Septic

/Septic

Sitting in the open courtyard of ‘Iyer’s house’, Dhanabakiyam was shelling peanuts. She cracked them open one by one by hitting them against the floor and collected the kernels on a bamboo tray.

To Dhanabakiyam and the rest of the slum dwellers, all the ten houses in this predominantly Brahmin colony of Maragadapuram Agraharam were ‘Iyer’s house’. They had a special name for each of them—big Iyer, small Iyer, upstairs Iyer, the priest Iyer, corner house Iyer and so on. Even the only Iyengar – Iyengar being the sub-sect of Brahmins worshipping Vishnu—different from Iyers—Ramachandran was known as ‘the fair Iyer with the vertical sacred mark’! Maragadapuram had only two streets worth the name—one was the Agraharam street and the other, Reddiar street. The temple of Shiva was common to the entire town. The slums and the slum dwellers were pocketed in a small area – to the south of the Pennar River that ran a considered distance away from the main village. Here stood the small temple of the village deity Maduraiveeran who was worshipped specially as a ‘protector God’.

A shadow fell across the floor where Dhanabakiyam was gathering the shells. She turned to look. It was her daughter Mallika.

‘How are you feeling now? Better? Did you take your bath in the hot water I had got ready?’

‘Mm…’ Her daughter nodded. She then squatted on the ground and folded her legs, instead of crouching, as she habitually did like her mother. She found this easier for she was pregnant, full term. She was feeling a bit uneasy too. Some sort of a pain in the stomach kept bothering her.

‘What’d you come’ ere for? In this heat too! Did you drink the cereal porridge I had sent you?’

Mallika was Dhanabakiyam’s eldest daughter and had married her own uncle, Dhanabakiyam’s brother, as was the custom in their community. She lived in a village called Salaimedu right next to Maragadapuram. Her husband was a farmer. This was Mallika’s first child and so, Dhanabakiyam decided to keep her with her, to see her through the delivery. It was ten days since she had come to Maragadapuram. As Dhanabakiyam calculated, the d – day was still a week away, but Mallika’s discomfiture raised a few doubts in her mind. Dhanabakiyam now expected her daughter to deliver pretty soon.

Mallika picked up a few of the kernels and popped them into her mouth. ‘How long do you think I can keep lying down? I am growing stiff – I am! Rasamma said I could walk around a little. So I came! What are you shelling these nuts for?’

‘You know, madam’s sister has come to Madras for her delivery! She is fond of peanut candy they say. Iyer is going to the Madras City today and ma’am is sending in some. That’s why…’

Pankajam, the mistress of the house, looked out of the kitchen window on hearing the voices. ‘Who is it, Dhanabakiyam?’

‘It is only her, Amma! My daughter!’

Pankajam came out of the kitchen busily churning a bottle of buttermilk.

‘Oh! It is you Mallika! Why are you overdoing things, child? I heard you were having back pain the whole of last night… why don’t you just lie down at home quietly?’

‘I don’t know what’s happening, Amma… I am not able to sit or lie down for long. There’s a nagging pain, which keeps bothering me continuously. It’s so troublesome!’

‘Don’t worry, child! That’s is how it is! After all you are carrying another life inside you! Remember! I can see that your belly has rounded nicely and descending down too! I am sure you’ll deliver very soon!’

Pankajam went in and returned in five minutes with an aluminum tumbler filled with coffee. ‘Come on, drink the hot coffee! You’ll feel better!’ She placed the tumbler next to the girl and turning to Dhanabakiyam said, ‘Are you finished yet? Hurry up now, it’s getting late! Iyer will be leaving shortly. Put the cauldron on the fire and heat the sand up!’

 

Dhanabakiyam rose to follow her mistress’ instructions. She lit the iron stove with firewood, placed the finely sieved sand in the cauldron and put it on the stove. As the heat began to spread to the sand, she put in the shelled peanut kernels and started roasting them.

Pankajam came out with her sieve and sat next to Dhanam to separate the roasted nuts from the sand.

