The Birth, Artist: Rabi Khan
The Birth,  Artist: Rabi Khan
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Turned Around

by Sangeetha Parthasarathy

Mariamma still flinched at the sight of all the puke.

She witnessed her seventh childbirth in as many days. It was fertility month in Annavasal, a hamlet that hid itself to the outside world and protected its denizens from any chance exposure to change like a zealous mother guarding a newborn from the flu.

Tall and lanky, Mariamma's coal dark skin was accentuated by huge eyes. Strands of brittle dry hair stood out in all directions, mocking any attempts at plaiting it with neem oil and pink ribbons. Her entire body now stood at attention, with her eyes glued to the contracting young mother.

Midwifery had not been high on Mariamma's list of career choices. However, her maternal grandmother, after whom Mariamma was named, had been the official village midwife.

At the age of seventy, Ammaayee, the older Mariamma, was often found trudging along the steep upslope of Ooral hills to deliver babies across town, much to her granddaughter's chagrin. After Mariamma's father took off with another woman, and her mother died of some mysterious illness, she and her grandmother only had each other for family. And they looked out for each other.

"You will have your paapa(baby) in a few minutes. Just pray. Just hold on." Mariamma's words to the dilating mother came out weaker than she had wanted to make them sound.

Having passed on the family occupation safely to her granddaughter, Ammaayee had died a few years ago. Sometimes, on those hot, sultry summer nights when Mariamma lay down on her straw mat and gazed skyward through the leaky ceiling, she could still recall her youthful dreams.

When she was around eight years old, Mariamma had worked as a handmaid at the village Sarpanch's (judge's) house. The Sarpanch was a well-learned man, then in his late thirties. His wife was a sturdy lady who ran almost the entire administrative affairs of Annavasal from behind the scenes. Every third Friday, Mariamma watched the wife carry oversized, thick cigars and toddy to the temple of Kaathavarayan, the village guardian angel. The temple was strategically situated at the edge of the village to keep out evil.

It was a common sight to see scantily clad farmers come to their mistress at her house to explain why they were late in payments, or a young couple would come to explain the extenuating circumstances of their elopement. Somehow, as though magically, the Sarpanch would later grant them a lenient sentence at the upcoming Panchayat (village court) trial. Coincidentally, Kathavarayan Himself rose to the status of a powerful demi-God, with festivals and fasts held in His honor.

Mariamma was a silent witness to this parallel universe. She absorbed and took in everything. Her daily jaunts to the Sarpanch's house were more than just bread-winning exercises. This was her fairyland, her make-believe world, where she visualized herself ruling the land, making or breaking people's lives. She saw herself with the power to make mortals out of Gods and Gods out of mortals. She wanted to be a Sarpanch when she grew up.

Mariamma mentioned this to Selvan, her Thaaimaman (maternal uncle), whom, according to custom, she was also supposed to marry. He was eighteen at that time. He laughed at Mariamma's political ambitions with a cocky adolescent sneer.

The already senile grandmother, on the other hand, was appalled. "Girls these days hear too much radio, that's where they get such ludicrous ideas!" She ranted all evening. The next day she initiated Mariamma into the smelly, bloody, spasmodic world of midwifery.

Ammaayee had an unshakable belief that, as long as there were fertile young men and women raring to get married and spawn out offspring by the numbers, they could never go out of business. Insightful business acumen, Selvan thought.

Ammaayee died a month later and Selvan left the village two days after that. Somehow, everybody who was anybody in her life had vanished abruptly.

"Oh karuppi (black one) see there! You! You don't even deserve a good-bye! Everyone will abandon you!" A gigantic apparition seemed to mock her from above on those muggy, solitary nights after they burnt Ammaayee's body.

Strangely though, Mariamma could retreat into her dreams whenever she wanted to, and in her magic world of justice, authority and gore, everything was always fine and dandy and she reigned supreme.

* * *

The room was a ghoulish scene of silence. Everyone was waiting anxiously. It was as if the women were afraid to breathe, as if they worried that breathing might pollute the air around the new mother, thus making the baby's journey more difficult. Mariamma was sweating furiously. All eyes were on her.

The soon-to-be grandmother was almost in tears. Mariamma asked for more hot water and clean towels. The mother was contracting wildly and pushing hard, gasping with effort. Everyone knew this birth was going to be complicated, when the mother's water had broken and she went into labor four weeks before the baby was due.

"Push some more." Mariamma bent lower to look. Where she was supposed to see a tiny head with black hair, she saw the buttocks. The baby was coming out upside down-turned around. She had watched Ammaayee deliver this type of baby only once. She remembered Ammaayee sweating profusely on that cold December morning. Mariamma hesitated, calmed herself and told the women surrounding the mother in labor. She saw tears welling in many eyes.

She channeled her whole being into the job at hand. Gently easing the baby's bottom, she saw the mother through two more contractions, until two tiny feet with a total of ten toes came in sight. The women heaved.

