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Three thousand stitches, p.7
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.7

           Sudha Murty
 
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  My father held the baby upside down, gently slapped her and instantly, the baby’s strong cries filled the room. When the men outside heard the baby cry, they opened the door and instructed him, ‘Doctor, get ready to leave. We will drop you back.’

  My father cleaned up his patient, gathered his instruments and packed his bag. The old lady began cleaning the room. He looked at the troubled young girl and said, ‘Take the baby and run away from this place if you can find it in your heart to do so. Go to Pune and look for Pune Nursing School. Find a clerk there called Gokhale and tell him that RH has sent you. He will help you get admission in a nursing course. In time, you will become a nurse and lead an independent life, with the ability to take care of your own needs. Raise your daughter with pride. Don’t you dare leave her behind or else she will end up suffering like you. That’s my most sincere advice for you.’

  ‘But, doctor, how will I go to Pune? I don’t even know where it is!’

  ‘Go to the nearest city of Belgaum and then from there, you can take a bus to Pune.’

  My father said goodbye to her and came out of the room.

  An old man handed him one hundred rupees. ‘Doctor, these are your fees for helping the girl with the delivery. I warn you—don’t say a word about what happened here today. If you do, I will learn of it and your head will no longer be attached to the rest of your body.’

  My father nodded, suddenly overtaken by a sense of calm. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I think I forgot my scissors in the room. I will need it tomorrow at the clinic.’

  He turned around and went back inside and saw the young girl gazing at the sleeping newborn with tears in her eyes. When the old lady’s back was turned towards him, my father handed over the money to the girl. ‘This is all I have with me right now,’ he said. ‘Use it and do what I have told you.’

  ‘Doctor, what is your name?’ she asked.

  ‘My name is Dr R.H. Kulkarni, but almost everyone calls me RH. Be brave, child. Goodbye and good luck.’

  My father left the room and the house. The return journey was equally rough and he finally reached home at dawn. He was dead tired and soon, sleep took over. The next morning, his mind wandered back to his first patient in the village and his first earning. He became aware of his shortcomings and wished he was better qualified in gynaecology. However, his current shortage of funds made him postpone the dream for another day.

  A few months later, he got married and shared his dream of becoming a gynaecologist with his wife.

  Time passed quickly. He was transferred to different places in Maharashtra and Karnataka and had four children along the way. By the time he turned forty-two, the couple had carefully saved enough money for further education and my father decided to pursue his desire. So he left his family in Hubli and joined Egmore Medical College in Chennai, and fulfilled his dream of becoming a gynaecologist surgeon. He was one of the few rare male gynaecologists at the time.

  He went back to Hubli and started working in Karnataka Medical College as a professor. His sympathetic manner towards the underprivileged and his genuine concern for the women and girls he treated made him quite popular—both as a doctor and as a teacher. The same concern reflected in his liberal attitude towards his daughters and he allowed them to pursue their chosen fields of education, which was unheard of in those days.

  My father was an atheist. ‘God doesn’t reside in a church, mosque or temple,’ he would often say. ‘I see him in all my patients. If a woman dies during childbirth, then it is the loss of one patient for a doctor but for that child, it is the lifelong loss of a mother. And tell me, who can replace a mother?’

  Despite his retirement, my father’s love for learning did not diminish and he remained active.

  One day, he went for a medical conference to another city. There, he met a young woman in her thirties. She was presenting cases from her experience in the rural areas. My father found her work interesting and went to tell her so after the presentation. ‘Doctor, your research is excellent. I am quite impressed by your work,’ he said.

  ‘Thank you,’ she said.

  Just then, someone called out to my father, ‘RH, we are waiting for you to grab some lunch. Will you take long?’

  The young woman asked, ‘What is your name, doctor?’

  ‘Dr R.H. Kulkarni, or RH.’

  After a moment of silence, she asked, ‘Were you in Chandagad in 1943?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Doctor, I live in a village around forty kilometres away from here. May I request you to come home right now for a brief visit?’

  My father was unprepared for such an invitation. Why was she calling him to her house?

  ‘Maybe some other time, doctor,’ he replied, hoping to end the matter.

  But the woman was persistent, ‘You must come. Please. Think of this as a request from someone who has been waiting for you for years now.’

  My father was puzzled by her enigmatic answer and still refused, but she pleaded with him. There was something in her eyes—something so desperate—that in the end, he gave in and accompanied her to the village.

  On the way to the village, both of them exchanged ideas and she spoke animatedly about her work and her findings. As the two of them approached her residence, my father realized that the house was also a nursing home. He walked in through the front door and saw a lady in her fifties standing in the living room.

  The young woman next to him said, ‘Ma, this is Dr RH. Is he the one you have been waiting for all these years?’

  The woman came forward, bent down and touched her forehead to my father’s feet. He felt his feet getting wet from her tears. It was strange. Who were these women? My father didn’t know what to do. He quickly bent forward, placed his hands on the older woman’s shoulders and pulled her up.

  ‘Doctor, you may not remember me but I can never forget you. Mine must have been your first delivery.’

