By Ananya Mukherjee
In the beginning, there was just nothing; only a vast expanse of deep aquamarine, ripples and floating shadows of abundant liquid exuberance. The ocean floor danced in a magnetic slow motion, caressing the tip of pale pink coral beds, gurgling into the purple reefs and gushing out through the secret crags, sweeping a school of bright orange goldfish. Something moved with them forming a shape, edged by a strange aura; floating, gargling, rippling in the fantasy, and slowly took a human form. A soft, pink, delicate human body floated up....and called out...Mama.
Siya woke up startled by that call and instinctively touched the bulge of her abdomen. Almost at the end of her third trimester, with only a few days away from the expected date of delivery, her body felt very heavy. She stroked her palm gently across the swollen bump. It was a baby boy, they had confirmed only a few weeks back. The very thought that he was growing inside her with each passing day, breathing what she inhaled, hearing what she heard, and perhaps feeling what she felt filled her with a strange mix of contentment and longing for his presence. She pressed her hand tenderly down her abdomen. For a moment, she did not feel any movement. Then, as if anticipating the yearnings of her desperate search, he obliged her with a kick. Ouch, it hurt, yet left her with an overpowering affection.
It wasn’t morning yet so she had some more time to catch up on sleep before going back to the buzz of the newsroom. Siya’s maternity leave had not started yet. As a single mother, she knew she would need all the time in the world once the baby came. She was even considering a sabbatical. Her own parents lived thousand miles away and were aging. It wasn’t possible for them to offer any childcare services. Also, they were not too pleased with Siya’s determination to go for artificial insemination and bear a child alone without a male partner. She was their only child, young, attractive, glamorous and successful. The very idea of single parenthood sounded bizarre to them.
“You are only 35. Why don’t you marry a nice man and have your own child instead of carrying someone else’s baby in your womb?” Her mother had argued.
It took Siya a while to convince them that it was not “someone else’s baby”. It was hers, an extension of her being, nurtured inside her with her own flesh and blood. But her parents were still unsure. Wasn’t adoption a better idea if she wanted to cherish the bliss of motherhood, they questioned. No, she wanted her own child, she had put her foot down. And without a man in her life! After a few unpleasant relationships, especially her last complicated commitment with a senior colleague, she had decided not to be in a long-term commitment with any man. The question of marrying a non-existent “nice man” therefore did not arise. Yet, she wanted to be a mother, desperately wanted to conceive and raise her own child for a long time.
Naturally, when a gynaecologist friend convinced her a year back that she needed no man to fulfil her dreams, and artificial insemination was not rocket science, it took her little time to decide. Despite no support from her family, Siya went ahead with the idea. In due time, a sperm bank was contacted, and on a scheduled date, she was inseminated by a donor who chose to keep his identity under wraps. Siya was happy with the arrangement as she had neither the interest nor the will to know the biological father of her child. It would only invite more complications, she rationalised.
Another sharp kick broke through Siya’s reflective mood. She pulled a pillow and sat upright, as her back was beginning to hurt now. She could feel a numb pain in the abdomen and a sudden pressure growing in the pelvis. Then a wave like motion resembling a strong menstrual cramp seized her body. It lasted a few seconds and then came back again, till it almost became a norm. Then gradually the length of the contractions increased and the gap between their intervals lessened. Siya realised the time had come. Between contractions, she started to focus on the breathing exercise she was taught at a pre-natal workshop she had attended and called for an ambulance.
The next few hours went in a whirlwind. Before she knew it, the amniotic membrane ruptured and Siya went into labour. Whilst the doctors waited a few hours for the dilation to reach the right measure, amidst excruciating pain, Siya who was lying alone in a dull labour room saw recurrent visions of her dream in aqua blue. It was the same swirling ocean, masquerading in a riot of floating colours—pink, purple, crimson and Prussian blue. She swam with the fluid’s magnetic motion, falling into its unfamiliar charm until it drew her to a cul-de-sac, She felt her own body rise and swell above the water and then sensed a free falling like never before. It was close to midnight when the uncontrollable agonising pain reached its climax and Siya heard the baby cry out.
Siya was still gasping for breath, when she caught the intrigued expression on her doctor’s face. Something was not normal. It was not the post childbirth scene she had rehearsed in her mind where the doctor and nurses would be congratulating her for giving birth to a healthy child. There was darkness on the faces of the medical staff surrounding her. She tried to read the expression. It was one of bewilderment and nervousness. The nurses had the same look in their eyes and the uncertainty of their appearance frightened Siya. Assimilating some energy, she asked, “Is everything alright?”
