It was in the first few scorching days of early South Indian summer when our Tamil women friends sprung a ceremony on us. My daughter, Devi, and I were told that the ceremony was designed to call out her baby, to encourage him to brave the transition of passage by convincing him of the many happy friends and good cheer awaiting his arrival.
We thought that he was nowhere near due to stir – not for another nine weeks yet – but it turned out that the women planned the event spot on time.
Devi was slumped on the mat under the fan when the women arrived laden with food and flowers. The kitchen became festive with Mo bubbling excitedly over the wok and Saroja and Kauvery, Sekamani and I among onion skins on the floor. All our sacred vessels brightened with a good rub with tamarind and salt. The younger girls cut fruit out on the kitchen verandah and displayed it with sweets on the bright big plates. Other young hands prepared oil lamps. Incense wafted through doors. The interior space resonated with peels of goodwill and Devi had to take a rather public bath, to be coated with sandal paste and regaled like a goddess in a silk sari before the hairdressing – the best bit – could begin.
It all happened on the front verandah. A bevy of feminine charm, giggling galore, clustered around young Mother, weaving up flower- and jewel-twined plumage on her bowed head. It took ages.
When delicious food smells announced irrepressible readiness, the puja could begin. All the vessels had been set out in the clear space of the room in which Hari would soon be born. Oil lamps flickered reflections in the golden glow of the old bell metal and brass plates, piled high with fruit and sweets in bite-sized shapes. I manoeuvred a very big garland over Devi’s ornate hair, which cascaded from her shoulders down to the great bulge beneath her lavender sari. Bells were rung and songs were sung and flames encircled as these optimistic women encouraged Hari to feel welcomed, and honoured his mother in her full bloom. Lots of laughter there was. Though this is a women’s ceremony, one or two men friends turned up at the end.
When the puja was complete a great change of scene spread the tasty feast on banana leaf plates on the stone floor dappled with flower petals. Incense still swirled about in the hot air. The eating managed itself spontaneously as usual, with jovial satisfied women retiring to verandahs to fan themselves with exercise books and laugh about something else.
All the vessels were scrubbed and the kitchen doused down before the women went home and Devi slumped back under the fan. Hari had received the message: he was out within a week.
Devi had miscalculated her dates. On the birthday, we weren't expecting her baby to arrive for another two months. This conclusion was independently formed by her (Western style) doctor, Sundari, a woman who runs a private maternity hospital in town. It was quite a shock for me to find Devi's husband appear suddenly, greatly distraught, to tell me that Devi had been rushed into Sundari’s hospital for an emergency Caesarean section. Devi had carried the baby well up to this point. The waters had broken he said, visibly shaken. He emphasised that I hurry: Devi was waiting for me to come before the operation could begin. On the way I picked up Samadhi, a doula friend from Cananda who happened to be in Thiruvannamalai where we lived.
At the dingy maternity hospital we passed through the gauntlet of apprehensive faces of Devi's friends and neighbours, husbands and wives, maybe twelve people waiting in a long line from the very front door down the corridor to the toilets at the back. It was like entering the underworld: everything visible was dismal with accumulated neglect. There was not a single sign of wellbeing or encouragement; not even slogans like ‘Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen’ which can be seen in our dental clinics. Every face presented apprehension and insecurity until we reached staff, nurses and the doctor; then the faces bore the imprint of dictatorial authority.
At the end of the corridor Devi looked stunned, but otherwise herself
as she stepped out of the toilet. She'd only lost a little water, she
immediately said. We stared at each other while Samadhi asked other questions.
Devi felt fine. No pain? No. Nothing but half a cup of water. Suddenly
Devi said, “When I insisted on waiting for you to come, the doctor
told me that if I didn't have the operation within two hours, it would
be my fault if the baby died'”. Devi was eighteen. This was her
first pregnancy. She knew very well that something was wrong here, and
it was not the half cup of water.
Samadhi immediately went to get a midwife; we knew many, but due to the premature nature of the situation, Devi hadn’t officially chosen which midwife to entrust with the task of birth. Meanwhile, Devi and I stared at each other and braved the unspoken necessity of getting the hell out of there.
The doctor sent for me; four nurses conducted me up the corridor and
into the den. I explained that we wished to confer together with the midwife;
this news infuriated her.
“The baby's head is not engaged, it isn’t due for another two months, there’s no water left in Devi's womb, an operation must be performed immediately”, she said.