  Still, my father couldn’t recognize her.

  ‘A long time ago, you lived in a village on the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka. One night, there was a heavy downpour and you helped me—a young, unmarried girl then—through childbirth. There was no delivery table in the room, so you converted stacks of paddy sacks into a makeshift table. Many hours later, I gave birth to a daughter.’

  In a flash, the memories came flooding back and my father recollected that night. ‘Of course I remember you!’ he said. ‘It was the middle of the night and I urged you to go to Pune with your newborn. I think I was as scared as you!’

  ‘You gave me a hundred rupees, which is what my family paid you for the delivery. It was a big amount in those days and still, you handed it all over to me.’

  ‘Yes, my monthly salary was seventy-five rupees then!’ added my father with a smile.

  ‘You told me your last name but I couldn’t hear it because of the deafening sound of the rain. I took your advice, went to Pune, found your friend Gokhale and became a nurse. It was very, very hard, but I was able to raise my daughter on my own. After such a terrible experience, I wanted my daughter to become a gynaecologist. Luckily, she shared my dream too. Today, she is a doctor and is also married to one and they practise here. At one point, I spent months searching for you but with no luck. Then we heard that you had moved to Karnataka after the reorganization of the state departments in 1956. Meanwhile, Gokhale also passed away and I lost all hope of ever finding you. I prayed to God to give me a chance to meet you and thank you for showing me the right path at the right time.’

  My father felt like he was in a Bollywood movie and was enchanted by the unexplained mystery of life. A few kind words and encouragement had changed a young girl’s life.

  She clasped her hands together, ‘We are so grateful to you, doctor. My daughter wanted to call you for the inauguration of the nursing home here and we were very disappointed at not being able to reach you then. Time has passed and now the nursing home is doing very well.’

  My father wiped his moist eyes and lo
oked around to see the name of the nursing home. He looked to the right and found himself staring at it—R.H. Diagnostic.

  7

  No Place Like Home

  Infosys Foundation is involved in various types of construction projects like building dharamshalas for poor patients and their caretakers, schools for children in remote areas, houses for the thousands who suffer in calamities such as cyclones and floods, and toilets for both schools and public use in an effort to encourage cleanliness in our country.

  From its inception, I wanted the foundation to be independent and have its own office, but during the initial period, we didn’t have more than Rs 5000 left in the bank at the end of every financial year, despite the annual funding. Somehow, the will to help others made having our own premises an extremely low priority. Still, the foundation kept short-term fixed deposits and we carefully managed our cash flows to ensure interest, and over the years, we managed to accumulate a sizeable amount.

  One day, I learnt of a beautiful plot of land with an old building available for sale in the popular suburb of Jayanagar in Bengaluru. The interest we had saved was just enough to purchase the land. Since the building was not suited for the needs of an office, it was obvious that at some point, we would have to demolish it and build our own. So we decided to leave the land as is until we had saved some more.

  The next financial year too, we had less than Rs 5000 in our bank account. Even though we had saved a little interest over the years, the construction cost was higher than the money we had and building our office remained a dream.

  Years passed by and finally, in 2002, the foundation was able to accumulate enough interest to begin construction. I was happy. My dream was about to come true. I got the ball rolling, contacted an architect and instructed him to create a simple plan for us.

  A few days later, I received an invitation from a Middle Eastern country to speak at a ladies’ association there. I decided to accept it because I had some talks scheduled in Dubai and Kuwait soon after. I wanted to complete all my assignments there during one trip and thus save money on the cost of air tickets.

  Soon, I was on my way. Like all trips, this one, too, had many meetings and talks lined up. There were also events wherein the who’s who of the Indian community in the region was expected to participate. It took courage for most of the people I met to leave their homes behind in India, settle in a foreign country and still hold on to the culture and faith, against many odds. People also spoke about the work we did, or thought we did––sometimes it was factual and sometimes a little exaggerated.

  Finally, the day came for my last speaking engagement. It was a good event with lively questions and discussions. When the function drew to a close, I prepared to leave for my hotel.

  A few women met me on their way out. ‘Ma’am, would you like to buy anything here?’ they inquired politely. ‘The shopping experience here is quite wonderful. Maybe you’d like some pearls or gold?’

  ‘No,’ I replied. ‘But is there anything interesting that I can see?’

  The women pondered for a moment, shook their heads and said their goodbyes.

  Just then, I noticed two women approaching me. One of them said in a low voice, ‘Ma’am, we would like to invite you to our small shelter. Will you please consider it?’

  ‘What’s there in your shelter?’ I asked.

  ‘We want you to see it for yourself. We can tell you about the work we do in various ways, but I don’t know which aspect of our work will strike a chord with you.’

  My antenna went up. There was something about them and their humble manner that made me curious. I nodded. ‘Please give me a few minutes. I will come with you right now,’ I said.

  I thanked my hosts quickly and left the venue with the women in tow. A short while later, we reached a small house in a residential area. At first glance, it seemed more of an outhouse to me. When we entered, I saw five women there––all in their nightwear. Some of them had swollen eyes and red marks on their cheeks. It was obvious that they were not in the best of health or happy in any way.

