own mind, he resorted to accusations, ‘Why do you put all the blame on me?’
‘Who else shall I blame then?’ Viveka was really angry now.
‘You too could have taken some precautions,’ he murmured, defeated.
‘Oh! Oh! Now I must be prepared day and night, not knowing when your lordship may be in the mood. Why can’t you come prepared?’
‘You are getting rude now. You sure can put your tongue to good use.’
‘How about the way you use me and my body?’
‘Hush! Amma might be listening.’Ashok was sure the very mention of his mother would do the trick but Viveka’s convictions were goading her on, ‘Your mother knows. She does not want me to go ahead with the abortion.’
‘That settles the issue then’
‘And who is going to feed an extra mouth — you or your mother?’
‘Then, do what you want to, it is your body.’ Ashok was exhausted. He wanted to sleep. Viveka was not pacified, “Even when I am not in the mood, you have your way, whose body is it then?” They were back to square one.
‘Does the husband have no right?’ The words were barely audible.
‘Rights and duties go hand in hand, in pleasure and in pain,’ cried out Viveka.
Ashok had no answer to her logic. He tried to find an escape route, ‘Let us have some sleep now. We will discuss it tomorrow.’ Suddenly he remembered something, ‘Your sister called on you yesterday?’
‘Oh! Yes, she did not want me to go ahead with the abortion. She wants to adopt the child.’ Viveka was on slippery ground now. Her sister did not have any issue. But Ashok and Amma would rather have her abort the child than let her sister adopt. To them, the very thought was repulsive. There was venom in his voice now, ‘So the whole world knows of your pregnancy.’
‘Not because of me. It’s your mother who has been blabbering. She ran into my sister at the temple last evening.’
‘Who gave your sister the right to interfere in our affairs?’ Ashok wanted to have the upper hand before he went to sleep.
‘She has the same right as your mother. In any case, you and I have to make the decision, not your mother or my sister,’ she retorted.
Ashok was taunting her again, ‘The Vedas say that the wife shares only the rewards of the good deeds of her husband and for his bad karmas, he alone is answerable.”
Viveka was not to be outdone, ‘It is the other way round. During times of distress and pain, it is the wives who suffer alone.’
‘Why are we getting entangled in silly nothings again?’ Ashok tried to philosophise, ‘If you consider abortion a sin, who is forcing you? Go ahead and have the child. This will give me also a chance to hold my head high before Amma.
‘Is that all you are bothered about? Holding your head high before Amma?’ She was flabbergasted.
‘Oh! Viveka, do have some sense of decency! Keep your voice down, I don’t want any one to hear a word of it.’
‘Will your sense of decency bring the child up?’
Ashok took refuge under his mother’s words, ‘God feeds every mouth.’
‘You said the same thing at Tina’s birth. I am yet to see an extra penny coming into the house.’
‘You do know how to go on and on.’
‘Could you answer me with a firm “yes” or “no”?’
Viveka’s pregnancy was running into the eighth week now. It was time to decide one way or the other. The intellectual agony, the physical pain, the moral dilemma — she was prepared to ignore it all. But she will not expose her children to any more difficult times. She did not have the heart to say ‘no’ every time her children come up to her with their little demands. It was difficult to meet their basic needs, let aside indulging them. No, no, with shortages all around, the very thought of another child in the house was frightening.
‘I will find a way to convince my mother’ — anything to get a few hours sleep, he thought. Viveka was still in turmoil — the humiliation of it all before the doctors and the nurses! She felt a tinge of jealousy. How could he sleep? He is prepared to persuade even his mother now. After all, it was her body that was to be violated. When it was a matter of a simple operation for Ashok, they would not even think of it. The irony of it all was not lost on Viveka. She kept on turning and twisting long into the early hours of the morning, cursing the society, cursing herself, cursing Ashok. Her silent tears numbed Ashok into stillness. He was too scared to move.
