“Flowers for you”

If it weren’t for a pandemic, I wouldn’t have received this bunch of saptaparni flowers from a fruit vendor. I’d most likely be out at work or at the institute at that hour. A lock down rearrangement has made place for work and play, with greater flexibility. There are days I work in the morning and then there are days I spend the first half outdoors. Leisure first then work or vice versa.

The fruit seller had seen me admire the flowers a few nights ago and was amused at my fascination. The hour was late, he was packing up but we exchanged a few words about their lovely scent. He mentioned that it drove him mad at times, it is indeed a maddening fragrance. They’re blooming early this year, I’ve usually seen them around Navratri time. Yesterday morning I walked by again just to meet the tree and he snapped off a branch and handed me these bewitching beauties. They are wonderfully fragrant especially in the nights. They go by the botanical name of alstonia scholaris or the common Devil’s tree or Blackboard tree. There’s a lovely compilation on it that I came across which covers some of the traditions associated with it from across the country.

The weekend that passed was a leisurely one meeting friends over coffee and Ganesh Chaturthi sweets. The picture above is from a friend’s home, she is an artist and makes beautiful paintings in the Thanjavur style. The Ganesha in the image is one of her earlier creations.

Some of it was also spent meandering along the sullied rivers of Pune watching our winged friends. There were dozens of them although I couldn’t get any clear pictures on the phone. Cormorants, egrets, kites, herons and the usual smaller ones. The Mula and Mutha are in full flow now and the sound of their waters is mesmerizing. Recently, I saw a movie which had frames of the sea against a cliff and I recalled the sounds of crashing waves at another rocky beach. It’s a treacherous drawing in, the combination of sound and movement. Almost hypnotic and there are times I imagine them saying dive in. Nature’s fury has a wild, raw beauty- dangerous as it is mesmerizing.

Lest it seem like it’s all play and no work, the days have an ‘easy busy’ (like a recent professional acquaintance termed it) nature as far as my professional commitments are concerned. A rather incidental fall into teaching also happened a few months ago and I discovered that I enjoy the process of sharing what I have learned. It is a deep contentment to see eyes light up when others experience the awakening and awareness of their own bodies. It has made me a better student too. Despite the devastation and loss wreaked by the pandemic, there have been gifts, like an unfettering in the way we work, learn and play.

Births in pandemia

Do not read if you get queasy about childbirth.

I received a picture of a masked migrant woman, holding a new born baby, the umbilical cord still attached and blood dripping between her legs. That image had a quiet dignity to it which made the message all the more stark and terrible in its silent depiction of one of the horrors of this lock down.

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Birthing is such an exhausting act at the best of times and in the case of women who have given birth during this mass exodus, I can’t even begin to imagine what they have endured. I remember feeling as though each pore in my body was burnt out when I gave birth to the firstborn. I was a very young mother then and not as strong then as I was with the second one. The body felt ravaged and the insides raw. The body is vulnerable following birth as it begins to get over the shock of an empty womb after 9 months of life growing within.

It doesn’t quite end with expelling a child from your insides but continues through the days with the internal organs readjusting to a pre-pregnancy state, a process that takes a few weeks. Every time the uterus contracts to shrink into its normal size, there would be a violent cramping. If the baby refused to wake up and feed on time, the breasts would harden into rock solid pain which could in turn lead to an infection taking a few days to settle. If the baby was a large one, chances are you would have to be cut to make way for her little bawling self to emerge into a blinding world. If you were unlucky, you were torn in jagged edges to let life fulfill itself. The birth wounds eventually heal and leave scars hidden from sight and the pain would be eventually forgotten. If not for the forgetting, women would probably refuse to have multiple children.

Millions of women have gone through this, some in the confines of their homes, hospitals or then out in the open. There are women who have brought children alone into the world, severing the umbilical cord and delivering the placenta themselves and there have been women who have had babies in hospitals or at home with midwives or doulas or then doctors and nurses. It is a period that requires rest to recuperate from the internal brutalizing and the comfort of a familiar space makes it a little easy to bear. I suppose that is why traditionally women went to their parent’s homes to have their children. Of course, these days sometimes convenience of access to the regular doctor dictates staying put.

