Based on a real life incident, Madhumita weaves a story of fatalism and pathos. Poverty is a curse. Hunger dooms people. Poor mothers are forced to sell babies to feed other children. Obfuscation deepens. The cycle of despair continues. Here’s the concluding piece of Different Truths’ eight-day special feature (April 30 to May 7) on bonded labour and human rights violation.
Hungry and thirsty, the three little bodies sat, shrunk and huddled, whimpering, on the narrow strip of a verandah of their shanty by a filthy, stinking canal. She lay inside, on a thin tattered mattress they called their bed, too large and too weak to move. Her big eyes looked on helplessly, from their sunken deep hollows with dark circles so black that they looked like stale smudged kohl. She was in labour, or almost.
And waited for her husband to return with the local midwife. She spoke to her children with her eyes, without uttering a word. The eldest understood. And pacified the younger ones. This baby was special. Male or female, it was the incarnation of Goddess Laxmi. She, (the mother would like to think of the baby as a female), would not be another mouth to feed, but would feed them. At least for a while. She was to be given away. And not for free. They would be paid a handsome amount, as reward, as thanksgiving, as the lady in a crisp white sari with a green border had promised them. She didn’t know where the new baby would go. She couldn’t care. For she cared only too much for her three children. They needed food and clothing. And education, of course. And perhaps, a better home. Away from the smelly dirty bustee (ghetto, slum). And the new baby would bring in some money. She hugged her swollen belly and thanked the unborn baby.
That was long ago.
She sat on the veranda, watching her children play, on the street. Thinking. Remembering. She remembered that she had cared, after all. Every time she prepared food for her children, bought cream biscuits as a rare special treat for them, she would remember her. Yes, she was Laxmi, who was born to her that evening. A daughter, who was with her for a month. She could not forget the bond that was formed, and then grew, in that one month as she fed her, her soft gums spreading a joy through her nipples to her entire body, her entire being. A mother of three, she felt like a new mother, and loved this youngest the most, perhaps because she knew she had to give her away. She had wept for seven days since she was gone. Stayed in bed, hugging her three children tight till they squirmed, unable to breathe. And then, one day, she stopped missing her Laxmi. She carried on with her life, going to the community tap to get water, lighting up the kerosene stove to prepare food for the family, singing the children to sleep, and giving in, dutifully, to her husband’s sexual needs.
Six months later, she was expecting again.
She lay on her bed, on her back, her face turned towards the window. The full moon smiled at her. He lay beside her, his hands travelling along her body, stroking, caressing her. The hands were no longer rough, the movements no longer jerky and hurried. He loved her now. In a new way. She was his most prized possession. A goose that laid gold eggs. He stroked her feet and his hands climbed upwards, her petticoat sliding up with the movement of his palms. He caressed her belly and went on up, to her breasts and clutching gently her shoulders he entered his world of hidden treasures, world of hope lying deep within. For another time.
She did not mind. She did not feel joy, nor pain. He would not come near him once she was certain that the boon was received. She would not let him. Her insignificant life now bore a meaning. She was the fertile land. Lashed against by the river, time and again, a few times a year, flooded with the rushing waters, till the land bore crops. Crops for sale. To feed a yearning heart that belonged to someone, somewhere. To feed her hungry children. It was all a matter of gain. For all. She now knew to control and harness the river.
Author’s Note: This story is based on a real life incident, reported very casually by my maid about a year ago. Her neighbour had sold her baby girl for Rs. 1000. Abject poverty and the fact that the mother already had two daughters led her to take such a step. Seeing me visibly shocked, she said that such practice, though not very common, was not totally unheard of, in their neighbourhood. She even spoke of a couple who sold three newborn babies in three years. No. She would never dream of doing such a thing, she said. I was partially relieved.