THE bus was packed to the gills. She had just about managed to jump on board, clutching the metal rails near the sliding doors for support, when it started moving again. Looping the straps of her handbag around her neck, she stared at the sea of faces with dismay. There wasn’t room to stand comfortably, leave alone place to sit. Squeezing herself between an obese woman in a shiny rolex silk saree and an officious-looking man clutching a briefcase to his chest, she leaned against the metal divider that separated the driver’s compartment from the rest of the bus. A quick glance at her wristwatch made her curse. It was almost nine. She should have reached the clinic by now. With the bus moving at a snail’s pace through rush hour traffic, she had no hope of reaching before ten. Not that the delay would get her into trouble. The Doctor wasn’t in before eleven on most days. Still, she needed to reach early so that she could spend a couple of hours tidying the place before the patients started queuing up.
It was Chintan’s fault. He had come home dead drunk last night keeping her up till the crack of dawn with his loud cursing and raucous laughter. He wasn’t a bad fellow really, her Chintan. Honest, hardworking. If it wasn’t for his drinking habit, their lives might have been different. Perhaps she wouldn’t have had to rush to work every morning at the Doctor’s clinic. He might have had a well-paying office job with benefits instead of contractual labour at the beedi factory on the outskirts of town.
The bus jerked to a halt bringing her thoughts to a standstill. She grabbed the metal handle swinging from the ceiling just in time to avoid being flung on top of the line of seated passengers facing her. The conductor, a tired looking young man who was a regular on this route, threw her a look over the heads of the other passengers. That was her cue. She squeezed out from between the woman and the man placed like bookends on either side and elbowed her way towards the entrance. Pressing the exact change into his extended palm, she climbed out of the bus. A thick blanket of heat enveloped her as soon as she was outside and she stood for a moment, slightly disoriented, before taking cover under the shade of the bus stand.
The clinic was a ten-minute walk from where she stood, down a busy street lined with stores selling clothes and kitchenware. The area was teeming with office-goers and shoppers. Bundling her flimsy cotton dupatta into a makeshift turban, she covered her head with it and walked quickly till she had reached a white-washed building at the end of the lane. The building housed the clinic along with a multitude of real estate and computer software firms. The security guard at the entrance saluted her as she walked past him towards the elevator.
When the elevator reached the third floor, she dumped her handbag on the ground next to the electric meter box and bent down to unlock the shutters. Once that was done, she hauled up the metal grill with all the strength she could muster. Pushing the glass doors open, she entered the small foyer of the clinic and flipped on the switches. The next half hour was spent in dusting and mopping the reception area and the Doctor’s chamber. After a satisfactory inspection of the sanitizer bottles and tissue boxes on the premises, she finally collapsed at her desk and massaged her aching arms. It was a lot of work for one person. If the Doctor hired a peon to help her with the heavy metal shutters, it would make her life a lot easier. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t afford it. He had enough money to hire a peon and a cleaning woman. But the man would get all tight-lipped and stuffy each time she brought it up. Over time, she’d stopped asking.
Vishnu, the tea boy, popped his head around the door. “Would you like a hot cup of tea tai?”, he grinned. The teenager went around the building several times during the day carrying an aluminium kettle full of tea for the offices that didn’t have their own pantry. His uncle’s tea stall was out front on the opposite side of the lane facing the building. Although there was an electric kettle and all the paraphernalia required to make tea and coffee at the clinic, she never used it for herself. It was only for the Doctor and his patients. Not that she had any desire for that fancy tea anyway. She preferred the smoky brew that Vishnu served. “Throw in some cardamoms for me. I’m in the mood for something stronger.” Vishnu winked and disappeared.
She pulled out the appointments register from a drawer beneath her desk. There were ten appointments booked for the day. Some of the names were familiar, they were regulars, while a few others were new. The Doctor had a thriving practice in the town and his clinic was frequented by well-heeled women. It was a small town and good doctors were hard to find. Besides, babies were big business.
