Surekha’s first son was born in a rundown government hospital. He did not live for more than a few hours. The doctors later said that the baby was born with a genetic defect. Surekha said she had seen him alive and that he seemed perfectly healthy to her. She blamed the doctors for killing him and when she got pregnant again barely nine months later asked if I could pay for her to go to a private hospital this time. She had already found a gynaecologist in Bombay Hospital but could not afford to pay for the baby to be delivered there.
When I asked her if she had told the doctor that her first baby was born with a genetic blood disease, she said that she had not because it was not true. “It was the fault of the doctors,” she said. “The baby was fine. I know he was fine because I saw him and even fed him. There was nothing wrong with him.”
“But the doctor should be told. If you are not going to then I will. Give me her number.”
“All right,” she said reluctantly, “but I don’t want her to think there is anything wrong with me or the baby.”
“I will make sure.”
So I called the doctor. She was a nice woman who was sympathetic when I explained in detail the conditions in which Surekha lived and how she had already lost a son just the year before. She said she had examined Surekha and was sure that there was nothing wrong with the baby but Surekha was anaemic and needed some tonics. We bought these and I tried to make sure that Surekha ate well during her pregnancy. When the time came for the baby to be born there were no beds available in the general ward of Bombay Hospital, so I paid for her to be in a private room.
The nurses on duty in the private ward gawped when they saw that one of their patients was a woman who lived “on the footpath’, and when they kept asking her about this it impressed me that Surekha handled their questions with dignity. “So where do you live?” they asked with prurient curiosity over and over again.
“On the footpath,” she said firmly.
“But what do you mean by that... do you mean you really live on the footpath?”
“Yes. I live on the footpath.”
“And your family?”
“They live on the footpath too. I was born on the footpath.”
“But where will you take the baby when you leave?”
“He will live with me there.”
“Will he be all right?”
“Other babies live there too.”
I was present when this conversation took place and when I saw how small the baby was I asked the doctor if there was some way to keep Surekha in the hospital a few days longer to give the baby a better chance to survive. She gave me a sympathetic smile but said that the shortage of beds was so severe that she could not keep Surekha in the hospital longer than three days. “He should be fine,” she added, “because he is a perfectly healthy child.”
“He is very small, isn’t he, to be living on a footpath?”
“Yes. But I think he will be able to survive.’
So Surekha was discharged three days after the baby was born. I brought her back to her home on the pavement behind the Air India building and bought the baby all the things I thought he needed – bottles, a blanket, a mosquito net, a small mattress and some clothes. I told her she must make sure that all he was fed for the first few weeks was breast milk because this would help him grow stronger, and I checked up on him whenever I could. I told her husband how important it was for the baby to be kept in as clean an atmosphere as possible. But how clean can life be for those who live on the footpaths of Mumbai? He was born on one of those hot, steamy days that come when the rains go away.
One day when I went by I noticed that he was lying at the edge of the pavement near the Indian Express building and that there was so much traffic rattling by that he would have inhaled unhealthy petrol and diesel fumes. I told Surekha to take him into the car park away from the traffic but knew that my advice was stupid, because like the other women in the community she had to make a living by making jasmine garlands to sell in the evenings at traffic lights. She had to keep her baby with her.
So inevitably early one morning, some weeks later, I was woken by the security guard in my building to be told that there were some “poor people” waiting to see me outside the gates. When I came down I found Surekha in floods of tears, with her husband carrying the baby’s tiny body wrapped in a grimy cloth. They needed money to pay for him to be cremated.
When she recovered from the loss of her second son, I told her that she must not get pregnant until she was stronger and until we could find her a room in a slum where she could take the baby for at least the first few months of his life. She and her husband did not listen to my advice and she was pregnant again within weeks.
With some difficulty I found her a room in a slum in Colaba, not far from where her family lived, for Rs 2,500 a month. The slumlord was a skinny young man who insisted that he meet me personally before giving her the room because he was afraid that she would run away without paying her dues. He insisted that I pay a security deposit and a year’s rent in advance.
This time I did not arrange for her to go to a private doctor because she said that she was sure that she would be better off in a government hospital. I am not sure why she chose not to go back to Bombay Hospital but think it could have been because she did not like the way she was treated as some kind of freak by the nurses.
In any case I was not in Bombay when the baby came but got a call from her husband saying that she was in “Sanjay Gandhi hospital’. When I tried to find out where this was I discovered that the hospital was an old British municipal hospital called St George’s Hospital. It is a massive, rambling Victorian building set in gardens that must once have been quite beautiful but are now overgrown with weeds and wild grass. It was raining the day I went to see her, and in the high-ceilinged, cavernous reception area there were muddy stains on the floor and the smell of wet clothes.
To get to the maternity ward in which Surekha was, I walked down endless passages that reeked of toilets and antiseptic and past wards bursting with patients. The young doctors who tended the sick looked harassed and sleepless, and I found myself wondering for the nth time why the Indian state had not been able to provide such basic things as decent public healthcare. Whenever I have asked politicians this question they have given me a standard answer: we cannot afford to create facilities that are too clean for ordinary people. It has always sounded to me like a bad excuse for abdicating their responsibilities.
I found Surekha in a ward full of women with newborn babies by their side. She was sitting up in bed and eating dal-roti out of a steel bowl. “I don’t like the hospital food,” she explained with a smile, “so I got some from home.”
“My mother is a very good cook.’
“But when you leave from here you are going to the room that we got for you. Right? The baby must spend his first year under a proper roof.”
“Yes. I will be very careful this time.”
So until the writing of this book Rajveer has survived. He is smaller than he should be for his age but has big eyes and a sweet face.
Excerpted with permission from India’s Broken Tryst, Tavleen Singh, HarperCollins India.