CREATIVE NON-FICTION : A Healthy Home by Ameya Bondre
The grey cobblestone alley in the remote village was flanked by huts on both sides. The huts had concrete walls, painted in dull brown or white. The alley was swept and washed. The identical grey square-shaped paving stones cushioned our laboured footsteps. It was nearly lunchtime and the aromas of pickles, cooking potatoes and onions wafted to our noses from the huts we passed.
But then our track cut off… from the alley into a broad path of dried mud in few shades of brown, with a scattering of grass and stones. The abrupt change almost seemed intentional. A wall, stood on one side of the path, having multiple rows of chiselled rectangular rocks of various sizes stacked together. A nauseous, dark- grey, sluggish liquid flowed in an open sewer below the wall, separating it from the path. Small vegetable farms occupied the other side. Adjoining the farms, we saw a couple of isolated huts about half a kilometer away. We were close to our destination. These huts had naked walls — exposed red bricks held together by fresh cement. The walls had no dressing, no prepping and no sense of display. But someone had made a point of building them.
Why was I doing this? Why did I get up at six to travel four hours from the city to reach these remote villages, every day, six days a week?
There were twenty of us spread across ten villages. Our work involved taking interviews of mothers - women with children six to twelve months of age, to understand child feeding practices. We had to probe their difficulties in ensuring the best health and nutrition for their infants. We had to ‘unlearn’ what other researchers had documented over the previous decade, correct the misperceptions due to which malnutrition persisted in India. We hoped to obtain different insights and perspectives from mothers. Desk-based analysts at the main office in the city used an elaborate software to make sense of the data we gathered. Senior researchers published scholarly papers in reputed scientific journals based on our ground-work. These papers were supposed to influence health policy in India.
Was I disgruntled? Was that the right word? I couldn’t help feeling our work was a massive exercise in pointlessness. Would it have any tangible impact on the immediate generation of babies that would be delivered, say next year, in this high-fertile region? Would it actually influence policy? And, why take interviews anyway? Our insights could be incomplete, but didn’t we know enough about malnutrition and why it occurs? Shouldn’t we first try to implement a few of our great ideas? Or maybe doing the actual work - to support every mother in every household of these ten villages - was too demanding or uninteresting? I didn’t feel anger anymore. I was exhausted. No, that was on the surface! Helpless? No, not exactly - I had drafted my resignation email. Pathetic? Yes! Pathetic was the word for working with this team. Pathetic how we all carried on, thanks to the fat pay cheques we got from big funders. I loved my salary, but I hated the interviews. I didn’t want to visit these homes. Not for the sake of some papers that would be written somewhere that would have no bearing on the lives of the people I met. At the end of the day, learning and unlearning helped us, and not the mothers. I wanted to help them. Assuming they needed it.
As we approached one of the huts with the naked red bricks, a woman stepped out with a beaming smile. She must have heard the sound of our shoes in the stifling silence of the afternoon. To her, it was natural to live in a secluded corner, divorced from the main village. She was dark and short with plaited hair. She looked young to be a mother. She wore a white salwar and a faded pink kurta with floral patterns of green and red.
Before my colleague or I could greet her, she said, “Namaste. Come in!”
“Namaste Didi”, I said in Hindi. “Your name is Jyoti, right?”
“Yes, yes – Vimla, uh… Aanganwadi didi? She told us about you coming.”
“Yes.” I gave a small nod and a half-baked smile.
She rushed in and started tidying and arranging things.
I looked at Rachna, my colleague, and expected her to be annoyed, but she wasn’t. She peered through the half- open creaking wooden door, as if to check where had Jyoti disappeared. But I took some effort to hold my nerves - Why couldn’t these meetings ever be spontaneous? We kept telling the Aanganwadi workers - or the village health workers, not to make advance visits to the homes we wanted to survey. To not forewarn the mothers, much less tutor them on how to behave and what to say! A village-based government health worker should not end up colouring our data. Anyway, who cared!
Jyoti called us and we stepped in. The grey floor with crude uneven patches had a peculiar slant — the kitchen area on our right seemed a bit elevated, and it merged with the straight flattened track that led us to a room where we could see four chairs and a cupboard. There were two black goats on our left, busy chomping on a pile of grass inside a tiny partial enclosure also made of exposed brick. We had to watch our steps, to avoid stomping on a few tiny clay balls – their droppings scattered on the floor.
“Goats. But I… I will clean it now,” she said, a bit hurriedly.
The kitchen was organized. She had washed and arranged the steel plates, cups and bowls in short vertical stacks. Indicating that we should proceed to the room, she continued to stir porridge on a pale black chulha with a heap of wooden sticks on the side. Moving towards the room, we saw an adjacent smaller room. Rachna went ahead and took a chair. I paused… to peek inside the smaller room. A man was sleeping on a bed in a diagonal posture, with head partly rested on a pillow, legs dangling out at the other end, and a thick green blanket covering his neck and torso. I could not guess his age, but he appeared older than Jyoti. He had that familiar stench - sickly, nasty and strong.
“Sir, I have a call from the office,” Rachna called out.
“For me? Office?” I entered the room and took her phone.
“Sir, your friend called from Geneva,” said my other colleague at the office.
“Sir, wait, I will read his message for you…” There was a brief pause.
“ ‘Listen! The workshop went very well at the World Health Organization. Can’t describe the feeling. Presentation applauded! A palatial conference room! Discussion went on all day and got intense. Reviewers are very excited. They will sanction phase-2 training support! By the way, the entire trip was funded. Business-class tickets. Loved it! And—’ ”
“Wait - where are you reading this from?”
“Sir, his WhatsApp message. First, he tried messaging you. But you have bad network there. So, he messaged me and asked me to call you, to convey.”
“Great! I will read the remaining when I am back.”
“Sir, which workshop?”
“Training on responsive child feeding in a rural low- income setting.”
“That’s interesting! Alright Sir, have a great day.” He hung up. I handed the phone to Rachna.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing. Will tell you later.” I sat down and started taking out our material from my bag and placed it on the adjacent chair.
“Look at the baby boy and his sister!” she said.
I glanced to my right. Jyoti’s young son was asleep on the bed, protected from flies and mosquitoes by an old net tacked to the wall with strings. We couldn’t see his face. I was not sure if the net helped much. Resting on the bed, by his side, her older daughter was staring at us, maybe with a million little amorphous bubbling thoughts… about our faces, our artificial smiles, our clothes, our watches, our way of talking, our English whispers, our Hindi accents, our notebooks, our ball-pens, our audio-recorders and our shoulder bags, leather shoes and sandals. Jyoti was still scrubbing the floor after removing the goat-poop.
“Is he your brother?” Rachna tried to break the ice. The girl nodded with a blank face.
We were waiting in a small living room of sorts. It had a tube-light, a small bed, four modest wooden chairs kept in a line, and a short black steel cupboard. The walls were baby-pink. The floor was tiled. Only this room had a tiled floor. The white ceiling had a limited span. Right at its centre, a chocolate-brown fan churned the air lazily. The room had no specks of dirt and no cobwebs. A plastic shelf was nailed to the wall. It had an idol of Lord Ganesh and things like tablets, powder, combs and brushes, a few soft toys, a packet of bindis and some plastic bangles.
“Beta, where is papa?” I thought of breaking the ice too. She didn’t reply.
“Tell us…?” Rachna made an effort.
The girl pointed to the neighbouring room that had the sickly smell.
“So, wake him up. It’s twelve, time to have lunch.” The girl didn’t reply. I told Rachna to drop it.
Jyoti entered the room and sat on the floor, folding her legs.
“No, please take a chair, why are you sitting down?” I said, almost standing up.
“No, I like to. Don’t worry. And soon, my boy will wake up. I will have to feed him. It’s better to sit here and feed under the fan.”
“Oh… okay.” I paused to have a quick look at the questions in my notebook, and started:
“Tell us Jyoti, who all are there in your family?”
“My husband, my son and my daughter. And, my in- laws.”
“Oh... where are they?”
“They have gone to the Panchayat office. They will be back in an hour.”
I made a mental note to wind up within an hour. If her in-laws arrived, there would be no scope left to understand her thoughts and beliefs. She wouldn’t open up in their presence.
“How old are your children?”
“My daughter is three years and son is ten months.”
“And your age?”
“So, your husband is sleeping there…”
“Yes.” She smiled and quickly looked down to make an effort to adjust her kurta over her folded knees. She looked at Rachna and then, at her daughter. “He came home very late… in the morning. At four. I don’t think he will wake up so soon.”
“That’s okay. I was just asking. We will talk to you.”
“So, we have a form here—” I looked at the sheet of paper in my hand, “— it tells about our work and why we are visiting you. We want to understand your difficulties in feeding your child. We want your permission for the interview and need you to sign the form. And we have a recorder because, uh… it’s easier… to understand what you tell us if we don’t have to take notes and keep writing. I hope you are… okay with all of this?”
“Yes. Aanganwadi didi told me about these things.”
Rachna read out the consent form explaining the confidentiality of the information that Jyoti would give us, and that she could withdraw from the interview at any time if she wanted to. After Jyoti signed it, we switched on the recorder.
We kickstarted the interview with standard questions. Our subject, a 24-year-old Dalit woman, was the sole bread- winner for a family of six people, with a daily wage of a hundred and twenty rupees, paid in irregular instalments, as one may expect for a landless farm labourer. Although she was promised three hundred. The adjoining vegetable farms suffered, thanks to the unpredictability of nature and strained access to irrigation. She made time to scrub and clean the floors and dishes in other homes, located in the better part of the village, just so she could get food for her children - things like biscuits, bananas and sometimes laddoos. She was often paid for these chores in kind, which was perhaps more useful than cash. Her in-laws were frail, and her husband worked on occasion. Alcohol had ravaged his health and productivity, and this led to erratic behaviour and verbal duels with farm owners. They used him only if ‘no one else could make it’. The challenges of her everyday existence were ‘great data’ for our analysis.
I switched over to questions related to her ten-month- old child: “After he was born, what did the nurse do?”
“She showed him to me, and everyone was happy. My husband, parents… they all wanted to have a look at him.”
“So, what happened then?”
“The nurse took him away for some time, for cleaning. Then, the baby was held by my family members, my husband’s brothers, their wives… everyone wanted to observe him, play with him. It took some time.”
“An hour. Maybe longer. I started feeding after an hour.”
“And, from that day till the time he was six months of age, have you only breastfed? I mean, nothing else?”
“No. How can that happen? Aanganwadi didi keeps telling us, but that’s not possible in our home.”
“Sometimes there are things we do. We have to do.”
“What kind of rituals?”
“Whenever there is any special day, the baby is given ghutti - that liquid, you know?”
“It is sacred. I can’t stop our elders from doing that. They have been practising it for so many years...” She halted, to look at me as if to gauge my reaction.
“Yes, go on.”
“And—” she stopped for a second, “— and, when the baby is sweating too much, they insist that I give him water…” She paused to take a breath. “In between, I was outside, working, and could not return for more than three hours. So, my mother-in-law fed him cow’s milk. I got upset, but, I can’t argue with her.”
“Because she would have ridiculed me.”
“In what way?”
“Saying that I am away for so long and she can’t stand her grandson crying out of hunger.”
“Okay… Did he fall ill during those first six months, I mean, things like loose motion, cough or fever?”
“No fever… but loose motion, yes. Many times. We gave him ORS. Aanganwadi didi has taught us.”
“But you do know why he got ill?”
“The air is bad. We have a sewer outside. What else?”
“Do the babies in your neighbours’ homes or elsewhere in the main village, get ill as often during those early months?”