I found myself thinking of all the mothers who delivered their babies in a pandemic, far away from anything familiar and in conditions that were worse than those of their tough lives before the exodus. The pain of that is something that raises silent screams in vague places inside me for the terrible pain of another woman. If it’s her first child, the terrors of childbirth are a hundred fold. The anticipation of pain as shared by older women who have had children or then what is depicted in movies makes the fear of the pain to come acute. And by the time, it is time, the body is exhausted carrying all that additional weight and fatigue. A long drawn out labour compounds the agony, the body drenched in sweat as the radiating pains of contraction hit you multiple times. Add to that the embarrassment of having your insides on display.

Birthing strips you of shame. It’s gory, the blood and fluids as a naked child emerges out of a naked mother. Strangers poke around and tease reluctant babies who take their time entering the world. Once you have gone through that experience, it is hard to feel embarrassment about the body.

And now imagine walking for endless miles with an additional 10 or 15 kilos under a punishing Indian summer sky. Imagine the heat rising in waves from the road and an unending stream of people walking with you. Imagine having to push a baby out of your body by the roadside. Tell me if you wouldn’t scream for more than just the pain of labour?

I wonder what the new mother would think or feel about her child, the one born in a pandemic which upended her life. What would she name the little person who would need feeding and nurture regardless of her state of mind and body? Would she see hope or bitterness? Would she howl in pain or resign in silence? Would she be resentful or glad? And then I ask, who would care what she feels when the immediate concern is about making it alive to her home far away.

The days will heal the wounds of childbirth and the weeks will wrap themselves around survival of the bodies of mother and child. Hopefully. Maybe the months will add layers of new memories burying old ones and she’ll find pleasure once again. Maybe a child’s unbridled laughter will make her forget the price of his/her being. I’d like to rest in hopeful thoughts because the alternative is unbearable.

Many are the lessons…

The trail was empty for the longest time and then one guy strayed on my path, he clapped his hands and said good job. What people don’t realize is that I’m selfish in cleaning the place up. It gives me satisfaction to see an expanse of brown and I can walk without having to watch out for broken glass and other trash. Today, I managed to clear only a small section, the bag got full and heavy as there were many glass bottles. There is so much rubbish, this is going to take a while.

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a fallen tree that has adapted to growing horizontally 🙂

The gloves make my palms hot, sweaty and smelly. Thankfully, there was sanitizer which sort of masked the horrid smell but it still lingered. And I thought of all the medical personnel with the PPE suits who spend hours together soaked in perspiration while treating those afflicted with Covid. Drinking a glass of water, using the washroom and other such tasks that one takes for granted would be such a challenge in those suits. I thought of the discomfort of all the women in healthcare who faced the additional burden of dealing with their periods, often bleeding onto their clothes. And I thought of millions of migrant women walking back with little to no access to privacy to deal with childbirth or menstruation. The ickiness with the smelly hands was no longer bothersome.

The trail makes me think of others, it is time away from the screen and in the quiet of its heart, I sift through the unknown faces I see or read about during the day. These days with the added movement of picking up trash, I find a different quality to the thoughts. Physical work always does to me, it simplifies things to their bare essentials. The mind automatically kicks into a kind of efficiency mode and I watched the constant stream of chatter in the head. 

“Another bag full of trash collected. I shall keep the tiny blue bottle from the trash as a reminder of today. Make it a planter. There are many intact bottles, it would be nice to upcycle those. But how to manage the logistics and who will upcycle? Also the sanitizing and storing. Maybe the child can paint those bottles and we can put plants in them and give them to people? I need to put a little thought to make this more meaningful.”

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Mr.C is usually there around the same time and we exchange hellos and pleasantries, he reminds me to be careful and I defer to his mop of white hair. He’s planted a banyan sapling near the peepals. It makes me very happy, the thought of a giant tree that will grow there. And years from now, there will be other people who come seeking the open and quiet and they will look at that tree. Maybe they’ll wonder how a lone banyan tree grew on a hillock. What they will not know is that it was an old man who planted a tree knowing fully well that he would not live to sit under it’s shade. Many are the lessons these walks teach.