|Two mothers 2|
"How could you give your child away? Have you no hearth or home? Where do you live?" he asked the childís natural mother.
"Where do you think? She lives in the shanties by the bridge. She is a labourer, and we were neighbours. When the child was born, I had cut the umbilical cord myself."
Dazed, the younger woman was staring at the child. She did not seem to be hearing anything.
"Where is her husband?"
"She has no husband. She keeps chasing men, but no one is willing to have her for a wife. If she had a home, do you think she would be abandoning her babies?"
The guard blew his whistle.
People hurried to their carriages. The gypsy woman turned away too, but the younger woman fell at her feet.
"Donít go away. Donít take my child away, donít take him away."
Some of the passengers pitied her. The policeman stepped forward determinedly and told the Banjaran, "Give her back the child. If the mother does not wish to part with the child, you canít take him away."
The Banjaran had not expected such a verdict. "Why should I give him away? Whoever gives away her own child? And give him to her? She has neither a home nor aÖ"
"The train is about to leave. Give the child to his mother or Iíll put you behind bars."
The older woman was scared. She looked around at the people for help. When none was forthcoming, she turned on the younger woman: "You bitch! Changed your mind after coming here? Take your child, you chameleon. When you next ask me to feed him, Iíll give him poison, not milk. And Iíll do the same for you. For seven months I have fed him the milk which was rightfully my own childísÖ" With a jerk, she tossed the boy into the other womanís arms and burst into tears.
The other woman held the child to her breast. Her heart filled with love, she too began to weep.
It was a strange tamasha5. Both women were weeping. They were sworn enemies, and both were mothers of that one child. Homeless folk are unrestrained in both their laughter and their tears. And the bone of contention, that painfully thin child, was still fast asleep, his fists tightly clenched.
Weeping and cursing, the Banjaran boarded the train.
"You have your child now. Move along at once." The policeman placed the tip of his cane threateningly on the back of the sleeping child. "Leave the station right now."
Holding the child to her breast, the woman drew back. The crowd had dispersed. Standing in the doorway of her carriage, the Banjaran was still shouting, "You whore! You bitch! Why didnít you kill him the day he was born? I shanít be at peace until you kill him, you bitchÖ"
Suddenly, the child woke up. Perhaps he was not used to the breast he was at, or perhaps the policemanís cane had hurt him. He rubbed his nose and his eyes, and then began to suck on his thumb. Looking dazed, the woman drew further back, until she had her back to the wall of the station.
The child suckled on its thumb. Not a drop of milk reached his tongue, naturally, and he started kicking and wailing. Now, he was wide-awake. The mother shifted him from the left shoulder to the right, but he wailed louder still.
The mother was worried. She tried holding him one way and then another, trying to make him comfortable.
The Banjaran had heard the childís cries and started shouting again, "Kill him, just kill him. Why donít you give him poison? He hasnít had a drop of milk since the afternoon. Wonít a hungry child cry?"
The policeman had gone his way, swinging his cane. But for one or two porters, there was no one near the carriage. Away at the rear of the train, the guard was waving the green flag.
The engine driver blew the whistle. The train was leaving.
The child was still crying. The mother took some peanuts from the pocket of her torn kurta and started shoving them into his mouth.
"You wretch, what are you stuffing his mouth with? You will kill my baby. You whore, you murderessÖ"
The Banjaran flung a small tin trunk and a bundle onto the platform. Then, muttering and cursing, she got off the train. "Spawn of the devil! You made me miss my train. I hope you die, you wretch."
The train had pulled away from the platform. The last porters were leaving the station. Silence descended on the platform. The policeman, too, had finished his rounds and moved on to another platform. But when he returned, swinging his cane, he saw those two women sitting huddled together by the station wall. The Banjaran had the child in her lap and was feeding him at her breast, under the cover of her veil. The childís mother was gently caressing the hair of her dear one.
Translated from the Hindi
by Nirupama Dutt with TLM
Bhishm Sahni is one of the most popular writers of Hindi. His honours include the Padmabhushan (the Presidentís award) and the National Academy Award. He lives in Delhi