Ashok was trying to wriggle out of the situation, ‘I will fetch the children from the school; you go to the hospital with Amma.’ The offer failed to impress Viveka. He was on to his designs again. He wanted to watch the one-day international cricket between England and India. ‘So you want to take a day off to watch cricket on the television, but you are ashamed to accompany me to the hospital. Moreover, your mother’s knees are hurting. If something critical happens to me, she will not be able to run around.’ Ashok knew he could not win the argument. He mumbled his willingness to accompany her. Lost in their own conflicts, unable to extend a reconciliatory hand, afraid of the morning ahead, they tortured themselves into an exhausted unawareness.
A stretcher was being pulled out. People gaped at the white face peeping out of a white sheet, looking quite bewildered, slowly realising that she was still alive. A cloud of doubt passed over the faces of all present in the hall. Normalcy returned soon. Ashok was again reminded of his mother’s furious mumble this morning, ‘It is murder, pure and simple. You are taking the act of God in your hands. Don’t you get carried away by what your wife says.’ His mother’s taunts had followed him to the hospital. He felt the chill of an ill wind. His own doubts and fears were creeping up once more. Whenever Viveka was unwell or away from him, Ashok would pledge to look after her, to love her but the moment she recovered, his resolutions would fade away. The desire to be one with her, gave way to aloofness. The intensity of his tensions weakened his will-power, shook his convictions. He realised how his mother had coaxed him into a meaningless marriage, leading him to foolishly believe that once he got married to an educated, working, presentable young girl, love would soon follow. And what had it turned out to be? At best an adjustment, living a lie, reconciling to an unacceptable situation! He could not honestly blame Viveka either. Love comes naturally — the realisation dawned on him too late. There was no going back now. They had to resolve their differences, even if it were only for the sake of the children. Who knows, this could even ignite a spark in their own lives. If only he knew how to translate his enthusiasm into practice!
Ashok’s thoughts were rudely interrupted. A husband’s pleas of discretion were falling on deaf ears. The expression on the husband’s face said it all. Bewildered by his own helplessness, shamed by his wife’s accusations, finding a fleeting touch of sympathy in strange male eyes around him, he was stunned into silence. A strange current of hatred and animosity had engulfed all the males in the hall. Psychologically, the females were ganging up against them. It was obvious the men were solely to blame for their predicament. By now, ‘guilt’ was written all over their faces.
At this very moment, a smartly dressed lady entered the waiting hall. Her husband meekly followed her. Loaded with her handbag and other accessories, he tried to open the door for her. Pushing her husband’s extended hand aside, she announced, ‘All men are bastards!’ The husband hastily cringed away. Her outburst readily stirred fading memories. Ashok thought of Mrs.. Menon who was on medical leave for the last six months. This had set some jealous tongues wagging — ‘She is just enjoying life, what do they need three months maternity leave for? This is bound to happen if you take female staff on board,’ such were the usual remarks of their colleagues. Their own sense of decorum kept the female colleagues quiet, though some of them would have preferred Mrs. Menon to come over to the office to prove her innocence. This would save them from ridicule. But there was a sneaking doubt in some minds.
‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Viveka too could get six weeks’ leave?’ thought Ashok. She could visit her sister in Meerut. Once in a while, he would also visit her and the children. The very thought was so soothing! Viveka worked for a private firm. She could never manage such long leave. Whatever paid holiday she could get would be more than welcome. Even a short respite away from the children would be a bonus for him. Though Amma would not take kindly to the children’s absence, he would certainly relish her fussing over him. The man sitting next to him tried to initiate a conversation. Ashok couldn’t be bothered.
It was Viveka’s turn. Ashok was touched by the look of resignation on her face. He wanted to reach out, touch her — to reassure her that it was not a final good-bye. His inhibitions came in the way and he kept glued to his seat. He had just missed another opportunity.
This abortion could turn out to be a blessing yet, for Viveka was going ahead with the other operation too. Then, there would be nothing to hold them back, no more cumbersome precautions to bother about. They will soon be able to build a rapport. Viveka’s irritability would give way to warmth, perhaps. He would also spend more time with the children. For a start, he would help them with their homework. Carried away by his own compassion, he could readily appreciate Viveka’s point of view. A hard day’s work, a couple of hours in the kitchen and his mother’s taunts to cope with, surely she could not be blamed for her ill temper. Dreams, sweet dreams!
