Sweat drips off my forehead. I squint to block the sun and watch Ashley climb the cement stairs to Maya's home. Water leaks from a broken pipe near her door and creates a dirty pool under the bridge. It is one o'clock in the afternoon and her door is closed. I'm worried, as Maya is nine months pregnant and was due to give birth a few days ago. Ashley knocks on the door and waits for an answer.
Six months ago, while Ashley and I were walking through the slum, I noticed Maya holding her son Prem, who appeared to be two years old. It was instantly obvious that something was wrong with Prem. His eyes were huge and bulging, and his belly was obviously distended. Prem's breathing was laboured and only his eyes moved. His sister, Suman, who is about four years old, peeked her head around Maya, gripped her mother's dress tightly and stared up at me with the same big eyes as Prem's. Ashley filled me in on their details. The family, (Maya, her husband, Prem and Suman) is from Nepal and have been living in Saki Naka for the past three years. We decided to take Maya, Prem and Suman to a doctor the next morning.
Upon seeing this sickly family, the doctor was immediately frustrated and began speaking harshly to Maya. He concluded that Maya and both of the children were malnourished. We also discovered Maya was four months pregnant and admitted to drinking poison to abort the baby. The doctor feared for her unborn baby's health. He explained to us that the children could return to normal health if a proper diet was followed, along with anti-worm medication and vitamin supplements. DWP paid for a four month supply of supplements and medication for the children.
I was sad and frustrated that I had walked by their home everyday without noticing their condition and I wondered how many other families I have failed to help.
Two weeks after first meeting Maya and her family, I was due to fly back to Canada. Over the next three months, Ashley sent me photos of Suman and Prem who appeared slightly healthier and more robust.
I arrived back in Mumbai almost a month ago and visited the family on my second day back. Suman has since joined our kindergarten class and is doing remarkably well. Prem has more energy, but his belly is still huge and distended. Ashley and I sat with the family in their tiny home, which is attached to the bridge. Six, high, concrete steps lead to a worn, cracked wooden door. Inside, the family sleeps on a bare concrete floor, with a few possesions hung on nails, adorning the filthy walls. Maya sat with her back to a wall, quietly looking down. Her husband sat cross-legged on the floor, while Suman hid behind him. Prem crawled slowly toward Maya. I was happy to see him moving about. We ask them about their health. Slowly, Maya admits that she hasn't given the children their supplements in over a month and they are back to eating dahl and rice with no vegetables.
This is unbelievably frustrating to me. This family is poor and struggling but there are families in the slum who earn less, who have relatively healthy children. As I Iistened to Ashley speak to the family, I focused on Maya's husband. He is skinny, but strong and appears healthy. His smile produces white teeth and his collared shirt is clean, yet he is neglecting his wife and children who are so obviously struggling?
The next morning Ashley, Maya, Suman, Prem and me sit in the waiting room at Balaji hospital. Suman has warmed to me and excitedly pokes me when Maya looks away and a shy smile creases her cheeks. The entire waiting room is focused on us. It is obvious to everyone that Maya and the children don't belong in this private hospital and they whisper to each other about the foreigner with them. The doctor called us in to his office. He shakes our hands and welcomes me back. He is angry again about the condition of the children, but is glad to see some progress. Maya is weighed and we are all shocked at the result. She is nine months pregnant and weighs only 35 kilos. We took her upstairs to see a gynecologist and to have a sonogram performed. It was determined that her unborn baby weighs 2.6 kilos, which is not great, but okay.
We purchased supplements and medication, plus spinach, beets, bananas, tomatoes and protein-rich chickpeas and delivered it to Maya at her home. We also set up an account with a local shop so that Maya can pick up milk every morning and DWP will pick up the tab.
While municipal hospitals are not the best, it is where all slum dwellers go to give birth. It is required to leave your name a few months prior to your due date to ensure a bed on your delivery day. A week before her due date, Maya's husband told us that he had forgotten to register. While I care immensely for his wife and children, my dislike for his carelessness and irrresponsibility towards his family is growing by the second. He works at a factory job, works overtime daily, and while his wage would not be much, it is enough to support his small family. Yet everytime money is needed for doctor visits or medicine, he claims he has none. Ashley and I will not let Maya and the children suffer and he is taking advantage of our kindness.
Finally, the door opens and Maya looks through the crack and steps into the light holding her back in obvious discomfort. Her husband is laying on the floor, resting. She tells Ashley that she is in a lot of pain. We tell her to grab her things and we will go to the hospital immediately. Her husband finally emerges, wiping sleep from his eyes, and tells us he will come at five o'clock, after he has rested. We tell him he has five minutes to get ready. He sheepishly heads inside to get ready while we ask the neighbors to look after Prem and Suman while Maya is in hospital. Maya looks at us from the top step and and struggles to remain upright clutching her back. It takes us five minutes to climb the stairs to the main road. We hail a rickshaw and head to the municipal hospital.
We go to the 5th floor and speak to the head nurse. She is irritated, but after one look at Maya, she admits her right away. We wait in the hallway with her husband for over an hour and I vent to Ashley about the husband's behaviour and his lack of compassion for his wife and children. He bows his head. I asked him if he has money in case Maya requires something. He says he doesn't have money. We are forced to believe him. Ashley spoke to him about how he must start taking care of his young family because we cannot always be there to take care of everything.
Maya gave birth to a healthy baby girl within two hours of arriving at the hospital. It had been less than four hours since we knocked on her door to check on her.
We continue to monitor her family, giving them assistance, while trying to educate Maya about proper nutrition. Suman and Prem have changed dramatically over the last month and have sprung to life. Prem is vocal and yells and waves at me whenever ever I pass and Suman is doing well in our school and has found friendship among the other children. Everyday Prem seems to gain energy and has almost began to run, often chasing Suman up and down the pipeline. I sat with the young family tonight in their home and they all seem to be happier. Maya was smiling and baby Nandine opened her eyes to greet me while Suman and Prem coddled her.
We hope her husband will start to provide for his family and treat Maya and the children with love and respect. I have grown very fond of this young family and I will continue to do everything in my power to see that they are happy and healthy.
Maya is only 21 years old.