I chewed slowly, taking in the subtle flavours of the food.the silver thali in front of where I was sitting on a mat was crowded with silver bowls full of vegetables and lentils cooked in different ways. There were rotis made out of an unfamiliar, coarsely ground but soft grain. Surprisingly, there were also batis – balls of grain which crumbled and softened when mixed with ghee and lentils and were typical of the desert cuisine of Rajasthan. I absently wondered what they were doing all the way over here in Bundelkhand...and how Indian food could taste so flavourful even in the complete absence of chillies, which wouldn’t reach India for a few hundred years yet.
Across from me, on a carved and gilded wooden divan in a breezy indoor courtyard, sat the thakur’s wife, getting her jewelled feet pressed very solicitously by a younger woman, whom I now knew was the wife of the thakur’s nephew and adopted son, Vidana, the pradhan of Khajuravahaka. The man who had slapped and then tried to throttle me. Despite my obvious misgivings about her husband, I couldn’t feel any animosity for this woman the others called Kuwarani – she was a wispy, scared-looking thing who seemed like she was completely under the thumb of the short and plump force of nature that was her mother-in-law, the thakurain.
A little to the side sat one of the thakur’s unmarried daughters, playing a game with a young child. They giggled as they rolled what looked like stones on the floor and paid little heed to me. Servants scurried around and I looked among them for Puppa, whom I hadn’t seen since she had been whisked away by one of the maids for a bath.
No one spoke to me as I ate, but the minute the thali was removed and I was done washing my hands, the thakurain asked in an authoritative voice, “You are comfortable here, Tara Bai?”
I took a deep breath, knowing an interrogation was about to begin. “Yes, I am. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You are the king’s guest.We are honoured to serve you.” She didn’t look in the least bit honoured.
“The king has been very kind.”
There was a moment of silence as she nodded. The kuwarani gave me a quick, nervous glance from under her lashes.
“You are from a kingdom called Chandigarh. Tell us about this place.”
I smiled as confidently as I could. “Well, it’s not very much different from here. We have a good king and we worship the same gods.”
She didn’t look satisfied, so I continued, “The summer is cooler than here but the winter is very harsh. the food is not as delicious.” I hoped that a bit of flattery might thaw her attitude a bit.
It didn’t. “Today is a fasting day for the women of this house.” She cast a disapproving glance at the spot where my thali had lain.
My insides cringed. No wonder she was so cranky. I tried to change the subject. “I believe your granddaughter is about to give birth? You must be very happy.”
She finally smiled fondly. “Yes.”
“I will pray for a healthy child,” I said politely. It seemed like the appropriate thing to say.
She peered at me carefully. “Are you familiar with birthing?”
When I didn’t reply immediately, she continued, “The girl has had her pains for almost two days now. It is her first child and she is tired. We will appreciate any help.”
I looked at her nervously. I knew the mechanics of childbirth as much as any other modern woman who had only ever witnessed it in movies. Most of which involved screaming women with the messy bits strategically covered with hospital sheets. The only actual childbirth experience I ever had was visiting the hospital when my cousin was about to have her baby. I spent an hour sitting on a couch next to the bed, chatting with her while she updated her social media accounts and periodically told the nurse to adjust the epidural tube in her back. Still, I could potentially bring some up-to- date medical knowledge to the table which might help the thakurain’s granddaughter. “I know a little. I would be happy to help.”
She smiled again and motioned to the kuwarani, who stood up and timidly gestured that I should follow her. I semi-bowed and thanked the thakurain for the meal before following the kuwarani from the courtyard.
The kuwarani tinkled as she walked in front of me, the countless gold drops in her necklaces, waistband, armbands, bangles, anklets, earrings, toe-rings all colliding with each other as she moved.
I was amazed at how much jewellery everyone in this house wore. There must have been at least two kilos of gold on this woman alone.
The thakurain had sported a gold collar that looked an inch thick and half an arm full of bangles with giant rubies on them. Even the servants wore heavy gold hoops in their ears, gold armbands and anklets. No wonder Sultan Mahmud kept invading these kingdoms. They were loaded.