India had defeated England by eight wickets. There was uproar in the hall. Men surrounded the transistor radio sets. In their enthusiasm, they had forgotten where they were, flushed in their reflected glory. The female pride was wounded. Hurt egos were quick to act for a common cause. They exchanged glances, egging each other on. Some of them responded readily, bouncing and quickly weaning their husbands away from the clusters. Having realised the folly of their action, some went back to their wives on their own. The more stubborn ones stood their ground, postponing their dressing down. They did not want to be scolded publicly. A few more hesitantly went back to their seats, feeling the pressure of their wives’ elbows, reminding them they were not there for the cricket match. The more independent among them eagerly awaited the announcement of the ‘man of the match’. Their outrageous conduct shamed their wives into shrinking within themselves, shying away from the lucky ones.
The smartly dressed lady was now brought out on a stretcher. Though her eyes were closed, one could readily read accusations written all over her face. Her scared husband was timidly clinging to her side.
‘Look at Mrs.. Karson! She was the last to come in and to be rushed like that, she must be a VIP.’
‘Maybe there was an emergency.’
‘Well, she did not look like it.’
The unusual sight in one corner of the hall caught everyone’s attention. A long-bearded man started to pray loudly, vigorously stirring the beads in his hand. The villager, who sat next to Ashok, ran to him, ‘How come you are here?’ He bluntly asked the Panditji, ‘Is your wife also…’ Before he could finish the sentence, he was admonished by the holy man, ‘I am vowed to celibacy. I am here to pray for Mrs.. Karson. By God’s grace, she seems okay, I must leave now.’ He got up chanting his prayers, blessing one and all. Some were obviously impressed. To a few it was all an act, a well-rehearsed way of making money. Others did not want to get involved. There was no shortage of men and women who wanted to know whether they were going to be blessed with a son or a daughter.
Every time the nurse led someone else into the operation theatre, Viveka was disappointed and anxious for her turn and now that it was her turn, she felt uncertain. Every woman, who was led into the labour room, had the same look of horror and helplessness — like a goat being led to the slaughterhouse. The unasked for expressions of sympathy and good luck from the people in the waiting room compounded the misery.
The cries from the delivery rooms added to the stress. But then, the labour cries are different, as there is something to look forward to. The sense of achievement, the pride of creation makes it all worthwhile. But the pain of abortion along with the conflict in mind — whether it is a sin or not — is more psychological than physical. The pangs of conscience gnaw at your very soul. The morality of it all is so confusing! The doctors and the nurses are destroying the unborn children day in and day out. Don’t they suffer from any guilt complex? But they look so cool! For them, it is only a job, like the hangman’s. If they knew it was a sin, would they do it? Control yourself, Viveka chided herself. When she looked at the blood-stained surgical coats all around her, she wanted to be done with it — the earlier, the better.
‘Are you ready, dear ?’ Will there ever be an honest answer to it? Viveka managed a nod. She took a few hesitant steps. The nurse helped her on to the table. She had an urge to run home…anywhere…the futility of an escape route!
The doctors were ready. The nurse had already reminded her that she would not be able to bear any children after the operation. The clink of the surgical instruments told its own story. What chance did a tiny blur have against that? She was embarrassed of the male nurses in a corner — what if she ran into one of them in the market? Her legs were being strapped onto two metal stands. ‘Now, you can’t even run’, she told herself. They put a mask on her face. She was asked to take deep breaths. She could not protest anymore. The moment of decision was over.
Viveka wanted to be completely unconscious, unaware of this insulting situation. She could feel a couple of hands creeping over her body. ‘Relax!’ Someone stroked her stomach. Amidst all this, could one relax? How absurd! Her body was numb waist down but all those touches, that probing she could feel deep inside her. She could hear little pieces drop into the pot below. The tiny life gave them hard time. They went on and on. How could a tiny thing win against such odds?
‘Oh Lord, let me die!’ Viveka prayed passionately. All her inhibitions were gone. She was no more shy of the doctors, the nurses or the assistants. They were definitely different from the people walking on the roads. The ones on the stretchers lose their identity. Her feet were unstrapped and mask removed. There was nothing more to say. Nothing went wrong. She was alive.