The clinic had been done up in shades of pink and blue with pictures of babies framing the walls. That the photographs of boys outnumbered that of girls was only natural given the obsession with male children in the town. The picture of the girl, the only one in the collection, was on the wall next to her desk, quite by accident. A lovely little thing wearing a pink dress, a straw hat and the prettiest of smiles. She avoided looking at the picture. Her heart would give a lurch each time her gaze fell on it. It made her conscious that she would never have children of her own. All attempts to produce an offspring over the years had proved futile. Something told her that it was probably Chintan’s drinking that had caused it but there was no way of knowing that for sure. They didn’t earn the kind of money to go to a proper doctor for advice. She worked for one of the best doctors in town yet she couldn’t afford his fees. Her mouth twisted wryly at the thought. It was almost as though the little baby in the photograph was mocking her.
Vishnu deposited the glass of hot tea on the desk with a loud clunk startling her. He grinned sheepishly, displaying a set of stained teeth. “Drink up fast tai. Doctor is on his way up,” he announced conspiratorially. “I saw him downstairs parking his car.”
“He’s early,” she gasped, glugging down the hot tea, nearly scalding her throat in the process. Handing the glass back to Vishnu, she waved him away impatiently. The Doctor hated anyone eating or drinking inside the clinic. Anyone other than him, that is. Even lunch had to be consumed sitting on the stairs outside. Running a comb through her hair, she rearranged herself on her desk with a plastic smile on her lips.
The Doctor and his first patient, Mrs Deshpande, arrived at the same time. She rose from her desk when he burst in, pushing the glass doors open forcefully. Throwing a cursory nod her way, he disappeared into his chamber slamming the door shut behind him. Mrs Deshpande waddled up to her desk slowly and smiled vacuously. Mrs Deshpande was in the latter stages of a particularly difficult pregnancy. She was a pretty young thing in a Swarovski crystal-encrusted brilliant blue saree, heavy gold jewellery on her wrists and ears. “Please have a seat Ma’am,” she pointed towards the waiting area in front of the desk. “The Doctor will call you soon.” The woman walked away leaving a cloud of expensive perfume behind. She closed her eyes and breathed in the fragrance of fresh jasmine flowers.
One by one, women thronged the clinic. Mrs Kulkarni, who had just discovered that she was pregnant and cooed like a pigeon the whole time. Mrs Naik and Mrs Kapse, who were having their second babies, were accompanied by their rowdy little boys and sour faced nannies, the latter barely children themselves. The boys wreaked havoc on the furniture and soft toys scattered around the clinic for aesthetic purposes. The women looked on indulgently while the nannies chatted with each other. The boys were soon on the floor, wrestling one another, their unpleasant faces purple with the effort.
“Aren’t they the sweetest?” Mrs Naik looked at her across the room and smiled. “I’m hoping it’s a boy again this time. Girls are too much trouble. Besides who will look after me when I’m old?” Mrs Kapse giggled. “The doctor will make sure it’s a boy, don’t worry. Have you had your first scan yet?” Mrs Naik shook her head. “I will get that done next week at the Doctor’s home.” Mrs Kapse nodded knowingly. She noticed the two women looking curiously in her direction so she looked down at her appointments register pretending to make notes. She didn’t want them to think she was listening in on their conversation. The din of noisy children was making it hard for her to figure out what they were talking about.
The Doctor sometimes performed ultrasound scans at home. That was what Mrs Naik was referring to. It wasn’t usual practice as there were several hospitals in town that took care of tests and other procedures for pregnant women. She wasn’t even sure whether it was legal or not. They had never discussed it and it was not her business to ask. He had employed her for the clinic and paid just about enough to make ends meet.
When the noisy children had left with their mothers, the clinic had quietened down a little. She glanced at the clock on the wall facing her. It was nearly lunch time. The Doctor usually went home for lunch and she crept out to eat hers on the stairs. With the morning having been a blur, she had raced out of the house in a hurry. Breakfast had been the last thing on her mind. Not that soggy chapatis from last night were something to look forward to. But she was starving. She stared expectantly at the door to the Doctor’s chamber hoping he would emerge and leave her to eat her lunch in peace. There was a patient in there with him. The whiny Mrs Arya with her never-ending list of ailments. It would be a while before Mrs Arya had finished with the Doctor.
The glass doors swung open and a woman walked into the clinic slowly. She wasn’t one of the regulars. The woman was heavily pregnant and finding it difficult to walk. Her face contorted with pain with every step she took. She made her way slowly to the front desk.
“Do you have an appointment?”
