“I’m in the department till twelve. You can come by eleven.”
When I had texted Dr Verma the previous night, I knew this was my only chance if I wanted to meet her. I had chosen a Thursday for my meeting. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the social work department had fewer people than usual; students did fieldwork at non-profit agencies and in slum communities assigned to them. Some seniors skipped these fieldwork days to prepare for civil service exams, state-government jobs, or to catch up on their sleep, but they mostly stayed in their rooms. Besides, on coursework days, students pursuing their doctorates under Dr Verma flocked her room and meeting her then was impossible. This really was my only chance.
“Good morning, ma’am. I’m sorry for being late. I was not feeling well this morning”, I said as I sat down on the cane chair opposite hers.
Dr Veena Verma sat on a revolving chair behind her desk, the three-quarter-length sleeves of her kameez were pushed back, the cuffs rested just beneath her elbows. She was wearing her HMT black leather watch – a gift from her father – and a pair of pearl earrings. These made complete her accessories. Much like her, her office was unmade – dissertations were piled on a small table in one corner, and papers she was working on, cheap stationery and a tube of moisturizing cream were within her reach, on her desk. Dr Verma taught social development in the senior year, a paper that tempered our mortal aspirations to become immortal legends. She was known to enter her lecture-rooms at the designated hour and bolt the doors to prevent late entries. And here, I was late by an hour to an appointment that I had requested of her.
“I haven’t seen you in the department lately. What happened to your health?”
“That’s what I came to talk to you about. What I’ve been experiencing is morning sickness. You would know who?”
“Yes,” I continued “and I don’t know what to do.”
Dr Verma shifted in her chair, intertwining her fingers, and for a moment looked away. It was clear she was processing the information that I had shared with her, her intelligent self immediately taking over my burden, at least for the moment. I could already feel it. Since I had discovered it and until I looked into Dr Verma’s room through the unclean vision glass in the lacquered door, this was the first time I had referred to my pregnancy with at least unaffected dis-ease, if not as a repercussion of having immoral character or as divine retribution. It looked like a symptom that had a potential cure, of which when I became free, I could begin my life again. I sat still in my chair, looking directly at Dr Verma, waiting for answer.
“You don’t want to get married?” she asked in her usual stolid manner.
“No ma’am. We are no longer together. He was two-timing”, I replied flatly.
She raised her eyebrows in disgust and fell quiet again. I wondered whether there had been other students who had walked into her room like me. She was a confidant for many students, one of them, a very close friend.
Osman was among the few peers I respected in the batch. He wore old pathani kurtas at times, with even older jeans, and a gamchcha around his neck, the only times, when he owned his Muslim identity. I had learned to recognise him by the way he dragged his rubber chappals, his way of demonstrating lack of regard for well-mannered behaviours or institutions. He was a philosopher but a more fascinating poet. When he was not in the company of his friends in another campus, I would listen to his discourse on Marx and Foucault. Foucault, as he referred to him, was “homosexual tha saala”. In these conversations, sometimes he would begin speaking in English, and I would feel the hairs on my arms and neck rising. I knew I was half-in-love with him and half-in-love with his intellect. Once we had sat on a cast-iron bench in the department lawn, with yellow daffodils surrounding us. Spring had come early that year.
“I still think these times will change”, he said.
I believed in him.
“Put an end to it.”
Dr Verma’s voice brought me back to the room, and to my present situation.
“Ma’am, I don’t know. I have been living with it…”
She cut in with her logic, before I could finish speaking my emotional mind. “There is no reason why you have to go through with this. Even if we don’t consider what your parents and your classmates will think, it still does not make sense.”
“Ma’am, I don’t understand the hypocrisy of people. He, with his Christian values and everything tells me to abort because it is not yet twelve weeks. And, I consider it as a miracle of life. Shouldn’t I be the one thinking that way?”
Dr Verma simply nodded her head in agreement and got up to bolt the door. I was crying now.
“Do you know what he said? He told me, ‘You are too liberated for me.’”
I was flaring up as was she; perhaps in the admission of the hidden truth, we were being women, reacting as women. Although her desexualized personality concealed her womanhood, she was, I believed, perceived as a non-woman, if not a man completely, Dr Verma was a practising feminist. She lived the life of a widow and a single-mother as best as she could. During one of our earlier conversations, I had learned that she had married her late husband after having known him for eight years; it seemed to me, at least, on her own conditions. “My husband had wanted four kids but I would have had to take care of them, so I told him ‘No’. He had no choice.” We had giggled then. Later I had learned from a senior that her husband had also taught in the department, and had died of a heart attack right here. In his memory, there was an annual debate competition organized by the students’ union. I had organized one myself as the general secretary.
“How could you not see, Ruttie?”
“I don’t know.” I lied.