She thought for a while, then shook her head. I probably shouldn’t have asked that. She frowned.
“No, that doesn’t happen. Are you saying that my child fell ill because he got other things to eat?”
“No, please don’t take this as your fault alone.”
“But it is. I am his mother. I should have been firm with other people.”
“You were firm. You tried.”
“Then why should he fall ill?”
I stopped for a moment to think of an answer. This was an interview and purely that. But she needed some clarity.
“Outside things should not be given.” I said. “As much as possible. Not even water, not till six months are over. See, your baby only knows your body. He has stayed inside you for nine months, lived on your blood. Hence, outside milk or water is… it is different, foreign, and something that his stomach is not used to. So, it reacts… and hence, loose motion.”
“I think he is waking up,” Rachna butted in.
We heard a suppressed cry. Jyoti rushed to the bed. She dismantled the net removing one string at a time, took him out, cuddled him and asked her daughter to place a cloth on the floor so he could crawl around after being fed. She turned his head and pointed to us, saying things like, ‘Look who’s here!’ ‘We have guests to meet you!’ ‘Say Namaste!’
“I think you should just stick to asking questions. If you advise, we won’t get unbiased data,” Rachna muttered while fiddling with the recorder.
“I will. But after a point, we will switch it off.” I said, eyeing the recorder.
“I don’t know. I think we should get data while we… just converse with her. Don’t you see? This set-up isn’t making her comfortable, although she won’t say that to us.”
Soon, the mother and her baby joined us and sat down on the makeshift cloth mat with frayed edges, oozing excitement and looking at us with glittering smiles that masked the distressing situation in their home. In him, Jyoti could forget her routine and its gravity.
“He is my son. Arjun. Very naughty! And he doesn’t want to eat!”
“Oh, is it!” My questions had to be tweaked. “So, tell me why he won’t?”
“I don’t know, ask him!” she smiled.
“Why don’t you eat Arjun?” I played along. The baby gurgled at me. “What do you feed him usually?”
“Whatever is available. Or whatever I can get from others’ homes.”
“What has Aanganwadi didi advised you?”
“Suji ki kheer, khichri, dal, boiled potatoes… she said I can mash them together.”
“And are you able to give all this?”
“Yes. But he gets cranky. Refuses to eat. He has been cranky since the time we started attempting to give all this, four months back.”
“After six months of age - is that when you started…?”
“Yes —” she held back to think. “No, later… after the seventh month.”
“Okay. Why do you think he gets cranky?” I asked.
“I don’t know. All babies do. They don’t want to eat.”
“Hmm… is that what you think?”
“Why could it be?” She lowered her voice.
“We just spoke about it,” I smiled. “The child… I mean, any child, when he gets outside things right from the beginning, when he should get mother’s milk only, is not prepared… I mean he can’t take things like kheer and khichdi, at the right age.”
“But…” she paused a bit, “is that the reason?”
“You don’t think so?”
“I think, children are so little. They just can’t eat everything that we want them to eat. These are the things that big people like us eat easily. But he is only ten months old.”
“He doesn’t even know why he is eating all that”, she said.
“So… you do see that babies are so little. Such little tummies. Such new foods.” I smiled.
She looked at me as if she bore the weight of those words. But she didn’t seem to agree.
I pushed it a little – “I mean, do you see that new foods are difficult – I mean, anything new? Like something that is not mother’s milk during the early days. That’s also… new… right?”
“No…” she nodded. “I don’t think that’s the reason that he is not eating now.”
“Then why do you think this is happening?”
“uh… I don’t know, but are we responsible for this – that he fusses and doesn’t eat now?”
“No, no… leave that aside. Don’t take the blame.”
“But it has changed his body, his habits, as you say,” she looked at Arjun. “And, he is fussing as we can see. So…”
“So… it needs to be fixed. How can I solve this?”
“Well… you try every day. Every day with your child is another day you learn, you try, you observe and spot something.”
“Okay…” I sighed. “Let’s try something now…” I had to restrain myself as I was getting recorded. “So tell me… how often do you feed him?”