‘Seetha—my younger sister—loves these peanut candy balls so much! I have never seen her eat them one by one! Always grabs three or four in her hand and eats them while reading a book! Now she is carrying a child and much as I would like to feed her a variety of sweetmeats and allow her eat to her heart’s content, it is well nigh impossible for she lives so far away and it is only now that she has come to stay at least in Madras. I got some extra milk to condense and make thirattu paal. I made a few rice pretzels—the spiky ones, and now I am going to make the peanut candy balls. I don’t think I have the time to make anything else. I’ll have to get everything ready before my husband returns from the fields, bathes and eats and leaves. If I don’t, he’ll get restless and angry.’

Pankajam became engrossed in planning a sumptuous tuck box for her dear sister. Suddenly her thoughts seemed to turn to Mallika as she said to Dhanam, ‘Why don’t you take her into the city hospital for a thorough check up? The child has been complaining of pain and discomfort since last night and I think she needs to see a lady doctor!’

‘A lady ‘daactor’! Why, may I ask when I have had six babies of my own? What is all this fuss about! A simple delivery! Me, I got babies right there in the fields! I’d be working when the pains came on and I’d just sit back and rest and out they’d come… the little mites! It would be over in a jiffy! Why call ‘daakutors’ for this? If there is the need, we can always get the ‘midwife’, the village maruthuvachi!’ she said.

‘But times are changing, Dhanam… Having a baby now is not like what it was when we had ours. There are specialists who are trained only for this and who can handle difficult cases. Anyway I just wanted to share my thought with you. It is your decision and look out!’

Pankajam, realising the futility of the exercise, stopped saying anything more on the subject and got on with her job of making the peanut candy. Handing Dhanam the partly cleaned kernels, she hurried inside, bidding Dhanam to finish cleaning them and bring them in to her.

Around 6.30 that evening Mallika went into labour. When her pains became noticeable, Dhanabakiyam put some water on to boil in a big vessel and got out some old piece of cloth. She then said a sincere prayer to the warrior God and smeared some holy ash on her daughter’s forehead.

Dhanabakiyam was used to having a very easy time with all her deliveries. She only had to push hard once after the intense pain came on and her baby would be out.

But she was worried when Mallika’s pains did not come on severely even after 9 P.M. She sent for the village midwife.

‘What are you play acting for now, my girl?’ The midwife entered addressing Mallika in her gruff voice.

She was the official midwife only in name. She was neither trained nor educated. But whenever there was any trouble with a delivery, it was to her that the villagers went for help.

The midwife pressed Mallika’s full stomach firmly downward using both her hands. ‘She’ll deliver soon!’ she declared. ‘Do you have the cloth and hot water ready? Fine. Send the children and the men out, and ask the neighbours Rasamma and Chokki to come in!’ Her orders were swift and clear-cut.

She waited for half an hour after Mallika went into dry labour.

Then she got down to intervene and make things happen. She made Mallika squat in front of her and asked Chokki to kick Mallika firmly in the back of her waist. As Chokki did this, she herself pressed Mallika’s stomach downward yelling at the same time loudly, in order to scare the girl into further labour.

It didn’t work. She then bade Rasamma come close to her and with her help rolled Mallika’s long tresses into a ball and stuffed it into the pregnant girl’s mouth causing her to retch and vomit. At the same time Chokki went on kicking Mallika’s waist in the back.

‘That’s it child, that’s how it is! Come on, retch and bring it out! That’s the way the pains will intensify.’

Chokki continued to kick. Mallika was gagging and retching, and all the while the midwife kept screaming long frightening cries and yells.

When this physical and mental onslaught reached high point, Mallika delivered. Her son emerged into the world.

The midwife pulled the baby out, cut the cord with a small sickle, knotted it deftly and holding the baby, face down, slapped it hard to make it cry. She then put her finger into the infant’s mouth and cleaned it. She bathed the newborn in warm water and laid it down on the spread cloth. She then came to attend to the mother.

Mallika had not brought out the after-birth. This needed the midwife’s intervention once more. Having waited for ten minutes for the placenta to come out, the midwife set out to remove it manually. She put her hands inside the girl’s womb and removed all the placenta bits, while the young girl writhed in pain.

