The First Six Meters | Vidya Panicker

Every day, I wake up at the crack of dawn and find my way to the pond 100 meters away from the house. I pinch my nose and take three dips in the chilling water, eye the sun for a few seconds through the hazy mist of dawn and chant the words of God that could bless my womb with a single sprout.

The sun shines on unhindered, and I walk home trembling like a leaf in monsoon winds.

This afternoon, in the doctor’s consulting room when I see the picture of a zygote pasted on the wall across me, I am reminded of my daily prayers and my icy mornings. The single cell from where life begins looks to me like a plain, colorless sun.

I am in a room with a dozen other females, most of them in varying stages of their pregnancies. A few appear ready to give birth any moment now, their stomachs low and hanging heavy. The others have the leisure of several more months of being the queens in their turfs.

Unlike them, I am in the hospital not for a pregnancy consultation but for a scan to see if there is any positive evidence within my uterus of ever being capable of carrying a child.

My eggs are weak. Half a dozen doctors have said so in varying tones, using different terminology over the years.

Consequently, whenever Sanjayan’s fastest sperm knock on my uteral walls, all it could find is a damaged, ruptured bit of flesh that would be emptied along with substantial amount of tissues and blood every 28 days. This unpropitious punctuality of my menstrual cycle exasperated me. I sometimes have visions of hanging myself from a hook upside down for weeks to avoid the blood from flowing out of me.

If only my uterus would grow one fertile egg!

*

“Where is Sanjayan?” the doctor asks me.

Wiping away bits of sticky paste from my abdomen with the pallu[i] of my saree, I consider her question.

“Kavitha, it is important that this treatment proceeds with both the husband and wife together”.

A few years ago, when the doctor delivered to me the news of my barrenness, I was not unduly resigned or diffident.

Science, with all its progress, can create children from scratch for miserable men and women, and we were still in the prime of our lives. Doctors can be Gods. I knew and I believed. And the belief gave me hope.

But the years of wait had changed Sanjayan. He did not hate me, he would not admit that he was losing interest in his inescapable co-existence with me, nevertheless, the signs were all there. These days, he even forgets to ask me the outcome of the recent tests, he is perhaps tired of the same answer about the ‘weak’ eggs repeated over and over again.

“Kavitha”, the doctor wakes me from my day time reverie, “Have you considered other options?”

“What are my options?”

“Something like adoption?”

I have, and I still do. I had nothing sentimental against loving a child born to another woman as my own. But adoption would be giving up; ruthlessly aborting the fetus of a dream that would grow into a girl in long pigtails, wearing a blue silk frock, holding my hand and walking with me on the beach sand.

“I have to be frank with you Kavitha, it is near impossible for you to become a mother on your own. An IVF or IUI is possible only for women with healthy ovum, which is not your case. If you can find an egg donor, you might get pregnant through artificial techniques”.

The conclusiveness of the doctor’s statement apprehends me with force.

What is the difference between the three unenviable options that I was left with? Adoption, vs. getting pregnant with the egg from another woman vs. allowing Sanjayan to marry a woman who can bear him a child?

The difference between compromise, indifference and shame.

*

In the bus ride back home, children are everywhere. Almost every woman appears to be travelling with her entire brood. Children on laps, between the seats and inside the womb.

Almost midway to the journey, a purdah clad woman enters with three children, the younger one barely a year old. She looks around for a seat in the bus with passengers already standing and squeezing each other. She stares hard at me and the bus conductor noticing this, demanding that I  forfeit my paid for seat for a more deserving person on humanitarian grounds. I nod and stand up, admitting defeat again.

Today is my day of defeats.

What is a seat, in comparison to decade old dreams knitted in soft cotton and warm blankets?

*

I drag my unrelenting feet and proceed with the ten minute walk between the bus stop and my home, my ears capturing the sound of laughter from the nearby field, the unmistakable cackle of children, rolling around mindlessly. For a moment, I imagine that my mind is playing more games with me, but then I remember that a group of banjaras[ii] have recently erected tents in the isolated fields that lay on the side of the country road that took me home. These nomads specialized in making and selling plywood idols of all well-known Gods including Krishna, Siva, Ganesh, Jesus Christ and Buddha.

This was a small group. About half a dozen adults and three children. Three little girls. Disregarding the dust that was swallowing them, the two children lunged at each other, chased one another in turns and pulled on each other’s pigtails.

The smaller of the two was naked. I could see traces of breasts one either sides of a black thread with an indiscernible pendant hanging around her neck.

I wonder how long it would be before the little girl loses the innocence of her childhood. A roofless sustenance and nomadic existence were not safe for a girl who walked around naked and needy.

The third child was lying on her mother’s lap.

From the girl’s long, tangled, filthy hair that has not seen oil even once in her lifetime, the mother was picking lice and crushing it between the nails of her thumbs. In the contentment of their presumably meaningless existence, I turn my face away from the array of Gods arranged for sale and choke on my tears.

*

Sanjayan’s house, which for the last 10 years, has remained mine too, smells of pickles. A powdery hue of chili, asafetida and vinegar hung around the house like mist.

Sanjayan was a pickle tycoon of the state, whose products were exported to countries as far as Tunisia and Bolivia, in addition to Europe and North America.

I love this pungent odor that is a mark of this home, which is situated in the same compound as the pickle factory that Sanjayan owned.

However, my true interest lay in designing and tailoring, not the culinary arts. Being an enterprising family which believed that every human should be allowed to follow their vocation, irrespective of the gender, Sanjayan and his family cleared out a room at home for me, where I began a tailoring boutique 7 years ago, which now has half a dozen women working under me. I must admit that it is this activity that helped me hold on to a thread of sanity in all these years, when everyone, including my family, relatives and even the workers at the factory, had been unremittingly suggesting to me the various pre and post nuances of pregnancy like raw mangoes, masala dosa, pitter patter of the little feet with golden anklets and god-men who can create children from thin air.

Komalamma was waiting for me near the gate.

Komalamma, to her credit and my relief, was not a typical Indian mother-in-law who made a day out of picking faults with the unfortunate woman her son has married. She did not revel in my barrenness and struggles to get pregnant. She accompanied me to temples of fertility Gods and helped me carry bottles of oil, ghee and turmeric to present to the deities there. Together, we hung little cradles and placed miniature brass vessels in the courtyard of these temples. She prayed for me with helpless tears in her eyes and promised offerings to numerous Gods.

In addition to these, every month, she consulted her well thumped book of astrology and marked the days which were best for conceiving. On such days, she bought me five measures of jasmine garlands to pin on my hair, gave me a tub of special sandalwood oil to embalm on me before bath and made sure I entered our bedroom like a newlywed, with a tall glass of sweetened milk. On the calendar she marked my monthly cycle and checked it anxiously, rubbing her palms together. Nearing the beginning of my day of doom, she would not let me perform any tiring activities in the kitchen, stopped me from lifting heavy objects and would scold me if I bent down to scrub the floor. When the inevitable always happened, I remained in my room day long and she would realize that her prayers have been unheeded again.

She would not sulk or curse me, but I would often hear her muttering under her breath that she must have sinned in her previous lives to die without seeing an heir to the wealth that the family had accumulated over generations.

Sanjayan was her only son, her only hope of sustaining the blood line.

In spite of her kindness and love for me, I fear that one day Komalamma might ask her son to bring home another bride to bear her a grandchild who would inherit the family title.

“What did they doctor say?” asks Komalamma.

“The doctor said I will have many children, Amma”.

*

Outside, the sun is retiring for the day, leaving the world lit by a sliver of moon light. The primroses in the front yard are just beginning to burst into a delicious yellow and the cicadas are synchronizing their shrieks into a monotonous and comforting sequence.

Sanjayan would be back home in another hour or so.

I have decided to talk to him about us, our future.

We may adopt a child, if he can get used to the idea of pampering someone else’s child as his own.

Or, he could find another woman to be its mother, as an egg donor or a life partner. I would not object.

I have decided that being mother can mean more than giving birth to one.

Spread before me, on my tailoring table, is the expensive Kancheepuram[iii] saree that my father had commissioned for me from the weaver’s village for my wedding. Deep red, with golden motifs all over, its shine and shimmer were unmatched and attracted envious stares from every single woman present at the ceremony. The sad truth about wedding sarees is that however beautiful or expensive they are, they cannot be worn on another occasion. You preserve it in a recess in your almirah, smother it in mothballs, show it off to your children and grandchildren, until one day, you hold it in your hand and it crumbles and fades away as dust.

That would not be the fate of this saree.

With a pair of scissors, I cut the 6 meter saree into three pieces, draw out the pattern on these with a chalk, cut them further, load red thread on my bobbin, set the bobbin case in place and begin stitching.

At the end of an hour, I have three lovely frocks.

These must fit the three banjara kids perfectly well. Even on their unwashed bodies these would look dazzling.

My wardrobe is brimming with sarees of all kind; cotton, oil, organza, crepe, georgette and expensive silks. Beginning today, no child around me will roam around naked, or in rags.

In my own way, with a few strands of thread, a piece of cloth and my feet willing to take a million steps on the stepping board of the sewing machine, I would earn the privilege of being a mother.


[i] The edge of the saree that hangs loose over the shoulder
[ii] A group of nomads
[iii] A weaver’s village famous for its silk sarees

————
Vidya Panicker, a writer from Kerala, India has her poems, stories and translations published or upcoming in journals and magazines including The Feminist Review, Muse India, Himal South Asian, East Lit journal, Aberration Labyrinth, Spark journal, Bangalore Review, Indian review, Indian Ruminations, Raed Leaf India, Brown girl magazine, Femina fast fiction, Contemporary Literary Review of India, Indus Woman Writing, 4and20poetry.com, and Reading hour magazine. Some of her work have been translated and published in other Indian languages as well.

She won the second prize in the All India Poetry Contest 2014 held by the Poetry Society of India and is currently an editor on  poetrycircle.com .

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