The curfew

SHORT STORY: Sunday Herald Short Story Competition 08: Special prize

The curfew


Gunshots on the streets outside, followed by screams. I hold my son tight while Vikram stares at the darkness outside the window, trying to make sense of what is happening in our small town. Communal violence here? We cannot even begin to believe it.

Five minutes later the police jeeps rumble through the town — “Curfew extended till Wednesday morning. Shoot at sight orders.”

It is early Sunday morning and an ambulance has come to pick Vikram up for an emergency procedure. “Keep the windows shut,” he tells me. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.”

I catch a glimpse of my white strained face in the mirror and consciously try to calm down before I turn to face my son who jumps up in glee yelling “Firecrackers” as another volley of gunfire strikes our ears.

The bell rings. I open the door and am amazed to see our downstairs neighbour Amar. I meet him sometimes in the elevator, sometimes in the park, playing with his daughter.  Each time I see him, the way his gaze falls on my eyes, my breasts, makes me feel violated and I shrink in revulsion. He seems to sense my reaction, to find some kind of twisted pleasure in my embarrassment. I am astonished at his temerity in showing up at my front door.

“Yes?” I say raising my eyebrows,

“Doctor, I need your help.” I notice that his expression is humble, that of a supplicant. “May I come in?”

“Tell me. What can I do to help you?” I ask, making no move to let him in.

“My wife is near her due date. I am worried she may go into labour any moment and now with the curfew...”

“Oh, all right,” I say reluctantly. “Call me when you need me.”

“Thank you,” he says and for once his gaze is respectful.

“Wait a sec.” I call out as he leaves. “You’d better tell me the name of your treating doctor.”

“Dr Ananth,” he says.

It occurs to me that I’d better find out the antenatal details about the patient, especially if the delivery is imminent. Dr Ananth is one of the most respected obstetricians in town, and one of the nicest too. I find his number in my phone book.

“Dr Ananth?”

“Yes?”

“Dr Rekha here.”

“How may I help you, Dr Rekha?”

“I might have to conduct the delivery of one of your patients, if this curfew continues. I was wondering if you could tell me the relevant history and clinical details.”

“Certainly. Which patient?”

“One Sunita Amar.”

Silence at the other end of the line. “Hello? Dr Ananth?”

“Rekha, I did an ultra sonogram at the fifth month and it showed ... anencephaly.”
I choke down my scream as Ananth continues.

“The woman’s husband will not let her terminate the pregnancy. He says it is against their religion.”

I feel hot and cold and sickened. “Doesn’t the woman know the implications? Doesn’t she know what she is carrying?”

“I tried talking to her but her husband cut me short. Possibly she suspects, possibly she supports his decision. I really don’t know.”

I can not accept that something like this can happen. I pace through the darkened living room, my thoughts interrupted by the gunfire in the distance.

“Please, God, don’t make me deliver this baby. Please God.” But I know with a horrible certainty, that this woman will be going in to labour soon, and I will be the one forced to conduct the delivery.

This forced imprisonment is getting to all of us and my husband and I spend the morning snapping at each other. We are further dispirited by the sight of my son holding the TV remote control like a gun and saying ‘Bang Bang’. Around 11, when I am at my worst — flustered, sweaty and stretched thin by my housebound son’s grumpiness, the doorbell rings again.

I open the door to see Sunita, perfumed, dressed in silk, her heavily pregnant form tottering on six inch golden heels. She looks at me arrogantly. I sigh. The ‘simplicity is culture’ cotton and khadi style which my students and patients so admire probably makes me look like a poor little beggar girl to this woman.

“Come in,” I say and she stumbles in on her high heels. She looks at me and I feel guilty that I have not noticed before that the arrogance is merely a mask, a defense.
“Tell me doctor, what is anencephaly?”

“The brain does not develop beyond the pons.”

“Beyond the... what?”

“The brain develops only up to a certain level. The skull above that is not formed. Basically, the baby is headless.”

She stares at me. “But is it alive then, without a head? I can feel it kicking.”

“Sunita, it is alive. But it is not human and the worst part is that it does not die immediately. I have seen one like this before and it was one of the worst things in my life. It can’t be fed; it doesn’t really comprehend what is happening. It is in pain, but it doesn’t understand pain. Can you imagine a dog dying, abandoned by the side of the road? This is like that. This is worse than that.”

She is sweating and the reek of her fear overpowers the fragrance of her expensive perfume. “What can I do now?”

“Now? Nothing. Give birth, and hope that the baby does not suffer for too long.”

The night is humid, rumbling thunder in the distance stops us from sleeping. There is something menacing in the airless night, in the silence that is only very occasionally interrupted by thunder. I’m just giving up on sleep, staring out at the darkness when our doorbell rings. “God give me strength,” I whisper, kiss my sleeping child and husband, and open the door to see a sweating Amar. “The pains have started doctor, please hurry.”