‘Shut up, girl! What is all this fuss about! Don’t put on all these little acts of yours now! Haven’t I seen enough deliveries in my time? Quiet, while I finish my job!’ So saying she gave Mallika a thorough wash below the waist and made the mother and child lie down next to each other on a bed of hay. It was nearing eleven when the midwife finished her job.

The next morning Mallika woke up with a searing pain and couldn’t manage even to stand up. At 7 o’ clock Dhanabakiyam boiled some medicinal poduthalai leaves in water to which she added coarsely powdered red brick (used in building construction).

‘Wash your lower parts with this water twice everyday and the soreness will disappear and the wound will heal quickly!’ she told her daughter.

Mallika was allowed only bread and milk that day and for the following two days. By the third day she was able to get up and walk around a little.

‘Don’t you have to go to work today?’ she asked her mother as she got up to wash herself with the special medicinal water.

‘No, I don’t. Amma’s gone into town last night, on the receipt of some urgent news, or so I was told. She has left word saying I don’t need to go to work until she gets back and calls for me. Anjalai’s husband just brought me the message. Obviously Amma’s sister has delivered, that’s why she must have gone in a hurry.’

Dhanabakiyam prepared the traditional meal intended specially for mothers in the post-delivery period. The midwife made a visit to the house to see if the mother and child were doing well. She wanted to check if the baby’s navel had healed. She put the little one on her lap and pressed hard on the belly button with its leftover slit of the umbilical cord. The baby let out a loud wail of pain.

‘There is no wind in the belly but the wound is starting to get infected,’ she mumbled to herself quietly. She scratched up some dried cowdung paste from the floor of the hut, using her nail and smeared it on the baby’s navel. She then left saying she would be back the next day.

She brought a small paper packet when she came to see Mallika the next day. ‘You know what a lot of trouble I went through last night to get this “cigar ash” for your little one? It needed a lot of effort to find a cigar smoker in the first place! Now that I’ve got it I will put it in the baby’s navel and it will heal in no time!’ So saying she took the ash and little water and applied it on the wound.

‘Don’t worry, he will be all right. Now what about you, how are you feeling? Are you healing well? Do you wash regularly with the herbal water? Keep doing that and your soreness will soon be gone! You’ll be just fine! Now, I would like to leave if I may… will you please see me off?’

Dhanabakiyam placed two coconuts, half a dozen yellow bananas, betel leaves and betel nut, four large measures of rice, two small measures of lentil and one measure of whole peanuts along with two rupee coins. She gave it to the midwife and saw her off.

Within a week Mallika was up and about. Well able to look after herself, the baby and the housework, all on her own.

Dhanabakiyam, slightly puzzled at not receiving any message from her mistress, decided to go and look her up in order to find out for herself what the matter was.

She was back within half an hour with tears streaming down her face and obviously distraught and grief stricken.

‘What’s the matter? What happened? Tell me quick…’ Mallika shocked by her mother’s appearances hastened to inquire.

‘What can I say and how do I say it, my girl! Amma has returned from Madras and she has brought terrible news! She says, her sister delivered a beautiful girl but the baby died within two days, due to some vague disease! I believe Seetha Amma is devastated and lay broken hearted in bed! Amma herself is totally shaken up…’

Before Dhanabakiyam finished, Mallika sprung up, startled by the news and ran towards the Iyer residence.

Pankajam broke down and cried aloud on seeing the girl. ‘When everyone else in the world around us can have a normal delivery and live to hold a healthy baby in their arms, why would this sort of thing happen only to us? And it was an expert and a specialist who attended on her too! But still see what happened! The baby started running temperature because of formation of pus in the infected navel and umbilical cord and septicemia set in… We lost our priceless treasure within a few hours!’ Pankajam started weeping uncontrollable. ‘Our lovely princess died!’

The sight of her mistress in anguish made Mallika cry too! In the middle of her weeping Mallika suddenly broke off, for an instant, to voice her thoughts.