A couple of friends who'd pushed their way through the doorway muscled me from behind to bow down to the doctor. Not one of them was able to make a discriminating counter-move in the face of the stethoscope, while I, enabled to question authority by my own culture’s programming, could do so. The authority in question then became very nasty indeed; her face revealed unbecoming lines and she spat out some very ugly words. Caesareans earn the hospital a lot of money.
Since the midwife hadn’t yet appeared, and our resolve had been
strengthened boundlessly by the doctor’s presentation, Devi and
I escaped the hospital, headed up the street, flagged down a rickshaw
and dashed home. Samadhi soon arrived with the midwife: a happy, elderly
village woman with many years’ experience in natural birth. She
pronounced the baby’s head to be engaged, the waters still available
in plenty. Not to worry, the baby
would begin to come soon. There had been a miscalculation. Get some rest now she advised. So we did.
But first, we washed the womb-room thoroughly and cleared it of all but essentials. We made a birth-fire in a clay brazier, which would be lovingly kept alight, until mother and child were ready for the outside world. In came the sacred Tulsi plant, in its earthenware pot, to stand guard. A priest came with weapons to lie in one corner, ceremonially warding off any malefic presence. Incense was lit preparing the space for a sacred event. We slept for a few hours before the signs of birth began.
Just on midnight, the contractions began, so we cleared the womb-room of husband and prepared for our women's work. It was now that Devi really came into her own. Motherhood was her forte, she knew exactly what her body was telling her. Samadhi soon returned with the midwife. Also into the sanctuary came: Sivagami, wife of Kasi and mother of dear friend Mo, who we had invited to contribute her womanly experience. Outside on the verandah, sitting comfortably in cane chairs, were waiting Devi's husband Kumar, and Kasi and Raghavan, (Sivagami's husband and son), and Shunmugam, friend and rickshaw driver with a midwife mother, in case of emergency. Their job was simply to wait.
Samadhi and I tuned into Devi, and it was a great pleasure. Samadhi had her life experience of human births and I had mine of animal births, and we both love Devi, so it was an harmonious concert with conductor Devi and her inside information to guide us. It was easy.
We were all three pleased to have the presence of the local midwife, we imagined that this elderly woman and Sivagami would have the same confidence in natural processes that we have. Our romantic expectations were not met however, much to our surprise. From the beginning, Hari's birth manifested for us the resonance of our own confidence, compared to the dissonance of the opposition from the two local women, who seemed intent only on interfering, disrupting and demoralising the process of birth.
We three – Samadhi Devi and I – had all quite some experience of this traditional culture, in which authoritative precedents have primacy. Nevertheless, we were obviously not imprisoned in the traditional culture, so as a prologue to the birth we carefully explained that we had confidence in the process of birth and would greatly appreciate what assistance could be given by the women helpers when called for. I remember warning the midwife, Mungama, that she might be surprised at our decisions during the process of birth, but that she could trust us.
Nevertheless we were appalled and dismayed right from the very beginning
as the midwife and Sivagami began trying to force us to call an allopathic
(Western-style) doctor to come and give an injection.
“An injection will speed up the process!” they repeated with increasing fury every now and then for the next two hours.
“No need,” we’d say. “We’re not in a hurry”. We explained that the two bodies – Devi’s and the baby’s – needed to be enabled to work this process through in their own time with our assistance. Although they nodded their heads, the force of their conditioning was stronger than we had accounted for. They built up a savage need to exert their will here.
Eventually Devi herself reached a nice strong comfortable “No!”,
whereupon the two battle-axes went out to coerce the men to go get the
“We’ll wait for the signal from Devi,” was Kasi’s response. Kasi has confidence in natural processes; he’s a permaculture man, a supervisor on our reforestation project.
Devi was breathing nicely with us, we walked her up and down, supported her as she held on to the shelf, expressed our delight in how it was progressing. Meanwhile the ladies in saris hovered about, darting in and out with confrontative declarations about what Devi should absolutely NOT be doing. Constant intrusions. Devi shouldn’t be standing up, she should be lying down, etc. The ladies became increasingly frantic. We were having difficulty amalgamating our expectations with our present experience. It was culture shock – on both sides.
We had pulled over a low table so that Devi could squat, as she felt very much inclined, while I helped support her body, and Samadhi and I breathed and rested with her. “Don’t squat!” was shouted many times, but we squatted anyhow. We gave up on trying to explain; it was impossible. It was beginning to feel as if we were nearly there; the contractions became very strong.. Devi was just beginning to doubt her strength, Samadhi and I were urging her softly and mightily, our three heads were pressed together, stretched neck to neck, it was strong and unpredictable and fully alive. It was marvelous. Devi found her strength, she smiled the smile of the Mother.
