Savita was born in adversity. When she was a child, her family became destitute due to an earthquake that ruptured a dam nearby to where they lived. Her father was a farmer. He could drive a tractor. The field, the crops, the house, and the tractor were lost in flood and the subsequent mud. Four starving children, his wife, and his driving skills were all that remained, so the farmer turned into a jeep driver.
Savita studied up to seventh grade and began menstruating at an early age. Therefore, her parents were anxious to find a husband for her, so that her seeds could be harvested. One of their distant relatives drove an auto rickshaw in Thane. He would visit the new settlement every year after making a pilgrimage to the submerged deities of his forefathers. He saw Savita and asked for her hand. This nephew worked as a watchman in a factory in the industrial town that Thane had become at that time. The boy was the only son of the jeep driver’s widowed sister. Savita would have a queen’s life because the boy owned a hut and a ration card. That meant social security. Savita certainly had no choice. The jeep driver and rickshaw driver celebrated the agreement with plentiful hooch while hogging fried fish and chicken curry. After their marriage, Savita could get a job as housemaid in the nearby housing colony, or, if she was lucky, she could become a sweeper in the factory where her husband worked. Then, in case of any emergency, he would be right there with his rickshaw. It’s always useful to own a vehicle when the time of a child’s delivery is close or in case of a mishap. Savita’s father showed the married couple around the lake, parks, hills, markets, cinema halls, and even the astounding sites of the magical city Mumbai that was close by.
After the marriage Savita stopped menstruating, and that was the reason I saw her for the first time. She appeared as a thin girl with long hair displaying a large vermilion smear on her forehead, indicating that she was married. She was hiccoughing and vomiting and could barely wait on the bench at my clinic. When her turn came, her mother-in-law stood proudly beside her in my treatment room. Savita was tall and pale, whereas the older woman was short, stout, and dark. Obviously Savita was pregnant. A little reassurance and a few tablets took care of her. As the days passed, she stopped vomiting, put on weight, and developed butterfly pigmentation on her cheeks. Vitamins and iron tablets were compulsory, and she obeyed the strict regiment of pills. In due course, she delivered a baby boy. Her mother-in-law brought me a small package of sweets, and I advised her to get the child inoculated. She nodded, but the advice was ignored. The triple vaccine shots were never administered.
A year later Savita returned with teary eyes and wet blouse over her full breasts. The boy had a fever and was not sucking her milk. He was coughing and crying continuously. Both of the women had to hold the child while I forced open his mouth, and there were thick white patches on his tonsils. It was diphtheria. I urged them to take the child immediately to the Infectious Disease Hospital in Mumbai. Shortage of the serum or delay in administration led to the inevitable result. The firstborn was sacrificed to the dark and archaic goddess of ignorance. She returned to my clinic to stop the lactation and ease the painful swelling of her breasts. She was crying, and I ran my hand on her head to reassure her. She held my hand and hugged me close. Her loss and loneliness both were evident in her gesture. This girl-woman who almost became a mother and missed, needed a father now. I was that father-figure.
From that day on, she started confiding many things to me. She wanted to study and perhaps go to a college. She wanted to read books and newspapers. She wanted to travel and see places. She wanted to visit famous temples. She never talked of dresses, jewellery, powder, perfumes, or any adornment of herself. She wanted employment to earn some money to help her family. She asked me if she could come and work as my assistant or sweep the clinic? I really had no need nor could I afford to take on help because of my modest earnings. Spending money on such frills would mean raising my fees, and that would make it even more difficult to serve the poor. Much to my relief, she confided that her father often helped her financially and that one of her brothers got a job at the dam. She was going to spend a couple of months with her parents, and she offered me some mangoes from her village.
Years rippled away, and Savita bore two sons. She visited my clinic for their inevitable but passing childhood ailments. Both she and her husband would repeatedly ask me to grace them by stopping at their home in a nearby slum, but somehow the opportunity never arrived. However, Savita returned with a swollen belly while she was nursing the younger son. Guilt was written on her face because I had admonished her against having a third child. From where would they find the means to bring up and educate their two sons? How could they afford a third child? She was anaemic and exhausted already from breastfeeding. I suggested that she could go for medical termination of the pregnancy and opt for tubectomy. Dejected, she whispered to me to talk to her mother-in-law about it. The old woman very coyly insisted that, God willing, the coming child would be a girl.
“After all,” she remarked, “what’s a house without a daughter, so please forgive my son and Savita,” she begged me. “Let the life within her grow.”
