~ A True Story set in Gujarat, India, 1973 ~
I breathe. But I feel gravitated by the weight of a rock within my chest, forcing me to breathe even harder, and it eventually makes me realize that I am not actually breathing. I am just trying to. Seven days aren’t many for me to know about the pangs of life, but believe me when I say that the only thing you want to do when you are struggling to fill your lungs with some air, is try to breathe again, hoping that this time your lungs will be pally. I feel the warmth of Ma’s palm comforting the tired muscles of my chest. “My son will breathe soon,” I hear her whisper.
Not many relatives bothered to pay me a visit after I was born, and those who did, either gasped at my disease or silently cursed me for bringing a doom to the family. I was doing well for the first few hours when I felt the first ray of sunshine on my skin, but soon again, my lungs refused to cooperate.
My parents have spent the last week crying amidst their prayers at odd hours of sleepless nights and visiting all the Vaids near my deserted house in the suburbs of Gujarat. Nobody understands why my body fails to give away the extra water. Nobody understands why my lungs bloat. Or perhaps, Papa does.
I heard Papa sobbing for the first time last night. His sobs bubbled into hiccups while he spoke to Ma, as she mopped my stinky vomit.
“Fortune always mistreats the ones already less fortunate,” he said wiping his tears, “But I will not let our son die. I will not let the people call him doomed. The Vaids and the suburbs have nothing to help us with. We will take him to the city hospital tomorrow, ” he sounded resolute and firm.
So now, as our crowded bus wheels out of the gravelly roads of my village, I suck on Ma’s breasts, and the warmth of her milk soothes me until I choke on her bosom. She pats my back, careful enough not to hurt me in the process.
“Ma, it is not your milk, but the water in my lungs that made me choke on you. Don’t cry, Ma. The sight of your tears amplify the fading cacophony of the life around me. Play with my toes, as you always do to make me smile. Don’t you lose hope when we are just hours away from the city. The doctor will cure me. And soon, I will breathe.”
I feel Ma’s embrace tighten around me as Papa plays with my hands like never before. He twirls his fingers around mine, and nudges the tip of my chin. The nudges intensify into jerks before my parents stare at each other with blank expressions etched on their faces. Expressions that I fail to comprehend. Ma covers me with her shawl as Papa tries to get rid of my finger. “Papa, I don’t feel the dense rock within me anymore. But why is Ma fighting tears? Why are you trying to look away from me? Why has your smile faded out? Have you given up on me? Or have I given up on myse…”
I remember Ma’s womb. All I had to do was float, and occasionally kick to make her smile. Then, a buoyant baby in her fragrant womb, and now, an engram of my own existence, I float amidst the endless skies that remind me of how I cannot make her smile anymore, no matter how hard I try.
I really wonder if it was so difficult for me to cling onto life for few more hours to be able make it to the hospital. I was victim to Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia, who turned from a cackling infant into a stone-cold corpse on its mother’s lap. And all the hope in her heart spilled as tears from the cliffs of her eyes.
But then she had to swallow her tears from within as she completed the journey in that crowded bus, nurturing her last motherly hope that perhaps the doctor could somehow breathe life back into me. She had her hands weighed down by her dead son wrapped in her shawl, hiding him from the eyes of the people who would superstitiously consider it unlucky to travel with the dead.
I will never forgive myself for being born in a society that led to the trauma my parents had to go through in the bus, unable to cry or ask for help, afraid of being ‘kicked out’ of the bus.
I will never forgive myself. Ever.
~ By Simran Kinra and Soumya Chakraborty
Artwork by S. Ilayaraja