We walk downstairs and for the first time I enter their opulently furnished, overcrowded, stuffy house. The walls seem to close upon me — the dimness of the lighting and the gold framed artwork on the walls make me feel disoriented, confused. A twisted old lady sits on her haunches by the kitchen door and gazes at me impassively as I pass by. “Who is she?” I ask Amar.

“She is from Sunita’s village. She has come to help us.”

I turn to look at her again and she smiles at me craftily. I stifle an unreasonable wave of terror. I am feeling suffocated by the time I walk into the bedroom, which is uncomfortably warm, the stench of sweat and blood and terror makes me feel faint. “Open the windows,” I tell Amar.

“Fresh air might harm Sunita,” he responds.

“If you want me to conduct this delivery, open the windows at once,” I snap.

Something, my anger or my utter disgust gets through to this man and he looks frightened. “Sure doctor,” he mumbles and scurries to the windows.

I assess the woman’s cervix and determine the progress of labour. I sigh. The baby is big. This is going to be a tough one. The night wears on slowly, it is surreal. The man’s fear, the gunfire punctuated by the woman’s screams. How can I put on paper words that describe her pain, my helplessness with only the basic medical equipment at hand, the blood? Oh my God — the bleeding does not stop and the woman is sinking — the man is crying the name of his God, and eventually, by some skill I dig out of an obscure corner my brain, the baby is born. I turn my face away, retch involuntarily. The man shrieks in fear and falls to his knees, calling upon the God who let this child be born.

“Give me my baby,” the woman says and I cut the umbilical cord, gingerly lift up that half human creature and give it to her. She smiles, cuddles the baby and guides its mouth to her breast. I hurriedly do what little has to be done and I’m escaping to my house when Amar stops me and says, “Your fee ?”

“Nothing,” I say and run out, sobbing by the time I reach the sanctuary of my home. Vikram is holding me, he does not say anything, he knows that any words will only hurt me further. “I must get this memory out of my mind, Vikram. I can’t...”

“We’ll go somewhere when this curfew breaks, sweetheart. I promise.”

“Yes, but when will that be?” He shakes his head. There seems to be no sign of the violence abating. The bell rings. I walk tiredly to the door, knowing it will be Amar. Who else can it be? “Please, doctor, can you come? We really need your help.”

I enter that dark room again. This time Amar opens the windows without my telling him to. Sunita is holding the baby on her chest. “Why doesn’t it suck?” she looks at me, frustrated. I lean against the wall — exhausted, angry, helpless.

“Its brain has not developed to that extent. It ... It isn’t really mentally equipped to survive.”

Her eyes fill. “My breasts hurt,” she whimpers.

“I wouldn’t make too much of a fuss about it,” I say, brutally — hippocrates temporarily in abeyance. “Your child is in much more pain.”

“Doctor, please.”

“Okay, press your breasts, put the milk out. That will help.”

The old crone walks in silently with jasmine from the garden downstairs. She places the flowers on Sunita’s breasts. “This will stop the milk,” she says and walks out.

I want to go home but Amar falls at my feet .”Madam, please stay. We feel so much braver when you are around.”

“Don’t you understand? Don’t you understand there is nothing I can do? Nothing any body can do except wait for that child to... to die?”

“Please doctor.”

And so I wait unwillingly, while the day wears on, becomes hotter, more unbearable. The streets are silent, and this makes the baby’s moans even more painful. “Hhoonh hoonh hoonh,” it says. Like a melancholic pigeon, like a dirge. Is it hungry? In pain? Lonely?
Frightened? Does it know that there are three adults watching it, waiting for it to stop breathing?

“Make it stop. Make it stop moaning, doctor,” Sunita says, shutting her ears, shaking her head at the cruelty of a fate that makes a mother pray for her child’s death.

I should perhaps, I should do something to end this little life’s pain, but how can I? It is against my vows, it is against my calling. Apart from all this, what about the legal implications? My small selfish soul turns away from the child, decides not to burden itself with guilt and responsibility. We wait.

“Is it in pain?” Amar asks.

“I think so, but how would we know?”

“Doctor, would it not be more merciful to...”

I laugh, bitterly. “Oh, I see. So your God does not let you terminate a pregnancy, but will let you murder a little baby? You both disgust me. I have delivered this baby because I was forced to, but in the future, I do not want to see either of you again. I hope God forgives me for my part in this.”

The old crone picks up a towel from the railing and shuffles up to the baby. She stands watching it for a moment, while we all — powerless, paralysed — watch her. She covers the baby’s face with the towel, and pinches its nostrils shut. I turn away, soul crumpling. It takes just a moment.

The baby is silent now. The mother is screaming.

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