The wails that rent the night

The wails that rent the night

My father, terribly scared of the bomb threat that loomed large over Madras (now Chennai) during the tail end of World War II, 1942 to be precise, when my mother was carrying me, got into a huddle with his close friends.

A list of nearby towns beyond the reach of Japanese planes was shortlisted. Such historical nuggets were made available to me by my grandpa, the family raconteur and chronicler — as otherwise this narrative could not be in the first person singular — starting from my babyhood. Fictional flesh has been added to the skeletal facts.

After deliberations in camera, lest a secret agent of the Japanese should eavesdrop, a strategist whispered, Trivellore, a sleepy town 25 miles from Madras. He estimated the range of Japanese aircraft and concluded that it should be beyond the reach of the tormentor. And so, under the cover of darkness, the group secretly moved to that hideout, as portrayed in black-and-white war movies. Prudentially, my mother did not seek any adjournment for delivery, despite being the wife of a lawyer specialising in civil disputes.

Male obstetricians were unheard of in those days. Middle-aged midwives delivered the babies. On a sweltering hot May night, my mother went into labour, waking up the neighbourhood. My father paced outside the labour room like a tiger in a cage, fearing her wails would be audible to a Japanese pilot if he entered Trivellore airspace.

Eventually, I was born. Since it was a boy, the earlier two being girls, there were whoops of joy from everyone except from my grandpa, who looked crestfallen as the timepiece he had kept ready to know the exact time of birth to cast a horoscope had stopped. As it is said, even Homer nods. 

But father had greater worries. When babies are born, they cry out loud. Oddly, I didn’t. The midwife was rattled as her expertise was limited only to handling crybabies. She stood wringing her hands. A man of action, the Trivellore host, who piloted the project, brought a groggy doctor on the double. A retired army doctor, while he could stop the howls of a wounded soldier, he could not make a baby howl, when it chose obstinately not to.

Nevertheless, since the Indian Army prepares its medical corps for all eventualities, he gingerly lifted me up by the feet, suspended like a vegetable vendor would do with a snake gourd for the buyer’s inspection and smartly slapped my bare bottom nine times. Those stinging slaps administered on my bare, wet fundament hurt terribly. (They still do.) I bawled and bawled in protest.

My father said, with mock seriousness but twinkling eyes, that this was a classic case of Army brutality, inflicted on innocent, defenceless civilians, that too on newborn babies, during war times. The doctor’s thunderous guffaw seamlessly mixed with my bouts of piercing wails.