I was relieved at having seen the last patient of the evening and was ready to go home. Opening my purse I took out my phone and car keys when Sister Nirmala came in hastily saying, “Dr. there’s a delivery just admitted. I’ve sent her to the labour room. Better examine her first.”
She walked up to the labour room table coughing incessantly and wheezing loudly, interrupted by labour pains. I quickly got up to examine her as the duty nurse helped her lie down. Sister Nirmala deftly adjusted the oxygen mask on her face and quickly started the i/v drip controlling the wheezing with a Deriphylline injection. The patient relaxed a little as her lungs got some respite from the laboured breathing. According to her file her name was Kamini, aged twenty eight, this being her first pregnancy and she had gone into premature labour about two hours back. She had been suffering from asthma throughout her seven months of pregnancy
It was a little more than five years now that Vikrant had started getting work from music directors for a few films. He had struggled for two years living in the shabbiest of ‘chawls’ in the underbelly of Mumbai, walking for miles trying to contact people for work. He often ate meals at the temple on the main road outside the slums, but sometimes had to sleep hungry if he came home too late.
One day there was a celebration in the temple and he saw a few singers going on stage and singing. He took the opportunity of going on stage too and sang a soulful bhajan which had the listeners enthralled. After that day he was often heard singing in the temple and passersby would stop to listen to him.
His deep baritone voice was at last being appreciated and he finally started getting offers for singing at music shows and then slowly the film industry drew him into its fold. His name flashed on cinema house screens and as money and fame poured in, his lifestyle took a u-turn. He hired a house on Pali Hill and bought other comforts associated with his new status. Life seemed to be looking up and he started feeling secure.
During his morning jog he would often see a young girl entering or leaving the adjacent bungalow. She was tall, athletic and very attractive in a regal sort of way. She seemed totally engrossed in her morning yoga session at the neighbouring park. He would admire her from a distance and started timing his jogging with her yoga in the same park. One day this attraction got the better of him and he walked over to her when her session was over..
“Hello,” said he, “I’m Vikrant. I live in the house next to yours.”
“Hi,” she said, “I know. I’m Megha.”
Saying this she was ready to leave when he said, “Can we walk back together, if you don’t mind?”
“Yeah, sure,” she replied.
Slowly, their friendship stepped into the realm of romance and they would often be seen together, taking long drives or in public too. By this time Vikrant’s parents had also come to live with him in Mumbai.
Megha was the daughter of the renowned, now demised, music director Laxman Das and lived with her mother, famous actress Bhavna of an era no longer in demand. Bhavna had turned into a recluse having lost her husband, looks and position in the industry and Megha’s elder brother Dalip looked after both of them and the huge wealth of real estate that his father had built. His wife Sapna was content to live a celebrity’s life attending parties and premiers and generally being seen around with the who’s who, much to her husband’s disapproval. They had no children and being about ten years elder to Megha, Dalip treated her like a daughter. He had seen her with Vikrant a few times and wanted to talk to her about it but she kept out of his way. One morning she approached him hesitatingly and said, “ Bhaiya, I want to talk to you.”
As Kamini groaned I positioned the ultrasound scan probe trying to locate the foetal heart sounds between pains. Clearly, the heart was not pulsating. It was difficult to glide the probe because of the scars on her abdomen. On asking, she told me those were cigarette burns. Thankfully they were not deep enough to interfere with the normal process of labour and I decided to defer questioning further. I examined her and reassuringly patting her forehead, told her not to worry as her labour was progressing well and she should deliver soon. In the meantime I told the nurse to call up the lab and tell them to send whatever investigating reports were possible at the earliest. “Please send her family members to my office,” I told the nurse, peeling off my gloves and washing my hands.
A beautiful girl in her teens dressed in jeans and a T-shirt walked into my office. She was visibly distraught with crying and looked so scared that I first offered her some water. She was frail as a lily, and walked with a stoop, almost as if bent over with a great burden.
“Are you related to Kamini?” I asked.
“She is my sister,” said the girl.
“Could you please send someone older, as I’d like to talk to them about her and the baby’s condition,” I said.
“No, doctor, we have no one else with us,” she said in a low, muffled voice choking with tears.
I was wondering how to handle the situation when she spoke up, “You can tell me about everything. I’ve seen all this before.”
“But isn’t this her first pregnancy?” I asked.
“No, it’s not about her.”
My question hung in the air ominously. I was almost afraid to hear the answer.
Hesitatingly she said, “It’s about me.”
“What about you?” I again asked.
Haltingly she said, “I had a miscarriage a few months back,” and started crying again.
I managed not to react though I was shaken. This little child had already seen life in all its ugly shades. I again asked her to calm down and listen to me carefully without getting upset. She tried to compose herself and listened to me as I told her that Kamini was going to have a stillbirth and that her own condition was quite bad because of the asthma which seemed to have been caused by one of many serious diseases. Her complete investigations would reveal more but could be treated only after the delivery.
