The year was 1939. I had no karmic credits to bank on and no destiny to guide me yet. I was not even born. But the upheaval and chaos of the Second World War were already defining my life. While bombs, bullets and fires were keeping all of Europe frightened, families far away in India were spending nights awake, worrying about the next meal.
In an attempt to maintain price stability, provide access to basic foods at reasonable cost and keep a check on private trade, speculators and black-marketers, our British rulers introduced ration cards. Then came 1941, the year I hit the planet earth. And abracadabra, a Ration Baby was born.
It was a morning of late spring. The sun was up, sharing its warmth. The Kurl residence in bicultural Moradabad, on the banks of the rivers Ram-Ganga and Gangan, inhabited by both Hindus and Muslims as neighbour, buzzed with activity, excitement and anxiety – the normal family traits.
There is this age old triangular relationship between mornings, the family kitchen and senior women. If they were not busy with their morning business, or praying in the family temple, they were in the kitchen cooking. Bhabho was in the kitchen, though her ears were at the door waiting for Nimmo. Then, not so suddenly, she heard Kanti gasping for breath and announcing, “Midwife Nimmo has arrived.”
“Bring her in and take her to your bhabhi’s room, but before you do that, offer Nimmo some water and soap to wash her hands,” instructed Bhabho.
“Take Nimmo to my bhabhi’s room?” Kanti repeated her mother’s instructions to make sure she had heard them right.
“Yes, to your bhabhi’s room. Are you deaf?”
“But she is a Muslim,’ said Kanti as though her mother was unaware of Nimmo’s religion.
“I know who she is. Today is not the first time Nimmo has come to this house. She delivered you and every other child in this family. So hurry up. Don’t waste my time or go find me a Hindu midwife,” Bhabho reinforced her instructions, knowing she could not find a single Hindu midwife in the entire city. Delivering babies is dirty work; below Hindu dignity.
Kanti grudgingly returned to the main door to bring Nimmo in.
“Adaabarz, Bibiji,” Nimmo greeted Bhabho.
“Adaabarz Nimmo. Kaisi ho? How are you?” Bhabho reciprocated.
“Khuda kaa raham hai. God is merciful,” Nimmo replied with fatigue in her voice.
After washing and disinfecting her hands Nimmo entered mom’s room. “How long have you been having these pains? Nimmo asked.
“For about two hours,” mom responded.
“Let me see.” Nimmo poked around mom’s belly to feel how far down had I slipped. I felt an unpleasant poke of her boney fingers.
After a few seconds she declared, “Bahuraani taiyaar hai. Madam is ready. Bring me eight brick to make a squatting seat, lots of warm water, clean rags and a pair of sharp scissors.”
As soon as Bhabho helped mom to squat on a seat, it did not take me long to drop like a fruit into Nimmo’s shaking hands. I recall being welcomed by four women congratulating each other. They were the ones who did all the running around for pots and pots of warm water and clean rags and praying for my safe delivery with all my body parts in perfect shape. The truth is that in our culture a delivery room was an exclusive domain of women, where men were not allowed. For men to witness the secrets of child birth was a no-no.
Right after I came out of mom’s soft padded chamber, Nimmo cut off my umbilical cord and tied its leftover piece attached to my tummy with a piece of ordinary string. Traditionally, if any of my grandfathers were around, they would have leaped out of their beds at my first cry and performed the ritual of parting with a strand of their sacred threads (yaggyopavita) to tie around my umbilical cord. The next person entitled to perform that ceremony would have been my dad. But none was around. My paternal grandfather had already moved to the spirit world. My maternal grandfather lived 130 miles away in the foothills of the Himalayas and my dad? Well, he too was away. He worked as a loan-collector for a desi banker. They conducted their business through a documentary system called “Hundi” based on honour, trust and reference (Hawala). As the collection of loans was a risky business, there was always a danger of being robbed, or even killed. Dad always traveled with sepoys employed by his employer.
While I was busy protesting my eviction from my private apartment, Nimmo was busy washing, wiping and wrapping me in mom’s soft cotton dhoti and preparing to hand me over to her. After all that was done, Bebe with great relief looked at mom and me and said humouredly, “Hold your “pait-ponchhna, the womb sweeper, the last baby and feed him.” Bebe was a psychic perhaps. That condo where I had been fashioned, manufactured, developed and stored for nine months was never rented out ever again. This is how I earned my second nick-name. I know lots of women, who are named ‘Iti’ meaning the end.
Unlike first-time-moms, my mom was a pro. She knew how to hold me and how to feed me. She had perfected these skills on my elder siblings before she used them on me. As soon as mom brought her breast near my mouth and guided me to her nipple, I latched on to it but only for a few minutes. Sucking food from that pouch was tiring; very unlike that intra-umbilical feeding I had become used to. A little later, I licked my lips. They tasted sweet. Perhaps mom had put a tiny drop of honey on them to change the taste of my mouth. Then, she touched my lips with a small cotton ball dipped in warm spicy water. I remember some one calling that warm water ghutti.
As soon as Nimmo left, Bebe and Bhabho washed the delivery room with a white liquid. I heard Bebe calling it phenol. It smelled much too strong for my tender nostrils. Then, they placed a clay pot filled with slow burning charcoal outside at the door, and sprinkled a pinch of some herbal powder on the fire. From then on, whoever entered our room had to throw a pinch of that powder on the fire. It too had a pungent smell. Occasionally I tried to express my displeasure about it by sneezing. God only knew how many times Bhabho or Bebe had to say, “chhatra-pate” something equivalent to bless you.”
And that pair of scissors, the one that Nimmo used to cut off my umbilical cord, Bebe placed them on open fire, purified them and then tossed them under our bed for protection against evil spirits. But I do not know to date where is that secret spot where Nimmo buried my umbilical chord to stake my claim to be my janmbhoomi (birth spot), as Hindus claim the piece of land to be Lord Rama’s birth spot, right below the Babri Mosque in Faizabad, India.
Everything except one crucial detail moved smoothly. The exact time of my birth was grossly neglected. I wish there had been at least one of my three uncles hanging around, or anyone of the ladies had instructed Auntie Kanti, who at the time was most probably playing hopscotch in the courtyard, to keep an eye on the clock and record the exact time of my birth to assist our priest with my astrological road map. Everyone knows that a child’s horoscope is the only documentary conventional chart that determines the crucial details of his or her life. It is consulted to determine the time and date of the major events of life. An accurately charted horoscope can even predict the day and time of death. So, whatever approximate time, about 10:45 a.m. the ladies could recall was passed on to Pundit Ram Swaroop. Thank God they did not mess up the date of my birth.
Actually, my birth was a relatively quiet affair. I never heard mom or anybody else telling me that within days after I was born a group of eunuchs arrived en masse to perform a ritual dance, sing songs for my longevity and collect rupees and saris as their customary reward. Wartime must have been rough on those poor eunuchs as well.
In addition to be called a Ration Baby and Womb Sweeper, I also earned a third epithet, ‘Ariyal Tattoo’ a Stubborn Mule. I grew up a cranky, high-strung and a timid child with very low tolerance for frustration. As the youngest in the family, I was picked on and teased a lot. My brothers had fun at my expense. They had this habit of teasing me by saying that I was adopted. I began to believe them, and think that my mom was not my mom and my dad was theirs. Only when I threatened to run away, they felt my grief.