Bearing a child in one’s womb is often termed the miracle of life. It’s a thing of beauty: the continuation of one’s species. However, the process is not always pretty when humans ascribe too much importance to it. When a society places an undue amount of pressure on a woman to conceive, to prove her femininity, the miracle is soured almost certainly. These events are exactly what happened around one year ago.
I remember when my neighbours first found out that they were having a child. They were no richer than the rest of us, but the birth of a child was always an auspicious event and welcome news. They went to the village medical outpost to get the ultrasonic images printed out (which they shared with us all on a Saturday evening when we were called over to their house). Almost the entire village was pleased with the news. Some were displeased because they weren’t invited to the house at the time the news was delivered, but you can never please everybody, so their unhappiness wasn’t really pandered to.
The only ones who were visibly displeased – despite being invited- were the neighbours who lived across from them. They had been married for five years and hadn’t been able to conceive. The husband worked on seasonal projects as a farm hand and the wife as a daily labourer with construction projects in the village. It was no secret that they were unable to conceive a child for some time now. At first the jokes were about his infertility but if you live long enough in a patriarchal society, the blame very easily falls upon the woman’s shoulders. She wasn’t doing something right and was obviously angering the gods!
On the day of the “party”, they stayed very briefly at the house and left almost immediately after the news was broken. Having lived together in that little village all our lives we knew that they’d come around, eventually. They were not an evil sort or rude at all. I remember the summer days when my mother was tired or out of the house I’d go over to their house and have some lime juice to offer with a smile always. To them, I was the child they never had. They would buy me mangoes in the mango season and invite me to eat with them. Like I said, when a society starts to define the purpose of a woman as child-bearer then no matter what else she says or does is relevant in the eyes of society.
I saw them walk out of the house in a rush. They didn’t stir out of their house for much of the following week. Or the week after that. When the neighbours finally stirred out of their house, they avoided walking near the happy house altogether. Life moved on as usual in the rest of the village. For everyone else, at least. I was on a break from my big-city job and had decided to come back to help out on the family farm instead of sitting at a computer all day long. It had been some time since my parents passed away and left the farm to me. (Thank you for saying “my condolences”.)
A few more weeks passed until the festive season of the year began. A time when many stalls would spring out of the earth as it was saturated by the rain water that fell on cue. There was talk of some travelling circus performers visiting us as well! With the festive period came a certain kind of crowd of people – some city folk who would have read about our festivals in a blog, some circus performers and the travelling occultists, or tantriks.
While the city folk just proved to be obnoxious as a rule and the performers tended to entertain adults and children for days on end, the occultists kept to themselves for the most part. In fact, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, on the edge of the forest. It was an acceptable arrangement for most of the villagers as their presence brought along with them an unpleasant energy. We don’t really know why they came to our village, either.
Some whispers in the village spoke of an ancient altar tucked away in the forest nearby where the occultists conducted their dark rituals. The veracity of such a claim is always hard to ascertain, given the ease with which the mind gives way to fear when it comes to things it doesn’t understand and is too afraid to try to understand. I tried to be rational about it and would dismiss the concerns as being simply superstitious.
The occultists would wander around the village, from house to house, begging alms and offering their many services. Those who sought the help of occultists would often go to them in secrecy for fear of being judged by the rest of the village. There was always something or the other that the villagers would require a little extra help with. Crop failure, a failed romance, good scores in exams – you know, the kind of things that people particularly worry themselves over.
Last year, when the occultists came to town, there was an added air of unease around them. It was almost as if they knew what the situation in our village was like, with the baby drama playing out. The first house they visited was the house across the road from us. A group of four tantriks wearing red-orange robes walked up to the doorway and knocked on the door. After a few greetings and food was given to them I expected them to go inside but instead they turned around and walked away. One of the members of the entourage looked at me solemnly as they walked passed. Probably didn’t like that I spied on them.
It’s odd that I’m able to remember all of this so clearly. I guess seeing the tantriks is what triggered all of this so well. Anyway, as long as you’re listening…
The night following the occultist’s visit to the childless couple’s house was a particularly quiet one. It was a New Moon night. Everyone just thought it better to stay in-doors. I was seated out on the verandah, with a candle to keep me company. I remember seeing the husband open the front door in the house across the road and silently walk out of the house and sneak towards our house and walk past our house to reach the forest (from where the tantriks cropped up). I did guess that they’d seek help with the matter of conceiving a child.
A few minutes later, I remember seeing the would-be father creep out of his house and follow the other man into the forest. This was rather surprising. But then again, it was possible they were just looking to get a bit of extra money – babies can be quite expensive, after all! Still, it was interesting to think of what they’d talk about when they bumped into each other out in the forest!
The months rolled by and the occultists left our village after two months from when they first came – a tradition that they kept every year. The would-be father started to go out of the village more frequently. The village gossip indicated that he had been offered a better position at a farm near the district headquarter township and that they were now able to pull in more cash. I got that guess right, I suppose!
As the money came in, they started readying the house for the birth of their child. Furniture was either brought in or made inside the house. There was even talk of an extension to their household with a new room or two over the years.
The folks from across the road were a lot more cheerful as time rolled on and we got nearer to the delivery date. They seemed to have made their peace with being childless. Good for them! I always did like them.
As the delivery date drew closer, it was apparent that the father would likely be out of town on work, even if he planned his leaves well. So on the Saturday before the delivery date, the father and pregnant mother came over to my house. I was inside the house, finishing up a sketch of two children playing under a tree, with two parents and an occultist drinking tea. I was trying to remember the face of the man who looked directly at me, for some reason. I mean, I know now.
The couple knocked on the door and I went out to receive them. They didn’t want to sit down, they said. They had come to ask a favour of me.
“We know this is a lot to ask, but can you help my wife if she goes into delivery when I’m away?”
“I’d love to. But I don’t know how helpful I’ll be, really!” I had to be honest.
“You just have to be there.” He replied with a warm smile.
That sounded alright to me.
“We’re hoping that the baby will come before he goes away, but we just want to make sure there’s a back-up!” she said rather excitedly.
“I’d be happy to be of help in any way!” I responded with what I hoped was an equal amount of enthusiasm.
They thanked me profusely and returned to their house.
Sure enough, two days later, he was called away for work. He dropped in just as I was hanging up the painting on my wall. He gave me his mobile number and an emergency contact number. An OB/GYN doctor from the village medical outpost had come out to the house to check in on his wife and expected to deliver the baby within three days. He hoped to be back by the third day but didn’t sound too hopeful. I reassured him that I’d be able to take care of the situation. He thanked me again and climbed into the back of a pick-up truck with a few other farm hands.
I went over to their house and reassured the mother that I’d be there to help and that I’d come by the following morning to spend the whole day there to be around if she needed anything.
Two days later, when I was on call, I was there to help bring a new baby into this world. It was pretty intense. I thought all those birth-scenes on television shows would have prepared me. Nope. Not one bit.
The baby was wrapped up and placed in the crib right next to the mother’s bed after she greeted the human who shared her food for 9 months. The doctor gave me her number and told me to call if anything came up. I assured her I’d take care of my neighbour and the doctor left with that promise. I asked the mother if she wanted me to sleep in the adjoining room or if she was okay with me leaving. She told me that she’d like for me to stay in the next room but that she didn’t have any form of bed for me. I told her I’d run across to my house to get a mat to lay on the floor. She told me to hurry back. It was just twilight and the sun had only then set but I guess she didn’t want to be left alone for too long.
I went out and to the left and walked into my house. I looked around for a mat and my phone charger. Then I remembered that I’d have to lock the backdoor and all that jazz. I was just about done with locking up the back door when I heard a scream from next door. Fearing the worst, I dropped all the things in my hand and ran outside and back to the house next door.
“What happened?” I asked as I reached the bedroom.
She had gotten out of bed and was crying loudly into her hands.
“He took… my baby!” She bawled her eyes out.
“Who took her? Where did he go?”
“The forest!” She sobbed
“Who took your baby?” I asked again, gently.
“The tant-” She could barely finish the word. But I knew what it was. And where I had to go.
“Lock your door and don’t open it until I come back!” I gently squeezed her hand and ran out the door.
I ran into the thick forest. The grass resisted as I rushed through; little hooked pods stuck onto my jeans as I ran.
I knew that I’d have to go to the temple that the tantriks used when they came to our village. It was a good kilometer and a half into the forest.
I pushed through the forest as fast as I could. With the failing light behind me and my phone still in my house, I had no way of illuminating the path ahead and had to just push through on blind faith.
A stray root tripped me up and I fell face-down into the dirt-floor of the forest. I was suddenly conscious of all the crawling insects that would have been rudely interrupted by my pursuit. I apologised to them for the commotion.
“Now is not the time to fall prostrate,” I reminded myself and I got up.