  Within a few minutes, we were all seated.

  ‘What language should I speak in?’ I asked the women who had brought me there.

  ‘Hindi is okay. A little English is also fine.’

  The women began telling me their names and the states they were from––one was from Tamil Nadu, two from Andhra Pradesh and one from Kerala.

  I exchanged a few pleasantries with them and soon enough, Nazneem, the woman from Andhra Pradesh, started narrating her story, ‘Madam, I was a maid in the district of Karimnagar years ago and had three daughters old enough to get married. An agent told me that I would earn much more in the Middle East for the same work I did in India. He told me that I would even get a fifteen-day vacation once a year with free air travel to see my family. I realized that if I worked here for three years, I would save enough to bear the wedding expenses of all my daughters. It was everything I could ask for. Our financial troubles would go away! My husband, who is a vegetable vendor, kept reassuring me that he would look after the girls during my absence. He encouraged me to go as long as I kept in touch regularly. So with my limited savings and by selling all the gold that I had, I paid for my passport, visa, travel fare and the agent’s commission.’

  Her eyes clouded over as the memories came flooding back. ‘When the time came to say goodbye, my heart left heavy and I was afraid. I had never even travelled from Karimnagar to the big city of Hyderabad. Then how would I travel abroad and manage things all alone in a country completely foreign to me? How would I be able to live away from my family?

  ‘The agent assured me, “The family you are going to work for are kind. They are also of the same religion as you. You won’t take too much time to adjust. I have already spoken to them. They will treat you as a family member. If you are unhappy, you can come back after a year and not return.”

  ‘I felt somewhat relieved and for the first time in my life, I travelled to Hyderabad on my own and then took a flight from the city to come here.’

  I interrupted her, ‘Were you scared during the flight?’

  Nazneem thought for a moment. ‘Not really,’ she replied. ‘In the airplane, I met many women just like me, both young and old, and I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone. Outside the destination airport, we were handed a burka each and were directed to a bus. The heat was unbearable, and it felt like I was almost on fire. Karimnagar is a hot place in India but the level of heat in this country cannot be described. Despite the scorching heat, the bus was not air-conditioned. We were all expecting a luxurious bus, like the one the agent had promised. We dismissed it as an error or a problem with bus availability. In fact, most of us believed that it might rain soon––like it happens in some parts of south India.

  ‘An hour-long ride later, the bus dropped us at a location from where we were taken to different houses for our new jobs.

  ‘The house I was taken to was huge, beautiful and air-conditioned. I was given a tiny room near the kitchen. First, I met the house manager who took my passport and handed me some cleaning supplies and told me something in a language I didn’t understand. Thankfully, there was another woman housekeeper from India named Santosh who translated everything for me: “Your work begins right now. Start cleaning the whole house and make it spotless. Madam has no tolerance for dust. Your meal timings are––breakfast at 9 a.m., lunch at 3 p.m. and dinner at 10 p.m. Also, you must wear a burka whenever you go outside the house.”

  ‘I took some time to unpack my bags and use the bathroom. Then I went back to search for Santosh. The supplies were good and Santosh taught me how to use them and introduced me to some of the electronic cleaning equipment too.

  ‘Over the next few days, I hardly saw the owner of the house––she was either out of the country or living on a different floor. I always reported to the house manager.

  ‘Santosh and I began to get to know one another. One afternoon, when we had a few minutes alone
, she asked me, “Why did you come here? This isn’t such a good work environment. We work like donkeys from morning to night with minimal rest and sometimes, we have to endure the wrath of the house manager for no fault of ours. Though we have come for household chores, we always get burdened with extra work. Look at me––I help in the kitchen, bathe all the young children, iron all the clothes and wash all the dishes. Now, they have brought you here to clean the house, but that’s not the only work you will be assigned. You may have to do the cook’s job when he doesn’t show up or run errands as and when needed.”

  ‘“It doesn’t matter as long as I get a good salary,” I replied honestly.

  ‘“That’s what I used to think too,” said Santosh. There was sadness in her eyes. “We don’t get a rupee in our hands. Sometimes, the owner says that the money has been deposited in a bank account or that it has been sent to our family. It’s been a year since I came here but I haven’t received any payment directly.”

  ‘“But our agent said . . .”

  ‘“It doesn’t matter what your agent said or who he is––they are all the same. They have lied to us and lured us into this country and job. We are poor and we fell for the hope they gave us. They know that once we get here, it is difficult to return. The agents know that we are all alone here. In this country, we can’t even go out without a man accompanying us. The owners also keep our passports with them, making it impossible to leave this place.”

  ‘For the first time since landing there, I became afraid. I didn’t know what to do. “Santosh, you have been here for a year. When are you going back? Are you going to quit work or change jobs?”

  ‘“We can’t quit or change jobs without the owner’s consent. Most of the bosses don’t allow it. So I am trying my best to return, but I need money for a one-way ticket and my passport.”

  ‘“Do you talk to your family back home?”

 
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