Friday, April 24, 2009

A night in the maternity hospital in Srinagar


There is no crowd pushing forward to gate crash, no fake excuses by attendants to get inside, no obstinate denials by the security and no bribed entries later. The gates are flung open, men smoke on the porch and the benches. The dark moonless night has fallen and Lal Ded (LD) hospital, the valley’s biggest maternity hospital, is silent except for the dogs and few far away voices.

Pale light floats through the long corridors narrowed by people leaning against the walls, some sleeping on green, blue and red Styrofoam mats, and some chatting in whispers on the wooden benches. In the labour room on the first floor, women moan rhythmically in pain, calling their mothers and fathers as they would have called them once as children. The high pitched shrieks woven together with subtle moans float through the entire floor, and attendants pace uneasily through the corridor.

Saleema Jan, 62, squatting and leaning against the wall gently rocks herself, her palm covering her forehead as she mumbles a prayer. Her daughter Mehtab Bano is inside the labour room, crying out her name in an agonizing pitch. Saleema Jan is in pain outside.

“Adamas adam phatun, yehai che, gubra, qayaamat aasan (a human growing in a human and then separating: the pain, my son, is beyond words),” says Jan, the tips of her fore finger and thumb anxiously rubbing the corners of her dry lips, her tongue flickering out to wet the tiny fissures. “If my daughter sees that I am even weaker than her, she will loose all strength and can’t face this ordeal.”

Jan remembers the old days when she was afraid of going through the pain again after giving birth to two sons. But, the desire for a daughter made her bear all the agony again. “I used to be happy that I will have another child but then I would remember this moment when every muscle twitched in pain and my hands would shiver with the thought,” she says.

Twenty years ago, the rate of Caesarean deliveries was much less. Women would bear children without surgeries and sections. Jan delivered four babies, but never by a Caesarean section. “Back then, boad operation (major operation) caesareans were looked down upon and women who delivered after cesareans were thought of as lazy and weak,” she says. “But today most deliveries are by an operation in the theatre.”

According to a report published by a doctor in 2006, 85 percent of the deliveries in LD happen by caesareans. As per the WHO guidelines, not more than 15 percent of the total deliveries should happen by caesarean. The report cites “Adequate trial of labour not given to the pregnant women” as the main reason for the high cesarean rate in the hospital.

“If a woman gets a cesarean in her first delivery, it is almost sure that her second delivery will also come by a cesarean and the chances of a third child being born to the woman are negligible,” says a female gynecologist. The gynecologist says that women now demand cesareans because they do not want to go the pain. “I write on the medical records that the cesarean was demanded,” she says. She has herself had cesareans for her deliveries.

On the second floor, above the labour room, families wait on benches, and blankets. Cups of tea pass around. There are no shrieks, no moans here. Only faint sounds of occasional steps come from inside the Operation Theatre.

Fahmeeda Akhtar, 47, waits with a soft mink blanket on her lap. Her daughter is inside too, but under the knife undergoing a caesarean. “Vani gaeses bahaar haavun aemis shur sund (Now God should show her the blossoms of this child),” Fahmeeda says, her hands buried under the tiny mink blanket. Her son- in- law has gone out to buy a baby feeder and other things they would need in the post operative ward.

There is no waiting room for attendants to wait for their patients. It looks like a hostel corridor, young boys striking up old chats.

Outside the post-operative ward, Mohammad Shafi Dar, 29, removes his ankle-high fur shoes. He wears no socks. The skin of his toes is dead and white, and his feet smell. The woman sitting next to him pouts her lips and slides a couple of feet away. “I have removed my shoes after three days. My wife had some complicacy and I have not had a wink of sleep for the last four nights,” says Dar. Dar lives in Pulwama where government doctors denied treating her wife and he had to come here in the middle of the night three days ago. “They (government doctors) have started a nursing home near the hospital and they asked us to come there and pay 18000 rupees. They said they cannot do anything if we did not come to the nursing home.” Dar became father to a son this evening. Under creases of weariness and oil, his brown face lights up with the mention of his son. “Only women have the patience to undergo the childbirth. But, we have our own responsibilities and they are also painful too. I cannot share my wife’s pain, or I would have already done,” says Dar.

The bathrooms are stained and messy, and water trickles from the tap. The ceramic is yellowed and rusted: it should have been white once. Someone forgot to flush the commode.