Sivagami’s big head pushed its way into the knot us, her eyes bulging
with opposition, spit spraying our faces, as she tried again to get Devi
to call the doctor. My face was three inches from hers, I bulged my eyes
too, one hand came up slicing the air before her nose:
“BASTA!” I shouted. Then in Tamil: “Finish. Go! Get out and don’t come back”.
She went right out to try the men again for the doctor. Mangama joined her. There was some shouting outside while we re-positioned for the finale; we gave the table up, Devi squatted on the floor, I held her back and Samadhi her front, it was getting really exciting and stupendously rich and real.
Sivagami had flashed back in the door without a doctor and joined the midwife for an unprecedented onslaught: Devi was NOT to squat. She was to LIE ON HER BACK, (a position suitable for women). (We've since discovered that it absolutely mandatory here now that women give birth on their backs, strapped down to metal tables. Episiotomies are also mandatory, but we didn't realise this then.)
The saris by this time were in quite a flap, zigzagging about. Devi had lost all her doubts and was shining, full of life. Sivagami and the midwife nosed their way in at this point to tell Devi, command her in fact, to pray to Sakthi. “Ask Sakthi to help you now!” Sakthi, in case you don’t know, is The Mother of All.
Samadhi, Devi and I had a good belly laugh then, and easily out Hari
came, all slippery. He sort of stretched. His eyes were open.
“He's very little,” said Devi. We welcomed him, what a little beauty he was.
The ladies went for it then, immediately rushing in with cleaning gear, (buckets of water, disinfectant, soap), and cutting gear, (scissors, knives, blades, even teeth we had). But we held them back, oogling at Hari squirming about, catching the placenta that was whisked off to be buried immediately out of sight. We didn’t even get to inspect it.
“Where's Kumar?” Devi and I called Hari’s father to come and meet his beautiful son. I do remember Kumar's face at the door, my attention returned, and then he was not there. (Sivagami had intervened, we later learned.) But Hari needed our attention; he was ready for a nipple, without antiseptic, thank you. There were women pushing about us with wipe-up cloths, clanking buckets of water and smelly stuff. A wild desperation surrounded us, it seemed that they were determined to remove all traces of the birth immediately; Devi was even supposed to flash on a full set of clothes. Even so, we did manage quite a few moments of peace within our little bubble of intention enveloping the two of them, Mother and Son.
Then something painful happened.
The three women rushed Hari into the bathroom and scoured him with hot water and soap as is the custom. I protested, but the determination of these shrews combined with Devi’s exhausted acquiescence, enfeebled me beyond better judgment, and I gave up as Devi had. Hari carried a fear of baths and water in general for several months and may not ever transcend it. At three years old now, when he goes up with the workers all day in the heat, helping them on the reforestation project – which must surely indicate a brave boy – he will only watch the workers bathing in the beautiful big tank. He can’t quite trust water even yet.
Kumar was not allowed in until everything was back as it had been at midnight, except for the presence of the little Buddha of course; then the women-helpers left and Kumar came in to witness his son’s face: a most auspicious occasion. Father then went out for a ceremonial bath to return for the birth ceremony.
Two smooth stones from the hill were knocked together gently near to Hari’s ear before Kumar whispered his secret name, known only to mother, father and son. Ghee and honey were put to Hari’s little mouth while Kumar recited the Gayatri mantrum, so that his son would develop a pure, loving mind. Devi and Kumar repeated verses the priest recited, prolonging a good life for the baby, while we all breathed long, slow breaths designed to augment this part of the ritual.
Then Kumar kneeled on the stone floor expressing gratitude for this place of birth. The priest intoned words for him to address to his loving wife, in admiration for her womanly part, with gratitude for having blessed him with a son. Before we all went out to eat the birth feast, a brass pot of water was placed near to where Devi and Hari lay. We asked it to protect this mother and child until they are strong.
Days later, when his mother and he were ready to leave this room, Hari was taken up on to the flat roof first, up the dark stairwell, to see the Moon. Next morning, he saw the sun when we took both the water and the fire guardians back to the earth.
While they both rested in my room during the next couple of months, I found the full gratitude of motherhood myself.
