It was February when we wheeled my sister into the hospital, her eyes shut close with pain. There was always someone touching her hair, her hand, always someone telling her that it would be alright, everything would be fine, but also sobbing as they said it, while she drifted in and out of consciousness. The hospital was quiet, the nurses talked quietly. People waiting outside the ICU wore sweaters and caps in bright colors. This was Ahmedabad, we would always be unused to the winter. A little temple had been set up near the reception, and I realized even then that the hospital was divided into three kinds of people: those who passed the temple quickly with no reason to pray, those who stopped before it and prayed in a way no one prays in public, and those who passed it slowly, numbly on their way out, with nothing left to pray for. And there was a fourth kind, too. The ones who wouldn’t pray at this temple at all. No praying room had been made for them, no place to kneel down and say namaaz. On that day I was grateful for this because if there had been a namaaz room in the hospital, anyone found in it would have been taken out and butchered. Three days, ago, in Godhra, Hindu pilgrims had been burnt to death by a Muslim mob. Now, in Ahmedabad and in the rest of Gujarat, Muslims were being hunted down. We were safe, of course. We were Hindu.
None of the Muslim doctors and nurses had shown up; even some of the Christian nurses were absent. A thin, small nurse in a brown uniform and a well-ironed blue dupatta told us that the doctor who was supposed to deliver my sister’s baby was stuck in his Muslim neighborhood, which might already be in flames. It doesn’t matter, I heard my brother-in- law say, quietly, so my sister wouldn’t hear. Any doctor. The baby is dead. She doesn’t know.
My sister didn’t know that she was waiting out a death instead of a birth, didn’t know that when she had been lying on a brown polyester bed under a blue bedsheet, the technician conducting her sonography and listening for the baby’s heartbeats had looked at my brother-in- law for a second and simply shaken her head. My sister had lost the baby. In the midst of all the horror, as half the city was butchering the other half, a natural loss was an anomaly.
Now my brother-in- law waited with us in the hallway outside the operation theatre. A fly sat on his slipper, sucking his blood steadily, and I remember thinking that even if one of the brown stray dogs who wandered the lanes of our city had been biting his foot, he wouldn’t have noticed that either. It was as if he too had been given anesthesia. Neither he, or my mother, or my father ate through that day, although relatives kept pleading with them to eat something, please.
After the operation, as I waited for my sister to be wheeled out, I saw my mother almost running, with a few people walking beside her. Perhaps she was rushing because she wanted to protect me from my own memory. I couldn’t see the baby in her arms, only the brown blanket it was wrapped in, like a package. Undelivered.
My mother and the others were going to bury the baby. My father waited, unaware of the tears that streamed down his face, asking me, “It’s taking them too long. How long does it take to bury a baby?”
Over the next few days, as my sister recovered in the ICU, I lost and found a few things. I lost awareness of time as my sister was being operated. I found out how long it takes to bury a baby. I lost the language of the real world, and found the colloquialisms of grief and the dialect of waiting that is found in hospital hallways. I lost things like faith and hope and found the chloroformed patience that replaces them. After the operation was over and my sister was transported to the ICU, there was a discussion about whether she should be shown the baby or not before she fell asleep. In the end they decided that no pictures would be taken or shown, but her own mother remained uncertain till the last, knowing that my sister would wonder what the loss had looked like. Whether the loss had looked more like it’s mother or it’s father, whether the loss had brown eyes or black. What fictional lines of destiny the loss had in its palms. In the end, they decided to let her sleep unaware in a carefully calibrated peace.
These were the things she was not told: that two thousand people had been butchered, but the riots were over. That the doctor had lost his house, but had survived, although we still didn’t know how. That the baby was dead, and that although the curfew was lifted from our city, the baby had joined the two thousand in a curfew from life.
During the times when her eyes fluttered open and one of us happened to be there, we propagated the fiction we had all agreed on: that the baby was struggling in an incubator. That there was still hope.
She was told the truth much later, once she was taken to her last room of recovery, fully conscious by now, able to sit up on a bed surrounded by relatives, looking out of the window at the skyline which had been interrupted by smoke just a day before, smoke which rose in columns like phantom buildings. When she was told, she cried open-mouthed, mutely. There was a silence in the room, as if the silence kept in reserve for all the times the baby would have been asleep was let loose when she realized it would never awake. I found tissues and hand sanitizers and thermometers around my sister’s room. I found all this with the awareness that if my sister had been lost, I would be seeing these things differently; they would have been precursors to the unimaginable; souvenirs from death.
For some months afterwards, my sister was fed reality in doses, like medicine. She wasn’t allowed to read the newspapers because they were full of stories that were emerging slowly of what had happened in the city during those three days when we were too wrapped up inside our own horror to care about the horror that engulfed us. Reason leaves you sometimes when hope does, and she blamed the death of her baby on the riots, and sometimes I sensed, although she never said it, on Muslims, on her Muslim doctor who had never made it to the hospital.
And then, one morning, she picked up a newspaper and began reading it, a gesture to tell us that we could all resume living again, piece by piece, as the city had. She turned to the page I had feared her reading most. There was a small clipping, nothing unusual in that time: the interview of a Muslim man whose pregnant wife had been caught by a mob. A custom had been invented, or rediscovered, by the mobs of Ahmedabad, and the same had been used on the man’s wife; her stomach had been split open with swords, and the fetus was butchered in front of her.
My sister held the newspaper for a long time, and I knew she understood that although her son, and the child of a Muslim woman, had died, there had also been a birth in the city, the birth of something that would divide it for years. That night she called up the doctor who had been supposed to deliver her baby, and who had been far from her thoughts all this time. Are you alright, she asked him.
Soon after, he would leave the city. My sister and my brother-in- law left the city too, because Ahmedabad had become too unbearable, as a landscape of hope does when the hope is destroyed. It had all been thought of here, including a certain name which only the two of them knew.
I know that when she left the city, she would have heard the announcement you usually hear at the airport: “Passengers with infants may board now.” I imagine her standing up accidentally at that moment. I imagined her sitting down again, and then after everyone had gone, the two of them walking in, saying nothing, and her thinking of all the unborn children, because that was what they were, children without first words, children without last words.