The soft, sweet, humming of a lullaby was heard from the nursery. It’s Tani’s voice, singing to my son, soothing, and cooing to him. How glad I’m to have her. Tania, or Tani as I call her, is not a nurse, but a mother, whose child had been wrenched from her arms. In a society, where being a single unwed mother is a “crime”, she couldn’t have done otherwise.
When the good Mother of Our Lady of Victories recommended her to my care, I knew she was sent for healing, more than to help me during my pregnancy. Kevin, my husband, was initially against the idea. He felt it might not be wise to keep a woman who has lost her son as my companion and helper.
“She’ll feel jealous, Sarala”, my husband had told me. “She knows that you belonged to the privileged lot of married women who can keep their babies after birth.”
He meant well, but he forgot something I wanted to keep buried and never to resurface. His words also let loose anger brewing inside me for years, against the injustices that society thought fit to impose on women. What right have they, to ostracize women who give birth out of wedlock? What right have they, to dictate that such women should not be allowed to raise their children as single parents because they have committed a sin? Sin or no sin, leaving morality aside, what kind of twisted society do we live in if we take a cruel satisfaction from parting a mother and a child, breaking the most sacred of bonds, a bond of God’s creation? I explained to Kevin that, that is the very reason why we should have her, to give her the chance to satisfy her motherly yearning by taking care of another child, though not her own.
Tani is timid. Her meek demeanor, sad face, and vacant eyes told me the story of unbearable pain and misery. At our first encounter, I took a secret oath that I will embrace this unfortunate girl with a sisterly love for the rest of my life, to give what comfort one outcast can, to another.
Yes, an outcast. I, Sarala Rasangi Ranatunga, now a consultant physician, was once an outcast. One would be surprised to learn that a well-known, well-respected, much sorted-after physician in the country had one of the most awful childhoods. I have stowed my past memories within the deep recesses of my heart; they are too distressing to encounter.
I became fully aware of my ill fate at the age of eight when a childish quarrel with a friend exposed me to the shocking truth. A declaration from my friend that my birth was “inauspicious” and that I was cast off from my family for that reason left me flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe its truth. Of course, I wasn’t a favourite of my parents. Being the only girl in the family, I had to face many privations and injustices in favour of my brothers. My father was always averse to my presence, and I never set foot out of my room when he was around. Mother was my only comfort. She wasn’t an affectionate woman, but she was kind. Yet, how could they not be my parents?
My quarrel with the friend got settled, but I was unable to come to terms with what she said. I ventured to find out more about her hasty utterance, but every time I approached her on the subject, she dismissed it saying that it was only an invention of the moment to hurt me and that she was very sorry for saying it. I felt I couldn’t succeed with her; it seemed some warning had come her way not to disclose anymore to me. As the days passed by, I started believing in what my friend revealed. Instinct told me that there is some mystery surrounding my birth and parents. I was determined to learn the truth and was resolved to seek my mother.
I didn’t have an easy time fishing out the truth from her. She fought back, throwing anger as her fiercest weapon, to thwart all my efforts at finding out the truth. I wasn’t ready to fall back either and fought my game subtly and cunningly till she surrendered. It’s easy to think that you want to learn the truth, but the truth, when revealed, can choke the very breath out of you. Suffocate and perish or fight and survive, were the only alternatives I had, and I chose the latter. I told to myself that it didn’t matter who my true parents are, or what destiny has pronounced on me. I was determined to write my own destiny, and I have, by becoming a successful career woman, a loving wife, and a mother.
Before I proceed further, let me unravel my mystery. I had been pronounced an ill omen to my family. A self-proclaimed “clever” astrologer has thought fit to make an infant’s life a living hell with a shocking pronouncement. My biological father, who was a successful businessman, had been afraid that I may cause his ruin. He had insisted that I should be put up for adoption. My biological mother, being weak in character, had readily consented, for, she loved her sons more. But there was family pride to consider; they couldn’t send me to an orphanage and expose themselves to the truth. My biological father had then executed a clever plan in bribing his brother, who was of lesser means, to accept me and raise me as his own; a plan which hadn’t been to his liking if not for the monetary consideration. Although my uncle took me and grudgingly raised me, he showed me his ill favour quite candidly. He didn’t even help me with my education, insisting that he didn’t have money to spare on a futile mission, such as educating a girl! I didn’t have much help from my aunt either. Not being an educated woman herself, she readily agreed with her husband’s decision. Fortunately, with a scholarship that was set in my favour with the mediation of the school principal, I was able to pursue my dream and become the professional I am today.
I was an outcast, but I made my way. And I’ll help Tani to find her own way. It’s a pledge from one outcast to another.
Tania’s story is different. She came from an up-country rural village. Being the eldest of a family of four, and with an ailing father, the burden of supporting the family fell on her shoulders at a young age; the daily pittance her mother earned from tea plucking was insufficient to cater to all family needs. At the age of sixteen, she had come to Colombo to work as a babysitter. According to her, the family had been extremely kind and had treated her like one of them. The mistress of the house has even taken an interest in teaching her a skill that would help her find future employment. This was how she learned to sew which enabled her to join a garment factory by the age of twenty-one. Her salary had been good, and she had been able to provide well for her family, especially for her father’s medical care. Life would have been good and promising, if not for one man’s treachery.
Tani loved Sameer with all her heart. He was a fellow worker in the factory. He was kind and attentive to her, considerate of her wishes. She thought the world of him, not knowing he was a mere fleeting fantasy. But all his care was an illusion, a world build on a lie. It was fatal for Tani, it always is for the woman, when a relationship comes crumbling down.
Pregnant and abandoned, devastated and humiliated, she would have ended her earthly miseries, had not the kind mistress of the boardinghouse entrusted her to the care of the Mother Superior of Our Lady of Victories, who headed a charitable institution for the afflicted women like her. There, she had found solace, in the loving-kindness of the Sisters of the Convent, and also, in her return to God. Yet, she was an unwed mother, and society is censorious of such ones. God forgives, but humans are not so generous. They will cast stones not only at the mother but at the innocent child as well. Not even the House of God can offer her total protection. It is ironic how some social rules can overrule God’s mercy.
Tani had to give up her son, not because she wanted to, but because society dictates so. A woman who’d begotten a child unwed must be punished, while the man who puts her through it, goes unpunished. And what about the child? What has the innocent done to deserve to be parted from his true mother forever?
I met her at a time when we both needed each other: I needed a nanny to look after my child when I was busy and away at work, and she needed a child to raise, to fill the void of her loss. Rashen, my son, created a bond between us. Tani loves him like her own. To her, he is her lost and found son. And the little one seems to understand that he has not one but two mothers – “Ma”, that is me, and “Tani ma”. That comforts me, knowing that even when I’m no more, he will have his “Tani ma”.
“Madam”, Tani’s voice broke my reverie. My face must have shown a troubled expression, for she was gazing at me intently. I smiled at her, reassuringly.
“Is he asleep?”
“Yes”. Her face instantly brightens.
“Let’s go and check on him”, said I, rising.
The setting sun was casting a reddish glow over the garden. Peace and contentment envelop me as I cross the lawn and enter the house, arm in arm, with Tani. We continued our steps toward the nursery.
She and I are social outcasts. I broke the chains that clipped my wings, and I’ll help her break hers. For now, we are happy in our fraternity. Tania is still young and has her whole life ahead of her. One day, when she is fully healed, she may want to begin a new life. We may part, but the bond we’ve made will stay strong, and unbroken.
© Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema.