I had set aside this day to take what is known in Stockholm as “the archipelago tour.” My friends who had already taken this tour had talked about it in superlative terms. “It’s an experience you will cherish all your life” – that’s how some of them put it.
Most travel brochures I browsed said that the tour started in the morning at the Stockholm harbor and ended there in the evening. Which made me wonder: “How much of the Stockholm archipelago can a day’s tour cover, given that it has 30,000 islands and islets, stretching 60-odd miles into the Baltic Sea?” I was to learn later that the tour boats stop only at some of them. It’s virtually impossible for any tour to cover all of the islands and islets in one day.
One of the islands all tours make it a point to stop at, and on which many tourists stay overnight, is Grinda Island. And that’s the one I chose as the final stop on my archipelago tour. The day became memorable not just for the beauty of the island but, more importantly, for the wonderful conversation I had with a young Swedish mother on my way to it.
I had been told at the information desk at the Stockholm Central Station that I could save some money by boarding the boat to Grinda Island at Vaxholm, instead of Stockholm. The 72-hour, unlimited-ride metro pass that I had bought was good for the subway-cum-bus ride all the way from Stockholm to Vaxholm. The ride would take just two hours.
I was on the bus part of my journey to Vaxholm. At the third stop, a young woman, cradling a tiny baby, got on the bus, She could be in her late teens or early twenties. I felt happy when she came and sat next to me, but also surprised when I took a good look at the baby. The baby appeared to be new-born, and was too tiny to be taken on a crowded bus. I couldn’t help asking: “How old is this sweet little baby?”
“One month,” the woman said.
My eyes nearly popped out. “Traveling on a crowded bus with your one-month-old baby?” I said. “You are really bold. Are you visiting your gynecologist?”
“No,” she said. “My doctor took care of me only for a day. I stayed in the hospital only one day.”
“And the doctor let you go just one day after the delivery?”
“I couldn’t take it for more than a day. I couldn’t sleep at all. I would have run away if the doctor had not allowed me to go.”
“Is your mother taking care of you now?”
“No, I ran away from my mother long ago. We couldn’t stand each other. She doesn’t even know that I have a baby.”
“So, who is helping you? Have you been doing everything by yourself from the second day of delivery? Does your husband help you with household chores?”
“Are you kidding? In his culture, the wife is supposed to do everything. He is from Iraq.”
“Is he a practicing Muslim?” I asked.
“No. He told me that he was very religious before he came to this country. That was ten years ago. Now he drinks and does all sorts of things.”
I didn’t want to appear too nosy. So I didn’t ask her what she meant by “all sorts of things.” If he came to Sweden 10 years before, I surmised, he was not one of the victims of the American invasion of Iraq. He might have left Iraq because he was unhappy under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. I wanted to know more. On second thoughts, I decided to let that touchy political subject also pass. But I was keen on continuing the conversation with the young mother who impressed me as an open-minded person.
“Have you heard about Ramadan?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
“It’s an important month for Muslims. Even the not-so-religious among them fast during Ramadan. Does your husband do it?”
“No. I wish he had done it. He is very fat. Fasting would do him a lot of good.”
I decided to change the subject. “People usually go to Vaxholm to take a boat to one of the nearby islands,” I said. “Are you on such a trip with your one-month-old baby?”
Vaxholm Ice Cream
“No, Vaxholm is also known for good ice cream. I am going to meet my girlfriend there. We’ll have some ice cream, walk around a bit and I go back home this evening. I hope Emilia doesn’t give me a hard time.”
The mention of her daughter’s name made me realize that I had not told her my name. I did it. And then added, “I am sorry. I should have introduced myself before asking all those personal questions.”
“That’s OK,” she said. “My name is Sanno.”
“Couldn’t Emilia’s father join you on this ice cream-eating expedition?” I asked.
“He said he had to work today. ‘In that case, I will go alone,’ I told him. That’s the one thing I like about him: He takes his work seriously. He is a self-employed mechanic. He buys old cars and trucks, repairs and retrofits them, and sells them for a decent profit. He is doing OK as a small businessman.”
By then, the bus arrived at Vaxholm. Sanno’s friend was waiting at the bus-stop. She was cuddling a poodle. After Sanno introduced me to her, I almost blurted out, “Couldn’t you have an Emilia to cuddle, as your friend Sanno is doing?” I was prudent enough to control my tongue and ask a different question: “Are you fond of ice cream, too?”
“Yes, very much,” she said. And, giving a pat on Sanno’s shoulder, she added, “Actually, that’s one of the things that bonded us.”
“Enjoy your ice cream,” I told her. Turning to Sanno, I said, “I wish you and Emilia all the best. Don’t forget to tell her, once she is grown up enough to understand, that you got out of the hospital just one day after giving birth to her.”
I shook hands with the two ladies and watched them walk away, Sanno cradling Emilia and her friend still cuddling her poodle.
It seemed that the animated conversation I was having with a total stranger on the bus had caught the attention of the bus-driver. He was standing beside the bus, getting ready for his return trip, when I passed by him. He smiled at me and said, “I am sure the lady was telling you something very interesting. What’s it all about?”
“I can’t believe what I heard from her,” I told the driver. “She is a wonder woman. She tells me that she stayed in the hospital only one day after giving birth to the baby. In India, no doctor would ever allow a woman to do that. In the U.S., the fear of mal-practice suits alone prevents doctors from doing it. And she says she gets no help from her mother or anyone else in taking care of the baby or doing household work.”
“I am not surprised by the first part,” the driver said. “My mother told me that she stayed in the hospital only for two days after giving birth to me. But the second part – not getting any help from mother or anyone else after childbirth – that’s rare even in Sweden.”
“Sweden is known for its excellent medical care,” I said. “I also know that the care is free. In spite of that, people are reluctant to stay in hospitals? I find it odd.”
I told the bus-driver about the tradition in India of mothers moving in with their daughters during childbirth and staying on at least a few days thereafter. “I am told,” I added, “that for young women, their mothers are of great help in getting over the postpartum depression. This lady says she and her mother can’t stand each other. Her mother doesn’t even know that she has a baby.”
“That’s rare, too,” the driver said. “But then, there are broken families all over the world.”
“Absolutely true,” I told him. “I didn’t mean to give you the impression that family relationships in India are perfect. There are rotten things happening there also. I just mentioned a tradition that existed.”
“Time for me to go,” the driver said and got on the bus.
(The article above is Chapter 2 from M. P. Prabhakaran’s recently published book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. Chapter 3 will be published next week. The book can be ordered online at amazon.com or xlibris.com.)
(Published on July 25, 2016)
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