I never liked answering such questions; they felt like concentrated acid on my skin making me feel ashamed. I was afraid, if I tried to look at myself, I would learn I was a half-formed feminist, or as some of my peers called me- a “pseudo-feminist”.
When I left her room and the department, it was after two hours. The road leading to the nearest subway and to the main campus was dissected by lanes and Indian lilacs growing on the sidewalks. Under their green-gold new leaves, I stopped to look at the time. I felt lighter and confident and called my sister.
“Divu, I am leaving from the department. I will end this pregnancy.” It was decided that Dr Verma would connect me with a doctor in a day.
“Good, behen. Come home soon.”
When I had first informed Larry about the pregnancy, he was not surprised; he tried to be gentle saying “I am with you”. But the next night, he called to say, “I cannot go through with this. I am thinking of getting engaged this December and maybe I will get married next year.” When I stopped picking up his calls, he started texting. “The risk of maternal death from abortions is 0.7 per 100,000 procedures, making abortion about 13 times safer for women than childbirth. (8.8 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births).” I had received this text from him in the days when I was still undecided about the pregnancy – a statistic borrowed from Wikipedia but not about India. Here was a man who had proclaimed his love for me, now emotionally and psychologically manipulating a pregnant woman by offering unsolicited information to ensure he could be free.
I knew he had every right to be free but I also wanted him to suffer, if only just a little. My hormones had exhausted me; by the sixth week I had heartburn, morning sickness, and had not been able to eat anything. In the midst of the physical symptoms, I had to keep the news of my pregnancy hidden from my parents, especially from my mother, who had little faith in ordinary life, let alone the out-of-the-ordinary. So I didn’t tell him what I wanted to do about the pregnancy and instead texted him asking him to be ashamed of himself, and to stop contacting me.
He replied, “Ok.”
I deleted both messages.
Larry and I had first met in the summer of 2012. I had often seen him in the company of other girls in the department, flirting with them. His Mongoloid features made him an “exotic” handsome man, but I preferred his confidence. Where other men were still “boys”, taking minimal care of their appearance, the clothes they wore, and the manner they talked, Larry seemed to have figured it all. He was not rich, but he did not let that dull his personality. His accent was thick but between his native dialect and his foreign face, he was not always well understood, which added to his favourable charm. Once when I had glanced to his side, I caught my name Ruttie written in his handwriting on the top margin of his notebook. That was how I learned he was interested in me.
“First go and spit out the chewing gum.”
I was in Dr Rohini Aggarwal’s maternity clinic, located in the far-east of the city, the OB, who had been recommended by Dr Verma as a “kind doctor who will hold your hand through the process.” The clinic, on its entrance, had a board with a smiling mother and a baby, both in white clothes, highlighting the divinity that rested in the bliss of motherhood. Alongside the pair, in Century Gothic font was written Genesis, referring to the first book in the Old Testament, but also a more earthly meaning of “coming into being”. From there, the clinic was located at a dead-end, a mere condo after a narrow walkway, partitioned into three units – a reception-cum-waiting area, the doctor’s examination room, and a toilet. The walls were reinforced with white linoleum panels, merging with the white-tiled floor and cabinets. Even the receptionist’s desk was white panelled. The clinic felt claustrophobic, at least to me because of the reinforced symbolism of the holy and the pure.
When I came back from the toilet (it was also white) after flushing the gum, the doctor was still upset. I knew that she could be heard outside because the receptionist gave me that look, the look that is as condescending as it is shaming. Against the purity of the sanctum that the clinic was, I was watched as an inkblot spreading on (white) paper, and from the looks of these two women, I might as well have been a medieval harlot. “You people are not even ashamed”, she yelled again, this time opening her prescription pad to write a letter of declaration. The letter stated that she, the doctor was exempted from any responsibilities as to my health once the abortion process began.
“Who have you come with?” she asked, her upper lip scrunched up in disgust.
She stopped writing the declaration midway, and threw her pen on the table.
“I don’t understand where you people come from. Bring an adult with you and leave now.”
I was 24, legally an adult, but I was also an unmarried pregnant woman in India. Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, seeking abortion is limited to the risk to the life or mental/physical health of the pregnant woman or if the foetus has been diagnosed with physical or mental abnormalities, and is permissible only under twenty weeks. An abortion cannot be offered to a woman on her request, even though she does not need anyone else’s consent but her own. My pregnancy had increased my liability as a woman. During my second visit, I had to ask Larry to come with me, and the two of us signed the letter, even though I didn’t want to. There was only one thing in my mind – I was already entering into the eighth week and I didn’t want a surgical abortion.
I sat in the waiting lounge of the new OB with Divya and her friend Maya.
The first attempt to terminate the pregnancy had failed. At first I took it as a sign, a sign not to terminate, and against everyone’s advice decided to continue with the pregnancy. In the mornings, I threw up, and by afternoon, I would have heartburn so severe that I could do nothing but cry. I was not taking any medications, required for prenatal health, not even for my hypothyroidism. What pushed me, out of the deep, serpentine blue was Larry moving on with his life while I worried about a swollen belly and the life after. It felt unfair, was unfair.