Inside the wards, the lights are dimmed, and patients sleep on the beds- two on a bed. On some beds, husbands sleep with wives.
The floor is packed with the attendants, some sleeping with their lips agape, some hidden under the blankets looking like a sac, some snoring loudly and other irked by the grumbled noise. It is midnight and the warm corridors, by now, are covered with bodies of slumping old fathers, frail younger sisters, ageing mothers and anxious husbands- all sleeping on each other. It is warm, quiet and cozy.

The staircase back to the labour room is like an elevator to war zone- women holding their bellies up with both their hands, walking slowly, as if walking on water. A male nursing orderly carries around a pregnant woman in a wheel chair, her head thrust back, her teeth biting on her lower lip in pain, her hair open with slight traces of an old knot.

Two male orderlies walk in and out of the labour room, carrying in drugs, injections and other supplies. Mohammad Yousuf, 37, a male nursing orderly has been working in the labour room for five years. He doesn’t tell his friends that he works here- only his immediate family knows. “What should I tell I tell my friends that I work in labour room all day? They will make fun of me,” says Yousuf. Yousuf remembers the time when he first came to the labour room and he would carry the moans and agony with him to his home and his life outside. “Back then it was different but now I have seen so much. The moment I leave this room, I forget everything. I don’t even hear the shrieks anymore here. I have become used to it,” Yousuf says. “If I remember it, then, I won’t be able to do anything. If a woman remembers it, she will never give birth again.”

A young girl rushes out of the corridor, crying for her father. Inside, life is conceived of an agonizing ordeal. “Papa, sister gave birth to a boy,” she cries.

In the side corridor, Saleema Jan is still sitting, now on a blanket, chatting with two other mothers. They talk of old times, of village nurses and of their own pain, but with smiles. All of them are all grandmothers now.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Better stones than bull

Better stones than bull
Hilal Ahmad reacts to We the primitive (Write Hand) by Ajaz ul Haque