The woman shook her head. “I need to see him urgently. Please tell him it is an emergency. Mr Shashi from Mother Hospital asked me to come here,” she whispered. Mother Hospital was one of the fancy private hospitals in town.
“Please wait, there’s another patient with him. He will call you as soon as she leaves.” She escorted the woman towards the sofa. The woman looked as though she might deliver a baby any moment. “Would you like some water?” she offered. The lady shook her head and took a deep breath. “I hope your doctor calls me soon. I don’t think I can wait here for very long.”
She knocked and entered the Doctor’s chamber. He looked up at her and frowned. Mrs Arya stopped in mid-sentence, looking sulky. “I know you don’t like being disturbed when you are with a patient but there’s a woman outside, sir. She doesn’t have an appointment but she says it is an emergency. She looks as though she’s in a lot of pain.” The Doctor grunted and bent down to read his notes. Mrs Arya started talking again. “So you see, this backache refuses to go away. Can you give me some medicines?”
It was another half hour before the doctor finally called the woman inside.
She tore a piece of a chapati from her lunchbox kept inside a drawer and stuffed it in her mouth. She was dizzy with hunger and there was no knowing when she’d get to eat her lunch. She could hear raised voices from inside the chamber but she didn’t dare eavesdrop. If the Doctor saw her hovering near his room, there would be hell to pay.
The door to the chamber opened suddenly and the woman walked out followed by the Doctor. “I don’t want to discuss anything further in here,” he was telling her. “It’s too risky. Please come to my house after seven as discussed. I have all the equipment there. I will do another scan and decide the next steps.” The woman nodded at him and walked out without looking at her. The Doctor came across to her desk and she stiffened. Had he spotted her eating?
“Listen, I need you to come to my house in the evening. I need your help with a procedure I’m doing. You can ride with me in my car after clinic gets over. I will pay the auto fare for your return.”
She stared at him dumbfounded. She had never gone to his house before.
“How long do I have to stay there? I mean, my husband gets home from the factory in the evening. I need to prepare dinner for him.”
“Shouldn’t take more than an hour,” he replied curtly. “Please inform your husband in advance.” With that, he walked out of the clinic.
Grumbling to herself, she pulled out her purse and fished out her mobile phone. She dialled Chintan’s number but he didn’t pick up. After several attempts, she flung her phone into her bag frustrated. There was so much noise at the factory, he mustn’t have heard the phone ringing. Pulling out her tiffin box, she walked out to eat the remainder of her soggy chapati lunch.
The Doctor returned after an hour and got busy with the next lot of patients. When the last patient for the day had left at six in the evening, the Doctor packed up his bag and walked out. “Please lock up,” he instructed on his way out. “I will be waiting in the parking lot.”
It was growing dark when she finally climbed into his silver Mercedes. The crowds in the lane had thinned out and many of the shops were downing the shutters. She noticed Vishnu and his uncle packing up their tea things. Soon, the two of them were driving down the main arterial road that connected the business district to the upscale residential part of the town. She had never been to this area before. There were lesser people on the roads. The broad tree-lined avenues had fancy bungalows on each side, each bungalow with its patch of green. The roads were newer, smoother and an abundance of manicured greenery everywhere she looked.
The Doctor’s house was in a quiet cul-de-sac. There was a narrow cabin in front of the gate and a guard popped his head out when he saw the doctor’s car approaching. The heavy ornamental gates were thrown open and the car rolled into a long driveway flanked by a sprawling garden complete with a gurgling marble fountain at the far end. A two-storeyed magnificent red brick house faced them. It was just like the houses she had seen in the movies. The Doctor turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car. She opened the passenger door and stepped out. A dog barked angrily from somewhere within the house.
“Wait here,” the Doctor told her. He rang the doorbell and disappeared inside the house when the front door opened. A few seconds later, he was out again telling her to follow him to the end of the driveway. She noticed a smaller building separate from the main bungalow. He unlocked the door to the building and walked inside. She followed him down a narrow corridor which opened into a larger room, one half of which was separated by a curtain. An overpowering smell of disinfectant hung in the air. The Doctor reached behind the door into a small metal cubby hole and switched on the power. The space was instantly flooded with bright lights making her squint momentarily. “Sit there,” the Doctor pointed to a plastic chair in one corner and disappeared on the other side of the curtain.
