- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
the Indian Post Office
I promised myself I would take a pregnancy test in the morning, but that night I was still free—unpregnant for all intents and purposes. I decided to buy a bottle of Honey Bee Brandy.
Women in rural India don't buy alcohol openly. I figured that if I was actually going to buy alcohol, buying brandy instead of the local Guru beer or Royal Stag whiskey would somehow help me to keep my respectable reputation intact. It was also, I suppose, a small act of denial as it was the last time I was to drink anything alcoholic for a long, long time.
I got the brandy from the liquor shop, which wasn't really a liquor shop. It was more like a shack, Mafia-run, on a back road, which wasn't really a road. It was more like a dirt path. I was living in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, the site in India of the Buddha's enlightenment twenty-five hundred years ago.
* * *
I first came to Bodh Gaya as an eighteen-year-old college student exploring Buddhism. At twenty-three, I was back. I had just attended a two-week Buddhist seminar with a former boyfriend named Justin, and was planning to see the Dalai Lama. I had also begun practice of prostrations, the Buddhist pushups through which one aspires to attain the mind, speech and body of the Buddha. This practice is considered fundamental to gaining realization of the preciousness of human birth and existence.
I didn't buy the pregnancy test myself. I wasn't even sure if tests were available in Bihar,the poorest, most rural state in India. It is the only state where, despite India's recent years of economic growth, per capita income has declined. I was known by and friendly with most of the local shopkeepers and restaurant owners. I was also known, at least by face, by most of the men who worked in the pharmacies where I imagined a pregnancy test would be sold. During my visit five years earlier I had learned from a fellow American woman about the risks associated with appearing promiscuous: Deborah was confided in by a close Indian friend who was pregnant with her third child, whom she could not afford. In order to help her friend, she asked about the abortion pill at a pharmacy. Deborah had been paying a man from town to tutor her in Hindi. It was a business friendship, and they were often seen together, going through conjugations and prepositions over chai. But when she inquired about the abortion pill, word got around. Her Hindi tutor was beaten up, and Deborah eventually left town because of public disapproval—What was a married man doing with this young American woman?
I, too, had sipped tea with young men in Bodh Gaya. These men were just friends, but I was still hesitant to buy my own pregnancy test for fear someone else would be beaten up due to a misunderstood friendship with an American girl. I asked a friend, an inconspicuous Greek guy, to buy the test for me. He bought it the day I purchased the brandy, though apparently not without everyone in the pharmacy stopping mid-conversation to stare.
I was in denial over having to take a pregnancy test in the first place, let alone grapple with the results.
In India, where uncertainties are guaranteed, there were no immediate little plus or minus signs, no blue or white X's or O's, no obvious opposites to offer certainty. The pregnancy test I took would stay light pink (no) or turn dark pink (yes) after half an hour or so. Pink or pink, I thought. Great. In a country where the word for yesterday is the same as the word for tomorrow, it wasn't much of a surprise. Though I had decided not to worry Justin until I was certain, I couldn't have reached him even if I had wanted to. Justin was living in Mirik, a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas, about three hours outside of Darjeeling, where the intra-India phone lines had been down for months. All my calls were futile. A tape-recorded operator's voice instructed me to "Please call back after some time."
Luckily, the day I took the test was Valentine's Day, and Justin called me from Darjeeling to tell me the phone lines were down in Mirik—as if I didn't already know. His call came during the half-hour I was waiting for my test tube to turn a distinct shade of pink, supposedly as light as a petal or as fervent as alizarin. When he called, it looked somewhere in between—plain old bubblegum pink, where it would remain.
The call came to the office of the Burmese Vihar, where I had been living. The Vihar is a small monastery, home to a few monks, accommodations for yearly rounds of Burmese pilgrims and, during the fall and winter, a place for western travelers and Buddhist practitioners to stay. The office had, just that week, gotten a television with cable, so there were a dozen people crowded around it, watching a Backstreet Boys video. They were all Indian men, and I knew them all individually. As in most small, rural towns the world over, premarital sex—especially when it results in pregnancy—is seen as a disgrace. Bodh Gaya is no different. I had often struggled with the gap between how I carry myself as an independent, western woman, and how Indian men view western women. I am critical of the travelers-scene girls who wander around in dirty tank tops and wear sari petticoats as skirts. I know that western women's disrespectful reputation is a direct product of western media and is reinforced by travelers ignorant of basic cleanliness standards that are a cornerstone of Hinduism. I never pretended I could be Indian, but I dressed as appropriately as possible in traditional salwar kamiz, and my Hindi, though far from effortless, was becoming increasingly fluid. I knew that my occasional cigarettes and cups of chai with male friends were luxuries not enjoyed by the women of Bodh Gaya, but I was not a Bodh Gaya woman and never would be. I fit somewhere in between, and everyone had become comfortable with my place. I felt that I had established friendships built on mutual respect with the men in that room, and I did not want it all to go to hell because of an overheard phone conversation about something even I could barely comprehend. I did not want to lose the respect I had earned and to prove again that western ladies are only good for the "sexy free" I was often asked for on the train.
