The Knowledge of Sorrow

Reetobaan Datta


An eerie silence falls over the class of caffeine-overdosed medical students when the professor informs us the woman who had been waiting in the examination room for half an hour in lithotomy position would likely not see the birth of a live baby.
We are left a bit perplexed when he asks us to take the hapless woman’s history. None of us know how to tell an expectant mother the baby growing and kicking inside of her would be unable to see the light of day. At that precise moment, we get a stinging taste of the profession that lies ahead of us.


Three of us enter the examination room. The nurses have injected an intramuscular dose of oxytocin to help her with the contractions. We had heard a loud yell break the recesses of the corridor when the drug was injected.
The woman, visibly in pain, musters up some energy when she sees us walk through the doors. Her eyes are glistening, as if we are here to bring her tidings of her baby’s miraculous capabilities. Perhaps, she half-expects us to liken her fetus to a future Nobel laureate or cricketer.
The treating doctors are to break the news in the afternoon - by which time I would be comfortably eating French fries at the Arabian deli beside the hospital.
She must have shared the hopes and aspiration she bred for her young one. Childbirth, in the pastoral Indian society she is a part of, is not solely limited to the baby and the mother. All the extended family lie in anticipation to see the baby open its eyes for the first time, to see it cry and grow.
The neonate bears the betterment one seeks in troubled times. Each member of the family would have a different expectation for the child. A grandmother would, perhaps, want her grandchild to support her while crossing the road and hold her hand while she climbs down a flight of stairs. An uncle, on the other hand, may want the incoming nephew or niece to fill the deficit of a doctor or lawyer in the family. An elder cousin or sibling may want a playmate. However, the least and yet the most amount of expectations would come from the mother.
The ECG machine screen shows regular crests and troughs, its hum subduing the awkward silence. Three of us, Sarah, Varun, and I, nervously shuffle in the room, clothed in our white knee-length lab coats. The stethoscopes lodged around our necks seek to give the ailing patient some comfort while obscuring what we do not know.
We have been tasked to fill out the Antenatal proforma, which comprises the medical history and present conditions of the mother and baby.
The attending nurse leaves the sheet on the table and we take a look at it.
We greet the patient in broken dialects of Kannada, a provincial Indian language. Neither Sarah, Varun, nor I are well-versed in the language. The woman, however, makes all efforts to diffuse this language barrier, greeting us in the few words of Hindi and English she knows.
Her husband is not there with her today. I remember seeing a man yesterday, pacing up and down the corridor anxiously, whom I presumed to be her husband. Perhaps he is diligently working, trying to earn and provide for the child he would never see alive. I shudder to think of his reaction in a hospital filled with mothers and children.  
Sarah calmly asks the patient her name. She is the only one who is somewhat well-versed in Kannada. The patient answers coolly.
The patient, M, has a pacific demeanor. Unlike other patients, she tries to swallow her pain and keep it inside her. She twitches at times but hardly complains or shouts, except when it involves injections.
She is clothed in a blue johnny gown, her legs now relaxed. Before we came, a group of postgraduates were examining her. The tiny examination room is just big enough to hold us. One more person and it would be crowded and uncomfortable.
Sarah asks her questions about her residence, husband, marital life, and education.
M, who has mucus flowing from her nose, has been educated up to the twelfth grade. She dropped out of school to help at home and eventually got married.
“My dad passed away when I was twelve. I used to baby-sit my brother while my mom was away for work.”
“You still finished school despite that. That’s commendable,” says Varun, trying to join the conversation.
M smiles, appreciating Varun’s praise.
I nudge Sarah, asking her silently if I could take it up from here. She passes me the sheet.
In my lackluster Kannada, I ask M about her past pregnancies.
“This is my first time. Ashok and I have been trying for about a year before I got pregnant.”
“Were there any issues with fertility?”
“Not that I know of.”
Seeing that she is getting uncomfortable talking about her menstrual history, I brush through that section and make a mental note to ask Sarah to come back and get the section filled.
We thank her for concurring with us and leave the examination room. The nurse takes her away for an ultrasound.
We move towards the professor’s cabin and report our findings. He commends us for our work but asks us to leave the patient alone for the time being. The three of us remind him in unison we have yet to begin the clinical examination.
The professor explains plainly that they have tried to get her blood pressure in check and relieve the complications from surgery a couple of days back.
“However,” he elucidates, “the umbilical cord has grown too much and we don’t know if we can do anything about it.”
“If she knew her child might be dying, how did she appear so calm?” I ask.
“She is praying to God every day. She still has hope.”
I still fail to understand her passivity during our interview. There was not a single sign of distress. I suppose that was the portrait of blind hope and denial.


The doctors are scheduled to tell her of her misgivings at 1 PM. As we walk out the professor’s cabin, Varun exclaims an expletive.
“How can she be so nonchalant?”
“She’s not nonchalant, you idiot. She still sees a glimmer of hope,” says Sarah.


I walk out the hospital. The watch reads 1 PM. The stray dog doesn’t bark at me like he usually does when I make my way to the deli in the corner.
As I gulp down some of the crispy French fries, I observe the stillness of the road. The traffic has died down in an afternoon slumber. The garden in front blossoms with white carnations.


about the writer


Reetobaan Datta is presently a medical student in Manipal, India. He serves as the Writing Head at MTTN and runs a Spoken Word collective, Type B Poetry. His works have previously appeared in The Bombay Review and The Eunoia Review, among others.