At last I came upon a source of light shining out from the forest. It had to be the temple.
Squeezing the last bit of my energy into my legs, I ran straight up towards the light. It was a few old torches lit up with some oil.
The baby was there, alright. Lying on an altar, crying for her mother. There was another altar, closer to me, that was parallel to the baby’s.
Above the baby stood the tantrik. The same one who met my eyes a few months ago, when they first visited our village. He smiled down beatifically at the baby and then at me.
To his left stood the childless couple. They were smiling benevolently upon the baby as well, before they turned to look at me.
Like a stone sinking into my stomach I figured what was going on.
This was a sacrificial ritual I’d stumbled on.
“This is all so that you can get pregnant?!” I shouted at the couple.
“Yes. You don’t understand what it’s like. In our village.” said the mother, without much emotion in her voice.
“But you can’t just take some other person’s child!” I felt I didn’t have to say that. And yet.
“If no one wants the child, then… that seems okay, don’t you think?” said a clear, calm voice behind me.
It was the father, walking into the clearing.
Behind him came the mother.
“What do you mean? You agree to this?!”
The father snickered. “Oh, we came up with the arrangement.”
I was shocked. They would give up their child?!
Then I felt a heavy log hit the back of my head.
When I regained consciousness, I was lying on an altar, my hands tied to a stone loop that stuck out from the base of the altar. To my left, in the place of the baby on the next altar lay the woman who couldn’t bear a child. The other adults stood around me in a semi-circle, smiling down upon me. If the child could smile, I’ll bet it would have, too.
“What a shame that a smart young lady like yourself remained unmarried! You could have easily had a lovely family by now! That would have definitely saved you” said the husband of the woman who couldn’t bear a child. He was standing to the left of his wife, holding her hand.
“But there’s so much more to being a woman than just bearing children!” This did not go down well with the adults. The couple with a baby were trying to get the girl to go to sleep.
With that, all conversation ceased.
The tantrik stood over me, to my right. He started chanting something in a perverse and profane language that wasn’t spoken, nor even known by the priests and learned folks in my village. I wondered what was going on. I mean, I had somewhat of an idea.
At last, as the tantrik seemed to reach the end of his prayer or enchantment, the stars in the night sky shone brightly above me. The great band of the Milky Way stood majestically above me. I knew I was going to die, so I guessed I may as well take delight in the beauty of the Universe.
I thought of my parents and how I missed them; I’m sure they had better plans for me than landing up as a sacrifice in a ritual. I thought about the families around me and how twisted they were by the desire to have a child that they’d be willing to take someone else’s. And that is precisely the environment that any child would be born into: toxic and manipulative. This child, or whatever was to come of this abominable ritual, would be no different from their parents.
The tantrik finally stopped chanting. He pulled out a small knife that he’d tucked into his robes.
“You’ll forget about this soon,” said the tantrik in a voice that was meant to sound reassuring, I suppose. At the time, it didn’t sound comforting at all.
The man standing opposite him looked at my eyes and thanked me for my sacrifice. Despite my best efforts, tears streamed down the sides of my face. Thanking me after stealing my life?
The tantrik brought down the knife he had kept hidden the whole time and it landed squarely in my chest. I couldn’t scream. I mean, I tried. But the sound that came was not my own voice.
That’s all I remember from a year ago.
Things are different now. I don’t even remember these memories unless I’m particularly agitated. I mean, this is some weird form of life that I’m going through. You’ll pardon a dead lady for saying so. Things blur out and go hazy every now and then. I have trouble remembering who and where I am and just when I can grasp it, I feel it slip by and my mind goes into a strange kind of slumber.
Certain things come back to me out of the blue and then I remember things better. Like how I narrated all those things just now.
Images, faces and sounds trigger off certain memories in my head but often not long enough. I feel that my mind is losing its grasp on who I was, like how a dream is forgotten in the first few minutes after you wake up.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m still on the altar and if that the moment before the knife struck my chest just stretches out into infinity. But then I see things that don’t quite match the life I knew before.
I see my house, but it’s not the same as before. It doesn’t even face the right direction. Also, a few months back, when I played with a little girl, the tantrik from the ritual walked over and stayed to drink tea with my parents on the verandah. That reminded me of the painting I hung up on the wall. That painting is no longer in my house.
Although, I see the childless couple more often than before. The lady offers me lime juice as she used to when I was younger.
Occasionally she picks me up, smiles at me and asks me to say, “Mummy”.
Please let me forget this soon.