On the other side of the river by Vidya Panicker

 

Inside the low ceiling hut made of mud and thatched with dry leaves and twigs, Thumba got up to another day.

It was still dark, the sun barely visible through the folds of thick night cloud stubbornly unwilling to part. On the mattress, Thumba shifted with some effort and took in deep breaths. That did not help though. The nausea was creeping in to her system and in a few seconds, sheretched again. She would loudly vomit pale yellow bile and nothing else, she knew, but afterwards she always felt helplessly tired. Thumba slowly stood up and had to bend down so as to avoid bumping her head on the roof. It hurt, even this slight curve of her body.

Patting her enlarged stomach she smiled. He was yet to wake up. Having been together for over eight months now, Thumba knew her wombed baby’s habits and even believed that she could interpret the intent behind each of those tiny kicks.

The hut started to close around her, suffocating her within the walls, making her retch again and she hurried out.

After hungrily gulping in the fresh forest air, which unlike her home, did not smell of kerosene, red meat or dung, Thumba scanned her surroundings. With huts that afforded so little space, almost every other activities of a household happened on the front yard. Most of the other women were awake too, going about the daily chores; fetching water, trying to light up firewood damp from previous day’s drizzle and chopping tapioca and yam. A dog that had appeared in the village a few months ago from nowhere, its pus filed wounds a haven for the formidable flies of the forest was also wandering from hut to hut, in search of some leftovers or a fish bone. From the clay pot on the portico of her abode, Thumba poured a handful of water to splash on her face, and another to gurgle in her mouth before spitting it out in a long projectile on her courtyard.

It was a Friday. The men of the village would be back by sunset after their month long journey, selling honey, lac, wax and medicinal roots to the people on the other side of the river. Thumba prayed to the forest Gods to keep the river water under control so that the men could manage to wade through it without casualties. Her prayers incorporated every man of the village, not just her husband because the life of a widow in their community was shoddier than that of the stray dog which was now standing near her, staring intently at her fruitless efforts in getting the moist logs to burn. She had watched her mother’s suffering after her father drowned in the unexpected deluge on one such crossing. Death usually came as a release to the hapless women who were isolated as a bad omen in a faraway hut.

Thumba belonged to a fast diminishing tribal population of South India, whom the government has anointed as among the ‘scheduled tribes’, with affirmative reservations in the educational and employment systems of the country. It would be unbelievable if one was told that this primitive colony was just under 50kms away from the district headquarters. Beyond the river that divided civilizations is a forest and deep in the forest is this group of less than 100 people, who are encased in their beliefs and misfortunes. They married among each other, followed their own set of rules and traditions and disregarded the modernity of the other side of the world as ‘ungodly’. Ungodly in a different way as even their Gods were different, the children of the forests worshipped wild spirits of trees and rivers and satiated them with elaborate rituals, home brewed arrack, ganja and warm blood gushing out the headless neck of cock hens. Their numbers were dwindling every month, due to high mortality rates and steady migration to the more progressed lands. The usual fanfare of the country like elections, cricket matches, and release of a superstar movie or death of a prominent personality did not reach the depths of the forests. The forest slept, oblivious to the world around, its members engrossed in the day to day business of survival.

Breathing in the stale, vitriolic smoke from the fire she is tending to, Thumba coughed. Each spasm hit her stomach like a hammer, she winces in pain and curses herself for her carelessness in the third month of pregnancy, when on her way back from the jungle stream after the bath, she tripped on a rock and fell on her stomach.

The pain began then and reappeared at intervals, but of course she could not tell anyone. Anyone except Lekha.

Lekha was a community worker who arrived in their village once every month. Lekha’s only armor among the wild men and women who were always wary of strangers was her gender. The villagers could not be blamed for the caution. Most of the foreign men who visited the tribe left their signature in the wombs of at least one tribal woman before he crossed the river. Such inter-racial specimens were a common sight in the village.

The sun was now well upon her and Thumba squatted uncomfortably, picking lice from her hair, watching the water boiling. The posture was getting increasingly difficult. Lekha was concerned about her as she was from the day Thumba informed her about the fruit in her womb. Thumba was losing weight and looked almost emaciated.

“You don’t have enough blood in you”, Lekha once said, observing Thumba’s eyes and finger nails. “You should get a checkup from the public health center across the river perhaps”, she went on.

Thumba squirmed at the thought of crossing the river to meet an English doctor. A hospital child birth for a tribal woman was unheard of, almost scandalous. The tribes simply did not feel the need for that. They were self-sufficient and well-endowed by the forests to address any requirements in their life. A tribal woman did not give birth to her child with numerous people loitering around, peeping into her vagina and commanding her what to do. A mother knew how to labor a child, she was well versed in the skill from birth and needed no telling or guidance. She gave birth alone, in their delivery hut, designed for the purpose, known as pettu pura, the room of birth.