“Ah..well.....yes, Siya. There is no sign of distress. He’s perfectly fine, I think, but...” her doctor replied, handing over a little bundle smeared with blood and mucus.
Her mouth fell as she gathered him in her frail arms. His tiny gentle angelic face was well defined with a pair of large eyes and a small pointed nose. He looked healthy, well formed and his head was full of dark curls. Only his skin had the colour of a bruised plum. In fact, the prominent bluish tint was so dark that it looked almost purple.
Coming to terms with the unanswered mystery of the unpredictable blow that changed the complete dimension of her dreams was difficult, actually much more difficult than Siya had ever imagined. She tried to find answers to the many questions that tormented her mind and agonised her soul. Why did he have to be this way? What was wrong with him? Was his condition life threatening? Was it genetic? All she had wanted was a normal healthy baby. Why did God have to do this with her?
Unable to find an explanation and fearing that she might go into a post-labour trauma any moment, the doctor had taken away the baby boy immediately and raced him by ambulance from the maternity ward in the hospital to a bigger research and medical laboratory in another part of the city. A team of doctors had begun to investigate the case. In the beginning they assumed it was a case of abnormal haemoglobin or an enzyme deficiency but the results were negative. Two days of test results produced no explanation why a seven pound healthy baby boy who showed no signs of foetal distress exhibited such an unusual disorder.
Though unable to pinpoint to a particular reason for his unnatural blueness, the team had ruled out possibilities of a heart disease or any blood or lung disorder. What no one ever found out was a medical condition called hereditary methemoglobinemia where the absence of an enzyme called diaphorase from the red blood cells could lead to such a blueness of the skin. Due to the enzyme deficiency, the blood of these victims has reduced oxygen-carrying capacity. Instead of being the usual bright red, arterial blood is chocolate brown and gives the skin a bluish tint. Hereditary met-H, as it is called, is caused by a recessive gene. In other words, to get the disorder, a person would have to inherit two genes for it, one from each parent. Somebody with only one gene would not have the condition but could pass the gene to a child. Siya must have carried such a strain without her knowledge and what seemed like a cruel joke played by destiny, the unidentified sperm donor had the same. The result, thus, was a blue baby.
“His blood is just a little closer to the skin,” a colleague had sarcastically remarked while paying a visit to the new born in the hospital. The thought of the social stigma that her son may have to grow up with in a world that was accustomed to see only men who were either white, yellow, brown or black was intimidating Siya. Where would her blue child fit in?
Ever since she came home from the hospital she had tried to retrace the sperm donor in an attempt to know if there was any genetic disorder in the donor that might have led to this peculiar condition. The sperm bank having pledged confidentiality to the donor, revealed no further information than that he was apparently a healthy man with no such evident disorders. She consulted all the doctors, researchers, social anthropologists she knew but found no satisfactory answer. While some literature directed her to a certain blue family called Fugates in distant Troublesome Creek, Kentucky, others misled her to the Tuareg nomads of Sahara desert in Africa. The skin of the desert herders are known to turn blue from the dye they use in their clothing. But how the Fugates or the Tuareg tribesmen could correlate to her child was still a mystery. Whilst the malady of the soul ripped Siya apart, the little one was, of course, oblivious to the uniqueness of his appearance.
She looked at him sleeping peacefully with his fingers curled on the baby cot she had specially designed for him ever since she knew he was coming. The moist afternoon sun filtered through the blinds and fell on his forehead. It shone like specks of gold dust over his little frame. The purplish tinge had begun to fade into a more uniform hue of blue after the first few weeks. In some places, the skin was so light that Siya felt she could almost see through it like alabaster. With the tiny sunlit dots shining on him, he looked as if he were gilded in soft gold. The black curls fell on his rounded little forehead, accentuating the blueness of his porcelain skin. She stared at his contented innocent face and thought she saw him smiling in his sleep. Babies often converse with gods when they sleep, they said.
Just then someone rang the door bell. It was Maya, Siya’s domestic help for many years.
“Why are you so late? It’s already afternoon. What took you so long?”
“Arre Didi, there is so much traffic these days. You know I come from so far away. And then my husband also came back last night, “she added with a shy smile.
“Oh, that joker of yours! What does he want now?”