“Look, I know you need these two women here for your support, but I need to talk to you alone”, my new OB Dr Sunil Bhagat told me.
“Have you considered marriage?” he asked me when Divya and Maya left the room.
“He is out of the picture, doctor.”
“I have already seen a doctor before and the procedure failed. I threw up the drug.”
“Who did you go to?”
“Dr Rohini Aggarwal. At Genesis.”
“Do you know her?”
“Yes. She was a batch senior to me.”
“I am sorry to say this but she made my life miserable.”
“I can imagine. But you don’t need a surgical abortion. You are only eight weeks; we will do a medical abortion.”
“Ball of tissue discharged after third round”, I texted Dr Bhagat, immediately after the portentous bleeding began. The loosened eight weeks-old foetus passed through swiftly, and fell into the lavatory, guttural-red in colour. I was lightheaded because of the loss of blood and the drugs, which I had been taking since seven in the morning, separated by two-hour intervals for a period of twelve hours. There were only-available-on-prescription drugs Misoprostol and Mifepristone, an antibiotic to control any infection, and an acidity-regulator. I set up the scene at home to make believe that I had had my period early that morning, bleeding heavily and with dysmenorrhoea. I lay down on my mother’s bed, fitting my tender body into the depressions of the old mattress, hiding in plain sight, to evoke the least suspicion.
A minute later, I received a text saying, “Ok. Keep me updated.”
On the television, a rerun of Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen played where she prepared a cabaret of ingredients for a dessert: crushed almonds (50 gm), butter (150 gm), and sugar (150 gm). My mother and I counted the number of times she had added butter in each item she prepared, almost like a drinking game, where each shot would have been taken for every dollop of butter added in the pan. Six weeks into my pregnancy, I had developed aversion to many foods particularly fennel seeds, and smells air-locked in handbags and lunchboxes made me nauseous so much so that travelling in the subway became difficult. On Monday mornings, when most women running late would eat a sandwich on the commute, I would try to move as far away as possible from them, for the fear of throwing up. But now food looked good again.
“More tissue discharged”, I informed my doctor and his text was the confirmation that I had needed.
“Ok. Good. It is over.”
Three days after the procedure, I went back to the department to attend classes, more importantly to submit a medical leave application to the fieldwork counsellor explaining my absence. Absence from fieldwork meant I could lose 200 credit points and could not graduate. My sister, Divya had arranged the medical document from a doctor, who longer practised medicine, but the document looked genuine enough to be accepted by the university; it stated that I had been undergoing treatment for malaria for a period of six weeks. The counsellor, Dr Gangmei cleared my head of the doubts pertaining to my short attendance on field, and it seemed at least for the moment, things were falling into place. I could pull in extra fieldwork hours during the autumn and the winter break, compensating for my absence.
During the lunch break, I peeped again in Dr Verma’s room, and finding her inside, I knocked and let myself in. I was wearing a short kurta, with yellow daffodils block-printed on it and a pair of blue jeans, and had let my hair open, as I had always had, letting the curls at the ends flow, and a small mound of tousled curls on the top. Dr Verma smiled pleasingly at me, “You look great.”
“I feel great, ma’am. I ended the pregnancy.”
“Oh! That’s great. I am happy for you.”
I informed her about changing my OB for the procedure and the way Dr Aggarwal had treated me.
“I cannot believe this.”
“But I understand, had my circumstances been different, she might have been nice to me as well.”
“You are right. But I am very happy for you. Come, give me a hug. You have been through so much. Everything will be okay now.” She walked up to me and pulled me into a hug, embracing me in a motherly fashion.
I had avoided meeting Larry in the department, by leaving the department early, by choosing a different elective, and by mostly not looking in his direction; but he followed me, and it made things look like everything was going well between us. Once he stopped me on my way to the toilet, and asked in desperation, “Ruttie, what did you do?”
“What do you think I did?” I was still angry at him, at the subtext of his texts, his manipulation, at his negligence during the first few weeks of my pregnancy, and the fact, that he was still unwilling to admit that he had cheated on me. In return, I had refrained from letting him know what I had chosen to do about the pregnancy, keeping his wits at end; of course, he was concerned. That Larry had had a role in the pregnancy was as much credit I could give him; when the pregnancy became an infliction, the decision to keep it or end it not mine, my body not belonging to me, it seemed I alone had the right to decide.
I continued to bleed for another twenty-eight days, discharging remnants of tissue, the thick red of the blood gradually turning into brown liquid, and then mere black spots.
One day, it simply stopped.
Rathi R is yet to publish a book. Meanwhile she writes for media houses and teaches creative writing for a living. When she is not writing, she reads nonfiction and takes a walk around the city that she lives in and loves.