Free Birth by Sarah Das Gupta

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It was hot in the Indian sunlight although it was early December. The students were sitting exams in stuffy classrooms where the ceiling fans whirred like dying insects. The rooms had a teacher’s desk raised above the level of the pupils. Girls bent over their papers, writing frantically! Every so often, a hand would shoot up for another sheet. Sitting at the high desk, I noticed that every time I climbed down to hand out paper, I doubled up with a sharp pain which was increasingly hard to disguise! At eight and a half months through my second pregnancy, these spasms worried me! I certainly did not want to be the first member of staff to give birth in a classroom! I believed in practical work and class involvement but a demonstration of childbirth seemed to be stretching things too far.

To my relief, the bell rang for the end of school. Most teachers welcome the bell, specially at the end of a long, humid day. In this case I had been praying for it!
The students in their starched white blouses and red skirts, streamed out through the gates. With difficulty, I threaded my way through the crowd and luckily flagged down a taxi. By this time the spasms were more intense, making me bend over. I could see reflected in the driver’s mirror, his puzzled, anxious expression. I counted off the familiar landmarks, Lower Circular Road, Kolkata (Calcutta) Rugby Club, Kwality Restaurant, at last the turn into Ballygunge Place!

The taxi came to a rattling halt as I fumbled in my bag for the key. As it happened, the door was opened by our Nepalese ayah. Taking one anxious look at me, her usually unflappable character quickly changed. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t disguise the panic on her face. My Bengali was kindergarten level and my Hindi, non-existent. However, no words, whatever the language, were needed to explain my doubling up with pain every ten minutes.

I too was near panic as I weighed up my options. It didn’t take long; the choice was limited. My husband, a journalist, was away on an assignment. My own family were thousands of miles away in leafy Surrey! I understood from the ayah’s limited Bengali, that she was not up for the role of mid-wife. She wanted me in hospital as soon as possible but it was far away in Alipore, another part of the city. I had no transport!

I went out into the street. Total darkness hit me like a brick wall. No street lights, curtains tightly pulled. The usually busy city, silent. Rather belatedly, I remembered that India was at war with Pakistan over the future of East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh. Not the best night to look for a taxi!
Anti-aircraft guns lit up parts of the city with brilliant arcs of light. The silence was unnerving. Kolkata is rarely silent: the roar of traffic, the impatient hooting of horns, the rattling of trams, must make it one of the noisiest cities on earth! I thought the chances of finding a taxi in the circumstances were nil.
Just at that moment, a battle scarred, black and yellow vehicle, lights dimmed, was crawling down the street. Even from several yards away, I could hear a strange tapping noise from the engine and a general rattling as if all the bodywork were loose. As I raised my arm, the taxi came to a noisy halt. The driver was a Sikh, his turban just visible in the darkness. Pointing at my obviously pregnant figure, I whispered, “Forest Nursing Home, Alipore,”before the next spasm gripped me.

I collapsed on the back seat. The stuffing was sticking out from the plastic covered seats as well as a few rusty springs. A few moments later, I considered jumping out. The taxi was swooping backwards and forwards across the road like a drunken seagull.
Somehow or other, we eventually crawled through the hospital gates. I was quickly ushered into a lift by a nervous receptionist. The nurse, took one look at me doubled up in pain, before hurrying me into a delivery room. After a quick check-up, she commented with barely concealed annoyance, “You’ve come far too early. You might as well go home.” The night sister suddenly appeared. She had hardly begun her check-up, before she shouted, “Get this patient ready now. She’s about to give birth any minute!”
I had hardly got into bed, before I was holding a tiny, pucker-faced daughter in my arms. My own doctor rushed in, red-faced and flustered.
“Don’t think I’m paying you. I delivered her myself!”

Sarah Das Gupta is a retired English teacher from near Cambridge, UK; She has also taught and lived in Tanzania and India. She started writing last year during a stay in hospital, following an accident. Her work has been published in over thirty magazines from US, UK,Canada, India, Mauritius and Croatia. Her interests include, Environment, History, Plants and Nature.

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