‘Very good, you are very brave.’ Even their little compliments could not make her feel good.
She wanted to go into a deep sleep but there was so much noise. ‘Why don’t they shut up?’ she wondered, blissfully unaware of the presence outside of her husband or of the children at home. Away from the pain of realities of life, she fell into a deep slumber. Death dared not scare her anymore. She could vividly see the doctors and the nurses bent over a body, like vultures tearing away at the flesh, cutting a living creature to pieces, their hands and clothes stained with blood, and a few tiny pieces lying in the pot below. Oh dear, this was her own body, helplessly lying on the stretcher, without any signs of life. Perhaps she was dead but then how could she hear those little noises! If she were dead, wouldn’t she be at total peace?
Within a few hours, colour returned to her cheeks. She was alive to the realities of life, the bickering, the arguments and the chaos! Besides all this, there was this dilemma – was she right or was she a murderer? This for sure was going to tear her life apart.
Translated from Hindi by Shelley Smith
Born, brought up and educated in Delhi, Divya Mathur worked as Medical Secretary for nearly 15 years at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, where she committed herself to help the blind. She is the Executive Director of a charity in London, which helps the blind to be self-reliant. A postgraduate in English, she has diplomas in Journalism from Delhi and Glasgow. She has devised shorthand for Ophthalmology. She has recently been honoured with the Arts Achiever of the Year Award-2003 by Decibel (sponsored by the Arts Council of England) for outstanding contribution and innovation in the field of Arts. A nominated Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Divya aims at addressing the cultural aspirations of the Indian community and promoting Indo-British dialogue at the level of thoughts and shared experience. In 1992, she joined hands with the team chosen by Minister (Culture) and Director, Shri Gopal Gandhi, to establish The Nehru Centre in London, where she continues to enjoy working as Senior Programme Officer. She is the editor of Odyssey : Stories by Indian Women Settled Abroad, and Aasha (Hope/Trust/Faith) – stories of distinguished women writers. Her other publications include four poetry collections – Rait Ka Likha (Sandscript), Antehsalila (A river that flows in my heart), Khyaal Tera (Perceptions) , 11 September : Dreams Debris, and a story collection Akrosh (which won her the Padmanand Sahitya Samman. Her stories and poems in Hindi and English have been included in many anthologies including The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry, Northern Durbar, The North Eastern Durbar, Poems of Cultural Diversity, Dream Catcher, Dhara se gagan tak, Door bagh mein sondhi mitti etc. An Associate of the International PEN Foundation, Founder Member of The Asha Foundation, ex-Chairperson of Katha-UK, Vice President of Hindi Samiti-UK, Advisor to the Charnwood Arts (Loughborough) and Co-Chair in the Organising Committee for the World Hindi Conference, an executive of the Hindi Paramarsh Mandal, Divya has been convenor/chair of several academic sessions.
The story translated here highlights a moral dilemma, that of the psychological effect of abortion. Viveka is a middle class working woman who is forced to take a crucial decision, namely, to abort her child. What motivates her to this is the lack of money. She is tired of the shortage of money, which prevents her from yielding to the small requests of her children. The thought of another child in the house is quite scary to her. Divya Mathur poignantly characterises the indifference of Viveka’s husband towards her pregnancy – he typifies the male whose addiction to cricket overrules all other human emotions and passions. Thus with no one to share her feelings with, like many other women, pregnancy and childbirth becomes a lonely and painful experience for Viveka. The story also raises significant questions regarding the way a man uses a woman’s body. Viveka is indeed a very modern woman, a total contrast to the orthodox mother-in-law who regards pregnancy as something to be hidden away from public eye, a very hush-hush affair. Within the short framework of the story, Divya Mathur invites the reader to reflect on socially relevant issues like the hostile mother-in-law, the weak husband who is aware of the circumstances but is too cowardly to effect any change, and most important of all, the question of abortion.
SHELLEY SMITH. Is Account Manager, Abraxas plc. A cross-cultural consultant, kathak dancer and choreographer. Has translated stories from Hindi and other Indian regional languages into English.