11 July began like any other Monday in KG Halli,  meant to be a quick review of the last week and a plan for the one to come, but unfolded otherwise. We were interrupted by a phone call from Bharatmata slum; and another, and a third, until it became clear that we needed to be there soon. The information was that Juliet who had gone underground since her last ANC check-up, had surfaced, and the entire community was on the alert. They had seen our team go to unusual lengths trying to track her, and wanted to help.

 So three bus stops and fifteen minutes later all five of us reached Ms. Pakyamary’s place and I met the young woman for the first time. Of indeterminate age, the right side of  her face twisted and swollen with an infected tooth, she seemed the epitome of  fear and misery. Juliet is well under five feet and looks as though a mild breeze will blow her away. Under the ‘dupatta’, the small swelling of her belly is barely visible, and surrounded by a group of loud and angry women, she was led to the small Jesus and Mary shrine nearby. A feature of this urban area are the small Christian, Hindu and Muslim shrines, where the old and infirm sometimes rest and shelter.

One more day in the field – and a million more questions

The first minutes were volatile, with the voices of many angry women creating a raucous backdrop to a highly charged scene. Ms.Pakyamary herself, a powerful local leader was loud in her accusations, asking why Juliet had “run away” and proved so elusive. She , of the soft voice became totally silent, when faced with all the questions. Finally, everyone departed, the local ladies to their chores, two team members for school permissions and two others for medicines and antibiotics for our patient. Antu and myself stayed on, and we tried to gently question and piece the story of the last two months together. Extracting information from this young woman was a huge challenge. We listened,cajoled,advised, entreated, listened some more…….. in a vain attempt to understand her actions.

It appears that this young lady is truly abandoned, she does not know where her mother is, her brothers are incommunicado (no one would admit to knowing them when enquiries were made in the area) and her equally young husband is addicted to drugs. She said her mother-in law fed her dosas this morning and told her to leave the house ……..

When faced with the question of what to do next, she seemed really clueless, at a term pregnancy with an intra –uterine growth retardation, and severe anemia, strangely uncaring but very fearful of the future. From bursting into tears and begging Antu to stay with her in hospital to stubbornly refusing to go back home, we had glimpses of a young child who has never known security and been driven by fear from one life-event to the next. She has spent much of her young life on the road, I suspect. Finally she agreed to wait there while we bearded the lion in the den…….her mother in law who had already given the team a mouthful.

This stalwart, mother of eleven children ( “I have buried five of them”) also appears of indeterminate age, albeit older than Juliet. Life is clearly an immense struggle, a drunken husband lolls on the bed, crying over the loss of the last child who was stabbed in a brawl two months ago, and her voice rings true as she describes the hard work and hunger that haunt her days as a rag picker. She is a survivor; when she speaks, I can see where the Tamil films get their salt –of-the-earth heroines from. After sometime as she repeats herself and her outrage at Juliet’s behaviour, it turns surreal and I am not sure if this is art imitating life or vice-versa. Here is a woman who has very strong ideas on “mariyadaya” –respect- and the fact that women must do their bit…… “I give her little work” she says, “not like I had to do when I was expecting my first child”……..And her eyes fill with unshed tears “ I lost one daughter, she is like another –see I have saved hundred rupees even hidden from my husband, for her delivery”….. “ But how can she go out and claim I do not care”……The ego is hurt, that despite all she has been maligned.

Finally, after much listening and some persuasion, she agrees to look after Juliet if we talk to her.

And this is where we lost the thread. We descended back to the shrine thinking we had “fixed it”. Juliet started out accepting but once her mother in law entered with the accusations, she turned the offer away. “ I will go to my Anni”……an older brother’s wife who has not featured in the story till now. A figment of her imagination? Is she clutching at straws?

And we are left wondering afresh at our definitions of health –  not merely the absence of illness, but the state of physical, mental and social well being – and their relevance in our daily work. How supremely satisfying it is to say ‘holistic care’ or ‘cradle to grave’ and then be given pause to think just because a young and very lost woman wandered into our life by becoming pregnant.

Tomorrow the team is going back to ask if she would like to deliver in an institution that might extend care in such a case as this. If they find her…………..

-Roopa Devadasan

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