Late in her ninth month, Amma often got breathless and she could hardly sleep at night. She had grown terribly big and, to a lesser extent, so had Siva and his sister. Siva had shed all the downy hair on his body and his skin was smooth. He had moved further down in the womb and it was getting intolerably cramped. He hung upside down from a cord and his sister swayed backforth like a trapeze artist. And when Amma sat in a particular way their heads collided: ouch-ouch. But Siva didn’t seem to mind this at all; he kicked his legs excitedly. His twin was asleep most of the time, her finger curled into his, until he too fell into sleep.

That afternoon Amma sat under the cool shade of the neem tree reading the old brown ledger; she read it almost to the end. Tears tumbled down her cheeks and she wiped them with the end of her saree. Suddenly, she felt her womb heave and squeeze, and she involuntarily said aloud: “Nooo, by Jove!” The heaving and squeezing happened again and Amma felt a firm grip like a clamp around her womb. Hugging her belly, she bent double and retched all over the trunk of the tree. The violent heaving and squeezing began once more. Each time, her heart skipped a beat. She felt as though her life had turned into water and it was oozing out of her. Amma bellowed – By god! Good heavens!

Patti rushed to her. “Your water has burst,” she said and at once sent Munniamma for the midwife. Holding Amma by the arms, Patti led her beyond the hallway to the dark storeroom for the birthing so that light and wind wouldn’t startle the newborn. The walls of the storeroom were lined with gunny bags containing red rice from the local fields; they gave off a homely starchy smell, meant to be good for babies. The midwife came with Munniamma and both helped Amma squat on the floor, then they held her shoulders, gently laying her down. “Munniamma, go get the bottle of balm from my room,” Patti said, “and rub it on Mallika’s back. It will relieve some of the pain.”

The hours passed. Amma felt each minute in its entirety, and the separate grain of each second. Inside her, Siva was kicking feverishly while his sister seemed to have momentarily passed out. Appa, who had been summoned from work, paced up and down in the hallway. He clutched his nose, unaccustomed to the smells of birthing: Spittle. Birthblood. Sweat. Balm. Then Amma screamed. It pierced the night like lightning.

Siva’s sister struggled in the slimy water, bobbing up and down, and then gulping water. More water. More water. She sank to the watery bottom of the womb-bed, landscaped by deep shadows and silence, and the twisted root of the birth cord, already old, curled around her neck, and then she choked, once, twice. Her heartbeat rose and fell like a leaf detached from its tree. Her finger she had curled into Siva’s let go bit by bit.

Amma gave a big push and Siva’s sister arrived into the world, headlong, the umbilical cord still coiled around her neck. The midwife cut the cord and held up the baby. Patti stared stupidly at her granddaughter as she kicked her legs in the air. Amma held out her arms for her daughter. The midwife slapped the baby hard on the buttocks. The child didn’t cry as they are meant to; instead she rounded her mouth and sang out their wombsong – oo-oo-oo – and her eyes glittered with newborn tears.

Outside, the wind howled: ooooowr-oooowar-oowat-oowata-oowata-r, as though it was thirsty. Amma would not forget this peculiar lament of the parched wind. A flash of lightning brightened the dark room for a still moment, and then shadows appeared, on the ceiling, walls and floor. Amma wouldn’t forget the shadows either. It started to rain hard – large hyphenated lines tossed from the sky. The midwife looked up at the windowpane etched with lines of water, raindrops drumming at it. She looked alarmed. It was only April: too early for rain. It was a sign, this summer rain. It meant that something untoward was to happen.

The midwife pressed the baby to Amma’s breast. Amma touched the baby’s hair, stiff with birthblood. She touched her lips to the baby’s cheek, kissed her with neverending love. It was a moment Amma would never forget. Then she breathed the name into the baby’s ear: Tara.

Appa stood at the door, his shirt sweat-drenched, worried, wondering. Just then Munniamma stepped up to him with the newborn baby and raised her into his arms. Appa looked down at his daughter, wonder in his eyes. He laughed with joy. The baby twisted, cried, turned blue, and then was still. He continued to laugh, tears in his eyes.

Munniamma wrenched the child out of Appa’s arms, walked back and laid the child next to Amma. Her voice shaking, she said, “She died, ma. She died in her father’s arms.”

Amma writhed and moaned. The midwife turned to her, and pressed Amma’s stomach with her hands to force the placenta out of her womb. It had occupied all the space, pushing Siva’s sister into the coils of the cord of birth and death.

His heart pounded loudly. The sound was amplified in the hollow he now inhabited alone. Then, even as he stayed moored to the very root of his beginnings, his body was caterpillared down the narrow passage and out. His mouth quivered open and he opened his eyes to the light of an oil lamp.

The midwife raised her bloodied hands. “It’s a boy.”

And thus I was born in a room that smelled of raw rice and balm.

Excerpted with permission from If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here, Sarayu Srivatsa, Bluemoose Books.

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