My mother, Farzana Ejaz, is an Urdu writer and poet, and she once wrote a story that was inspired by when she was in labour with me in Lucknow, India. I've translated it into English here. The story is called 'Maseeha', which is Urdu for 'Messiah' or 'Deliverer'...
She did not know how long she had spent half-drowned in that ocean of pain, but Najjo’s waist was still twisting inside itself in the most horrible way. Each time that she had called out in anguish, the junior doctor had apathetically strolled her way and said, “Bibi, abhhi der hai (Ma’am, it’s not time yet).” Twelve hours had passed since she’d arrived at the hospital, and by now, the brutal surges of pain had finally stolen any last lingering measure of strength that her body might’ve had.
Childbirth wasn’t a new experience for her; she had endured the pain twice before - nine and ten years ago. The first time she had nearly died. Becoming a mother is just another name for risking one’s life. To become a mother, a woman - rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, from the most developed country or from a nation on the verge of collapse - has to suffer pain. Some women are built stronger, and their threshold for pain is a lot higher, and they can perhaps even bear the pain and not cry out. But then there are the weaker ones who end up barely holding onto their lives. Najjo was this kind of woman.
She hadn’t been frightened the first time. Ignorance indeed had been bliss. Najjo had seen twenty-two summers by then but had never seen anyone becoming a mother. She had always been around expectant mothers in her family, but the actual deliveries had always taken place at the hospital. The pregnant women would go to the hospital all weak and almost lifeless, but Najjo had never actually seen the birthing process herself. She had always assumed that the pain was bearable; why else would women willingly put themselves through it over and over again?
All she had ever seen at the hospital was a tiny baby lying in the arms of its weakly-smiling mother, her body covered with sheets, her face bearing a look of satisfaction. Never in her wildest dreams had Najjo been able to imagine the maddening pain the mother had gone through only a little while before. She hadn’t known that a woman only earns the name ‘Mother’ after her body has been churned in madness.
The first time the doctor had had her come to the hospital early, and she had innocently brought along a tiny suitcase with her, packed with a few books and some starched saris. Books and nice clothes had always been her only indulgence. But she had had to get out of her fine clothes and change into a depressing shroud of a hospital robe that felt unkind against her child-like skin. Her heart had sunk deep somewhere within. She had been made to drink a glass full of bitter medicine, and every time a doctor in white asked her if she felt any pain, she would sweetly smile and say, “Nahin (No)”. She had felt fine, but sooner rather than later, the lamb would have to be brought to the knife.
Two hours later, the pain had overtaken her. Twelve hours later, the pain had had her thrashing about in the labour room. Only when she began to feel that she could take no more and that she would lose consciousness had the maseeha (deliverer) of a doctor come to her rescue and chloroformed her out of her misery. Much later, when she had come to, she had found nature’s present to her - a round chubby baby, wrapped up in the remains of her own clothes, lying peacefully asleep in the curve of her arm. An innocent angel, a piece of her body, the answer to all her problems, her own son. Maternal love stirred within her, and her eyes twinkled with tears of gratitude. That day, Najjo had felt like she had realised her purpose in life, and she forgot all about the pain from a few hours ago.
Najjo went through the same ordeal the year after that, and nature gifted her another son. She felt like new strength had been given to her in both of her arms. Both the little angels, the lights in her life, began to grow. Najjo forgot everything else and let herself get lost in her children. She began to love her own mother more after having become a mother herself. Now she knew that it was not easy for any woman to go through that pain over and over again. They say that the doors of heaven are flung open for a woman after she goes through the pain of childbirth, and that only then can heaven be found at her feet.
