Tarabai was harvesting sugarcane in Latur, hundreds of kilometres away from Sunderdev, a remote village in Khalwa block of Madhya Pradesh, four years ago when she went into labour for the first time.
The teenager delivered a baby boy in the sugarcane field where she worked with her husband Ramdev, a landless labourer belonging to Korku tribe who often migrates in search of work to neighbouring Maharashtra.
Her second baby, also a boy, was born in the family’s modest hut two years ago, because there was no government hospital nearby.
A year ago, this forest village got a sub-centre, the peripheral outpost in the government healthcare system, where normal deliveries take place. But on December 22, when Tarabai, now around 20, went into labour for the third time, the auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) and another health worker were away for a meeting at the block headquarters in Khalwa.
With the sub-centre closed, Tarabai’s third baby, a girl, was delivered at home around noon, with her mother-in-law Sunderbai and sister-in-law Parvati, who lives in an adjacent hut, helping. Both had never aided a delivery before.
Sometime later, while feeding her daughter for the first time, Tarabai noticed that the healthy newborn had two extra fingers and two extra toes. “I thought no one would marry her when she grows up,” she says in a low voice, shifting her gaze recalling what she did next. Tarabai took a razor and cut the extra digits, which she recalls as being “thread like”, thinking it won’t hurt the baby and the scars would heal by the time she grows up.
She insists the baby did not cry.
The mother-in-law and sister-in-law say they don’t know when the young mother used the razor. It did not take long for the village of less than 1,500 people to know of the childbirth, but nobody knew about the missing fingers and toes. The next morning anganwadi workers visited the home and referred Tarabai to a government hospital, but she refused to go saying she was fit.
It’s common for pregnant Korku women to do heavy manual work till they go into labour and join work within a few days of delivery, irrespective of whether it takes place at home or in hospital. “We don’t rest for more than a week. For the first five days after the delivery, the mother eats only a gruel of boiled local millet or its water because we believe anything else will harm the baby,” says Parvati.
But the infection from the razor wounds spread, as the post-mortem later revealed, leading to the newborn’s death within 48 hours of birth. Tarabai, who has studied till Class 9, Sunderbai and Parvati dug a pit in the backyard and buried the body late on December 24.
Death from malnutrition is common in these parts and people don’t often react to a newborn passing away. But, in this case, word somehow spread that the baby’s death was not natural. Police arrived three days later and exhumed the body. After the post-mortem report came last week, Tarabai was booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and also for destroying evidence along with the other two women.
Ramdev, who never got to see his daughter, hasn’t returned yet from where he is working in Maharashtra. He earns a little more than Rs 3,000 a month and cannot afford to lose the wages. With no employment opportunities around, landless labourers from these parts often go to Maharashtra for work.
At home, Tarabai and mother-in-law Sunderbai keep a drum filled with water at the door for security — the lock is broken and they have not fixed it yet. But the hut which they share has little more than a wooden cot and a few utensils.
The family says Tarabai’s father-in-law Chhogya, who died two years ago, also had extra fingers and toes. Anganwadi karyakarta Ramoti Dhadekar says the tragedy could have been prevented. “Had the delivery taken place at the sub-centre, Tarabai would have not done what she did,” she says.
Police, who waited till the post-mortem report came to take action against Tarabai, are also struck by her “innocence”. “She was not aware of what she had done,” says Hina Dawar, the in-charge of Khalwa Police Station, where a case was registered more than two weeks after the body was exhumed.
Meanwhile, more than what Tarabai did, Sundardev village is taken aback at the “fuss” that has followed. Most villagers wonder how “outsiders” got involved with something that could have been resolved by the village elders themselves. They also say the baby’s fingers and toes might have been “at best the size of a wheat grain”.
Says Ramcharan, an elderly villager, “It’s okay for a man but not a woman to have extra fingers and toes because she won’t be allowed to participate in religious events. The belief is that no one will marry her.”
The panchayat is often called to resolve disputes arising from elopement of young boys and girls here. “Girls are usually married by the age of 16 or 17. If they are not, they elope. It’s difficult for outsiders to understand the local dynamics,” says another anganwadi worker, Ganga Sathe.
ASHA worker Manishbai believes there is another reason the villagers don’t think Tarabai did anything drastic. She takes you to a home whose owner has chopped off the ears of his goats, to enable him to identify them easily. Manishbai believes Tarabai may have thought cutting off the fingers and toes would be as “simple”.
ANM Sharda Dhurve says when Tarabai went into labour, there is little she could have done as she was away and mobiles don’t work in the village. She also points to the resistance they face from Korku tribals, especially during vaccination drives. “They think vaccinating their children gets us more money and that’s why we chase them.”
Leaving for the police station for another round of questioning, Tarabai admits she is “a little scared” now. Bringing her thumb and index finger close to demonstrate how small the baby’s toes and fingers were, she mumbles, “I did not know what I was doing was wrong.” A pause later, she adds, “Had it been a boy, I would not have cut them.”