Manohar sat cross legged on the charpoy listening carefully. Squatting around him were some of his male relatives from this village Chandragaon. They were all making small talk to fill in time, but Manohar had other things on his mind and had shut the village out as he thought through his situation. Blaring through the speaker system set up to serve needs of the village was the latest Bollywood Hindi movie hit. Somewhere in the further reaches of the village a single voice sang along with the music at full volume imitating the nuances of the music. None of it made any impression on his hearing.
Inside the mud hut directly across from this small group of men, women relatives attended to Ranjana Bai who’d been in labour for six hours now. The senior village midwife had tried all her usual remedies and incantations to bring labour to a conclusion but nothing seemed to work. She looked at the other women squatting around the mat and shrugged her shoulders pointing at the silver image of the goddess in an inner recess of the wall. The women moved their heads from side to side in understanding. It was up to the gods now.
One of the women rose slowly and stretched. They’d been sitting without food or water for several hours now and the heat of summer made them all lethargic. She paused at the door and hissed for her husband who approached and listened to what she had to say. He returned to Manohar and bumped the charpoy to get attention. There was a brief exchange and Manohar got up slowly and stretched. He walked over to the village shrine where the cobra god resided swaying from side to side waiting for milk offerings villagers bought him each evening. Manohar took some of the rice from a pouch around his belt and placed it on the shrine altar. He mumbled unknown words which had been instructed by the village priest while the cobra watched. Then he returned to his position on the charpoy to wait out delivery. Would it be a son? He nodded at the thought. But then it could be a girl? That would be a terrible liability!
Manohar and Ranjana Bai were quite young. He was nineteen and his wife fourteen. Shadi had been arranged by relatives on the death of Manohar’s parents in a bus accident. It was not an elaborate affair as they were all dirt poor in this village. They had a mud hut to start life with, something to be thankful for in a world where the poorest of the poor slept in makeshift shelters in fields when monsoon arrived otherwise under open skies. That’s all he could be thankful for as his father had been a cruel man.
He was paid daily by the landholder who owned this village and its people, mostly during harvest time. Their meagre payments had to serve current needs, and put away what they could for the offseason when no one could work and earn. They had to hitch a ride to the big city and look for coolie work in the off season. Life was so harsh men drank themselves to death at an early age, and women burned out from overwork or in childbirth. Each grain of rice was precious, he begrudged the few grains he’d scattered at the shrine. However, gods needed to be appeased and hopefully goaded into good fortune.
It was just when the village midwife had stood indicating there was no more hope they were all surprised by the appearance of a white clad person with a doctor’s bag. Madhu was a para-medical employee for the Mission Clinic fifteen kilometres away. It was only later they discovered one of Ranjana Bai’s relatives had trekked that distance and begged someone to come and help. The group of men stood and murmured angrily. They had their own medicine and did not welcome anyone from the Mission. The Mission had its God, but they had many gods. They severely reprimanded the one who’d returned with the “doctor.”
When foreigners who started the clinic left, they trained locals to the best of their ability and promised to finance the little clinic’s supplies which they’d done faithfully over the years. Government trained doctors had proved their abilities both in their nation and in various foreign countries they migrated to, but few government doctors were interested in serving in these remote areas. If villagers wanted treatment they’d have to travel long distances to hospitals in the large villages and cities by bullock cart, truck or bus. For people in this remote area it was that long journey, village medicine men or women, or the Mission Clinic. Considering their limited training Mission paramedics had success with most village needs and were careful to recommend difficult cases to government hospitals. They understood Ranjana Bai’s case was a difficult one and nearly decided not to come, but the urgent pleas of her relative finally resulted in this visit.
The “doctor” ordered all but the midwife out of the hut and performed a quick examination. It was touchy, but she could probably handle it successfully. The village midwife watched critically as this Mission woman worked skilfully. Then to the delight of both it was all over. An exhausted child entered the world and after a few anxious moments rallied and cried quietly.
But what the noise of the relatives, and the Hindi song played at full volume had not achieved this quiet cry did. Manohar leaped from the charpoy to the surprise of his alarmed relatives and headed for the door of the hut. The village midwife appeared at the doorway with a neatly wrapped bundle and beckoned to the father. He gazed at the child in wonder. It was a boy! There were still traces of blood which had not been wiped away in the haste to present to the father and Manohar looked at the midwife inquiringly? The midwife wagged her head and smiled encouragingly. The child had no defects apart from an exhausting fight to live those long hours. Manohar noted the black thread had been tied to ward off the evil eye and nodded appreciatively. He jerked his head toward the hut where Ranjana Bai was slowly recovering under watchful eye of the Mission “doctor.” The midwife wagged her head again. Mother and baby would survive.
Manohar turned back to join his relatives. His anger at his wife’s relative approaching Mission Clinic for help evaporated and the men gathered around a urn where one of them had prepared a potent arak to be consumed by way of celebration. It was time to celebrate. Tomorrow he’d approach the village priest with his relatives to prepare a horoscope and choose a name for the young child.
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