Touched by an Amma
Even prison walls could not keep this disabled child and his foster mother apart

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
As she says, "Mage Puthe," and hugs him tenderly, a hint of a smile lights up his otherwise expressionless face. Mother and son, Horagampita Gamage Indrani and Shehan Madhushanka – who celebrated his eighth birthday on October 27 – have partaken of their lunch and are relaxing in their tiny, attached home down Wanathamulla way on Serpentine Road in Borella.

Another day in the life of another impoverished family? More or less, but with a slight difference, for Indrani is not his own mother but has adopted Shehan who is both mentally and physically disabled and incapable of fending for himself, be it feeding himself, dressing himself, walking or talking.

"He is blind and also short of hearing. He cannot talk or walk and he is prone to fits," says Indrani, changing his clothes after spoon-feeding him his lunch and placing him in a wheelchair. Shehan's head lolls down and he sits motionless with unseeing but beautiful eyes wide open. The child is in clean clothes and his hands and legs have been scrupulously washed. "We have to put him in pampers as he cannot control himself and would be very uncomfortable," says 48-year-old Indrani.

Shehan was just three days old when Indrani heard that his mother was looking for someone to adopt him. Shehan's biological mother was 16 then and had given birth at the Castle Street Hospital. By her side was her own mother, but both mother and grandmother had only one wish - to give away the newborn as soon as possible. Not because they knew he was disabled but because "he had no father". His mother had fallen into trouble and was keen to get back to her village in Kandy after disposing of this "shameful burden".

"While pregnant, she had taken all sorts of drugs to kill the baby and I think that's why he is like this today. That's what the doctors told me," says Indrani.

The moment she saw the little bundle, Indrani's motherly instincts took over, though she had been looking for a baby girl and not a boy. "As soon as I set eyes on him, I knew he was meant to be mine," says this mother of three who felt the need to adopt a baby after her own two sons and daughter married and moved away from her.

That was eight years ago and Indrani and Shehan have faced many obstacles and hurdles in their life together. Seven months after she brought him home, she realized something was wrong with him. From then on she has been taking Shehan to the Lady Ridgeway Children's Hospital every month, without missing a single appointment, for treatment. His medical records are meticulously maintained and the doctor's scribbles indicate that the child is a victim of cerebral palsy.

But that did not take away an iota of her love for this little boy. "Duka wedi vuna, aadarai wedi vuna," she says adding that she cannot bear to be separated from him.

However, that was what she had to face not so long ago. For, she was thrown into prison last year for getting involved in the "kudu" business. "Having to look after my son put a severe strain on my meagre resources. My husband is retired from the Marketing Department and we lead a hand-to-mouth existence. We do not have a house and Shehan and I have been living with my two sons and their families in this tiny place for sometime. I did not sell kudu but got involved in the business because I could get about 200-300 rupees a day. But I've learnt my lesson now," she emphasises, shuddering at her folly of attempting to earn some easy money.

She was in agony soon after she began serving her prison sentence of one year and three months. She was languishing in Welikada without her beloved Shehan and he was pining for her back at her sons' home, just a stone's throw from the jail. "He always puts out his hand to touch me, to check whether I am around especially in the night while sleeping beside me," she says.

The days were long and the clock ticked slowly. She could not bear it anymore. Every single day she was in tears and seeing her sorrow, the Commissioner-General of Prisons asked her why. He was moved enough to seek a hearing from court and request that mother and son be reunited within the prison walls.

When court granted this request, in came Shehan. "He was the most sought-after person in that section," says Indrani adding that people helped her in numerous ways. The students of the Overseas School of Colombo who were doing a community project in the prison, not only presented Shehan with a brand new wheelchair but also bought large packs of costly pampers. "They would talk to him for hours and he seemed to respond," says Indrani.

Released from prison on March 20, this year, she is determined to bring up Shehan without dabbling in illegal activity and so her evenings, after tending to her son the whole day, are taken up bent over the hearth making string hoppers. This is her livelihood and she soldiers on in her bid to give an unwanted child everything he needs in life as well as a lot of love and care only a true mother can give. Her one and only yearning is for the day when Shehan would look at her and say, "Amma".

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