Maya’s husband worked as a part-time comic relief in low grade circus companies that travelled in small towns across the country in weird looking buses with strange and ugly faces painted on them. Ram Prasad was an incorrigible bloke who came back jobless after every few months to torment Maya and live on her savings. Once he had finished with what Maya had worked hard to save, he came home drunk and often ended up being abusive. This was a routine affair that Siya had observed over the years. She had told Maya several times to get rid of him but Maya had protested with a logic Siya could not refute. “Didi, in our society, one single woman cannot survive alone. Men are like vultures. They will tear me and my children to pieces if I leave him. In your educated and rich society, you can do what you want but my world is different.”
“Hmm. So what does he want now?”
“Nothing, Didi. You know him. He has been kicked out again for stealing money from his boss. Now he has nowhere to go. I can’t let him die on the streets,” she said picking up the used feeding bottles.
“How’s Munna? Is he sleeping?”
“Who?” Siya retorted with her eyebrows raised.
“Munna...baby...your baby! You haven’t named the poor fellow anything as yet, but I call him Munna and he responds, you know.”
“Please, babies at this age don’t respond to anyone or anything. And he’s definitely not Munna. I will decide on a name soon and let you know.” The thought of labelling her precious son, the dream of her life with the commonest Bollywood stamp “Munna” irritated her. But then, Maya was right. After she got the hospital registration certificate that said “baby boy” Siya had been so caught fighting her own distress and disappointment that she had not christened him with any of the names she had on mind. As she recapitulated, Siya felt guilty of her negligence now.
She dialled her mother’s number and told her she was organising a naming ceremony for her son and wanted her to give him her blessings. Much as her parents were against the concept of artificial insemination, they were horrified by the reality that their grandchild displayed such an abnormality. Their rejection wore no mask, and her mother refused to participate in the official and religious christening of what she now called the devil’s creation. Siya hung up crying, frustrated that the nearest of her kin had so ruthlessly ousted her from their lives.
“Auntie, can I come in?” Neha, the neighbour’s chirpy four-year-old daughter was peeping through the door that Maya had forgotten to lock.
“Yes, please,” Siya said as she tried to hide the moistness in her eyes. In a frilly pink and white dress, Neha looked like an ice-creme candy doll straight from the shelves of a toy store.
“Can I see the baby? What is he doing? Won’t he play with me?”
“Yes, of course, Neha. He’s sleeping now, but you can see him. Come with me.”
Siya held her tiny hand in her own and led her to where he was still sleeping with a smile on his face.
“Why is he so small? How will he play with me if he’s so small?”
“He’s only a few weeks old, Neha. Let him grow up a bit, then he will play with you,” Siya broke into an affectionate smile.
“But why have you painted him blue, Auntie?” She peeped further into the cot.
Siya’s jaws tightened. “I didn’t paint him Neha. He was born that way.”
“Why was he born blue? Is he like Shrek?”
Neha’s curiosity was beginning to irritate Siya now. “Shrek was not blue. He was green. And Shrek was an ogre. My baby is a human being like you and me. Now if you have seen the baby, you can go home or play with your friends.” The poor child was taken aback by the harshness of Siya’s tone and ran away at once. She regretted being rude to a little girl almost immediately but her patience with speculations about her son was weaning.
Neha had left the door slamming aloud startling the baby in his sleep. He curled his lips and began to cry. Maya rushed to him picking him up in her arms, and started pacifying him as Siya watched on looking defeated.
“Didi, he’s hungry. Just hold him and I’ll get the little one some milk,” Maya left him wailing in her arms.
“Siya, are you home?” Her colleague Jenny was at the door.
“Oh yes, Jenny. What a lovely surprise! Please come in.”
Jenny was a young reporter who had joined the newsroom a few years back as an intern under Siya. Ambitious and reckless, Jenny could go to any lengths to get a story. Though Siya never quite liked her personally, she was an asset to the team. Jenny’s untimely visit surprised Siya. What was further suspicious was the way Jenny was staring at her son. It made Siya uncomfortable.
“How have you been Jenny?”
“I am good, thanks Siya. How are you doing? Must be difficult managing a baby alone!”
“Oh we are doing perfect together, aren’t we love?” Siya said putting the nipple of the milk bottle in his hungry mouth. Maya stood behind the two looking angrily at Jenny.
“Didi...please don’t feed Munna in front of others. People have evil eyes, you know. Let me take him inside while you talk to her,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Hmm. Take him inside, Maya. Once he finishes his drinking, give him a lukewarm water wash, powder him well and change his clothes. And no kohl please! I don’t want my son to look like the babies down the streets.”
Siya turned to Jenny and asked, “What brings you here? Are you not working today?”