She heaved a big sigh and mumbled under her breath, “Thank God, it will not be born alive.”
Dalip gestured to Megha to sit down and pulling his chair closer he lovingly patted her hand and asked, “What is it Megha? I’ve been busy of late but whenever I’ve tried to talk to you, you’ve avoided me. What’s the matter, child?”
Megha looked down shyly and said softly, “Bhaiya, actually I wanted to talk to you, but … I don’t know how to tell you.”
“Oh, come on Megha,surely you can tell me what’s troubling you.”
“I think I’m in love,” she blurted out and started wringing her hands half giggling and half crying.
Dalip, standing up, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“And may I know who’s trying to steal my little sister from me?”
Although he knew about Vikram he wanted Megha to speak up.
Feeling a little more confident she said, “We want to get married.”
“From what I gather you’ve known him for a very short while and I don’t think that’s time enough to make up your minds. You must give yourselves some more time. In the meantime I will find out more about him from an insider.”
“What do you want to know about him? You can ask me or talk to him yourself.”
“I’ll do that but promise me you will not commit yourself till then.”
“ I promise .” she said, thinking to herself, what if he got to know the truth, or what if he disagreed to the marriage.
Dalip went to Vikram’s house the same evening and spoke to him asking about his family background and other related matters. After an hour or so he came back thoroughly dissatisfied. The parents were loud and uncouth and Vikram himself gave evasive answers to many questions. Vikram did not say anything to Megha that night .
Kamini’s sister broke down again and I gently asked her why the baby was not wanted.
“She was raped,” she managed to stutter through her sobs.
Just then Sister Nirmala came and said, “ Dr.she’s ready.”
Kamini was pushing and panting hard as I entered and I barely had time to slip on gloves. The delivery was easy and quick as the foetus was small for term but Kamini’s B.P was alarmingly low. The physician on call was already there but all efforts failed and after an hour’s relentless struggle she was no more.
She uttered only one sentence during that hour, “ Please tell my sister to be careful. I forgive her.”
I felt helpless and ill-equipped to inform her kid sister about Kamini’s death. But she was quiet and composed when she came to my office.
While I was still wondering how to start, she said, “Did she suffer a lot before she died?”
“No,” I said, “but she left a message for you.”
She listened in stony silence as I spoke. Her face was impassive.
“You know Ma’am I’m relieved she died otherwise she would have suffered a lot.”
I was both puzzled and surprised at her remark.
“All because of me …”,she added.
I decided to get to the crux of the whole matter by interrogating her properly, wondering if there was a medico-legal aspect to the case.
“What’s your name?”
“Sixteen,” she said.
“Please tell me everything openly because you are too young to handle this on your own.”
I knew I was fishing in troubled waters but I felt compassionate towards this young girl and was wondering how she would handle the whole situation, complicated as it seemed. If the police had to be informed, I didn’t want her getting into trouble since she was a minor. At the same time I wanted to wash my hands off this messy affair.
Megha was tense at breakfast next morning. She was trying to guess the outcome of yesterday’s talks between Dalip and Vikram. Dalip called her over to his study as they were starting coffee. Carrying their cups along they went into the study and Megha settled onto a comfortable lounger, tucking her legs in.
“Megha, I think you and Vikram should wait a little. Don’t be hasty.”
“He’s new in the industry and his career has just started. Let him settle down a little more. Marriage is for keeps so let’s bide some time. Megha, I’d like nothing better than to see you happy.”
She knew that her brother was right but didn’t know how to tell him that she’d gone too far with Vikram to wait.
Breaking down under the strain of wondering if she was pregnant, she let out an anguished cry startling Dalip. Crying like a child she buckled, the cup of coffee almost falling from her hands. Dalip stood up ,took the cup from her hands, placing it on a table, gently put his hands on her head, kissing it and said, ”Alright, my child, I’ll talk to Ma and then we’ll settle a date.”
Megha jumped up, clinging to him, now crying with relief and delight.
Within a fortnight Megha and Vikram were married and went to Europe for their honeymoon. On coming back,a radiant Megha told her brother how happy she was. While Vikram worked longer at the recordings as his career surged upwards, Megha flitted between setting up her own home and her parental home. Soon she was visibly pregnant and pampered by everyone, Vikram most of all. The carpenters were busy renovating the room adjacent to their bedroom and converting it into a nursery with all that was cuddly and beautiful for a baby. Their daughter Apoorva was born eight months after their marriage.
I asked Saloni to sit and the nurse to get two cups of coffee.
Saloni narrated her past story in a detached manner but kept sighing in between. Her tears seemed to have dried up.
“Last year, I ran away to Mumbai with my boyfriend who promised to get me into films through someone known to him. Didi was totally against it, so I had no alternative. I had been brought up by her after our parents and brother died in an accident six years ago. She took up work as a teacher to support us. She has brought me up very lovingly.