Mariamma ordered more clean towels and gently cradled the baby's bottom to ease the movement of the hips. The mother gasped for air. Mariamma saw all the meek women, standing in mute submission to the ways of the world — no say, no action. In a sudden burst of outrage and bravery, she thundered, "Out, all of you. Don't crowd around her."

All the women, except the incumbent grandmother, rushed out and huddled. Mariamma could see bewildered eyes staring at her through the window. Mariamma wasn't quite sure if her outburst had been directed more at herself or at the docile female herd.

She bent over to see more of the baby whose future generations would always owe Mariamma their gratitude. She would be spoken of highly.

But then she suddenly thought of something that frightened her. What if the paapa was so premature that her head bigger than her hips? What if her hands were raised up, as if high — fiveing someone? There would be no way she was going to make it down the already much-dilated cervix. It seemed to Mariamma that the color of the baby's buttocks was changing, as though perhaps the life-giving link between the living and the about-to-live was trapped, cutting off most of the supplies to the baby. A shiver went down Mariamma's spine, as she herself started convulsing.

"Chellam (Honey), let your Amma cut off the Thoppul Kodi (umbilical cord). Don't be in such a hurry to do it yourself, Kannu (dear)," the mother cried out, appealing to her unborn baby, her sullen eyes glancing at Mariamma.

Mariamma saw terror in the mother's eyes — the same fearful look she had seen in the eyes of the scantily-clad village farmers as they came with their implorations to the Kathavarayan temple. Mariamma felt heat, the kind she imagined the women walking on red-hot coal embers at the temple festival would endure.

"Ha ha! The whole village will mock you because you will fail. You will bring misfortune on the family whose baby you touch. No one will ever want you to go near another pregnant woman again. You bring woe on all." The apparition spoke to her from nowhere. Mariamma panicked as she saw the bluish skin of the life that two sets of eyes in the room, and countless more outside, were counting on her to bring in. She could not lose this life.

Mariamma inhaled deeply. Somehow the air in her lungs gave her fingers renewed vigor. Gently turning the torso to one side, she waited without breathing for another contraction. The mother screamed. There was commotion outside the room, and Mariamma blinked frantically, as if that action could clear up her brain. Mariamma seemed to feel a tiny left hand with five digits and tried to guide the little one's hand onto her belly. The baby's skin was definitely bluish now.

For a minute there, she saw the apparition, Selvan's mocking face. She swayed wildly over to her happy place — that of justice, ruling, reverence, and worship. In schizophrenic delight, she saw alternate images running maniacally through her. She felt as though possessed, and yet her deft fingers slightly turned the baby's torso to the right.

The apparition grinning. Sarpanch's wife with a bamboo basket full of jasmine flowers. The steep Ooral upslope with serpentine roads. Ammayee's frail figure losing balance and falling down. The judge's gavel sounding. A young couple eloping.

It was as if her fingers had a mind of their own. The mother contracted, and Mariamma felt the right hand of the little one in her own hands.

Ammaayee's ranting. Radio interviewing a woman Panchayat officer. Her first period-the sight of blood. Her dad falling off a deep cliff into a sea of toddy. Leaky ceiling in rain. A sky full of stars. Pitch dark apparition not yelling but talking fast.

The umbilical cord was less compressed now since the baby's hands were free. The head was not entrapped anymore — just a few bluish specks on the cherub's skin. The paapa would be born any minute now.

Clear blue skies. A meandering Aaru (brook). Ammaayee's beatific sleep. The Sarpanch and his wife having a peaceful dinner. Selvan limping away. A pregnant woman bringing a fruit basket to thank the benevolent mistress. The Sarpanch smiling at his wife.

Mariamma could see the baby's neck, chin, lips and nose on a dark brown torso. The mother, with all her remaining vigor screamed through what would be the one last contraction that would release her bundle of joy unto the world, for everyone to see, forever.

The images in her mind ceased. Mariamma's entire being now smelled of the newborn.The baby wailed. Everyone was smiling and hugging. Through the thin gossamer on the window, she could see the herd's eyes looking at her in reverence. Mariamma wiped the baby and put her on her mother's stomach to nurse.

A moment of silence.

And then she saw a gushing sea of red, as the placenta was expelled forcefully. A bloodbath.

Paapa's big eyes opened and looked at her.

She won. She reigned.

Sangeetha Parthasarathy is a 23-year-old aspiring writer living in Cincinnati,OH. She has an undergraduate degree from BITS, Pilani, and a Masters degree from the University of Cincinnati. Working as a business analyst, she is also a part time freelance writer, and has published articles in print and in online magazines in India and the US. She consults for Aperian Global, where she works as a cross-cultural trainer, focusing on global IT industry workplace dynamics. She is also involved in Diversity Council activities, and is a panelist for a "Women in Technology" conference. A trained carnatic singer, she she also heads SABHA, a non-profit organization promoting Indian arts and music. Sangeetha's writing draws on her diverse interests and experiences, and she hopes to publish a short story collection soon.

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