Margaret had come to India at the age of twenty nine. She had given the best years of her life to this hospital.
“Now at forty one, I must start over again,” she thought, “But I don’t fancy moving to Africa. I’ll find something to do at home. A strong pair of hands will always find work. Besides, I’ll have to start planning for my old age.”
It had grown dark outside, and Ameesha had not yet returned.
“I’ve been sitting here for ages, stirring up old memories. Gosh! I am really old. Perhaps I should start writing my memoirs.”
She was comfortable in her easy chair and didn’t feel like getting up to turn on the lights. Amy always scolded her for sitting in the dark. But the light from the lamp post outside illuminated the verandah, and Margaret let her thoughts drift back to long ago.
She was to leave in 1956, and the process of winding up her affairs had begun. The German doctor had already left, and everyone in the bungalow breathed a sigh of relief. Now they could go about their packing leisurely, without any unsolicited advice.
It was the biennial feast of the Paryaya, and the village was agog with activity. Most of the night staff had gone to the main road at the unearthly hour of 4 a.m. They wanted to watch the colourful procession of saffron clad priests riding in howdahs, on caparisoned elephants.
Margaret had an urgent call from the Labour Ward, and was rushing out when she almost tripped over something on her door step.
“Good Grief! What can it be?”
She flashed her torchlight on it.
“Stinks to high heavens. Is somebody trying to play a prank on me?”
She lifted the bundle gingerly, and almost dropped the contents.
“Oh my God! It’s a newborn baby. It’s hardly breathing.”
She carried the bundle to the hospital, and quickly resuscitated it. A few whiffs of oxygen and a rap on its bottom did the trick. It began to moan and gasp, and then let out a lusty yell. Now it wouldn’t stop howling.
Margaret checked its heart, lungs and all its reflexes.
“Perfect little child!” she said to the nurse standing by.
“Somebody has gifted this child to me.”
“You’re not going to keep it I hope,” said the nurse. “We can soon find out to whom it belongs. The Community Health Staff know every pregnant woman in the village.”
“Well, if nobody claims her, she will belong to me,” said Margaret, “Now let’s get her washed and cleaned up. You go make up a bottle of milk for her. She can do with some refreshment.”
Margaret dressed her up in a pretty pink dress and laid her in a cradle in the nursery, then stood there gaping at the child. She smiled in her sleep, a tiny dimple appearing on her left cheek.
“She’s beautiful,” Margaret said aloud, “I think she’s going to be mine.”
News of the abandoned child became the talk of not just the hospital, but the entire village. It took precedence over the excitement of the Paryaya. The Community nurses soon discovered that a young woman had died in childbirth in the Sweepers’ Colony. In spite of their advice to deliver in hospital, she had preferred the services of a barber midwife, who had let her bleed to death. The father was untraceable, as he had moved out of the village before the child was born.
Margaret received unsolicited advice from many quarters. Neither the staff nor the community was pleased with her decision to keep the child.
“A white woman and a low caste child! Whoever heard of such stupidity! Talk of pollution – this will have an adverse effect on hospital attendance. Caste Hindus will stay away. Why can’t she send it off to an orphanage?” they grumbled, “The Mission has several orphanages in the district.”
“As the child was dumped on my doorstep and not left in the hospital, God intended it for me. I won’t shirk my responsibility. I can only say ‘Thanks be to God for this unexpected gift.’ Besides, I do like the idea of having a child of my own.”
There was just one person who congratulated her. He was a medical practitioner. Dr. Bhandari, who ran his own small clinic. Over the years, they had become friends.
“I do admire your spunk Dr.Brent. Are you sure that you aren’t taking on more than you can chew? I’ve got a couple of brats of my own, and I know how much they can disrupt life. Still, if you’ve made up your mind, I give you my full support. What you’re contemplating is not mere generosity but saintliness. Do I see that halo around your head?”
Margaret had got into trouble with the Mission Board as well. Telegrams and phone calls followed.
“What on earth has got into you Margaret?” asked the President.
“Just when we are withdrawing our foreign staff from the hospital, why must you saddle yourself with someone’s unwanted child?”
“I don’t mind staying on for a few more years,” she said, “I’ll run the hospital and I’ll also look after the child with the help of a full time maid.”
“The Board has decided that we can’t condone such foolishness. If you decide to stay, you’ll be on your own. We will cut all subsidies. I sincerely wish this will bring you to your senses.”
“I’ll accept the challenge,” Margaret said stubbornly.
The foreign staff left one by one. She knew it would be a struggle with no financial help from the Mission. But though the majority of patients came from the poorer section of society, the families of rich landlords and businessmen patronized the hospital. It would be a question of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’
Once again her friend Dr. Bhandari came to her aid. He was well known in the community and felt compelled to help this brave woman.
“She has a spark of Divinity in her,” he told everybody, “If she has the will to stay and serve our people, then we must support her with our understanding, love and also our finances.’Representatives of the town municipality promised a contribution towards running costs. They were determined to keep her in their midst, as long as she wished to stay. Seeing how the people rallied around Margaret, the Bishop of the Diocese extended his support by allowing the hospital to remain as an autonomous body under the Church, however, with no financial assistance.
Margaret was now the sole custodian of the hospital.“The Lord preserves the faithful,” she thought, “Be strong and take heart.”
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