A typical Hyderabadi auto availed for cheap commuting.
So, I sit half-ass next to this woman with a baby bump. She is a tiny young woman, a child in a more civil world. She is accompanied by her husband and brother equally lean and thin, and unlike me, they all seem to be seated comfortably.
So, how many months? I ask the little pregnant mother. She gives a shy, toothy smile, looks sideways at the two men, and then on getting their consent, quietly unfolds her right fist in the order of thumb to the little finger. I ask, five months?
She continues with her left and stops at the middle finger. I imagine her saying how fucked up she is at the thought of a supposed premature delivery, given her poor health. But whatever be her condition, she maintains calm. And the feeling of motherhood is quite apparent on her face. I put my cheek on her cheek and wish her a safe delivery before they get down at the nearest bus stand. She leaves with me her warm smile.
I love jasmine. I often carry a few of them with me. The fragrance keeps me going up the polluted streets of Hyderabad. As the woman alights with the two men, I take a deep breath and refuel my lungs with the fragrance of jasmine, trying to wipe off the anxiety that her poor health had caused me.
My face buried in my hands. I feel much comfortably seated this time. There are two on my side and four opposite to me, including this emaciated old lady. All this while when I was focused on the pregnant woman, the old lady dismissed in her world, was counting change in the fold of her white sari.
Now, she edges closer to me. Maybe she believes I, like her, have turned the others into air. She starts talking, and she talks more than the silence she had kept for so long. She talks about inflation, she talks about the farmers of her native place in Warrangal, and she talks about cats, dogs, her cattle… She lost all her cattle to her husband’s gambling. Cats and dogs too? I want to ask, but I don’t. No one gambles with cats and dogs. No one? No, no one.
She talks about getting married as a 13-year-old and how it took her some 45 years to break free of the demands of a home that couldn’t feed her, that killed her three sons and two daughters, all unborn. This is a war veteran, I am thinking. She has fought all the battles of life of a poor girl and poorer wife. And here she is, next to me, having neither won nor lost.
Her voice has fantastic clarity, and although she is doling out information that is not solicited, she commands attention. Everybody is silently participating in her life’s journeys.
A few minutes into her monologue, she arrives at the moot point of women being subjugated to unsafe conditions at home even during pregnancy.
I suppose she is thinking of the girl who got out of the auto. “…And that is detrimental to the well-being of the unborn, often resulting in poor health of the child on delivery.” Yes, I am right; that pregnant woman’s condition moves her.
By now, the fact that this older woman misses nothing is not too hard to believe. She looks up at me with light in her eyes and urges me to write about the girls in her village who are married off young, forced to conceive without necessary provision of nutrition and then tortured because of the poor health of the child on a premature delivery.
Before getting off the auto, she looks around and says, “Some of you who are educated can make a difference.” The others look away, perhaps in guilt. I look at the jasmine in my hand and realize what asphyxiation would mean.