Case file in hand, I walked out to the patients’ waiting room and called out for (Patient’s Name). A thin, middle-aged woman dressed in a tattered sari stood up. She then pulled the fifteen-year old boy sitting next to her to his feet. One look at the boy, and I could tell that he was severely retarded, and also had cerebral palsy (as a clinician, I know I’m not supposed to make such diagnoses without the appropriate assessments and without administering certain standard tests, but in some cases, one just knows).
Assuming the most professional manner I could, I sat down behind my desk and started asking the mother the usual questions- what the problem seemed to be, whether he could carry out day-to-day activities without any assistance, how he got along with other children, so on and so forth. After scribbling down her answers, I turned towards the boy.
He was sitting exactly as his mother had left him. He seemed supremely unconcerned about the ongoing clinical interview, staring at the ceiling as if it were enormously fascinating. I tried to talk to him, but he paid me no attention. He just sat there, staring and grinning, saliva dribbling down his chin.
“Why didn’t you consult a doctor earlier?” I asked the mother. “Why didn’t you bring him here before? He’s fifteen years old!”
“Ayyo, avva… what do I do? People said I should bring him here, but…” she trailed off, wringing the pallu of her rag of a sari.
I pressed on, “You must have noticed that he’s not like other children his age. He can’t walk, he can’t talk… Why, he hasn’t even achieved bladder control yet! We can help you, but we could have done so much more if he were… say two or three years old.”
She was silent for a while. When she spoke, her voice was hard- “I was hoping he would die. I waited all these years, but he didn’t die. So I brought him here, hoping you could give him some sort of treatment.”
I’d be making an understatement if I said I was shocked. I was enraged, too. Isn’t a mother supposed to be the epitome of love? And here was this woman, waiting for her own flesh-and-blood to die! How cruel! Inhuman! How could she wish death upon her own son?
I had a few (well, more than a few, to be honest) angry words with her. She was his mother, for Heaven’s sake! Didn’t she realize it wasn’t his fault that he was this way? How could she be so heartless as to hope for his death?
She turned away and gazed out of the window, the sheen of tears in her eye. “You wouldn’t understand, avva. I scrub toilets in that private school over there for a living. How much do you think I earn? Close to nothing. I’ve made my children go hungry for days on end.
“My husband comes home once in a while. He’s always drunk. He beats me up, forces himself upon me, then takes all the money in the house and goes away. He comes back only when he needs more money to buy liquor.
“I had eight children to feed, avva. I didn’t want so many sons and daughters. I didn’t want to give birth to the offspring of a man I hated so much. Moreover, I was pregnant so often that I couldn’t work regularly anymore. When I was pregnant for the fourth time, I went and had an abortion without telling him. But he found out. He was very angry, avva… Look! Look what he did!” She held up her left hand… The monster had chopped off her little finger and ring finger! She was now sobbing heavily. “He cut them off, avva… He said it would teach me a lesson. After that, I never objected to anything he said or did. I just didn’t have the strength to!
“But when I was pregnant with my twelfth child- this boy here- I decided enough was enough. My eldest daughter was 14 then, working as a maid. There wasn’t sufficient food in the house to feed even half of us. I didn’t want to bring another child into this loveless marriage. I couldn’t bear to have another child wailing in hunger. I wanted to get rid of him right then. I took some pills; I had heavy bleeding all through my pregnancy. But it didn’t work. I was unlucky, he was born.
“He was a sickly little thing, avva… Thin as a skeleton and his face black as coal. He was scary to look at. The doctor said he wouldn’t live, but he did. He somehow managed to survive. But…
“Look at what I’ve given birth to, avva! Just look at him! What sort of a life is he to have? His father beats him up, hits him so hard that his fingers leave welts on my little boy’s arms. But the poor devil doesn’t even realize he’s in pain! Is he to live this hopeless life, this wretched life of poverty, misery and hunger? I have no money. I don’t have anything to give him, not even food. I can’t bear to see him like this, avva… I just can’t take it anymore!
“You were right. He is my son. But let me tell you, I would’ve wrung his neck and killed him if I had the nerve to do so. Because I love him, and I don’t want him to suffer.”
The story is an old one, but I still felt sick and miserable as I heard her retell the story of thousands of mothers in our country. When would it all end? I wondered. The poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, lack of education, the stigma associated with contraception… How does one tackle all these? Where would one begin?
In my happy, fun-filled life, there was no room for such despair or anguish. There was no way I could relate to the pain this woman had endured, and would continue to face. I felt (and still do feel) inadequate, out of my depth. Eyes stinging, I wrote “CERTIFICATE TO BE ISSUED” on the top of the case history sheet. The money from the government might bring at least a little cheer into their gloomy lives.
I promised the woman that we’d do our best to make her son as independent as possible, that we would train him to be able to take care of himself. I told her about the concessions available to him, the facilities he could avail, and the pension he would receive from the government upon procuring the required certificate. And then, chucking all ‘professional etiquette’ out of the window, I walked over to that brave woman and gave her a hug. It was the least I could do.Frankly, I needed one too.