Najjo often wondered at the sense of going through all the pain of giving birth to a daughter, raising her, and then finally handing her over to another. Handing over a part of her own body to another and from then on to always be worrying every second of every day about how she was being treated…if her daughter was truly happy or if she was only smiling and calming her mother’s heart with happy stories. Who can ever understand a woman’s pain? A mother, a daughter, a wife - those are the three faces of helplessness. For this reason, God and his prophets have endlessly preached time and time again to raise and love a daughter right, to love and honour a wife, and to be kind and loving to a mother. Hazrat Eesa’s (Jesus’s) love for his mother, Hazrat Muhammad’s love for his daughters, and Ram Chandarji’s love for his wife. Every religion has preached being gentle with God’s weaker creation. A woman is weak by nature; she thrives in the protective shadow of a man. She has that right and is the other wheel of the vehicle of life.
Time went on in its pace. Najjo’s sons, the apples of her eye, grew, and after ten years or so, she was lost in yet another maze of pain; each wave teased her with the promise of being the last. But getting out of the maze wasn’t that easy. Najjo stayed lost in that abyss for twelve hours. Her tolerance was falling by the second. The high blood pressure and the artificial drugged state that she was in had made her weak. Her heart fluttered with each wave of pain. Her limbs had gone cold. She bit her lips, her tongue, trying to bear it all.
She had called out to Allah Mian many times in that shabby labour room at the government hospital. She had thought that it might not have been proper to call out the names of the prophets and the saints during a pregnancy, but what could she have done? Who else could she have called out to? Kiski duhaaein deti? It is only the Most Beneficent One, the Owner of Worlds, who can truly hear the cries of His children. He can hear them in His Heavenly Court. He is the One who has said that whatever a woman in labour cries out for she will get.
All the saints and the prophets that Najjo believed in, she needed their help today. She needed them today the most. Her attention kept drifting towards the mazaar across the street, the tomb of a Muslim saint. She would scream out his name during her worst contractions, and it was his name that was on her lips during the weakness that each surge of pain left her in. People are so weak and helpless; they call out the most holiest and purest of names for help in the most unclean of places. She had recited many times already all the verses from the Quran that she could remember in the painful swirl she was in.
By that time of the night, all the junior doctors and aayahs had left. Most of the beds were empty. Najjo was the only person in the room, or so she had thought. Her pain had not let her notice someone else sighing in the room - “Hey, Bhagwaan (Oh, Bhagwaan)”. Through eyes squinted in agony, Najjo looked towards her right and saw a rustic woman lying on a table. She had vermillion in her hair and was wrapped in a dirty sari. She was shivering in the aftermath of her latest contraction. Her sari was torn in many places, and the top half of her body was half-covered. She was in an incredible amount of pain.
Najjo’s pain was rising to its peak, and she was now constantly screaming. But there was no one there to hear her cries. Perhaps the doctors and the nurses were so used to these sounds that they went about unaffected like machines. Once in a while, a doctor would come in and say, “Abhhi der hai (It’s not time yet)”.
Najjo was writhing in pain. She felt like her waist would tear away and that she would die any minute. She was crying in hiccups.
Najjo suddenly felt the rough worn hand of a sympathetic stranger on her waist. She turned to see that somehow the rustic woman, bathed in her own blood, had reached out to her from her high table and was gently trying to stroke Najjo’s aching waist. She was telling her, “Na ro, behni (don’t cry, sister). Bhagwaan sukhh dega (Bhagwaan will give you peace)”.
Najjo took the woman’s hand and placed it on her own teary eyes. She had never seen such a display of empathy and kindness before. That woman was a poor, illiterate rustic who was herself immersed in the same pain, yet she had reached out to Najjo and was giving her support. The pain had turned her face yellow. Her entire body was drenched in sweat. Her eyes were wet. At that moment, these were simply two women. Just women. Not Hindu, not Muslim. Not rich, not poor. Not educated, not illiterate.
The call for the morning fajr prayer blared out from the mazaar across the street. Najjo whimpered, “Shahmina Baba, madad kijiye (Help me, Shahmina Baba)”. The rustic woman wailed in her own words, “Hey Shahmina Baba, humri sahaaita karo (Help me, Shahmina Baba)”.