Enter softly, slowly, quietly
“Oh, my God! Look at her, you have given birth to the ugliest girl on earth,” said my father’s mother, Karam Kaur, when I was born. My mother Pushpa was only twenty. She had a two-year-old toddler, Minna. Pushpa was young, hopeful and a day dreamer. She had a son already; now she wanted a daughter. All through her nine months of pregnancy, she dreamt of having the most beautiful daughter who would look like the apsaras of Ajanta and Aalora caves. My mother was such a romantic.
She would knit little dresses, booties, hats and pinafores for her baby girl, while singing her love songs. She embroidered, smocked and stitched little flowers on the dresses of her daughter. She had learnt to embroider in school from the nuns. Such a precise and beautiful embroidery was done with soft silk threads. All the dresses were in pink to honor the arrival of her daughter. Pink, because that was the tradition. Blue for boys, pink for girls. Her wish list did not stop there. She wanted her daughter to write poetry. She would read Shelly and Wordsworth to me when I was growing in her belly. She sang the love songs of Ghalib, Mira Bai, Amrita Pritam. Would the cocktail of her dreams ever be fruitful? That remained to be seen.
Pushpa was a happy, physically active woman who was unique in the sense that she never suffered from labor pains. Her babies never warned her of their arrival. I did the same to her. Karam Kaur had arranged for a live-in midwife. On the hottest day of the year after my mother had had an afternoon nap, I decided to say hello to her. My grandmother started shaking. My grandpa Bhag Singh called the lady doctor next door who came, cut the umbilical cord and charged Rs. 150. After wiping me, she handed me over to my grandmother. One look at me and Karam Kaur started wailing, “Daakterr ji (Doctor), put some Mitti (mud) where her nose should have been. She doesn’t have a nose. Almighty! Oh my God, what will we do? My daughters at least have noses……”
My father was a sub-judge at that time in Garh-Shankar. A telegram was sent to him and he took the next train out to Lahore. The first thing Karam Kaur said to my father was “Look at her Gurbachan Singh, she has no nose!”
My father took me in his arms and kissed me and said, “She is beautiful. She is a fragrant little bud, a guncha. She looks like a tiny little doll a Gudiya.” “Gudiya she is,” said my grandfather and immediately I became their favorite and they all called me Gudiya. A baby girl had arrived in that family after fifteen years. All my maternal and paternal uncles and aunts had boys of all sizes and ages. My arrival to that scene was an occasion of great rejoicing.
My mother turned away from me. The midwife, Mai Aaso, could not understand her attitude. In her career of thirty years, she had never seen a mother refuse to feed her baby. When I cried, my Asso would sing to me and rock me, pressing me to her bosom. She would take me to my mother and tell her, “Bibi (Lady), look at your baby, her lips are parched. Put her to your breast. What kind of a mother are you?”
Every four hours I was taken to my mother for feeding. The whole ritual would not last for more than five minutes before she would give me back to Mai Asso. I was told that when I got hungry, I did not cry or make any sound. Only my eyes would drip. Mai Aaso saw me turning into a fist full of bones. It broke her heart to see me dwindling. Six months passed. One day Mai Asso washed me, dressed me and brought me to my mother. Handing me to her, she said, “I cannot see this Jeev Hatiya (murder) and be blamed for it. You are killing your daughter. I feel deeply sad. Look after your daughter. I am going home, I resign! I have raised many babies and I have seen many new mothers. But never have I seen a mother as heartless as you!”
I was in the lap of my mother. I was as light as a flower that my mother could not even feel me. She fell into a deep trance. She heard soft music coming from the vibrating heart of the earth. Slowly, she opened her eyes to look at the source of music. Instead, she saw me in her lap. As if seeing me for the first time in her life. She cried. “What have you done?” said her heart to her. Weeping silently, she put me to her breast. I suckled for five minutes and turned my face away. She sang to me, “Mera Bulbul So raha hai, shor gull na machaa. Dheere dheere aa re, badal dheere dheere aa. (My Red Robin is sleeping. Do not make any noise, Oh Cloud. Enter softly, slowly, quietly.)”
She felt enormous remorse. The only way I would fall asleep would be when she lay me on her bosom, face down and sang to me. I slept on her breast for three years at night. Till the night she delivered my baby brother, Lali. A round big ball of butter. He was soft and sweet with pink lips, hazel eyes and brown hair, taking the looks of my father. My mother could not lay me on her breast because her breasts hurt with milk for the new baby.
I was weaned from breast milk at the age of two. I was introduced to the milk of a water buffalo which my parents had bought for me. Majh we called it. By this time, my father had been transferred to Batala. We had a raised bungalow. At the back of that bungalow there was a very spacious yard surrounded by twelve-feet-high walls. At the end was a row of servant quarters. There was also a big room for the water buffalo. That room did not have any light in it. When we children played hide-and-seek, I would hide there, knowing no one was going to come and find me. Minna and his friends who came to our house to play knew where I was hiding. They never came, being too scared of the dark. I felt safe and cozy, climbing and lying on my Majh.