The next afternoon, Sivagami came alone for a formal visit, and Devi and I felt the need to go over the proceedings of the previous evening with her, so that some understanding could be reached. Since Sivagami doesn’t speak English, and my Tamil was not sufficient for this occasion. Devi and I communicated until we reached an agreement about what to say to Sivagami, and then Devi spoke to her in Tamil. We spoke as succinctly as appropriate about the positive aspects of the meagre history of women’s emancipation and tried to convey to Sivagami something of our perspective. But it was a disaster.
In fact, as far as Sivagami was concerned, the entire birth was a disaster. If we’d called the doctor to give an injection, it would have been faster. If Devi had not stood up or squatted, not paid attention to her breathing but instead pushed hard as she been told, then it would have been even faster. Sivagami saw a program on TV that told her all this, many years back. What we should have said was “Oh! We didn’t see that program!” then we would have been reconciled. But we didn’t say that, we thought that we could reach some understanding.
It was not to be. After quite some demoralising time relying entirely
on our own sense of values, I eventually asked Sivagami a crucial question:
“You were invited here as a friend to assist us. This is my house and this is my daughter and this is her son, and we called for his father to witness his son’s first moments. So we’d like to know the answer to this question: on whose authority did you prevent Kumar from entering the room?”
Her answer was to stand up immediately and walk out in fury, saying that she'd never speak to me again. Oh dear. Devi and I sat staring at one another.
Later, still searching for understanding, I asked Kasi about a hypothetical
“Suppose I am dying and I'd like to see my grandson – aged four – in a traditional culture where children under the age of five are not allowed near the death bed. I know this, but I ask to see my grandson anyway. Would I be prevented?”
“Certainly”, he said.
Then Devi and I noticed something we should have noticed long ago: that for us there are basic rights of an individual, which we have taken for granted, which are not recognised at all in this traditional culture. Here, there are entirely different priorities and values.
Later, Devi also tried to bridge the formidable chasm that this experience had opened between Sivagami and us. It was a few weeks later when she tried alone in Sivagami’s house, to open out what had happened; she tried to reach an understanding. But Sivagami’s view was that Devi was foolish, if she had done as she was told, the birth would have been much quicker, that’s all there was to it from her perspective.
We are speaking of a first birth in which the baby was suckling happily well within three hours of the first contraction, and the young mother as radiant and the happiest she had no doubt ever been in her life. Part of her radiance and happiness was surely due to her great motherly capacity to give birth with confidence in herself. In contrast, here we have a woman friend, a mother herself, tenaciously attempting to swamp Devi's rich experience with self-doubt, both during the birth and still even weeks later, by claiming that she should not have had confidence in herself – she should have just done as she was told – because then the miracle of birth would have taken a little shorter time. And we must conjecture that this little save in time is held to be a worthwhile prize at the sacrifice of confidence in natural processes and in oneself.
What is this? We could no doubt say a great deal about what this is, but it would all be euphemism for powerlessness.
Within a few weeks, Hari would sit facing forwards, legs dangling, cradled in my palm, his little back against my stomach. Now his horizon broadened into the garden at night, when the lights from the house filtered through latticed bamboo on verandas. Crickets, frogs and night birds of ancient India, enveloped in shadows, now enriched us with confidence in all the natural processes of this awesome world.
We would slowly walk away from the house, on one of many paths, out into the unknown. We’d stop still awhile then, listening in darkness: sounds and silence. Then we’d turn to face the lights of the solitary house, patterning latticed brilliance into wild terrain. Slowly we’d return. Croaks, tinkles and whispers fading behind us, closer and closer towards the known and familiar.
We’d stop still in latticed light listening to house sounds: music perhaps, voices on telephone, furry thumps perhaps: our dog playing with out cat. Familiar sounds enhanced now by silence. Familiar sights likewise – shoes at the door, shopping bags stacked, a brass pot – now haloed in our eyes.
Within two years, Hari was helping to plant trees up on our barren hill.
Now Hari is lying up on top of the water tank on a starry mid-summer night. Now he is three. We sleep up here level with the tops of giant trees, the best place for sleep. Gazing into infinity, tonight he treats us to a small boy’s gesture of affection for sound, silence and mystery. Listen:
Hari’s little voice: “I dunno.”
Long silence ensues.
Then another voice: “I don’t know”.
Again, strident this time: “I DON’T KNOW”
“I don’t KNOW!”
A very long silence.
At last, a conspiratorial little whisper: “I don’t know”.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem