The staff of the delivery ward of Sion hospital were tense, on edge. It had been an unusually heavy period for the ward with a large number of deliveries that had taken place. After delivery, the babies had their foot prints taken, a tag with the mother’s name and the gender of the baby were tied to the infant’s ankle. All newborns were kept in a nursery located within the delivery ward. The mothers would breastfeed them in the nursery or the nurse would bring the baby to the mother, if she was not ambulant. One neonate from the nursery had been snatched from the nursery the previous week. It was suspected that the act had taken place during the visiting hours when there is usually a big rush. A police complaint had been registered.
As the Dean, I was at my wit’s end. We did not have cameras and close circuit TVs that are commonplace now. There was a senior student nurse on duty when the kidnapping had occurred. She had left the ward for a very short while to take a baby to her mother. The absence of the neonate was noticed three hours later, during the change of shift baby count. By that time, the trail had gone cold. Banner headlines on the newspaper blamed the hospital administration for laxity in security.
“Sir, this has to be an insider’s work. It is impossible to spirit away a baby from a ward full of people. I am sure that either a nurse or a female attendant is involved,” Sambhaji Pawar, our security chief told me. Pawar was a beefy man with a luxurious handlebar mustache, a relic of his army days. He had retired as a Subedar from the Maharashtra Light Infantry, a legendary unit of the Indian Army. He had a mercurial temper, but was also known to be a sharp investigator. His words made sense to me. Only an insider would know that the ward would be crowded during the visiting hours and it would be easy to pick up a baby and saunter out. ” Pawar Sab, keep a sharp eye on the delivery ward from now on. We don’t want a repeat” I told him. “I have already attended to it Sir. I have posted two lady security guards in mufti outside the ward round the clock. I am sure we’ll nab whoever is responsible,” He assured me, getting up.
A week passed by uneventfully. The police had reassured me that a special team was on the case and that they would soon crack it. Given their workload, I was skeptical that anything positive would emerge.
One evening I was on the evening rounds. Pawar had accompanied me. It had become my habit to drop into the delivery ward and spend some time there during the visiting hours. Most relatives happily met the new mothers and their precious bundles. Several came up to me to express anxiety over the kidnapping. I reassured them that the incidence was behind us now and that the security had been tightened.
The visiting hours had gone and the ward and the nursery were empty of relatives and visitors. I came out of the ward, to go home. It was after sunset and darkness had fallen suddenly.
I spotted a woman sitting in the corridor in front of the ward. She looked like a homeless person. She was thin and emaciated and clutched a bundle of filthy baby’s clothes wrapped in a filthier baby blanket. She smiled at me and I could see that her teeth were blackened. She was not obviously a patient or a visitor. Pawar pounced on her, ordering her out. She merely cowered in her place, clutching her bundle closer to her. “What are you women doing? don’t you realise that we have had a snatching incidence? How did you allow this thing to be here without any reason?” Pawar bellowed at the female guards on duty. They promptly grabbed the woman by her arms to evict her. The woman set up a piercing scream after scream that brought the nurses pelting out of the ward.
“Leave her well alone, she is no trouble. I can vouch for her,” Sister Mary Kurien, the in charge nurse of the delivery ward pushed the guards aside. She was a tough as nails woman, but I noticed that her eyes were full of tears. “Pawar, let the woman go, Sister, I want an explanation for your behaviour. We will go to my office” I snapped at her.
Hesitantly, Sister Mary told me the story of the woman. Asha (that was her name), was a regular visitor to the delivery ward. She had been married into a well to do family from North India. She had delivered several still born babies in this very ward earlier. Her husband’s family believed that she was cursed to be childless. Finally, she delivered a live baby girl. The husband’s family promptly disowned her and threw her out of the house. She had no one to turn to as her parents had died shortly after her marriage. Sadly, the little child died soon after due to jaundice. Since then, she lived on the footpath opposite the hospital. She would spend the whole day sitting outside the delivery ward, crooning a lullaby to the bundle that she always carried. “She is totally harmless Sir. I would not want this to happen to my worst enemy” Sister Mary was sobbing. I comforted her and asked her to return to the ward and that Asha would not be harmed. I called Pawar aside and told him to keep a sharp eye on Asha, just in case, as she seemed mentally unsound. When I told Naina about it at bed time, she was distressed. “You know, I just can’t stomach the cruetly that human beings can show to one another. You should not have told me this at bed time. I will definitely not get sleep for a long time thinking about this unfortunate woman”
“There has been an incidence in the delivery ward Sir,” informed the Deputy Dean. I quickly hurried to the ward. There was a large crowd of relatives and visitors surrounding Asha. My heart sank. I thought that this crazy woman had either snatched a baby or done something worse. Surprisingly, the crowd seemed to be praising the poor woman. I was nonplussed.
Asha had sat at her usual place that evening. She noticed an ayah hurrying from the ward carrying a bundle covered by her sari. Asha perhaps spotted an infant leg that slipped out of the cover. She dropped her bundle and ran to the attendant screaming. She grabbed her by her hair, screaming all the while till the guards nabbed the thief. The Ayah had picked up the child and was hurrying to hand the baby over to her accomplice waiting outside.
The baby’s mother cried and laughed at the same time. She hugged Asha, unmindful of her dirty clothes. An impromptu collection of money was made and handed over to Asha. She giggled when she saw the money but dropped the cash into the charity box kept outside the ward.
Next time I saw Asha, she wore a clean sari. Her bundle was nowhere to be seen. She was surrounded by happy new mothers who pressed Asha to hold their precious babies. Asha looked ecstatic……