Jenny looked around hesitantly. “Well, Siya, there is a buzz in the newsroom about the birth of your son. You know we understand there has been a mishap, but we all want to know more. I just wanted to ask you some questions.”
“What? Are you so short of ideas that you need to make a story from my own personal life?” Siya couldn’t believe her own colleagues were trying to commercialise her despair. Jenny’s insolence seemed unpardonable.
“No, no, don’t get me wrong. There have been speculations of all kinds. Some say, the baby has a lung problem. He won’t live long. Others are talking about an abnormality in conception, or maybe that he has other features that can reveal he’s not really human like us....maybe he is from another world, another planet, an ET of sort?”
“STOP!!! What do you mean? My son is a Martian? He has horns? Did you see any? How dare you? Is this a Hollywood 3D flick? Have you gone out of your mind? ” Siya’s voice and temper were rising beyond the civic norms.
“You are getting me wrong. There’s a great story here,” Jenny tried to convince.
“Story? Damn it, it’s my life. Get the hell out of here before I call the security and throw you out,” Siya was standing now and shaking with rage.
After Jenny left in a rush, Siya locked the main door, bolting it from inside, flopped down on the living room couch and closed her eyes. What did she do to deserve this? All she had wanted was a child of her own!
“Didi, my husband has come to take me home today. Can I go a little early? I have finished all the chores and even Munna is happy now after drinking his milk. He will fall asleep in a while. Then you can also take some rest. The ayah who comes for the night shift will be here in two hours. You can manage till then, can’t you?” Maya was standing at the foot of the couch tidying up the pleats of her saree. Siya did not have the heart to say no to her.
“Ok. Call him inside. Put baby to sleep first and then go. And don’t be late tomorrow morning,” she said in a tired voice.
The noise of an object falling shook Siya. “What happened Maya?” She shrieked and what she saw left her jaws open. Like a woman who had been taken over by some uncanny power, Maya rushed out of the kitchen chasing Ram Prasad out of the door hurling abuses at him. In one hand Maya was holding Siya’s son close to her chest. In the other, she had a long kitchen knife pointed at her husband.
“What is this? What is going on, Maya?” Siya panicked.
“The rascal! The devils will feed on your rotten corpse!” She shouted as Ram Prasad ran out of the main door. “He came to tell me to take Munna away and sell him off to those bastards in the circus. Says they will pay good money for a blue baby. I told him to get out of my sight if he did not want his throat slit. The scoundrel that he is, Didi! I never thought he could come down to this level,” she was panting furiously.
“Oh my God, what are you saying, Maya? He came here to kidnap my child?” Siya’s head was reeling. She grabbed her wailing son who was now wide awake from the commotion and violence around and broke down.
“Didi, don’t fear the evil. Don’t give up hope. It’s not your fault. Munna is only little different but he’s still your own. God only made him this way. I am not educated like you. I am only a simple God fearing woman. Didi, let’s take Munna to the temple and get the Lord’s blessings. He will protect your son,” Maya tried to offer all the consolation she could.
Siya’s maternal instincts were stronger than her indomitable modern independent spirit. As a self made successful professional, she never needed to bow before anyone, and religion was the last thing on her priority list. Yet, when it came to the intimidating fear for her son’s life and security, she gave in to an ordinary illiterate woman’s advice. When Maya took them to the nearest temple in the neighbourhood that very night to plead the deity to save the child from evil eyes, Siya did not question her intent or actions. She mutely followed the rituals that the priest suggested, exposing her son to the world for the first time since his unusual birth. Standing next to her as she offered her prayers was a dreamy eyed little boy with what looked like a down syndrome. He kept staring at her son with a strange look in his eyes, as if he saw what others could not, as if he saw beneath his skin. Siya was beginning to get rigid, fearing more assaults for the little one, when the boy’s mother pulled him away and apologised to Siya.
“Sorry, he doesn’t mean any harm. My son is not very well.” Siya thought she saw tears in her eyes as she said the last words. The boy refused to budge and when his mother insisted, he cried out “kaaaan..ha....”pointing a finger at Siya’s son. Siya felt a lump in her throat as he repeated,”Kaaan...ha... kaaanha.... kaanha”
Why didn’t she think of this before? Kneeling at the altar of the Supreme where all powers merged and disseminated as one, with tears rolling down her cheeks, Siya picked up her son, the dream of her life, the extension of her being, kissed him on the forehead for the first time and softly whispered, “Kanha...the avatar of the strongest and the most positive force in the world, the emblem of truth, love and beauty –the blue God, yes, that’s what you will be called henceforth. Welcome to the world!”