New Life in Kolkata

by Gwen Bitti

Creator of a Kolkata bustee labour ward; fashioned by a dirt-streaked calico screen, Lakshmi, sweeper, awaits the arrival of her first grandchild. She is dressed in a red sari with gold weaved thread, the colours symbolise activity and prosperity, and honour her namesake, a goddess, Lakshmi.

The midday heat reminiscent of a blazing Australian summer, with flies, and deep blue skies. And the dream of a southerly bluster to break the heat and purge the reek from a nearby garbage mound, where stray tabby-cats pick out fish skeletons and pariah dogs scavenge for food. A memory of dingos in the Australian outback tracking carcasses on which to feed, and the scent of fresh lemon from crushed eucalyptus leaves.

Lakshmi’s oval eyes, accentuated with kohl, extend towards her temples. In crinkled hands, she cradles an earthenware cup with chai, its full fruity cardamom flavour filling the air. Nearby, water boils in an aluminium pot, the escaping steam raises and lowers its lid, din-din, din-din. At the labour ward’s entrance, on an improvised altar, Lakshmi displays incense, sweet-smelling jasmine in an embossed brass vase, and pictures of deities—Brahma, the creator, Lakshmi the goddess of material fulfilment and contentment, Shashthi the goddess of birth and death. The finishing touches include two silver miniature containers, with honey and ghee.

Crushed gum leaves

The moans emanating from the labour ward fuse in the still air. In mantra, joyfully Lakshmi sings, ‘Today I’ll be a grandmother, a grandmother, a grandmother,’ and she extends an invitation to the bustee women to join her in wait, outside the already cramped area of the labour ward. ‘Today, my daughter will make me proud.’ Lakshmi’s infectious smile washes over the crowd. At  intervals, she performs a dance recital and her ankle bells ring out, ting-ting-ting.

Untying her jet-black braid, Lakshmi fans out her hair, in a ritual believed to bless, and open a body-knot for the impending birth. With no doors or windows to open, to continue her ceremony, she vigorously flaps the labour ward’s calico screen. From an old hessian bag, she pulls crumpled towels and muslin wraps, and lays them under the altar.

Through a slit in the recently blessed calico screen, a grey haired, wizened woman comes into view. Lakshmi makes a false spitting gesture and with a twisted smile, ‘I know how to bring babies in to the world. I had three,’ she said.

Kolkata Tram

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For two hours, the panting and moans of childbirth blends into the tapestry of persistent horns from cars and buses, the clatter of juddering tram wheels along metal tracks, and vapours of tar melting in the streets.

Persistent horns in Kolkata

Intermittently, Lakshmi vanishes behind the screen. Each time, she returns with a smile, privy to something exclusive to her. But on her most recent visit, Lakshmi re-emerges with shoulders hunched, ‘Bemata, Bemata,’ she wails, ‘Mother Shashthi be with my child, let her safely deliver,’ she invokes and paces. On a wall, nearest to the altar she pastes a picture of a double-edged sword, a symbol of both destruction and creation. Lakshmi lights Champa incense and blows it in the direction of the calico screen, ‘A blessing,’ she mumbles.

Lakshmi with a steeled face, and dragging her feet, picks up the pile of towels and muslin wraps slapping them down on the aluminium water pot’s lid, smothering its din-din. With glazed eyes, she squats beside it, and with fingers, massages her temples and smooths the lines on her forehead.

Minutes pass, when an urgent cry, ‘Lakshmi, Lakshmi,’ bellows from behind the birthing screen. In a rush, Lakshmi disappears into the ward. Minutes later she reappears with hands on hips. Scanning the waiting crowd, she beckons two women with deep etched faces and silvery hair behind the screen.

From the labour ward, wails and moans peak and fall. The waiting crowd mumble and shift as if on a wind, moving this way and that. A sense of discomfort sifting from person to person, with shoulders rising and falling, arms crossed and faces grim. The crowd thins out, almost as if they no longer want to be a witness of what is to come. For one man, Ramu the uneasiness is visible—his face distorts with each sound from beyond the screen. With each silent moment, he wrings his hands in hopelessness, paces, cracks his knuckles, and sucks in his teeth producing a hiss of terror.

The women who remain, mop brows, eyes and foreheads with the corners of saris, glancing at each other, sorrowfully they ask, ‘What’s happening, what’s happening?’ And, In their solemn prayerful chants, their voices soothe, and the sounds of trouble are replaced with  equanimity.

Over the waiting hours, the heat lessens but once again the tensions rise and groans from the birthing grows long, loud, a crescendo of howls that culminate in an abrupt stop. The silence as torturous as splintering glass, until— Lakshmi brushes aside the calico screen, exposes the elderly impoverished medical team. And a pair of bent knees, parted, trembling in unison with an umbilical cord in between. A blood-streaked howling baby in tow. In a hew of grey muslin, Lakshmi swaddles the bub and wipes its face clean. And like Muffasar from the Lion King scene, Lakshmi thrusts the newborn aloft for all to see, ‘Guryia, Guryia,’ doll, doll, she bawls. The child’s cry brings tears to the crowd, who smile and offer their gratitude aloud. Into the labour ward the aluminium pot is taken, and all is still, until…

Lakshmi calls to Ramu, in the crowd, ‘Come, come, Father, come see, we need Jatakarma, her welcome ceremony.’

Ramu’s eyes sparkle in glee and he stares at the newborn intently. Running his palm over her downy black hair, he reaches up to the altar, dips a finger into honey and ghee. Placing the concoction of honeyed-ghee into the mouth of his new baby. He whispers into his newborn’s ear, then turns to his audience, ‘For wishing her happiness and long years, I have said the name of God into her ear.’ With that he raises his eyes reverently, ‘it will also increase her memory.’

Waving a sewing needle under a match flame, Ramu wipes it clean, and pierces the baby’s earlobes to a melody of bawls and squeals. Lakshmi slips precious gold into each pierced lobe, then brews nettle tea, ‘For strong blood’. She offers a cup to Chamley, the nursing mother of a new baby.

Kolkata street

***

BITTI Gwen author photo

Gwen Bitti was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) India. She lives in Sydney, Australia. Gwen is a former president of the Society of Women Writers NSW. In 2017, she facilitated a writing retreat for the Society that has recently celebrated its 95th anniversary. Gwen has taught yoga to adults, children and toddlers, facilitated meditation and lectured for the International Yoga Teachers. She has escorted yoga students on tour to India and opened a community/yoga centre in Rimbik, India. Her love of India is no secret.

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