‘What is this, Amma? What is this pus and “septic” thing? Can’t it have been treated with a little cowdung or cigar ash? Couldn’t they find a little cigar ash in such a big city? What a real pity!’ she burst out with feeling. Blissfully unaware of the deep impact of her pronouncements, Mallika continued to weep.

The next morning Mallika woke up with a searing pain and couldn’t manage even to stand up. At 7 o’ clock Dhanabakiyam boiled some medicinal poduthalai leaves in water to which she added coarsely powdered red brick (used in building construction).

‘Wash your lower parts with this water twice everyday and the soreness will disappear and the wound will heal quickly!’ she told her daughter.

Mallika was allowed only bread and milk that day and for the following two days. By the third day she was able to get up and walk around a little.

‘Don’t you have to go to work today?’ she asked her mother as she got up to wash herself with the special medicinal water.

‘No, I don’t. Amma’s gone into town last night, on the receipt of some urgent news, or so I was told. She has left word saying I don’t need to go to work until she gets back and calls for me. Anjalai’s husband just brought me the message. Obviously Amma’s sister has delivered, that’s why she must have gone in a hurry.’

Dhanabakiyam prepared the traditional meal intended specially for mothers in the post-delivery period. The midwife made a visit to the house to see if the mother and child were doing well. She wanted to check if the baby’s navel had healed. She put the little one on her lap and pressed hard on the belly button with its leftover slit of the umbilical cord. The baby let out a loud wail of pain.

‘There is no wind in the belly but the wound is starting to get infected,’ she mumbled to herself quietly. She scratched up some dried cowdung paste from the floor of the hut, using her nail and smeared it on the baby’s navel. She then left saying she would be back the next day.

She brought a small paper packet when she came to see Mallika the next day. ‘You know what a lot of trouble I went through last night to get this “cigar ash” for your little one? It needed a lot of effort to find a cigar smoker in the first place! Now that I’ve got it I will put it in the baby’s navel and it will heal in no time!’ So saying she took the ash and little water and applied it on the wound.

‘Don’t worry, he will be all right. Now what about you, how are you feeling? Are you healing well? Do you wash regularly with the herbal water? Keep doing that and your soreness will soon be gone! You’ll be just fine! Now, I would like to leave if I may… will you please see me off?’

Dhanabakiyam placed two coconuts, half a dozen yellow bananas, betel leaves and betel nut, four large measures of rice, two small measures of lentil and one measure of whole peanuts along with two rupee coins. She gave it to the midwife and saw her off.

Within a week Mallika was up and about. Well able to look after herself, the baby and the housework, all on her own.

Dhanabakiyam, slightly puzzled at not receiving any message from her mistress, decided to go and look her up in order to find out for herself what the matter was.

She was back within half an hour with tears streaming down her face and obviously distraught and grief stricken.

‘What’s the matter? What happened? Tell me quick…’ Mallika shocked by her mother’s appearances hastened to inquire.

‘What can I say and how do I say it, my girl! Amma has returned from Madras and she has brought terrible news! She says, her sister delivered a beautiful girl but the baby died within two days, due to some vague disease! I believe Seetha Amma is devastated and lay broken hearted in bed! Amma herself is totally shaken up…’

Before Dhanabakiyam finished, Mallika sprung up, startled by the news and ran towards the Iyer residence.

Pankajam broke down and cried aloud on seeing the girl. ‘When everyone else in the world around us can have a normal delivery and live to hold a healthy baby in their arms, why would this sort of thing happen only to us? And it was an expert and a specialist who attended on her too! But still see what happened! The baby started running temperature because of formation of pus in the infected navel and umbilical cord and septicemia set in… We lost our priceless treasure within a few hours!’ Pankajam started weeping uncontrollable. ‘Our lovely princess died!’

The sight of her mistress in anguish made Mallika cry too! In the middle of her weeping Mallika suddenly broke off, for an instant, to voice her thoughts.

‘What is this, Amma? What is this pus and “septic” thing? Can’t it have been treated with a little cowdung or cigar ash? Couldn’t they find a little cigar ash in such a big city? What a real pity!’ she burst out with feeling. Blissfully unaware of the deep impact of her pronouncements, Mallika continued to weep.

– 1979