It is extremely difficult to whisper on an Indian phone. There is usually a delay and a lot of static. In rural India, and in a monastery where "no sexual misconduct" is one of five precepts one agrees to while staying there, the prospect of yelling that I might be pregnant and I was just waiting for the pink to pinken was overwhelming. I told Justin about the Honey Bee brandy instead. Then I realized the blessing of the Backstreet Boys. The lure (Everybody, yeah) of bad special effects (Rock your body, yeah) meant that no one was listening to me (Backstreet's back, all right!). I am still grateful to those boys and their gimmicks. Over the next few days of emotional, dreamlike phone conversations, they would provide a surreal soundtrack and at least a mirage of privacy. I told Justin I was sure it was negative, and that I would have a blood test from the doctor in town the next day.
I knew the clinic was another arena for possible gossip. Though I asked the doctor for confidentiality, I wasn't surprised by his team of five young assistants who came to take my blood. Nor was I fazed when one of them proceeded to throw the used syringe like a dart into the side of a cardboard box in the corner. Preoccupied with the idea that my life was about to change more drastically than I would've ever imagined, I hardly noticed the other used syringes that had also missed the bull's-eye and were piled up around it. The test was confirmed. I was pregnant and feeling very alone in a country of one billion people.
I went to the main temple to cry. Lighting candles, the traditional Buddhist offering to dispel the darkness of ignorance, I aspired to dispel my own and prayed I could be open enough to receive this teacher who would be my child. I realized my practice had become intensely literal. I thought I had been gaining insight into the profundity of human life, and suddenly I understood how little I knew. I was petrified, but felt somehow blessed. Everything I thought I knew about myself and the world at large felt different, and I didn't know how I felt about anything at all. Maybe I would understand later, after I let go of what I thought was supposed to be and accepted what was. A woman who had become like a surrogate mother to me in Bodh Gaya told me that other women she knew spoke of how grounding pregnancy is during meditation. I felt anything but grounded.
* * *
Despite losing myself in my worries, India was still all around me. The heat was coming fast, and the unnerving chaos did not belong to me alone. Life's everyday trials remained. Most of my letters, both outgoing and incoming, had a very low arrival rate. I felt isolated in every way. I was getting giardia. The onset of Holi, a spring festival of color where everyone winds up covered from head to toe in staining pink powder, added to the craziness. Suddenly everywhere I looked was the positive pink my pregnancy test never turned, as if every person and inanimate object was now screaming, "Yes, you're pregnant!"
Politically, things were no less dramatic. As my own world was being overturned, so was the Bihari government. That week, for the first time ever, the national Indian government forcefully took over Bihar's state government, which was rampant with corruption. Patna, Bihar's capital, was in turmoil, and Justin's thirty-hour bus ride to Bodh Gaya required a five-hour stop there. The previous evening several people had been killed in the mayhem, including one family who had been burned alive. But he arrived safely on the day of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. It was a new moon, an unarguably auspicious time for new beginnings.
We went to visit the one and only woman doctor in a nearby city. My sore breasts bounced and ached during the bumpy rickshaw ride. This doctor, too, had her team of young assistants, although fortunately this time they were women. The office felt more professional than the pile of rubble and bricks that constituted the open-air clinic in Bodh Gaya, but it bore a frightening resemblance to those asylums in turn-of-the-century photographs of women with hysteria. Everything was cold stainless steel, and the operating tables I passed on my way to the bathroom had scary leather straps and belts hanging from them. All the medicine cabinets were empty. I think the electricity was out that day as well—the electric company was supposedly being bribed by the candle company. They took more blood and had the same cardboard-box-in-the-corner method of disposal. Eventually, while her assistants giggled at the skimpiness and the pattern of my underwear, the lady doctor examined me and told us everything was fine. She pointed to a fetal development chart on the wall, and we stared dizzily at Week Six and the funny little prehistoric-looking shrimp. She started to calculate the due date and smiled brightly as she told us this would be a New Year Baby. It was February, mind you, so my first thought was, How can I be pregnant for a year? Justin later told me he was excitedly thinking, Maybe it will be an Aquarius! Then we looked at each other with recognition. Diwali. The Indian New Year begins in October. She interrupted my persistent interrogation, exasperated, and told me to stop asking so many questions. Pregnancy and birth, she assured me, happen all the time.
As we packed our bags and made arrangements to leave India, we began to tell people the news. We made calls home and started to whisper and stammer to some folks around town. The excitement and faith were unbelievable. With the exception of my father (and he soon came around), everyone seemed pretty unfazed, as if it were obvious to them that Justin and I would make good parents. The support was reassuring, and there was joy enough to counter my doubts. Countless people offered their blessings, from the silent Austrian who tipped his hat to us, to Justin's teacher, a Tibetan lama, who prayed and touched our heads with a fourteenth-century statue. We were gaining confidence and momentum.