In Mumbai, my boyfriend and I lived in a ‘chawl’ with a couple known to him. It was terribly filthy but I adjusted somehow. At night there would be large rats running over us as we slept on mats that hurt. The public toilet in one corner was one of my worst dreads with no door and only a tattered cloth hanging which you looped around a nail on the wall . A roof over your head in Mumbai was a great blessing and I did not complain .
The woman would get roles as an ‘extra’ once in a while and the man said he was a light technician. One day they took me along to the studios for a shoot. The woman Tripti, was working in a scene of a group of streetwalkers. They needed one more girl and asked me if I wanted to act. I couldn’t have wished for anything more.
At the end of the day, I went home with 500 Rupees in my purse, the remains of greasepaint on my face and a lilt in my heart. I was on the way to stardom. I just dreamt of that day and night. The glamour world sucked me in. I was caught in the throes of passion for acting so strong that I forgot about my past altogether.
After that first shoot, I was offered bit roles in other movies too. My boyfriend had found work in a factory and we met rarely as we worked in different shifts.
Life in Mumbai was tough, what with hard work, low wages and long commuting but I was on a high and only looked forward to success in films.
One day, I had bad abdominal cramps and vomiting on the sets. At a nearby clinic I was told that I was pregnant and in danger of losing the pregnancy if I didn’t rest. Not understanding a thing about pregnancy, I cried the whole night seeing my career crashing and my life in shambles.
I missed Didi, whom I had left without a word… without a thought of how she must have borne my step of leaving home. I gave her a call from a nearby PCO and we both sobbed and sobbed but I managed to give her a rough idea of not being well. She took my address and within 3 days was there to look after me.
My boyfriend had resented her coming over. She was appalled at the conditions in which I was living. There was a big fight one day with my boyfriend and he left me, forever.
I was feeling better with treatment and Didi’s care and started going to the studios again, still wondering how to disclose to her about the pregnancy.
One day on the sets, I bumped into a man, slipped and fell down over a nearby chair, hurting my lower belly. The man rushed me to a nearby hospital because I was bleeding. He helped Didi look after me, paid the bills and left me home after two days in the hospital. Emotionally shattered with my boyfriend’s desertion, the abortion and losing work, I was miserable and saw a saviour in him. His name was Vikram and he was a renowned playback singer.
Megha’s life was filled with the ecstasy of motherhood and all her time went into attending to her bundle of joy, Apoorva. Vikram would try to spend as much time with both of them but recordings at late hours would keep him busy and he would miss out on many great and small joys of family life. His parents had gone back to Punjab as they found it difficult to adjust to Mumbai.
Slowly Vikram’s absence started irking Megha and she became cranky and quarrelsome. She slept in the nursery more and more frequently and when Vikram came home late, there were only servants to greet him. Their relationship was getting more and more strained with time.
On the sets he saw Saloni one day and asked her how she was. Seeing her pale and drawn face, he expressed concern and she crumpled under his sympathetic gaze. They sat down for tea as she cried between telling him about her life. He too was drawn towards her, being emotionally unstable himself and dejected by Megha’s attitude.
They were seen more and more in each other’s company and Saloni started blooming again finding the love she craved for in Vikram’s arms. Driving down often to Lonawala, they found succour in each other’s company.
News travelled fast in the film industry and one day it reached Dalip. He spoke to Megha, asking her how she was. Already at the brink of an emotional abyss, she broke down, telling him how she and Vikram were slowly growing apart.
“ Didi was keen to take me back with her because she could not think of leaving me alone in that terrible ‘chawl’ with Tripti and her husband. Neither could she spend more time in Mumbai. I told her that I did not want to go back. I was once again stepping back into the life that I loved. I told her that Vikram was helping me get more roles and I would soon shift to better living conditions. What I did not disclose to her was that Vikram was renting the flat for me.
Two days after this talk, as she was reluctantly preparing to leave without me, someone knocked on the door.
Two burly drunk men entered the ‘chawl’ bolting the door behind them. One of them caught her by her hair pulling clumps of it out as he pushed her on to the floor. The other one tearing at her clothes climbed on top of her, biting and gnawing with his rough nails . The first one pinned her flailing arms at the same time burning her with a cigarette. They brutally raped her in turns leaving her bleeding and in agony. While leaving they told her to keep me away from Vikram and that they would throw acid on my face if I kept seeing him. She lay in shock and bleeding profusely. Coming home early to spend some time with her, I found her unconscious and badly burnt and bruised all over. The floor was littered with cigarette butts and an empty liquor bottle and glasses I called an ambulance and took her to the hospital, calling Vikram as well, but his phone was switched off. We did not lodge an FIR with the police for fear of a backlash.
As soon as Didi was able to travel, we left Mumbai. I could never speak to Vikram again as his phone number was not available any longer”.
Saloni sighed with relief after narrating all this.
“Didn’t your sister think of an abortion?” I asked
“Yes, she did. But none of the doctors agreed to it as she had contracted AIDS”.
I turned to the washbasin to wash my hands wiping a silent tear. The child had turned into a woman.