Many years ago, when I was a medical student I was fiercely against terminating any pregnancy. In the early years of my career as a government doctor, that view did not change. It meant taking away a life. After some experiences at my clinic, however, I realised that the primary aim should be to support the existing life first. If that life is sacrificed for allowing another to take shape, the offence remains the same. But at both stages my concept of life was anthropocentric, which has changed only in the last two decades. Life, I slowly came to understand, is a multidimensional continuity covering not only all the living species, but also the totality of the universe that is, with its infinite forms, transcending time. If that proposition is true, it was equally true that Savita was pregnant and needed care as much as a blade of grass needs to be cared for. Like Walt Whitman did with words, I had to take care of the blade of grass growing in Savita’s belly with vitamins, iron, and calcium.
For her delivery, she went to her parents’ home. More than a year passed before she returned to my clinic with pink blossoming on her ample cheeks wearing a new and rather expensive dress, a thicker gold chain around her neck, and fancy gold bangles. She must have put on at least ten pounds with her blouse stretching at the sleeves and, of course, her burgeoning breasts. Tucked in a neat bundle and smelling of baby powder was her best accomplishment, a daughter! Her parents had spoiled her completely. Robust food, freedom from housework, and open air sans pollution in the village had turned Savita into an attractive woman. She very pompously said that her daughter had received all the shots from the rural health centre. I asked her if she was given oral polio vaccine, and Savita turned away her eyes in guilty manner. I directed her to go to the nearby municipal clinic, since I was not stocking the vaccines. Although her mother-in-law was doting on the granddaughter, she found one reason after another not to visit the clinic. Perhaps one dose was administered.
One rainy day they brought the girl with diarrhoea and fever. After two days Savita revisited me saying that the girl’s left foot remained outwardly turned and that the leg also did not move very much. My fears rushed in a flood. It had to be polio. The fever and diarrhoea had responded to the medication, but to confirm this new diagnosis, I had to refer the child to a neurologist. Corroboration was swift, but the correction was distant and doubtful. The girl was bright-eyed, laughing, and developing very quickly. But Savita, on the other hand, was wilting. She had vague aches, disturbed sleep, anorexia, and weakness. I gave her antidepressants and vitamins injections. Even after her treatments, she would remain sitting with her daughter in her lap until there were no patients left at my clinic, and then she would start crying and repeatedly request another remedy or rubbing oil for the girl.
After explaining the prognosis over and over, she would burst in tears pleading, “There’s magic in your hands. Can’t you just do something for my baby’s leg?”
It’s difficult when miracles are demanded from medical discipline, but it becomes frightening when patients start deifying you. It entails an intimacy to which you may not want to surrender. It also risks serious consequences if you can not fulfill their exigencies. Three years passed, and Savita’s daughter could be sent for some correction with calipers and physiotherapy. But the centre was far away in Mumbai. Travelling alone would take four hours and several changes of trains and buses. She would have to walk long stretches and climb the bridges over railway stations carrying her daughter. Savita agreed to all this.
Once when I was out driving, I stopped and asked some of her neighbours where she lived and managed to find her hut. Her mother-in-law was sitting outside tending a stall of tobacco and betel leaves in front of the door. Savita and the children also came out at the sound of the car halting before their home. Her husband was not around. The old woman told me that he had lost his job and was out in search of employment. Those were the days when many large and small industries were shifting away from Thane because a parochial political organisation had taken over the trade unions and the municipal corporation. There were no jobs, and the number of layoffs was escalating.
Both of the women were minding the tobacco shop. While we were talking, several people collected out of curiosity, and some were staggering drunkenly, muttering lewd remarks about the two women. Savita had slipped away, and soon she returned with a cold bottle of soda. Before I could refuse, she had expertly opened the cap, and I had to drink it with her sons watching me greedily. The little girl was overjoyed, clapping and giggling. She was trying to stand up by clutching the door. Her brothers helped her, and the eldest showed off by holding her aloft and tumbling down in the end with everyone laughing. It was obvious that Savita was not taking the daughter for the care. There was no money to travel, and there was no time left from the chores of the house, taking the boys to school, and minding the stall. Putting some cash in the hands of the children, I departed. Shortly after that, her husband visited me with a request to get him a job. I suggested to him that he should buy a cart and sell savouries, like sandwiches or Indian style hot dogs. I could have helped him in getting the license as well as financing the idea, but he thought this was below his dignity. He didn’t mind living off the money earned by his wife and mother with drunkards leering at them. He aspired after a respectable post, like becoming a watchman in a factory. The matter of the cart was closed.
