Stark, piercing and brutally frank the short story “Maternity Ward” by Svati Chakravarty hits us with its deft almost dispassionate narrative style. A poignant theme is dealt with a detached calm and reads like a piece of news which most often we read and regard from an objective perspective. We feel safe as long we are cocooned in our small cloistered world, as long as there exists a difference and boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The story talks of the inhumanity and heartlessness that lies at the heart of the modern urban society.
The narrator observes reality with a clinical precision and probes into the hospital ward with an intent eye where the woman bearing the illegitimate child lies in a cot under the fan and waits with a hopelessness to encounter her fate. Her resignation to her destiny, her doomed fate, her utter miserable plight and the sheer stigma associated with her situation becomes evident from the brief note addressed to her which metamorphosed her into a mere automaton. She waited alone amidst strangers in a hospital to give birth to her unwelcome life. Nobody cared for her. She knew she was no longer fit to be accepted within the folds of middle class morality and hence as a transgressor she was isolated and severely marginalised. The story hints at the plight of such women in society who are left with no choice but to either abort their child or give up their claim on their own blood. An unwed mother is socially unacceptable in Indian society. The eye narrator who recounts the story zooms in from the outer space of the gloomy hospital ward to explore the depths of the subconscious of the teenage girl who had been benumbed by her pain, sense of shame and familial estrangement. The description of the ward is graphic to its very details. The doctors knew it was quite a common ‘case’ and they were thoroughly and precisely aware of the medical procedure that they would have to follow to deal with the situation. The girl too was aware of her ultimate destiny but for her it was her own tiresome journey of agony and endurance everyday of the nine months she lay in the ward. She had undergone a complete breakdown of communication with the world at large. Her stoical calm and apathy is finally shattered by the pains of labour. The story ends as the girl is led to the labour room to give birth to her child. The birth here acquires a binary significance. It not only marks the origin of a new life but simultaneously marks an end of the dreams of the teenage girl. The adolescent girl was standing at the threshold of a new life, and whether willingly or unwillingly it was the maternity ward which transformed her life forever.
The story reads like a candid snapshot of urban life. The family disowning the unwed young mother hints at the vulnerability of such women in modern society. Despite the waves of liberalism and feminism, society still seeks to ostracise and marginalise transgression in women, subjecting them to various forms of victimisation and abuse. The silence of the teenage girl includes the muffled voices of many like her, who are even forced to commit suicide to avoid the stigma and the label. The explicit and striking description of the maternity ward, the attitude of the stereotyped nurses and doctors makes the short story offer a glimpse of life as it is. There is neither any attempt at glorification nor any wallowing in pain. The calm and detached tone of the narrator strikes us with its bleak emptiness.