Kamla has been through labor five times before in the past thirteen years, but the pain is still unforgiving, shaking and splitting her body.
The village lady-doctor, Doctorni, fans Kamla’s face with a tattered punkah in the tiny two-room hospital in Bihar, India, and asks the tall nurse to boil some water. The nurse sets an aluminum pot on the kerosene stove in the corner of the room. The heat of the stove adds degrees to the oven-hot June afternoon. The nurse wipes her brow, fans herself with her dupatta, and sits on the floor watching the pot. The floor feels cool after the phenyl-water mop.
Doctorni makes sure that the floor of the hospital is always swept and mopped clean. She dresses up in clean, starched cotton saris every day, wearing her hair in a neat bun. The women of the village love and respect her. She knocks on each door in the village to vaccinate the children and to teach them to wash their hands and brush their teeth.
“Hey Bhagwan, listen to me this time,” Kamla prays between contractions, digging her nails into her wrists. The pain feels more than what she has experienced before. Has her body forgotten? But she doesn’t let her screams out because her daughters are lined up outside, waiting.
The sweaty strings of many amulets from fakeers and pundits bite into her neck. The bitter taste of the guaranteed baby-boy potion that she drank every morning lingers on her tongue. The sacred ashes from the temple smeared on her forehead make it itch.
The angry and accusatory faces of her husband and mother-in-law after each delivery swim before her eyes. They had not even looked at any of her lovely girls after their birth but had later warmed up. She could not disappoint them again. They needed a male heir for their family’s name; there were no other valuables to be passed on.
Some faith, some charm, some prayer, something, please work.
* * *
Doctorni had delivered all of her five daughters. She warned Kamla against carrying another baby and begged her to stop. Her depleted body had no more material or strength to form more babies.
Kamla had fainted twice in the last month while cooking a pile of rotis on the choolah under the tin roof of her tiny hut. Her first-born daughter, aged thirteen years, had sprinkled water on her face and fanned her to consciousness, while other girls ran for the Doctorni. They loved their mother so much and she loved them.
“You have to live for your daughters,” Doctorni told Kamla.
She even made Kamla promise on the heads of her daughters that she would get the family-planning surgery done in the town hospital after this delivery. She would go to town with her and also pay for the surgery. It only took a few hours. They could work it out. Her husband did not need to know.
* * *
“Push hard, you are strong,” Doctorni says, “for the last time, Kamla.”
She pushes and prays. The nurse massages her feet and says soothing words.
Finally, the piercing cries of an infant who seems shocked to be out in the open.
“It’s a boy,” Doctorni shouts. She has never been this loud.
Kamla’s lips whisper thanks to Bhagwan as her eyes spill.
The nurse shouts her congratulations and holds the baby up for Kamla to see.
“Wait, there’s more. Push again. Harder.” Doctorni says.
“Yes. Another baby.”
Another infant cry.
“It’s a girl,” the nurse says softly with her head hung low. Doctorni is silent.
“Mukti!” Kamla smiles and says. “That’s her name. This daughter has brought me freedom.”