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In a society obsessed with bloodlines and family ties, inherited traits and nature versus nurture, however, it was just a matter of time before this rickety house of cards collapsed around me.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is one of the winners of the August 2020 Muse of the Month.
The busy little tea shop on the little hillock is nothing more than some tin and ply sheets hastily nailed together. ‘Bholenath Chaiwa’ the sign announces, the splintered end with the missing ‘la’, and crooked alignment signalling its narrow escape from the fury of the flood and storm that has recently hit this region.
As I claim a place on a rickety bench, my tired legs and back proclaim their silent approval. Although just a lowly medical intern, I have worked relentlessly in the make-shift field hospital since arriving here two days ago… stitching wounds, starting I.V lines, assisting in surgeries, taking quick medical histories, stabilising fractures, writing death certificates and transfer summaries. Search and rescue teams are still bringing in the wounded and dying. And an equal number of bodies are piling up in the mortuary.
I look around. A middle-aged man is at the counter and two boys who seem to be related to each other, probably brothers, wait tables. The menu is limited to tea and biscuits.
This is the only place that serves any hot beverage round-the-clock for miles around. No surprise then that it is crowded with army personnel, rescue teams, villagers and hospital staff. I patiently wait as the overworked kid finally reaches me.
“Ek chai, full glass. Masala chai milegi?” I ask hopefully.
“Haan, doctor Didi!” He answers, the boa style stethoscope around my neck giving away my profession.
Glancing at my phone, I realise I have some network coverage at last. It is nearly seven A.M. and ‘Aai’ (mother) would be just finishing with her yoga routine. Normally, she ignores calls while exercising. But today, she picks up at the first ring, which meant that she has been waiting for my call.
“Are you okay? Is everything …alright?” She asks, her love travelling across the miles to create a sharp teary sting at the back of my throat and eyes. I know what she is asking…
“Aai, I have just been working. No time for anything else. This place… what was a village is just a ruin now.” I say.
“Don’t give up, Naina beta. You will find her.” Aai says. Uprooted towers due to the storm mean that the connection is bad. I can barely hear her, so I hang up, promising regular updates.
As always, I am overwhelmed by my mother’s understanding. After all, I am out here searching for my birth mother.
I guess I have always known that I was adopted. I look too different from my parents for it to not be obvious. They are both tall, willowy, fair-complexioned, while I… I am short, dumpy, dusky-skinned. Luckily for me, my parents have always been firm that although not of their body, I am a child of their heart. Growing up, I never doubted what I would be…. exactly like my Aai.
So there I was happily aping my Aai and Baba who are both doctors, tinkering with my ‘doctors playset’ in childhood, reading Robin Cook in my teens and watching Grey’s Anatomy during my college years, acing my medical entrance exams, and proudly getting admission to the same medical college that my parents had attended (and fallen in love over the cadaver dissection table).
In a society obsessed with bloodlines and family ties, inherited traits and nature versus nurture, however, it was just a matter of time before this rickety house of cards collapsed around me. In business terms, this was the ‘strategic inflection point’, as my M.B.A boyfriend Parth liked to say. The day or event that changed everything.
A distantly related Kaku (Aunty), loudly says at a family gathering, “Is that savli ( dusky-skinned) girl the one that Shishir and Medha adopted? Hope she does not take after her birth mother some day! Who knows who she was! Blood is blood, after all!” She is shushed by someone. But not before I hear. Birth mother? Blood is blood? Take after? To a sensitive 17 year old with hormones in overdrive, this is like a seismic shock, the ripples heart-piercing.
I was already in medical school by then, learning Mendelian principles, genetic traits and the profound impact of chromosomal inheritance. Looking back, it amazes me that I had never even wondered who she was… the woman who gave birth to me!
The idea obsesses me. Who was she? An unwed mother? A teenager? A rape victim? A prostitute… drug addict? What if I was like her? Did giving birth to me make her my mother? Did it automatically make me into a person like her? And… Who was my father?
Sensing my turmoil, my parents did not blink when I insisted that a private detective be employed to uncover the identity of my birth mother. It was a tangled web, as I had been anonymously left in a church shelter in Chennai. Finally, after nearly 5 years of searching, I received the name and location of my birth mother. It was a woman named Kumud Ranawat, who had delivered a baby girl in a maternity hospital near Pondicherry. She had been nineteen years old at the time, and unwed, as no father’s name was registered. No woman of that name was found again until school records had been unearthed in a remote village in Himachal Pradesh. She was married now with two children, both boys in their teens and stayed in that same village. That very village where I was now- a village where the wrath of nature had been the most devastating.
I had been gathering the courage to set out for the journey to my ‘roots’ when destiny intervened and the storm struck, the floods sweeping away the entire valley including her village. Volunteering to come as part of the medical relief team, I have managed to be posted to this particular hospital, as it was closest to the village that I am keen to visit.
Two more days go by before the human cost of the ravages of the flood are somewhat controlled. The wounded are still coming in, but less in number. The dead are, however, piling up. And for the latter, we can do nothing.
Selfish though I am, it is still unthinkable to make enquiries when the villagers are in the middle of their grieving and loss. But I diligently scan the list put up daily of the dead, missing and wounded. There is no Mrs. Kumud Ramesh Singh, as she is called now, on any list. Age 41 years. Wife of Ramesh Bholenath Singh, the local school teacher. The detective has given her address, but there are no roads, streets, landmarks or houses left to search in, such is the aftermath of the flood.
It is a small village, steeped in tradition. These are simple folk. God- fearing, tied to the land they live on. The women wear a ghungat, so I have no picture of Kumud ( or that is how I think of her). Few women are educated or have means of income. I shudder to think what an unwed girl with an unwanted pregnancy nearly 22 years ago would face!
The stories of terror, loss, fear, bafflement, shock, grief that swirl around me are more than I can bear. Their lives and loss put my own anxieties and fears into perspective. I have a family, home, career and life ahead of me. Why am I resentful of someone who had rejected me because she had no choice?!
A lot of my spare time is spent at the tea-shop. The two ‘waiters’, Bablu and Chotu, now bring me tea almost before I could ask for it. They are a cheery duo, somewhat inept with the serving, but moving nimbly. The man behind the counter is their father. All three of them are new at the chai- business. I learn that the tea shop belongs to the boy’s ‘Chacha’ who was injured and is now recuperating.
“So who is making this tea? Is that your mother?” I ask, nodding at the tired-looking cook at the back.
“No, no, Didi. That’s our Chachi.”
I asked, “So where is your mother?”
“She is visiting our grandmother near Shimla, and should be back any day now.”
On the fifth day, we are told that we would be shifting base to a bigger hospital and the field hospital would be manned by basic staff as the rescue operations are nearing an end.
I decide to ask about Kumud Singh at the tea shop. They would certainly know about her.
As I approach the tea shop, steeling myself to ask some uncomfortable questions, I realise that a crowd had gathered around. The shop is not doing business today. The boys are crying quietly. And their father looks stricken.
“What is the matter?” I ask an elderly villager who is talking gravely to another.
“Their mother was returning by bus…. the flood washed away the bus into the river. She was near the emergency exit at the back….could have saved herself, but she stayed behind to help to lift the children trapped in the bus on to the roof. The army helicopters could rescue six children from the top of the bus, but all the rest were swept away.” He answered.
Another villager said weeping, “They have been waiting for news of her, thinking that she was safe…. These children will grow up without a mother! Now Rameshji will have to do what Kumudji would have done for them. She was such a brave soul! May God help the Singh family.”
Stunned, I turn away. I knew now. Her name was not on the list because they had thought she was safe.
Nothing on earth would induce me to approach this grieving family now. What would I say to them? It would be cruel to ask them anything. It would leave them with more questions about the woman who was the central figure in their lives, and now undeniably a heroic one.
I walk away slowly, shaken.
For a long time, I have been scared that I would be like the mother who gave birth to me. This trip, taken to confront her has opened my eyes in other ways.
Genetics is a cosmic game of chance, I realise, Mother Nature’s game of roulette. We cannot control what is handed to us, but faced with the choices we are given, whether we evolve and adapt and change is up to us. Just like Kumud had. A simple girl with few choices. When she needed to, she had adapted. Whenever she could, she had evolved… into a wife and mother. When there were no choices, she had sacrificed. She had risen above her Destiny.
And I would too.
Editor’s note: Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean Baker, and had an abusive childhood. She also went through sexual abuse at the hands of many people she trusted growing up and as a teenager. After many ups and downs, she got into the entertainment and modelling industry, and finally as an actor doing bit roles.
Despite all her struggles, however, once she got her first hit, she ruled the box office for almost a decade. Her tenacity in getting what she wanted to do in life is legendary. Unfortunately, the world lost her to suicide at a very young age, on 4th August 1962.
One thing about Marilyn that is not so well known is that she was a voracious reader of serious literature, and had a way with words too – dashing the popular myth about her and ‘dumb blondes’. An intriguing woman, indeed!
The cue is this quote by her: “For a long time I was scared I’d find out I was like my mother.”
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: geralt on pixabay
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