Nurse Meenakshiamma was a midwife in our neighbourhood in the years before the advent of diagnostic sonography and cord blood banking. As a midwife, she was trained to help women in childbirth and when that was successfully done she invariably lingered on to help the mother cope with the tasks of caring for the new addition. She was a much-loved member of the community.

And so it was that when it was time for my aunt to deliver, someone ran all the way to Nurse Meenakshiamma’s house to summon her. She came as quickly as her legs could carry her portly frame and then stayed till the first cries were heard and she opened the door to announce the sex of the new born. If all of this happened at night she was escorted to and fro with a hurricane lantern and an umbrella during the many months of rain.

As children we were instructed to stay away from where Meenakshiamma was at work monitoring the cervical dilatation and presentation. When my aunt took hours to move from four centimetres to eight, it was only Meenakshiamma who stayed with her and soothed both her pain and anxiety. As for the rest of the house, the elders lazed on the easy chairs, the children slept and the men were never expected to be around.

In retrospect, Meenakshiamma must have had special access to a powerful deity who she relied on every time she clocked the contractions.  In those days there were no easy solutions for a breech presentation or any complication that put the life of the mother or child in jeopardy. There were no call taxis; the local rickshaw and the kuthiravandy[1] were totally inappropriate to rush a woman in labour to the hospital. Without a telephone, it would have taken a couple of hours to run around and organise transport to take the patient to the District Hospital.

As children, our encounters with Nurse Meenakshiamma began after the baby was born when she walked in mid-morning to bathe my aunt and the infant. Like visitors to a circus, we packed into the bedroom, perched at vantage points and watched in awe as she put the newest addition of the family to what we imagined must have been a most traumatic cleansing ritual.

Before the bath began she arranged everything like a magician about to begin a performance. She tested the water in the white enamel basin with her elbow and adjusted the temperature with more of the hot or cold. She placed the various bottles and containers within easy reach and kept the baby’s clothes away from the basin. She sat on the floor with her legs stretched before her and held up the baby with one hand. We watched spellbound as she stripped the two-day old of everything except the remnants of the umbilical cord which hung precariously from what would later become the belly button.

The baby howled each time she rubbed virgin coconut oil into the skinny body and each time she dipped the infant into the water. The howling upset us all and we often wondered why both our aunt and our grandmother had given her such a free hand with the baby. We were terrified that the cord would fall off and we would all have to leave the room to allow her to set it right.

All through the ritual she carried on a Q&A session for our benefit – she answered most of our questions but smiled when she found us moving into areas of curious overdrive. When the rubbing, dipping and drying had finished she dressed the baby and handed the bundle over to our aunt for a feed. That was the signal that the day’s programme was over; it was time for us to pick up our marbles, tops and comics and head right out of the room.

When her brief was over, Nurse Meenakshiamma’s returned to the house as a guest on the 28th day when the new born was given a name. She took a proprietary look at the baby, sat down to eat the sadya[2] and left. Her brief was over. She then returned to the house only when it was time for another baby to join the family.

[1] A horse carriage

[2] Festive meal