“Twice, or sometimes thrice. He only takes half of a katori.”
“Do you know how much he needs to take for his age?”
“Four or five times a day is what Aanganwadi didi said.”
“What else did she tell you?”
“Give bananas, apples if possible. Give something sweet, but home-cooked. Not the biscuits that you get from others’ homes. Give a lot of vegetables…”
She continued. “I have tried some of these things. But I have to serve four other people and then eat myself. If I don’t eat well, how will I feed him —”
“Wait… you still feed him?”
“Yes, he must have my milk! Else he will fall sick. He hardly eats khichri or other things. And she said five times a day! Even once or twice, half a katori is a big task. I must feed him my milk. And… how can I spend on fruits?”
My God! What was that all about? Could we pinpoint only on the lack of money? Was it the knowledge - the tragedy of not getting the right advice at the right time. But it was unfair to say that incorrect beliefs set the rules. Weren’t there other families who had realized that breastmilk is the best in the initial months? Weren’t they cutting down on foreign liquids? Weren’t they becoming aware? Flexible with their beliefs? Why not her? Because she was a Dalit? The little information that trickled down to her, via the health worker, neighbours and the village as a whole, was too superficial to process and too limited to bring about any change in her thinking, let alone her family’s. Workers needed to converse with them. People needed to sit down and talk to the in-laws and elderly, perhaps right from the time of pregnancy. Yes, bananas were expensive; but had it even registered that a variety of food items would only add to her son’s chances of eating more? And what could we do when they simply could not afford it?
While I was lost in my thoughts, sifting through the pages of my notebook for no reason, Rachna asked if she should switch off the recorder. I nodded. Meanwhile, Jyoti had left the scene. A minute later, she brought a bowl of porridge from the kitchen and started feeding her son.
“Now, look what he does…” She brought my attention to the spoon.
The child took two spoons and seemed fine. At the third, he squirmed. He tried to move around. He crawled towards the bed. He crawled to our feet and tried to climb into my bag lying on the floor. He did whatever he could to stay away from the spoon. He had learned to make his life’s first set of excuses before learning to eat.
Jyoti made him sit on her lap and fed one more spoon. The child looked at my bag and let the spoon slip in his mouth. She had to make an effort to slip it in. For the next spoon, he furrowed his brow. For the next, he pursed his lips.
“Every time, the same thing,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Do you want to change the colour?”
“What?” She looked at me, her expressionless face almost wanted to give up.
“Why?” Rachna butted in, trying to figure out what I was getting at.
“Do you have spinach?” Flashes of some green vegetables I had noticed in her kitchen came to my mind.
“No…yes… uh… a little… but my neighbour may have more of it.”
“Can you bring it?”
“He won’t eat spinach.”
“No, no… just use some of it, boil it first and then mash it a little, mix it with the porridge. And stir well.”
She looked at Rachna for any tinge of second opinion. Rachna nodded, but with a doubtful glare towards the child. Jyoti handed the child over to her daughter’s care. She went out and vanished for a full fifteen minutes.
“Just wait,” I told Rachna.
When she was back, the porridge, which she had re- warmed a little, had taken a different texture. A gentle greenish hue mixed with light yellow. She sat down to make a fresh attempt.
“Arjun… come here, come here… look what we have! Look!”
Arjun gazed at the variegated yellow-green meal, throwing a few vapours in the air. For a moment, nothing distracted him from his play. After it had cooled down a bit and she had lured him enough with loud animated calls, she started feeding him. He looked at the spoon for a little while, and chewed on it, slowly. He made a face as if he was testing it. He stared at her and she didn’t drop her smile. When he was done chewing, she fed him another spoon. He took it. And another. And, he took one more. Her attempts got more energized. She babbled to mimic his voice. She sensed his moods. He chewed on. He licked his lips. At times, he too babbled to her calls. She carried on - she tweaked his name and cooed to him, and he smiled at her. Yes, he did crawl to our feet and tried to get into our bags, but this time with a bit of smiling, gurgling and hand flapping! She pulled him gently and fed him another spoon. He took two more. She laughed in disbelief, and he could only look in wonder, hearing her laugh! Her daughter joined the party and fed him two more spoons. Arjun loved the change of hands… or, probably the spinach… or, just the things happening, as a whole…Who could say?
