About 14 months ago, I sat in front of my laptop with the statement, “Discuss your motivation for applying to this fellowship,” staring me in the face. A million thoughts were going through my mind as to why and how badly I wanted this opportunity. How in the world was I supposed to confine everything I wanted to say to just 500 words? While my answer ended up dripping with all the cliché sentiments known to mankind, I think on hindsight my real reason for wanting to work in the Indian development sector for 10 months was largely unknown to me at the time. I didn’t know how or in what way, I just knew that I wanted to be snatched from the safety of my seat behind the laptop screen and thrust into the lives and hardships of other people. I wanted to hear stories that never had ears to hear them before. I wanted to work on the ground with people whose voices, struggles, and experiences would hurt me, change me, anger me, inspire me, make me understand, and make me want to fight.
As luck would have it, I did get the Fellowship. Though much to my surprise, the first 4 months were so far from what I expected. They were spent with the focus on me – my story, my experiences, my voice – rather than on the people I had hoped I would meet. I grew so much in those 4 months and eventually became so grateful for what I had considered to be my “unorthodox” fellowship experience, for that period became quite the pivotal point in my life thus far. And, in fact, I had been hurt, changed, challenged, angered, and inspired. Just not in the way that I thought I would be. But I thought that that was it – this personal growth was the extent my fellowship experience would reach.
How wrong I was. For not long after that, halfway through the fellowship, I went to Jamshedpur, Jharkhand with AIF’s Maternal and Neonatal Survival Initiative (MANSI) program to visit families with new mothers/infants and Sahiyas – trained village midwives. And I met you. And I met your daughter, Mariam.
The second I got out of the car the day we met, and stood outside your house, I was overcome with the solemnity and sorrow of what I knew I was walking into. As I sat with my fellow Fellows in your front yard, I was stiffened by the tightness of tension in the air. I looked behind you at one-and-a-half year old Mariam, happily exploring the world. She was never without the hovering, protective hand of her grandmother, whose eyes were full with a mother’s adoration. I was so unsure, and quite frankly, scared of the story you were, for the first time ever, about to tell. But as you started to tell us your and your late wife, Rinki’s story, I was amazed by you. Your calm and quiet nature, the control in your voice and emotions; it dumbfounded me. You began telling us about her pregnancy. Everything was normal, you said; she visited the doctor at the hospital when she was supposed to, she took medications when she was advised to. There were no problems. You went on to tell us about the day she went into labor during her ninth month. Your family told the local Sahiya that Rinki was in labor so that she could call a Mamta Van, which is a “free” government vehicle that takes pregnant women to the local hospital for delivery. The van drivers usually take a 300 rupee fee from families upon pickup. But there was a strike within the van services on the day Rinki delivered and the Mamta van driver asked for 1,500 rupees upon arrival. You said you told him you didn’t have the money, but if he waited you would collect the amount from neighbors and friends. He refused. We later suspected that the Sahiya, a figure who is revered in most villages for her compassion and ability as a hero and savior, might have received a commission from the Mamta Van system. She told the driver to leave, as she was convinced you wouldn’t collect the money. Before the driver left, he demanded a smaller fee from you for the fuel fees it took him to get to you, though he still refused to provide any service. You gave it to him and he went back to the hospital – where Rinki should have delivered – with an empty van. Soon after, the Sahiya left as well. And so you called a Daay, a traditional birth attendant, and later a local doctor, both of whom helped Rinki deliver. They used a new shaving blade and a thread to cut the umbilical cord and left very shortly after Mariam was born. With your voice unwavering, you told us that Rinki, with her feet and ankles swollen, started to feel unwell that night. It was late and there was nothing that could be done to help her until morning. You told her to wait until the night passed so that in the morning you could take her to the doctor. At 4 am you found that she hadn’t survived. We later surmised that Rinki had suffered from eclampsia and had she received proper medical attention at the hospital, she very well could have survived.
I sat in silence as you finished your story. You didn’t falter once, and I didn’t say anything either. But with each passing part of the story you recounted, as you showed me the horrors of a world devoid of compassion, you shattered me like glass.
I must sound mighty self-centered right about now, huh? I started my letter to you with my motives for applying to the Fellowship, went on to my personal growth, and ended with the effects your story had on me. When, really, this isn’t about me at all. This is about you and your story. But, at the risk of making this about me again, after hearing your story, there was nothing more that I wanted to do than to take the burden of injustice from your shoulders, to fight in court the wrong your family faced, to scream into someone’s face that they repeatedly messed up so badly that someone died because of it. And not just someone – a mother during childbirth. But I couldn’t. And I can’t. Because I don’t know how yet. How can you possibly fight something so vast and so powerful when you yourself are so small? I don’t know if I will ever find the answer to this question.
When you shared your experience with me, in a way, in doing so, you shared your responsibility to speak out and fight. I can tell you this – I will take your story with me. I will let it, and other stories like yours, be the small whisper in my head that propels me to keep fighting injustice even when every fiber in my body wants to give up. I don’t know if I will ever be big or tall or loud enough to make an impactful enough splash. But I can promise you that in whatever large or small way I can, I will stand up and fight with and for you. Even if it is as small as putting my pen to paper and simply telling the world your story.
Your friend in solidarity