Red Smells Like…
After 35 years, red still smells like the day of my abortion.
After 35 years, red still smells like the day of my abortion.
I woke early, my movements hushed to prevent being discovered by the dorm matron and my fellow students. It was cold that Christmas Eve for Delhi, but no one would miss me in the excitement of the last day before winter break. I washed and bathed — who wants to smell funky, spreading their legs for some gynecologist? — wrapping myself in the persona I had established the previous week. The persona of a younger, poorer, lesser educated girl than I actually was. Armed with my grandmother’s old unraveling shawl, I dressed the part in an old cotton sari, the shawl cocooning me against the morning chill. I sneaked out of the dorms, stood outside the college gate waiting for first light to bring the first rickety bus that would take me to the hospital across town. Across town, where I was as anonymous and common as other poorer and less educated girls. It was the hospital in which I was born.
You met me walking to the bus stop and we climbed into the cavernous bus, it’s belly startlingly empty of commuters this early in the morning. Thirty minutes later dismounting at the hospital, we checked in with a dozen other girls and women who were there to have the same procedure. An MTP, a medical termination of pregnancy. There was no moral dilemma that day, only the desire to have this love child, and knowing, simply knowing, that it was impossible for the time and place I was in. You were nervous, but for different reasons than mine. What those reasons were I did not find out till years later, when salvaging us was your project.
I am given an open-back threadbare gown to change into, undress shamelessly in a common area, and hand You my clothes. I walk into the OR under my own steam, surrounded by workers in a hurry to get their day’s work over with. There is a flurry of activity at my elbow, IV needle being inserted, saline drip started to administer the anesthesia, being told to count down. I see above me a kind, familiar face behind the face mask. The kind eyes of the female resident I have met the week before, who has told me she herself had considered the procedure to be able to join her new husband in America before, thankfully, her periods came. There is the pinch of a shot to my pudenda, and the whole merry game is on the way. Except that I am very much awake. And aware. Of every instrument insertion, every scrape, every nick. Every sound and conversation in the room.
“Fetus is close to twelve weeks. Possibly male.”
“Are we sending this to pathology?”
“No, just a standard MTP. No follow up is needed.”
“Really? She looked cleaner….I thought perhaps…..”
“No, no. Everybody is doing it these days. You would think they would use some protection. Stupid girls.”
“Please, let us finish up. Nurse tells me the waiting room is full.”
Kind familiar voice of familiar eyes behind surgical mask. Silent tears rolling down the sides of my face from each closed eye, to form equal lakes on the grungy sheet I am lying on. After what seems like hours, but is actually less than twenty minutes in execution, I am transferred to an equally filth covered gurney, being rolled down an interminable open hallway by You, who has not waited for the orderly assigned to do the transfer. Looking straight up into the open sky and the bright blinding cobalt blue of morning. Now no one has to know of my tears, because my eyes are watering from the sun. I lie on my side, knees drawn up almost to my chin, and I have no idea where the pain originates. The pain is inside me, I am surrounded by it. I am the pain and the pain is me, and I will never be Juhi again. Two more sets of hands close to my shoulders and feet, another transfer. I am in another room, but I cannot open my eyes to look around. Gratefully, I pass out.
I open my eyes to the familiar scent of You hovering over me. On the metal cart by my head sit two cups of lukewarm tea, two sweet buns, a huge bunch of narcissus, a pad beneath me soaked in red. Everything is heard, seen, felt in smells. Each smell is an attack on the senses. The old pain has subsided to make way for a new one: I want to have my baby! Through the relief of knowing no one will ever know of my awakened sexuality, I regret the son I will never have. I take small sips of the tea, and a few nauseating bites of the sweet bun, as You hold me up for lack of pillows. I am surrounded by other women, most of whom are alone, their knees pulled up to their chests. Women looking at me, their eyes filled with envy or jealously or surprise. What a tableau we must make: with our young, fair, clean, educated faces. Love and concern for each other in our every action, hugging each other in public and sipping tea in the recovery room of the Saturday morning abortion clinic!
I was discharged by noon. We took a scooter rickshaw back to the college — what an extravagance for two underage kids with no allowances or jobs! I slipped away from You and back onto the campus unnoticed in the hubbub of departing students. I left for winter break later that day, with no instructions on what not to do. The next day, helping move my sister into a new apartment, I lifted boxes all day, carrying them up three flights of stairs. I hemorrhaged for eleven days, all the while hiding it from everyone else in the extended family. I bled until I stopped wishing for the baby I had lost.
Red smells like the day of my abortion, and narcissus still make me cry.
On Agency: Women’s Reproductive Health and Planned Parenthood. Social Context for Teenage pregnancy and a Woman’s Right to Choose.
When I was 19, I fell in love for the first and only time in my life. This event happened the following year, but did not find voice until 2008 in a night class led by the exceptional Rachel Kann at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I was one of 97,756 reported cases of women who had medically induced abortions that year in India. There was no sense of agency over my own body or my choices at the age of 20. No information about, and no control over, my ability to protect myself against unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Abortion rates have declined steadily in the US according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, but at last count in 2008, 1 in 3 women would have an abortion by the age of 45.