From the life of Nessa
By Nacima Khan
Her eyes flickered over my bump and she asked me how many months I was.
She nodded. My first?
‘She’ was Nessa, a sixty-year-old Bangladeshi woman who I had met sitting behind me one day at the local mosque. She, like many of her age, had adopted the mosque as her second home. Every day Nessa would shuffle into the large women’s prayer hall with her rosary beads in one hand and a plastic bag containing her possessions in the other. The month of Ramadan had hit which meant Nessa and the regular women who would haunt the mosque on a daily basis were in their element. They knew the best places to pray and where the air conditioning worked. They knew where to stash your possessions so that no child could get their hands on them, nor any occasional thieves taking their chances. They knew their way round the mosque management and the volunteers. With a prayer hall which was heaving at the doors during each night of Ramadan, with many people having to pray outside – it was guaranteed that these women would be standing, without fail, right at the front of the hall. This particular year Nessa and her gang had scored the ultimate – their very own private room. Well, it wasn’t really meant to be theirs exclusively but a room had been cordoned off as the ‘chair room’. Those with disabilities or who were pregnant were to use this room. And so, being eight months pregnant, I was ushered in by a volunteer one night. As soon as I spotted a seat and sat down, I got the distinct feeling that I had just interrupted an exclusive club of some sort. Nessa’s club. The smell of beetle-nut hit me and I felt a hand poking me from behind. Turning around I met very light eyes on a small face.
“You need to move.”
I blinked and stared at the many empty seats around the room.
She paused and studied my face before replying.
“This is someone else’s seat. There are other seats you can take, just not this one.”
Annoyance built up in me but I was too tired for a fight. I shifted to the chair next to it and exaggerated the inconvenience it had caused to my health. Breathing heavily, I sat down again and began to rub my bump. She was still watching me but had begun to hum a prayer.
After the two-hour prayer had come to an end I sat on the carpeted floor, exhausted and hot. Nessa moved her chair close to me and bent her head near.
Her eyes flickered over my bump and she asked how many months I was.
She nodded. My first?
“I have had five children. Three in Bangladesh and two here.” She paused as the rosary beads in her hand clicked together. “It was very easy in our day. Now you women can’t even cope with one.”
I smiled politely as I knew this was a common notion. I started to like Nessa and wanted to hear more. We had made a connection. Meeting with her on another day she related the story of the first time she gave birth. Nessa was a young bride. She couldn’t remember her age but it was whilst she was still at school that she got married.
“Your uncle was a ‘Londoni’ and how the girls in the village became jealous.” Nessa chuckled at this.
“But you must’ve been so young?” I asked. I was pretty sure that she was a lot younger than 16 years old.
“Girls would get married at 12 years old. It wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t mind as I knew it was going to happen soon… but I would have loved to have finished school.” I watched Nessa as she glanced briefly into the distance. Nessa had fallen pregnant within a couple of months of being married, and her husband was a migrant worker who would travel back and forth from England. He happened to be in the village on the day she gave birth. Nessa sighed at the memory of it being the hardest day of her life. “It was the first time I really missed my mum. I couldn’t cry for her, I couldn’t ask for her, but I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling. It was hard – very hard.” The season was just before the monsoon and the air was incredibly hot and dry. Nessa had been getting pains for a couple of days but was too scared to tell anyone, and didn’t understand what was happening. That particular day she was panting and feeling out of breath as the contractions took hold and paralysed her at times. She recalls being in the kitchen with her mother-in-law.
“Make sure that you stir the dhall properly. It will stick otherwise.” Nessa wiped the sweat dripping from her forehead and stirred the dhall frantically with the wooden spoon. Her mother-in-law bent over the open fire to lay more wood into it, the fire burned more ferociously, and Nessa pulled away, nearly losing her balance as she crouched over the dhall. She felt a sharp pain travelling across her back and cried out loud. Her mother-in-law cleared her throat and continued crushing red chillies next to her. The day had consisted of one order after another from her mother-in-law. From washing the household clothes, to standing up for four hours and pounding the wheat from the fields into ground flour with a tall clay stick which was as thick as a tree branch.
Nessa was to learn later that her mother-in-law had purposefully set her these tasks to get her ready for childbirth by helping the baby to get into position, but Nessa had cursed her throughout under her breath. Nessa looked at me and chuckled again. “I’m sure that I wished every kind of illness and calamity to befall my mother-in-law. How shameful of me!”
“Have you put the rice on yet?” Nessa stood up, stumbling to get her balance, and walked towards the store room where the rice was kept. As she reached it, she felt a sudden pop inside her and a wet sensation pouring down her legs. She froze on the spot, horrified, and in the next moment heard her mother-in-law shout for her daughter. She could recall the smell of the dhall burning whilst she was being pulled from the spot by her sister-in-law and into her room.
The next hour was a blur of her mother-in-law frantically covering all the windows and shouting at various people coming in and out of the room to fetch this and that. Nessa was laid on the bed and the pain coming now was intolerable. She was moaning loudly and didn’t care who could hear. All the men from the village including her husband were sat in the local bazaar waiting for news. Men didn’t come near the village during labour. Nessa recalled the first time her Dorni (local midwife) walked into the room.
“She was so petite and her face was so open and friendly, she brought me comfort straightaway. As soon as she laid her hands on my back and began to massage, I could feel the pain going down and I started to cry quietly. She reminded me of my mother so much.”
The Dorni was not a professional midwife but someone who had acquired years of experience in delivering babies. Dorni literally meant the ‘one who holds’. This was the Dorni who would deliver her other two children in the years to come. Nessa doesn’t recall the Dorni saying much to her but her small, soft hands seemed to speak to her as she began taking deep breaths and calming down. She had forgotten about her mother-in-law running around frantically and her sister-in-law who stood at the foot of the bed staring at her open-mouthed whilst holding an empty bowl in her hands, until she was scolded out of the room and sent to get the water ready. The window covers were twitching and Nessa knew that some of the village women had come to have a sneaky look. She was guilty of this herself, as she too admitted spying on other women giving birth. “I never did it again though.” Nessa pursed her lips and leaned back in her chair. “It was wrong to do that and I hated the fact I was being watched like cattle.” Three hours later, Nessa heard the first cry of her daughter. The Dorni then took over and pushed her mother-in-law to one side. Nessa remembers feeling overwhelmingly tired but the continuous cries of her daughter kept her on edge. “I remember feeling useless.” Nessa sighed. “It was my child but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t hold her till an hour later.”
I asked about her husband and how he must’ve been happy. “Happy?” Nessa snorted and tugged at the beads in her hands. “He stood at the doorway, nodded when they showed him the baby and was then ushered out by my mother-in-law.” Nessa sighed heavily and I detected a feeling of loneliness in her tone. “Two days later he flew back to London but I didn’t see him much before he went.”
A hundred other questions went through my head but Nessa had begun to stand up and collect her things and I realised her story had come to an end. Muttering about needing to get on with her reading, Nessa paused and looked at me. “I think of her often. My Dorni.” I asked if she was still alive. Nessa snorted before walking out of the room and back into the prayer hall. “Don’t be stupid.” Nessa never spoke about her story again and would acknowledge me from afar whenever I happened to see her praying in the Mosque. It was a month later, having given birth to my own daughter and sat in the warm room of the birthing centre, watching my husband cooing over the baby and holding onto her tight that Nessa came to mind. My own labour had been calm but fast with my husband holding my hand all the way through. I leaned onto him when I needed strength, my cries of pain were met with his calmness and he respected my wishes all the way through the process. Watching him with our daughter gave me a feeling of serenity and pride which I had never experienced before and I thought of Nessa. Nessa, whose husband was banished from her side due to the ‘shame’ of seeing her state whilst in childbirth. I thought of Nessa as that young girl who looked for comfort and familiarity in the face of a stranger in place of her mother.
I thought of Nessa and the tone of loneliness in her voice as her husband left without being able to say goodbye properly. I relished the few moments I had with my husband and daughter before the doors opened and my family came pouring in with smiles, presents, food and collective noise and I watched my daughter – nestled in a bundle of white towels – being passed from one person to another and my husband being pushed to the background as the women of my family began taking over my daughter’s care. I thought of Nessa, losing control of her situation as her daughter too was passed onto the care of others and how she felt ‘useless’, as I had begun to as well. But I thought of Nessa’s fond recollection of her Dorni and how befitting the name was – the ‘one who holds’. Nessa’s Dorni had held her physically and emotionally as she provided not just the maternal support but I suppose the support of her absent husband – she stepped in briefly to fill that space full of loneliness. I caught my husband napping quietly on the sofa, with his head leaning awkwardly to one side, and I realised that I too had my own ‘Dorni’.
Watching my family milling around and the guests who were to pop in that day, the one unacknowledged fact was that it was my husband who had played a part in the labour. And I realise now that just as I wasn’t able to express in words to anyone how much my husband had played a role in the labour, Nessa was not able to express how much she missed her husband in her labour. Both our stories had come to an abrupt end.