It was a bone-chilling evening in February of 1944 when Ratnadevi went into labor. Premchand, was going to stay up all night with several young soldiers, meticulously planning a defense strategy against the Japanese. At half past 8, one of the three midwives whom Premchand had assembled earlier that day, barged into his room. “Beta, I think Ratna really needs you to be by her side now.” she said. Premchand followed the midwife’s lead to the tiny bedroom where Ratna laid soaked in sweat. Her hair was plastered on to her forehead and her fists clenched the hands of the two other midwives. Amidst pants and sobs, Ratna whispered, “I want you to win it, for us. If this is to be my final wish.”
Premchand’s eyes turned moist as he stepped closer to Ratna. The midwives signaled him to wait outside. One of them stepped out the door with him. “Wait here and pray for His blessings. This is not going to be easy for her.” she said. Premchand strolled to and fro whispering every prayer he could think of, in every language he knew. Then at the stroke of midnight on February 29th 1944, Premchand heard not one but two shrill voices cry out for the love of life. The cries were followed by a shriek by his wife. Premchand’s eyes brightened and a smile adored his face as he returned to the room. Even before he could reach Ratna or welcome his newborn twins, the midwives obstructed his path and told him that he would have to wait just a little longer. “You are now the father of two beautiful daughters. But we must clean them and the mother.” the midwife said. For Premchand, the wait seemed longer than eternity. On the other side of the door, the midwives were contemplating how they were going to break the news of Ratna’s death to Premchand.
“I wish the Lord had given her more strength” one of them said. “Maybe, we should let her hold the babies one last time. It will give peace to her soul.” another said. They carefully lifted the newborns and placed them on the mother’s chest that was now perfectly still and cold. The newborns cried and cried, clinging on to their dead mom’s bosom with the grip of a vice. “It’s time to let Premchand know.” the oldest of the midwives said, a good hour later. She tenderly picked one of the twins up. As she bent to pick the second baby, Ratna’s right arm embraced the child pulling it closer to her face. Ratna’s chest began to heave and in no time, she was breathing steadily again. As Ratna opened her eyes, the midwives reacted quickly and rushed to her side. When Premchand walked into that room for the second time, he was greeted by his wife’s smile and his slumbering daughters. Ratna pointed out to the girls sleeping in a modest wooden cradle next to her. “I want to call her Asha and her Astha.” Ratna spoke. Premchand nodded in agreement. Ratna and Premchand had never felt more complete.
The battle of Imphal broke out a month after the birth of his twins and Premchand defended the honor of his country like a great warrior should. The Japanese were ruthless and the whole of Manipur was left shaken by the end of the war. When Premchand returned home in July that year, he was left paralyzed waist below and was restricted to a wheelchair. A bullet wound on his left shoulder had contracted a terrible infection. The doctors tried but failed to prevent the infection from spreading to other organs of his body. “I want to hold the girls, Ratna. Now, while I still can.” he said. Ratna had come to accept their fate by now. She placed the babies in his lap and they embraced awkwardly. Premchand felt a sharp sting in his legs. One of the newborns had wet his pants and he scooped the child and stood up in one easy stroke. Ratna held the other child and stared at Premchand in astonishment. “I can walk, Ratna.” Premchand said, practically screaming with joy.
Days, flowed into months and the girls grew up faster than Premchand and Ratna would like. Asha and Astha grew far too familiar with the sounds of guns and bombs. By the time they were four, the country had achieved independence and the air of celebration had overtaken every household. Premchand was personally requested by the then Prime Minister to look over the island of Daman as they were planning to regain control from the Portuguese. The family relocated when the girls turned 9 and began to lead a life that reminded them very little of the past. On their 10th birthday, Ratna suggested that they should celebrate. Every person in the village was invited and a huge banquet was organised.
Asha and Astha looked their best in pink cotton frocks with satin ribbons and white shoes. Each of the guests met them one by one with gifts and blessings. “All these gifts for us, Ma?” Asha asked, looking up at Ratna. “Yes dear, but..” a loud explosion interrupted Ratna’s sentence midway. The Portuguese had heard about the banquet and wanted to send out a strong message. Asha and Astha watched several body parts fly into air in the series of explosions that followed. A sickening silence blanketed the atmosphere. Asha and Astha were the only breathing people in a 100 meter radius. They looked at each other and Astha screamed “You know what to do. Let’s start right here.”