More than half an hour had elapsed before she heard voices on the other side of the room. The air conditioning had made it pleasantly cool and she had nearly dozed off when the loud whispers startled her. Looking around her in bewilderment, she realized there was someone else behind the curtain besides the Doctor. The voice sounded familiar. It was the woman from the clinic and she was sobbing. “You have to help me Doctor. The boy at the hospital said you take care of things like this. I will pay whatever it takes. You needn’t worry about the money. They showed me the ultrasound this morning. My husband is travelling on business and I haven’t told him yet. I cannot have this baby. My in-laws will kill me.” She heard the Doctor telling the woman to stop crying and lie down on the bed. She could hear a rustling sound and the pop of a bottle being opened. “Be still,” the Doctor sounded tense.
She was frozen. She wanted to get up and peer behind the curtains to see what was going on but she didn’t dare. She could smell antiseptic and some more rustling. The woman gasped and then there was silence. After what seemed like hours, the doctor came out from behind the curtains holding a little bundle wrapped in newspaper. He was wearing scrubs. “I need you to dispose of this,” he said. “Not near the house. Walk down the lane and turn left and you will come to an alley. There’s a garbage dump beside it. Just throw the package, turn around and get an auto from the main road. Do not mention this to anyone,” his eyes glinted menacingly. She stared at him. “Take it,” he thrust the bundle at her. “I’ll make sure you get a good bonus with your salary this month. It’s been a year since you’ve been here, isn’t it? You’ve earned it. Consider it your loyalty bonus,” he added.
She took the bundle and walked out of the house into the lane. She was shivering. The bundle felt warm and she held it close as she walked past the grand bungalows on the street. There were sounds of music and laughter coming from within the houses but she was oblivious to all the merrymaking. She hurried towards the alley where the rubbish dump was.
When she was about to turn left at the crossroads just as the Doctor had instructed, she felt a movement from within the bundle. It was so faint that she may have dismissed it as a fluttering in her chest. But then she heard a soft whimper. Standing under a streetlight, she moved aside a bit of the newsprint and saw a tiny scrunched- up face coated with blood and mucus. She would have fainted had it not been for the blinding headlights of an auto passing by. Holding the little package close to her chest, she flailed an arm at the auto like a madwoman. The driver stopped and looked at her curiously. She climbed in quickly before he changed his mind and gave directions to the nearest government hospital. Pulling out her cell phone with one hand, she was about to make a call to the nearest police station when a thought occurred to her. Should she report the crime, get the Doctor arrested and lose her job or should she pretend she’d found the bundle at the garbage dump by accident? Deciding that the latter course of action was a safer bet, she dumped her phone back in her bag and clutched the parcel close as the auto sped towards its destination.
The baby was barely breathing when she reached the hospital. The nurses told her to wait. One of them even got her a cup of tea from the cafeteria. She was shivering, they said. It was trauma, they said. She just laughed. It was probably the air- conditioning at the Doctor’s residence. She didn’t tell them that though. The baby needed to be placed under observation in intensive care, the nurses said before taking it away from her.
When Chintan reached the hospital later that night, he saw her sitting by herself at the reception next to the paediatric intensive care unit. He sat beside her and gave her a hug. She looked at him and smiled.
“She’s doing fine. She has a lung infection but they say she will survive. She’s a tough one.”
“Who is?” He wondered whether she had gone mad. Her eyes had a sparkle he had never seen before.
“Our little girl.”
Chintan stared at her as though she had gone mad. He wondered whether he had drunk too much alcohol.
“What are you talking about? Are you all right? We don’t have a little girl.”
“We have one now,” she shrugged off his arms and looked away towards the entrance to the intensive care unit. “Our little Amoli.”
*** the end ***
India has one of the highest female foeticide incidents in the world. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has admitted that illegal abortions still outnumber legal abortions and thousands of women die every year due to complications resulting from unsafe abortions. According to a report by the United Nations, India accounts for 45.8 million of the world’s 142.6 million “missing females” over the past 50 years. Missing females are women missing from the population at given dates due to the cumulative effect of postnatal and prenatal sex selection in the past.
Beedi: A thin cigarette or mini-cigar filled with tobacco flake wrapped in a leaf tied with a string or adhesive at one end.
Tai: Elder Sister
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