For quite some time now, I have noticed Ajaz ul Haque’s writing on stone pelting, and several other contentious issues concerning Kashmiri society, suffused with a sort of mawkish sentimentality. Typical of that behaviour is that you often sweep a whole world of ideas and arguments, sometimes bizarre and irrational, but mostly unrelated to the issue in debate, to make a point. His first column was titled, in a Swiftseque manner, as “Stone Age… All Jammu Kashmir Stone Pelters Association.” Its plebeian play on words, however, brought a smile on my gloomy face. Though he advocates no further debate on the issue, funnily, he had a second take on stone pelting in his latest column We talk stones as world scales new highs! We talk stones because our world has been reduced to stones. I reckon 80000 or more gravestones are a lot of stones when you count them one by one in all the graveyards scattered across the state, in the marshes of Wullar and rocky mountains of Doda? And which world has scaled heights? The world that reduces to rubble in a few years an ancient civilization in Iraq on a flimsy suspicion, and leaves half a million dead, innocent children among them? These heights are too subjective for a ‘queer’ issue of throwing stones in downtown Srinagar, or rustic landscape of Bomai. These heights are better are left to those who have scaled them.
But I would heed to the advice he dispensed in the crispy staccato sentences of the Write Hand. He says we should not debate stone pelting at all, for even the discussion on the subject seems medieval and absurd. According to him throwing stones means destruction. And only the insane are insane enough to summon destruction upon themselves willfully. Stop. I would agree and let history decide if it was to fair for a people to throw stones at someone they believed had snatched their rights. The star intellectual of the Left, Tariq Ali, once famously remarked `if you have an ugly oppression, don’t expect a beautiful resistance’. Ali was, perhaps, talking about equivalence, not proportionality. Otherwise, the proportion with which you deal with a very sly and ugly usurpation would bring out `baddest’, maddest, and ugliest resistance from a completely dispossessed and enervated nation. And that would be its justification.
However, I don’t want to touch the religious or ‘common sensical’ aspects of the act of hurling a stone at a trooper who doesn’t allow you more ‘civilized’ form of resistance, that is, a demonstration. But I want to take issues with reasoning arrived at by Haque to pulverize stone throwing, stone throwers, supporters of stone throwing, and the imagined goblins-- the guides of stone throwers.
Haque brings in the subject of medieval thinkers. History tells us medieval thinkers were brought up, educated, and later nourished by the kings and commons for the sole purpose of discussing practical as well as abstract matters, the lawfulness of donkey flesh for example. It was probably because practical endeavors were left to practical men in a society highly stratified. A British character in a very popular movie tells his soldier friend that a British soldier wouldn’t die for the queen in the sweltering plains of India if he were to think on worthiness of the queen’s, and his own, life. Also, the medieval thinkers would not worry their ‘lazy and unfruitful minds’ about the war tactics of the crusaders who according to some intellectuals of those times comprised the entire brigandage of Europe assembled by the Pope. In return, the ordinary crusaders wouldn’t mind “open ended” hair splitting debates of the scholastic thinkers, if they were aware of such debates in the first place. The thinkers and the crusaders were unanimous about the need for confronting their Islamic enemies. For thinkers it was none of their goddamn business to discuss whether it was civilized or savage, biblical or heathenish, for besieged crusaders to hurl thousand pound rocks or barrels of scalding fuel on the soldiers of Salahuddin’s. It was the natural thing to do.
Growth of societies is an evolutionary process. Free societies now discuss whether they should elect a lesbian to rule a nation or not. Colonial societies, like Kashmir, on the other hand discuss whether they should throw stones at their tormentors or not. People aware of their colonial stranglehold wouldn’t have discussed it, had not the policemen and enlightened men thrust this discussion upon them. Thus it seems natural in the present scheme of things that some boys throw stones. If they use Kalashnikovs, they are branded as terrorists. You see people are never short of labels. Savage is one more term in this enlightened vocabulary. Although I believe savages would take great offense at the mention of this word, as they have tasted the encounter with the civilized world, which ravaged their lands with a gun in one hand and the bible in the other. Once free, and later ‘scaling a few heights’ the Lassas and Gullas of Nowhatta might in future discuss some delicate issues, like if it was fair---in ethical, moral, ideal, or intellectual sense---for some people to moonwalk as journalists while serving the government institutions.
Often it happens that when you run out of arguments, you turn to personalities. Shall one be branded as a police collaborator if his/her ideas on stone throwing perfectly gel with those of the city police chief who presided over shooting of dozens of boys in Srinagar last summer, while his counterpart in Jammu didn’t touch even those who waved communal flags from army trucks and set ablaze Kashmiri drivers? I would say, never. Similarly, when some people are arguing in favor of stone throwing how come they become the invisible monsters who, according to Haque, are “inciting ignorant” boys and keeping them in a state of darkness. Please refer to your own sermon in last Sunday’s column on how a newspaper is sanctified space for a healthy debate. If someone from London wants to refute the pronouncement of a cleric, why should he be invited to Kashmir for throwing stones to prove his sincerity?
It is again being highly presumptuous to label the stone throwing boys as a monolithic bunch of ignorant, illiterate, and uneducated creatures. I first threw stones at police when I was a 13 year old schoolboy. Though my reading those days was limited to a few borrowed Enid Blyton volumes, I was nevertheless preparing for a serious education. And I knew why I was throwing stones. My friends who have “scaled heights” in different fields in different parts of the world tried this “savagery” quite often in their lives before leaving this land. They don’t regret it. They merely think another generation is doing what it deems right. And these stone throwing boys would age like me, like my friends, and do whatever they are destined to do, except, perhaps, becoming pen pushers like me.
Further, if you read the statements of the police, they seem “concerned” that a sizable number of these boys were college going students who had parked their bikes on roadsides and then indulged in Kani Jang. When a 10-year old girl was raped by a soldier in Badarpayeen, Handwara some years back, Kashmir University students threw stones when they were not allowed to march peacefully beyond the gates of the University. Perhaps, they thought it natural to do so then, rather than writing an article in a newspaper with book-addled brains.
According to Haque’s interesting logic, the arguments of people who favor stone pelting might carry weight if they actually do what they preach. Means, thankfully, there is some scope for the “savages” to enter the world of the civilized. But if we look hard enough in the real world, rather than from the prism of half-learned, intellectual twaddle, we might actually find quite a number of people who have taught by example. Sheikh Aziz was shot near Chahal simply for requesting police and the CRPF troopers to allow the peaceful marchers to proceed ahead. I, and several other journalists who sometimes venture out of closets, were witness to the incident. Shakeel Bakshi was beaten blue for leading peaceful demonstrations. Nayeem Ahmad Khan was beaten in custody for the similar reasons. Geelani, emaciated by surgeries, led the demonstrations, urging the boys to maintain “Islamic decorum.” Masarat Alam, also a stone thrower in his youth and educated in the finest school of the Valley, has been jailed for as many times under the draconinan PSA as the number of articles-sans-substance written against stone throwing. What about Jalil Andrabi who tried to seek justice for his fellow people in the judiciary of those very people who pumped several bullets in his handsome body, and then dumped him in a dirty marsh? Look hard. You won’t have to ‘scale highs’ to find people who taught by example, and still are. Besides, it is a proposition fraught with danger of embarrassment. If Shakeel Bakshi does throw stones now, would Haque follow the suit?