Within the tribe, the pregnant woman was given no reprieve from their daily chores until the day of delivery. They climbed up and down the hills, swam, ran and walked the inhospitable terrain. In spite of this, most women stayed healthy to the very end. Perhaps, it was this very lifestyle in itself that made it possible. Nearing the date of delivery, the soon-to-be mother would be shifted to the pettu pura. It is a hut that consists of a pit, resembling a rudimentary toilet. When the cramps and pains began, the pregnant woman was left alone in the hut and the pit was filled with the leaves of a Bodhi tree. The woman would fend for herself in the hut, push and finally squat on the pit and give birth to the baby, who would plonk on the bed of leaves. The Bodhi tree leaf has sharp edges and with one of these leaves, the mother would cut the placenta, releasing the child. After cleaning the child with a bit of cloth and bundling it, the woman is expected to carry the placenta outside and dig it deep so that jackals and other wild animals would not find it. But these days, the village mid-wife, the mother of the pregnant woman or an elderly woman of the village would assist the delivery process.Later the mother and child would be accompanied back to their hut, amidst celebrations.It was considered a bad omen to let the men, widows and childless women enter the pettu pura.

Thumba had been there once, during the birth of her first child, a boy. But she lost him too soon, too unexpectedly. She had barely held his scrawny body in her hand for just a few seconds when the women attending to her began noticing that the little form had not cried. They held him upside down and smacked his tiny butt, but he would not as much as utter a moan. Just as she watched, Thumba realized that she had given birth to a still born, whose body was gaining an ugly blue color, the color of death.

This had happened 7 years ago. For years afterwards, the Gods were blind to Thumba’s requests for another child. Her husband and she bathed and prayed in wet clothes at the snake temple every day for a year. They sacrificed 7 hens to quench the thirst of the demon Gods. Nothing yielded results, but just as Thumba was starting to believe that she was accursed to be barren for the rest of her life, she sensed the gentle fluttering of a new life within her. Nonetheless, she was afraid, because she knew this one was different. The nausea, pain, discomforts –everything was different.

Thumba recounted her losses again that day as she did every other day. Everyone in the tribe had losses to speak of. Her heart wept for them, also beat hard praying for the well-being of her husband and her yet unborn child. The baby kicked her. He was awake and hungry, she knew, smiled and wrapped her hands around herself protectively.

That day Lekha was on her routine visits to the village. She had with her a large bag of supplies from the NGO she represented. There are vitamin tablets, quick cures for fevers, cuts and common ailments, condoms, contraceptive pills and sanitary napkins —all for free. The condoms supplied to the men would be blown up as balloons by the kids, some used it as water bombs to throw at each other. Contraceptive pills had a better use. Monthly menstrual cycles in the forest is hellish, when the women are locked away in special huts with just a tiny air vent. To avoid it, month after month, most of them used to take the pills to delay their periods. Some got violently ill, vomited their guts out, had migraines, and bleeding that could not be stopped. Ever since, Lekha was careful in administering it. She made notes of how many she was giving to every woman in each of her visits.Sanitary napkins were a blessing to the women of the community. Without a spare cloth to tear up and stuff between their legs, the women in the tribe used dry leaves or forest flowers to wipe themselves clean. Vaginal infections and wounds were far too common earlier, it was Lekha’s interference and insistence on using sanitary pads that changed it. She also had pills to get rid of severe menstrual cramps.

 

Lekha entered Thumba’s hut. She posed a sorry figure to Lekha who is sure that the pregnant woman was undernourished, anemic and ill and advised her to be taken to the hospital for her delivery at least. She was smiled off yet again.

“Are you taking the iron pills regularly”, Lekha asked her.

“Yes”, Thumba replied.

Thumba was lying. Iron pills made her constipate thoroughly. She even developed piles due to the accumulated, iron-toughened excreta that refused to come out, however hard she pushed. She slowly stopped consuming the offending pills and already felt better. Only slightly better.

Lekha felt Thumba’s stomach. The baby was active. Her delivery was due in a month. So by the time Lekha visited the village next, Thumba would be holding her son. The two women enjoy the conversation, a beautiful future is something everyone would relish talking about.

Thumba’s husband was back by nightfall, as are the other men who were on the routine expedition. He had a successful venture in the last one month. With the money, he bought her a new lungi and some red bangles. They spoke long into night, decided to name their child ‘Chandu’ if a boy and ‘Devu’ if a girl

***

The pain began the next week when Thumba was pulling out yams for lunch. It started with spasms that emanated every 30 minutes, which Thumba ignored because she still had weeks to go before her labor. Soon she was overpowered by the unrelenting discomfort and was bleeding incessantly. The village midwife and other older women knew that things were not going well. Perhaps she should be taken to the hospital across the river, they suggested. But the waters had risen in the rains the day before and no one wanted to risk more than one life. Thumba’s husband was delirious and crying out loud, but she was calm, except for the controlled shrieks during pain in marked intervals which slowly engulfed her.

The women, some with sparkling eyes helped her to the pettu pura and closed the door, shutting out Thumba’s squirming form from the rest of the world.

She gave birth to a boy.

Thumba tugged on the mundu of the woman standing next to her. In fainting tones she asked the woman for her child. This one was healthy, and crying his gut out. He would live. He would grow up, dark and tall like his father, with a mop of curly black hair and thick eyebrows. He might be a master tree climber or hunter, or he could even move to the city and study in colleges. Thumba was happy in the thoughts.

Her only regret was that she would not live to see any of this.

She could feel death approaching, cold and slow, and the color of it was blue.

 

 

 

 

 

PanickerVidya 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, The Fem Magazine, Indian review, Indian Ruminations, Raed Leaf India, Brown girl magazine, Criterion journal, 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 the poetrycircle.com website.

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