By Savitri Narayanan
“Badhai ho, ghar mein Lakshmi aa gayi”, said Radha aunty cheerfully as she walked in, “Both mother and baby fine?”
“God is kind, hope they are fine,” said Dadiji vaguely as she handed over two biscuit packets to Tushar, took the cash and returned the change.
The rolling shutter went up early in the morning when people walked in for tooth paste, a packet of tea, a matchbox or a bathing soap.The front verandah of their home was converted into a shop. Rows of shelves on the walls were stacked with items of daily need and food stuff. A small door to the left opened onto the front yard of the house. Dadiji was in and out, managing her kitchen as well as her customers. She was good at multi-tasking. She effortlessly took out a biscuit packet from the shelf, handed it over and collected cash from the boy even as she exchanged news with a neighbour about her pregnant daughter-in-law. The shop was a favourite meeting point for all. After a random purchase, most people hung around to catch up and exchange news.
“What exactly happened?”asked Lakshmi aunty who had just walked in, “Wasn’t the baby due next month?”
Sumedha was back from school, still holding her school bag. “What happened,Dadiji? Has the baby come?” she asked.
“Yes, Sumedha, you have a little sister! Babuji and buaji are in the hospital with mummy. There’s nobody at home, none to manage the shop also. That’s why I couldn’t come to the bus-stop,” said Dadiji.
Sumedha put the bag down and snuggled close to her grandmother, “I want to see the baby, let’s go to the hospital.”
“Wait till tomorrow,” said Dadiji, “Now go and play.”
Sumedha ran to share the news with her friend. “Amina, the baby has come!” she called across the boundary fence, “Tomorrow morning we’re going to the hospital to see the baby; you also come.”
“Oh! That’s good!” said Amina, “Bring along your badminton racket. We’ll play till Abba and Ammi come back, they’ve taken Cheenu to the doctor.”
Sumedha felt so good to have her own baby sister to talk about. Amina’s little brother was so much fun, creeping and crawling all over the room. Every evening, when they came back from the playground, Sumedha stopped by to play with little Cheenu. Now, she too had a baby sister at home to play with! So much fun, imagine having two babies – a baby sister and baby brother!
The baby came to Sumedha in her dreams. In the cradle, cuddly, smiling, crying, drooling– she couldn’t wait for the morning!
But Sumedha woke up to an air of gloom. Suresh mama, Meeta aunty, Anuj’s papa, Malu’s dadiji – all were assembled in the kitchen. Dadiji sat quietly rolling out chapatis. Ganesh mama was on the phone and others sat around, all ears.
After what seemed a long time, he put the phone down and turned to them, “They have kept the baby in a box with some tubes. Nobody can touch or lift the baby, she is too small.”
“The baby came too soon,” Dadiji put down the rolling pin and looked up, “The date was next month end.”
“Nothing to worry, mamiji, my Bulli was born one month before time,” said Sheila chachi, “She was this small, like a kitten! Look at her now, winning sports championships in school!”
“Guttu was also born two weeks before time and the doctors saved him.”
“These doctors are so good, and that box is very special,” said Anita didi who was an ayah in some hospital, “Kept inside, the baby thinks she is still in the mother’s womb and grows fast.”
“All that is OK, my worry is only about this virus that is spreading all over! God bless the baby!” said Anu aunty raising her folded palms heavenwards.
The neighbours, who kept coming in and out of the house and the shop, could talk only of the baby.
“Did they put Cheenu also in a box?” Sumedha asked Amina as they walked to the bus-stop.
“No, Cheenu was not in a box but Ammi said her friend’s baby Nawaz was put in a box,” said Amina. Then she went on to describe the box in great detail – oxygen tubes running into the baby’s nose, electric heater to keep the baby warm.
That night the baby came again in Sumedha’s dreams, this time with tubes and wires over her tiny body and doctors and nurses in surgical gowns and masks roaming around.
“Dadiji, when will the baby come home?” Sumedha asked next morning over her glass of milk.
“Let’s see. We will know by the time you are back from the school,” she said handing over her packed lunch box.
But when Sumedha returned from school Dadiji said, “When the doctor comes for the evening rounds, we will know. There, Amina is calling you to play.”
They were in no mood to play so sat around in the backyard. “Abba said there’s a special prayer for our baby after today’s roza,” said Amina.
“It’s time for aarati,” Sumedha cheered up, “Let’s run to the temple, we will also pray for the baby!”
In the night, the baby came back in the dreams, this time with curly hair, soft pink cheeks and smiling with eyes closed.
“Dadiji, how’s the baby?” asked Sumedha next morning as she woke up. Dadiji had a big smile. “Baby is out of the box, will be home this evening!” she said.