It’s been some days since I read Aieman’s story. Every hour, I have grappled with myself on what I would tell the 26-year-old sister of my colleague in Srinagar, who lost her unborn baby amidst the Kashmir lockdown. Nothing I tell her would be enough, but not telling her anything… whose purpose does that serve?
So, here, let me tell her a story, about another time, another baby, another city — hoping that if and when she reads it, she knows that her baby is grieved, that he won’t be forgotten.
December 22, 2000, was a sunny day, unusual for a winter that was about to take a turn for the worse. I had one of my regular appointments with my gynaecologist. The baby wasn’t due for another 20 days or so, and I hoped to use the maternity break to catch up on reading and to finish a pair of woollen booties — both tasks I had enthusiastically decided I was up to.
There was some bad news though. My placenta had started drying up, and the doctor advised a week’s hospitalisation. The pregnancy wouldn’t last full term, she predicted, and joked that maybe I would have a millennium baby, right on New Year. I returned home, packed a bag, gave a lingering look to the chest of drawers I had readied for the baby — with everything Dettol-sanitised — and headed to the hospital.
It was sometime around 8 pm that the nurse walked in for her routine pre-lights out round. The hospital was retiring for the night — the buzz of the corridors had died down, rendering the phones ringing at periodic intervals ominous, and the antiseptic air lay heavy — when she placed a cone-shaped object upside down over my stomach. It was much like those hearing pieces that amateur spies fashion out of glasses to eavesdrop. She listened once, then twice, moved the thing around, and listened more intently. I learnt much later that the simple thing was a Pinard Horn, a stethoscope to hear foetal heartbeat.
Within minutes, I was rushed to a pre-labour room where they told me they couldn’t hear the baby’s heartbeat and showed me a graph sheet with zig-zag lines of the kind seen in Bollywood hospital scenes. As I tried to understand what that meant, my gynaecologist/obstetrician rushed in. She is a beautiful woman, the red of her bindi standing out against the silver grey of her hair, the red of her bangles and the Punjabi parandi in her hair striking against the white of her doctor’s coat, and her diminutive size belying the authority with which she commandeers a room. For the first time, I saw her tousled, missing the bangles, the parandi.
She said they would have to immediately do a Caesarean. The rest of what followed is a daze — the preparation for the operation, transfer to the OT, seeing my family blurred without my glasses and stupidly beaming at them (I can still feel that smile), confident completely in my doctor’s abilities, and breaking into a teary laugh as the doctor pronounced it was a boy, a very tiny premature boy, but healthy. And he had all 10 fingers and all 10 toes. Somehow that detail, in all the craziness of that day, seemed to matter.
I would learn later that for my 2.1-kg son, the day was not over yet. He struggled to breathe, and for a while, there was panic that the hospital didn’t have a ventilator in its neo-natal unit. Ultimately it turned out okay, and 18 years later, the baby who scarily fit into the crook of my arm is now that same length taller than me.
What if I wasn’t in the Capital? What if the phones didn’t work — this was still a time when very few had mobiles? What if my family couldn’t reach because there were “restrictions” outside? What if the doctor couldn’t be contacted? What if, in short, I was in Aieman’s shoes?
On just another “normal” day, in just another “normal” city, Aieman went into hospital for her delivery. Sometime during the day, her baby developed trouble breathing and died even as the senior doctor couldn’t be reached. Her brother spent the next several hours running around Srinagar trying to inform family members of the same.
But would I dare put this question to Aieman? For, don’t I dread what she would say in reply? The 26-year-old, the same age as I was in 2000, waiting for her first child with as much anticipation, with a wardrobe put together as lovingly, would be right in turning around and asking me: whose shoes am I really in?
To Aieman, I am the biggest mass of social media users in the world who hasn’t blinked an eye over 7 million men, women and children blocked out from the world now for a month. To Aieman, I am the voter in the world’s biggest democracy whose eyes won’t see and ears won’t hear. To Aieman, I am the mother from one of those parent WhatsApp groups who fuss over the smallest details of their children, but who never cried over hers. To Aieman, I am the silent audience applauding the government’s semantics over Pakistan, while words like normalcy, detention, curfew lose meaning.
One day, when she can, and she must, Aieman will ask that question. Would we have an answer?
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 7, 2019 under the title “Baby who lived, and baby who should have.”