Indu tapped on the scratched wood door with the flat of her hand to herald our arrival. We didn’t stand in the laneway longer than a few seconds when the door opened slowly and a hand appeared from behind the curtain hanging in the doorway and waved me in. The gauzy light coming in through the curtain kept other prying eyes out and some dignity inside. Once inside, my eyes widened in amazement. I was dumbfounded, transfixed, shocked and then stoic as I held my breath and watched the women (four of them plus a small child) do what was necessary to bring a new child into the world.
Water was boiled and carried from other homes nearby in pots usually used to cook rice and dal. The baby’s upper torso lay on a thin sheet, his legs lay on the wet cement floor. His new eyes squinted and opened and squinted again and his mouth very gently sucked the side of his hand. He was beautiful, pale, chubby, wrinkled and serene. He was only a few minutes old.
A neighbour who helped with the birth holds Gudiya's newborn son.
When my eyes pulled back from my intense focus on the tiny creature laying on the wet cement and I discouraged myself from picking him up and swaddling him, I noticed a small, round-faced woman squatting in the melee just behind the woman preparing the razor blade to cut the cord. She too was quiet, serene and stoic. It was then I noticed the slimy, opaque umbilical cord threaded through her legs, the severed end resting on her feet. She rested her chin on her knees and watched the scene. I assumed she was happy she had given birth to a boy. She had yet to deliver the placenta - she was yet to be finished with this delivery. She gave no indication that there had been unpleasant waves of sharp pain or that she had been through the rigours of a birth. She looked tired and perhaps happy. She motioned for me to take photos in the small, dank, dark space.
Gudiya looks on as the neighbour ties a string around the baby's cord.
Neighbours popped their heads inside, more boiling water arrived, the baby’s cord was trimmed with a razor blade fished off the bottom of a large pot of boiled water. I couldn’t help thinking that in the near future I might be offered food from this same pot knowing it had just been used to clean the razor blade and then the hands of the woman who performed the cutting duty. A few more small children wandered in. I took my eyes off the mother and pushed away my own thoughts about my long ago labours and deliveries in a sterile setting with shiny equipment and real medical help and once again focused on the baby, and then focused on the rest of the small, small room - a kaleidoscope of colour and activity while four brightly dressed women flitted about the small space attending to both the baby and the mother silently doing what was required without apparent frustration or hysterics or histrionics from any of them. I noticed a pile of freshly chopped onions, a plate of tomatoes and a pot of chai just behind the squatting mother. She must have been preparing food when her labour started. It hadn’t been cleared away - perhaps an indication of a fast labour and a rapid delivery. All of this taking place in a humid, cement walled, windowless room with a ragged curtain separating the dusty, congested lane way from all the life that this room contained.
The women who helped with the birth hold the baby while the mother is tended to.
I left the hut before the next wave of activity; the delivering of the afterbirth. The women had finally taken the baby boy off the floor, and I breathed a sigh of relief. They gently and carefully swaddled him in a thick blanket stitched many times into intricate patterns from worn-out saris. They all smiled and marvelled at this brand new person and took turns holding him while the mother, still squatting, still serene, waited patiently to deliver the afterbirth. Her husband had been notified and was on his way home from his job, no doubt ecstatic that his wife had delivered a healthy son. I stood in the laneway shading my eyes from the sun, looking back at the door, knowing there was still lots to be done in that small room and I was content that the mother was in loving, capable hands and that the cherubic new child had entered the world in a peaceful way assisted by a caring community of dedicated, capable women.
Pratigya is a new big sister.
No help was required or paid for by DWP. Gudiya welcomed me back to take another photo of her new son about a week after the birth. Her daughter Pratigiya, who might be about three years old, was on hand to lay kisses on her brother. Gudiya asked to see the photos I took of the birth. She will receive copies of every photo at a cost to DWP of about 10 rupees per photo. We will inform Gudiya about the Foundation for Mother and Child Health, a free clinic that offers mothers education about hygiene, nutrition, breastfeeding and excellent advice about how to maintain the health of their children. If she decides to attend the clinic, DWP will accompany her and pay the rickshaw fees. In the meantime, mother and baby seem to be doing well.