“Have you done this before?” I probed.
“Umm… No, not in this way… I mean, I thought he won’t like it. And, we don’t do this.”
“The spinach. No one told me. My mother-in-law may not know. Let’s see what she says.”
“She may not agree?” I asked.
“It’s hard. She will say, ‘why this effort’. And—” Jyoti stopped herself to frame what she wanted to say. “But I will talk to her. These are new things.”
“Yes, new things… but they will help you. They aren’t that difficult, right?”
“No, it’s not about the spinach.”
“What I want to say is… you know him well, but there are things you can’t be sure of. He is yours. But he is also a different person. He has his tastes. And his tastes are building now.”
“Okay.” She looked at the katori with more than half of its meal eaten, and it seemed like she got lost in thought.
“So, try whatever you can to make it interesting for him. What do you think?”
“Yes. I will try - maybe this spinach, now…. and again after some days.”
“Yes, but… I mean, keep changing your ways. Today it is spinach, tomorrow it could be a carrot, boiled and mashed with that gentle orange hue. Someday, it could be beetroot… boiled and mashed giving that strong red colour. Right? One day, it could even be dal, so that the dark yellow gets mixed with the white kheer. Sometimes you could try putting nuts, in the centre of the kheer. If you can get those from somewhere. So he sees those brown dots. If possible, try a fruit… I mean… only if possible.” I smiled.
“I know it’s hard.”
“What if my mother-in-law stops me from trying this out?”
“She might. But she wants a grandson that grows stronger. Remember – you both want him to eat, you both want him to eat more and eat happily. Right? So, talk to her.”
“Okay,” she looked at Arjun, clinging onto her, trying to say something. Calling her and cooing at her. “I just… never thought this. These different things. I mean, we have never done it.” She smiled, looking at her older daughter.
“I know. But children love different things. They are figuring out what they like. It’s not just a confused tummy that got outside milk and water at the wrong times… and now it’s fussy and rejects the same old kheer and khichri fed twice or thrice a day. It’s also a confused mind, yours and his.”
She heard that intently, while I thought if I should stop. “So… just keep trying other things,” I said.
“Yes.” She nodded, still staring at her child, still in awe. Arjun had nearly finished the katori. Her attention swung between the ideas I threw at her, and her child’s euphoria.
It was time to leave. We began to pack our stuff. As we stepped out of the room, I peeped into the adjacent room. Her husband was still asleep. The sickly smell had dimmed. The kitchen was a bit cluttered due to the spinach. The chulha had stopped burning. The goats had quietened. The fodder was eaten. The floor was clean. The red bricks displayed the self-esteem of a pucca house. She left Arjun to play with his sister and accompanied us to the door. We stepped out of her house. The familiar path that greeted her, the dried mud, the open sewer, and the stone wall right in front, had nowhere else to go. Her work would remain the same. Her wages would not rise. Her troubles would not cease. Raising a cranky, physically weak child with a ‘confused mind and tummy’ in a restricted home rooted in beliefs and disconnected from newer ideas, was no child’s play. No one had impacted her. Not the health worker. Not her advice of ‘eat this, eat that… feed five times.’ Not her family. Not her detached village. Not those relatives who got excited about the birth of a male child. And, not us. Not our interview. Not our research and analysis. Not the prescriptions of the World Health Organization. I left her and walked ahead, trying to process my thoughts.
As Rachna held her hand and took her leave, she said, “He never ate a full katori for the past four months. I still don’t believe he did it.”
This piece is excerpted from the author's debut collection of short stories, 'Afsaane' (BlueRose Publishers, New Delhi, India
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