The midwife of Delhi
The Quran has acknowledged the existence of djinn, but the proliferation of stories revolving around these creatures of fire often delves into the realm of horror. In 19th century Delhi, to counteract children’s perceptions of djinns as fearful creatures, city elders recounted folk tales recounting the kindness and generosity of the djinn in order to remind children that djinn, just like any of Allah’s creatures, could be good and bad. What was important were one’s own actions, good deeds were rewarded, and pleasing a creature of Allah was equivalent to pleasing Allah Himself.
Long ago, back when Delhi was a quiet city with horse carriages dotting the streets instead of sleek cars, there lived an old woman named Bano Begum. She was fondly referred to as ‘Bai’ by the city folks. Bai was famous for being the best midwife in town. She had helped countless women through the most complicated pregnancies, and there were hardly any women during that time who weren’t told to have faith in Bai’s skills. But trusting Bai required a level of blind trust, quite literally, for Bai was all but blind from both eyes.
It hadn’t always been the case but one morning after her 38th birthday, Bai had woken up to find that a thin film of white had overcome her vision and she could no longer see anything clearly. That day, her own sister had gone into labour and before Bai could marvel over this sudden loss of eyesight, she was rushed to her sister’s quarters and there, so as to not make her sister panic, she calmly helped deliver the baby boy as if nothing was wrong.
When news of Bai’s sudden impairment began to spread, people became apprehensive about trusting her. But Bai was always present whenever her help was called upon. Years passed and her body grew old with age, leaving her vision only one of the many things that didn’t work as well as they used to.
One night in the dead of winter in the 66th year of Bai’s life, there was a loud knock on her door. Everyone was asleep in the house except the young girl she had hired as her assistant. She answered the door to find a large man standing in front of her, face obscured by the shawl he had wrapped around his entire body and covering his head like a hood.
“I must see Bai,” he said in a grave voice. “It is an emergency. I need her help.”
The assistant, frightened by the man, quickly went and woke Bai. Not one to turn away those in need of help, Bai pulled her dupatta over her head, wrapped herself in a thick, warm shawl and followed the man to his carriage with her frightened assistant by her side. But the man insisted that he only wanted Bai’s help and the assistant needed to remain at home. Bai complied with the request.
The man did not speak a word to her for the rest of the journey. He silently led the horses deeper and deeper into the outskirts of the city. The only light on the road came from the single oil lantern he had burning next to him, the rest was dust and fog.
Finally, they arrived at an old, battered haveli; the kind would have looked majestic at a point in time but now was slave to the wild weeds growing around it and cracks in the walls. There was no other house in sight, not a single sound to be heard except for the whistling of the wind and the grunting of the horses.
“Follow me,” the man said as he began to lead her towards the haveli.
He led her through dark, empty verandas to a large room. The room was occupied by close to 20 people, all women and children but none of their faces were clear. Now this was nothing new for Bai as she couldn’t see faces of most people clearly but there was something surreal about this room, as if breathing here was harder than it had been just a second ago.
The man ushered her to the bed and said,
“My wife is in pain. Something has gone terribly wrong and none of our kind can understand how to help her. Please, please do something!”
It was then that it hit Bai – these were not human. They were djinn. Bai couldn’t see the woman properly, but she could sense her pain, could feel her body writhing underneath her fingers when she touched her. Taking pity on the poor creature, Bai swallowed her fear and began to prepare for delivering the child. Once she settled down to do her job, the distinction between human and djinn melted away. It was her and her work, and after hours of patient coaxing, there was a loud, piercing cry as the baby took its first breaths in the world.
The djinn thanked her profusely but despite the gratitude, Bai couldn’t shrug off the discomfort of being in that room and had started to feel faint. She requested the man to take her back to her home now that the job was done.
“You must let us reward you for your help!” he said.
Bai refused, saying there was no need and she only wished to be taken back to her home.
“Please, I insist. Hold out your dupatta.”
Bai complied, spreading her dupatta across her arms to accept the man’s offering. Her dupatta grew heavy as the man filled it with what felt like large chunks of coal. She thanked the man quickly, and once more requested to be taken home. The sun was peeking out of the horizon by the time they got in the carriage – the birthing had taken all night. The coal weighed heavy in her arms and still feeling fatigued and not wanting to carry anything from the djinn folk to her home, she quietly threw pieces of the coal out of the carriage throughout the journey. Whatever remained after she got home, she tied in her dupatta and hid in a large wooden chest at the foot of her bed.
In the morning, when her husband and assistant woke her, they asked her to tell them about the man. Upon hearing the story, Bai’s husband asked if they had paid her for all the trouble she went through.
“They did indeed. In great chunks of coal. They were so heavy, my arms felt like they would break. I threw most of it away, and whatever was left, we can use it to burn fire in this cold. It’s in the chest by the bed.”
The assistant went to retrieve the dupatta with the coal from Bai’s bedroom. But when she returned, she was pink in the face with excitement,
“Bai, these aren’t pieces of coal!” she exclaimed. “They’re chunks of solid gold!”
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