Grateful for the lessons learned and the ones to come, I understood why it had been so important for me to return to India. It was here that I had struggled with notions of control and had found release. I was realizing, more than ever, the necessity to stay present, moment to moment.
I had always had an extremely difficult time with mail in Bodh Gaya. I would write letters as efficiently as I knew how, on airmail paper, and fold them into uninteresting envelopes, plainly addressed. I would bring exact change to the post office, knowing how much the old man at the counter resented having to make it for me. I would stand patiently, without hovering, and watch as he pounded with authority the official seal of the Indian post office onto the corners of my letters. I would smile. Still, very few of my letters made it to their destinations. I struggled constantly not to have a mental breakdown in the post office, and on particularly trying days, I avoided it altogether. It was the one aspect of living in Indian chaos that I could not come to terms with. I was angry that I couldn't control what would happen to my letters. And I always blamed the curmudgeon behind the counter. Just before leaving Bodh Gaya, seven weeks pregnant and with a stack of letters saying so, I went to the post office for the last time. I gave the old man my letters, exact change and a big box of Indian sweets—my offering to the unknown.
|Rites of Passage|
|Motherhood and the Indian Post Office||3|
|When I Was Garbage||31|
|The Pump and I||55|
|The Piano Tuner||61|
|My Secret Weapon||68|
|Belly of the Whale||101|
|Becoming His Mother||105|
|Bread and Roses||115|
|Similarities and Differences||122|
|Calls from Another Planet||127|
|Flesh and Blood|
|The Perfect Name||179|
|Honey from the Rock|
|The Journey Home||205|
|On the Road (with baby)||214|
|Roots Deep in the Soil||222|
|Confessions of a Heathen||235|
|Learning to Surf||244|
|God the Mother||255|
Posted April 5, 2001
I think new mothers are some of the loneliest, most isolated people on earth. We can be found sitting in our comfortable rocking chairs, nursing our babes, and wondering why nobody bothered to tell us what motherhood was really like. Why nobody told us about the fear, the mind-jarring joy, the emotional intensity, and why nobody told us about the way that becoming mothers would forever change us. Most of the new mothers I know are searching for voices, looking for someone or something who can articulate what they are going through, trying to find someone to tell them that what they are feeling is not only normal and okay, but also as profound as we suspect it to be. That¿s why a book like Breeder is so important. It¿s a collection of essays by a collection of young mothers (and one dad) who have a lot of truth to tell. It covers everything from the ambivalence a newly pregnant woman deals with (¿¿Will¿ by Min Jin Lee) to the penetrating love and connection a teen mother feels even before her child is born (¿When I Was Garbage¿ by Allison Crews). There is the story of the mother who sat vigil over her baby in the neonatal unit at a New York City hospital (¿Neonatal Sweet Potato¿ by Ayun Halliday) and the story of a mother who discovered the ferocity and power of giving birth in her own home (¿Birth¿ by Angela Morill). There are some very funny stories: ¿Pinworm Patrol¿ by Gayle Brandeis covers one of the dirtier, more necessary chores of motherhood, and should be required reading for anyone with romantic visions of sleeping cherub children with flushed cheeks and golden curls, and ¿Baby Vibe¿ by Julie Jamison is a hilarious story of the way a mother¿s sexuality can be compromised by the innocent things her child may do. These are women who are dealing with the high expectations society puts on them today, who are working both toward their dreams and turning their backs on the expected path. In ¿Progress¿ Coleen Murphy writes about dropping out of college to become a stay-at-home-mom to her two boys. She writes about a disapproving friend who keeps asking when she will get her life back in order and go back to school: ¿So,¿ he said brightly, ¿when these two little guys are a few years older, you¿ll be thinking of school again, and you can go finish up and head on to law school.¿ I hesitated. ¿What the hell,¿ I thought, ¿might as well be honest. `The thing is, I¿m pretty sure I want to have more children.¿ You could have heard a pin drop. These essays are frank, ballsy, and fresh. They are honest, funny and fierce. They are inspiring, complex, and deeply moving. They made this writer (and new mother) breath a sigh of recognition and relief; we mothers are not alone, and we have something very important to say.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 4, 2001
I never read parenting books because they always tell me what to do, think, believe, and buy. No thanks-- I don't need someone else to think for me. I do need to hear honest accounts of how other people struggle through the messiness of regular life. This book offers thirty-six diverse stories about things we've all experienced, and some that we all hope to avoid. This book is hilarious, heart-breaking, and inspiring all at once. This is the best book I've read all year!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 4, 2001
This book is about the real and varied experiences of Gen X mothers. I recommend it to everyone. It will make you laugh and cry, it will outrage you and enchant you. A must read for all Xers.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 4, 2001
Breeder makes me feel good to be a mom. Breeder makes me feel like I'm not alone. This book is a must read for mothers of all ages. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want to invite the authors over for tea! Breeder is the best!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.