One day Savita came to the clinic with a backache carrying a basket of vegetables that she was selling from door to door. Her clothes were soiled, stinking with sweat, and torn in several places. I gave her medicines, and she offered to pay. When I firmly refused, she broke down and hugged me tightly. The smell of her sweat suddenly turned into the fragrance of jasmine. After that, she used to come just to abandon her worries and leave a few vegetables. Then she faded away for a couple of years.
When she returned, she had a long story to tell. She waited until the last patient left. The first news was that she had left her husband, and her children remained with him. Her husband still had no work, but he had accused her of infidelity and stealing and sent her packing to her parents. Her father, who had indulged her till then, accepted the accusations of her husband and by now her brothers also had grown into strong bodied masculine champions. They all, including the mother, joined in abusing her. She was beaten up and dragged to a solitary shed in a field with her hands and feet tied. Before locking her up, the brothers had wanted to strip off her clothes. But she shamed them for desiring to see their own sister naked. What could be a greater sin than this! The Mahabharata was being played in an altered version where Draupadi was undressed before her husbands and family elders. Instead, the brothers left her tied up and locked in that remote field. After three days of starvation and without even a drop of water, she managed to free herself and somehow made it to the town. Her cheeks were sunken, hair uncombed, nails brittle, skin dry, palms chafed, once proud breasts shrivelled and heaving with uneven breathing, lips pursed, teeth grinding and eyes dry but with the earlier sparkle unchanged. A subtle slowness of speech sprayed with severity was startling.
The patriarchal society of India is capable of every possible atrocity. This happens in other countries as well. Human beings may have evolved in many domains, but in the area of deliberate and senseless cruelty, they have no equals. Women, children, the weak, and the poor have always suffered at the hands of the herd and herd-leaders. The male gender has appropriated divine attributes and vanity that go with them. So the fictional God never helped her. Savita seized the reality with all the strength of her existence and tore apart the jaws of death that were the doors of that shed. Her will to live almost gave her wings to cross hundreds of miles to return to the city.
When she came to me, she was accompanied by a plain-clothed police officer. He had adopted her as his sister. He was her protector and was searching to find her a job. I am usually suspicious of this kind of brother-sister relationship that serves as a cover for carnal and licentious intentions. And soon enough within a month, she was back cursing the police officer. She was adamant about finding a job, and I laughed at her, saying she was mad. With no education and already in her thirties, who would employ her! I encouraged her to write down her story in her broken language by promising to get it edited by some Marathi writer with the hope of getting it published. I gave her a pen presented to me by a young admirer (and there were a few) and a beautiful fabric-bound diary with handmade paper. I was sure that during those years of resurgent feminism she would be eminently applauded. It might turn out to be a prize-winning personal narrative.
Instead, she returned triumphantly within a few months temporarily employed as an attendant in a Mental Hospital. After a few months, she dropped in to inform me that she had rented a new residence. She also had sounded out her sons about whether or not they might want to join her. The two young men had refused. Their unemployed father seemed like a better option than their shameless mother, who had been thrown out by her husband as well as her parents and brothers. For Savita, the pain of this rejection was the most agonising wound. After a year, her temporary position became permanent, perhaps by bribing someone or gratifying some superior’s carnal intents. I would not censure her for any dissipation since she was left without any options in order to live. She worked hard and earned extra money as tips. Soon she was wearing fresh saris and gold with vermilion on her forehead. Her occasional fevers, coughs, cramps were entrusted to my care, but since I wouldn’t charge her, she only allowed me to prescribe medicines for her. She’d get the drugs from the hospital, and, if needed, get examined there for free. She started bringing her co-workers for treatment. If any of those women tried to get frisky, she’d warn me to be wary. In her own way, she was becoming possessive.
Fairytales should not be disbelieved. Her sons decided to return to her with their disabled sister. Savita was overjoyed, but that meant that she had to pay for their education, nourishment, and clothing. She braved it. But she paid for the the reunion with hypertension and an angina attack. The younger son managed to graduate from an IT, whereas the elder, who suffered from a spinal problem, became a mechanic. The daughter limped to high school with large eyes, bright smile, and a full stature. Both of the sons got jobs. Now she wanted to purchase a house of her own. She was ready to invest a sizeable sum.
She sought my advice. But I was the wrong person to ask for such advice, since I was naive in finance and property matters, and I had lost a lot in my own investments. A long pause intervened. She returned to announce happily that her younger son had a love marriage with a Gujarati girl and that she had pain in chest. She undressed for the examination, and there was a node in her left breast. The glands in armpit were not enlarged. I advised her to get a mammogram straightaway. The report said that there was nothing to worry about. Soon the daughter-in-law insisted on moving out. She started worrying. Her son meekly concurred. Now her visits to the clinic became frequent. She had a lot to complain about concerning her son and daughter-in-law. She had sacrificed a great deal to provide the opportunity of higher education to her sons, who had earlier rejected her. How she had longed for them! And now, in a short while, her dream turned into a nightmare again.
With a heavy heart she had to keep working to survive. She had to lift patients who were heavy and stubborn like her despair. She continued to have angina pain and got examined, and was treated at the hospital. She must have thought that she had taken enough advantage of me. Now that she was a government servant, she qualified for hospital care. Occasionally her sons used to come for treatment at the clinic, and she would insist that I charge them. Savita’s elder son agreed to an arranged marriage with a girl of her choice from her native village. She proudly brought her daughter-in-law asking me to judge her selection. The girl bent to touch my feet, one thing that I never allow anybody to do. No man should touch the feet of another man. All are equal, and there are many better ways to show respect than foot-touching.
Savita was insistent saying,“You’re like a father to my son, and she will never see my husband. So allow her and bless her. Think of her as your daughter-in-law.”
I touched the girl’s head and wished her well. Savita still had the node in her breast, but there was no pain. I suggested a visit to a cancer centre, but she did not want her current happiness interrupted.
Hugging me, she said, “As long as you are here, why should I worry?”
She was now looking aged with heavy folds on her sagging cheeks, greying hair, swollen knees, and rough hands. More than three decades had passed since I saw her first as a new bride.
My wife developed breast cancer and was operated on a decade back. After taking drugs for five years, she was active and running the house as well as doing social service work. Her wit and enthusiasm had earned her much admiration in her women’s club as well as with the neighbours. Inevitably the cancer spread stealthily to her vertebrae, lungs, and liver. She had severe pain that was relieved only by drug therapy. But her coughing became more serious. The cancer began to spread out of control. One Sunday she had bouts of coughing with severe dyspnoea. She had to be hospitalised. Her condition was deteriorating. After she was stabilised, I brought her home. We needed an attendant to take care of her. I thought of Savita. Surely she could find some help for me.
I went to the Mental Hospital to track her down and was told that she had been on leave for a long time. I left my contact number in case she returned to her work. My days were arduous and frustrating. The next afternoon I received a call from her. She had been admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy. The node in the breast was malignant. Surgery had been performed, and now she was bed-ridden. She inquired about my visit, and I explained my predicament to her.
She started weeping immediately on the phone, and then managed to say, “For the first time you have asked for something from me, and I am unable to come to you and offer help. Please forgive me. My sons have looked after me well, and their wives are taking good care of me. If only I had taken the node seriously, a year would not have been wasted. But once my chemotherapy sessions are over, I shall see you.”
If fairy tales are to be believed, then so must horror stories. This woman, whom I implored to write out the story of her life in her rustic and rumpled words, was now having cancer write neatly over her body a triumphant ode to God, the master-artist of death. All her life, she fought battles not of her own making. All her life, she only wanted simple contentment. All her life, she slogged for others. Now a burning tongue, aching limbs, bitter bile, nausea, hair falling out, and a wasting body was her reward. And incredibly, she was feeling guilty for her inability to help me. Her tears, unseen on her cell phone, contained more love than her arms around me. She needed love more than I. At the same time she had altered the definition of love. In her love, she was not a woman, and certainly I was not a desirable male. This love was beyond human values. It was love of living perhaps, with a universal dimension. Through her suffering, she had evolved to sainthood. She was punished again and again for no crime of hers but rather those of patriarchy, poverty, and debilitating social customs. She was punished for her will to live. She was punished by nature that is unaware of justice but engrossed in its design of kaleidoscopic patterns of RNA, DNA, and chromosomes. But she stands out as an extinguisher of the flame or fire venerated as God. Savita never asked for justice. She just proclaimed that justice does not exist. She taught me what it meant to live by her concern for others, by her celebrating with smiles and tears, even when helpless or tortured or close to death, and by never giving up.
About the author:
Dileep Jhaveri is a practicing general physician based in Thane, near Mumbai, and a well-known poet and playwright. Dr. Jhaveri has published two collections of poetry in Gujarati. In addition, many of Dr. Jhaveri’s poems have been anthologized, and his Gujarati poetry has been translated into English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. Recently published in the United States by Feral Press, his latest book in English is titled Once This Mist Clears.