The thought of the Sultan brought my mind back to my earlier conversation with the maid. She said Vidyadhara had fought Hamira, which was the local, medieval name for Sultan Mahmud, twice in foreign lands. The first time would probably have been in the battle of Waihind in 1008 CE and the second time would have been on the banks of a river in the Pratihara kingdom in 1019 CE. But Sultan Mahmud had obviously not tried to attack the Chandela kingdom. Yet. History knew that he showed up at Kalinjar Fort with an invading army in the year 1022 CE, to purportedly punish Vidyadhara for having his vassal king, Rajyapala of Kannauj, assassinated and installing his own vassal, Trilochanpala, on the throne.
A chill went down my spine and spread to the very tips of my fingers and toes as I digested that information. That meant it was sometime between 1019 and 1022 CE right now. There was an impending war at Kalinjar Fort sometime in the immediate to short-term future. Not a good time for me to be going there. I needed to escape. Maybe I could sneak out of the house tonight while everyone was busy with the festivities and find my way back to the temple.there had to be a portal of some sort or...
A woman’s weak cries brought me abruptly back to the task at hand. We entered an antechamber where two female servants were dipping cloths into a large copper vessel filled with a pungent-smelling, dark green liquid. Beyond a pair of curtains, in a darkened room, was the granddaughter – a heavily pregnant, young girl of maybe sixteen, laying naked on a mat on the floor. She was being propped up at the back by an older woman, who was massaging her lower back and breasts in rhythmic motions with oil. In front of her squatted an elderly woman who was obviously a dai, a midwife, laying the soaked green cloths on her stomach and giving instructions to everyone else. The unadorned room stank of the green liquid, oil, vagina and sweat.
We walked closer to the mother-to-be and the kuwarani bent to stroke her sweat-soaked forehead gently. She said softly, “Don’t worry, beti. the Brahmans are chanting and laying offerings for you outside. It won’t be long now. You will have your son at your breast soon.”
The poor girl was completely exhausted and her glazed eyes barely registered the words. The two dais attending to her bowed their heads at us, their gazes solemn and slightly worried. I noticed a line of metal implements lying on a cloth near the elderly dai. Razors, knives, long metal rods with all kinds of shapes at the end, long spoons and a pile of cloths, along with a selection of pastes and oils.
I saw my first opportunity to help and said in a firm voice, “Have those instruments boiled in water before using them. The cloths also. That will clean them thoroughly.”
The elderly dai looked at me in an assessing way for a moment but bowed her head again before calling to one of the servants in attendance. Dais were lower caste women and I was dressed like a noblewoman. She may not have agreed with what I said but she wouldn’t argue or call me inexperienced to my face. I felt slightly guilty for ordering her about but I had to play the part or the kuwarani would get suspicious.
I leaned over and felt the girl’s forehead. It felt cold and clammy. “Is she drinking water?”
The dai nodded. “Yes. We are giving her sips of water from the fastest stream in the jungle. It will quicken her pains.”
I rolled my eyes. “Please mix some salt, lemon and sugarcane juice in the water and then make her drink a glass of it immediately. It will give her energy. Has her water broken?”
“Yes. The womb’s water came yesterday.”
I wracked my brains and tried to remember what I’d seen on a maternity reality show I had stumbled upon while channel surfing one day.
While I’d gawked, both horrified and transfixed, a naked woman had popped a baby out into a bathtub and caught it with her own hands under the water. What did people like her do to quicken labour in these situations?
“Walk!” I exclaimed.
Everyone looked at me, startled.
I hurriedly explained, “Walking around will help the baby come faster. Also, she should alternate walking and sitting with her stomach submerged in a large vessel of water. The water should be boiled and cooled enough to be warm. She must keep moving though – the more movement there is, the faster the baby will come.”
The dai looked intently at the kuwarani who looked at me nervously and asked, “are you sure this will help?”
I nodded firmly. “Yes it will.”
“This is what they do in your land?”
No, in my land women go to a hospital where a doctor injects them with painkillers so they don’t feel a bloody thing and slices their belly open if the baby delays its arrival for a minute longer than expected. Once it does make an appearance, they place the newborn in the mother’s arms and take a photo to upload on to social media so that everyone she ever met at a party can share that magical moment with her. “Yes.”
Excerpted with permission from Kama’s Last Sutra, Trisha Das, HarperCollinsIndia.
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