Baby Susantha. Right: the Parents
His is a story of illness and misery caused by ignorance and superstition, in a remote village. Twelve years ago Dayawathi and Dharmadasa were expecting their first child. The couple was overjoyed when their son was born. When the son was six months old he had developed a fit and though the parents treated him for the flu. The fever persisted. They sought medical advice. By that time the damage was done. Doctors said that the child should undergo surgery. In desperation the ignorant parents sought astrological advice, and stopped medical treatment.
"The child is going through a very bad period that would continue until he was fourteen. For the wellbeing of the family the child should be kept separately," the astrologer had said.
Left: Susantha: a victim of ignorance. Right: Susantha in his hut, (note the cord that is tied to the wall). Pix by Dunstan WIckremaratneWith no knowledge of their sons ailment the parents did what they thought best. They built a mud hut a few feet away from their home and kept the child inside.
Since he was hyperactive, they tied his hands with a rope restricting his movements. Often the child became boisterous and behaved like an animal.
For twelve years he was kept like this.
Susanthas family said that he had demanded rice and curry three times a day. Since he was unapproachable the family would mix the rice and leave it inside the shed, very similar to feeding an animal. According to his mother he would grab the plate and swallow the food. No one, they said, could get close to him when he was eating. He was kept naked as his parents said he removed any garment put on him.
"At first we did not want to keep him this way. But we could not do anything else. No one of us have a permanent job. So only by confining him were we able to go to the fields, said Susanthas father Dharmadasa.
Susantha is the eldest of three children. He has two brothers and a sister who are all normal. It is because of this that the family could not accept Susanthas illness. The mother kept complaining to us that they found his sickness unusual because none of the family members have been similarly affected.
"We would have accepted it if it was hereditary. My family keeps saying that none of us have had such a thing and it is definitely a curse. We did consult astrologers and they said the boy will be this way till he is fourteen. We really believed that there will be a change. We did treat him for his fits. He was given a few tablets .Other than this there was no medication," Dharmadasa said.
When The Sunday Times visited his home in Handapangala, Susanthas parents admitted that it had been painful to see their son like this. But they said they had no choice.
The parents however said that Susantha was taken inside their home at night. Once inside, the boy did not act abnormally, they said.
We would wash him in the evening and take him inside. He would go to sleep around 9.00 pm.
"We didnt tie him then. But by 4.00 am he would wake up and start his tantrums, Dayawathi said.
After Susanthas story came to light, officials from a home for mentally retarded children got in touch with the family and said that they would be happy to have him in their establishment. Thus with the consent of the parents Susantha was brought to the Swarna Nama Padanama in Nattandiya.
Nine months ago, it was the same home which gave shelter to Samantha the other child who went through a similar ordeal . Samantha is recovering slowly.
(L) and Samantha (R) with Mr. Munasinghe at the home. Pix. by Dunstan
The head of the Swarna Nama Padanama S. Munasinghe who visited Susanthas home said that when he first went there, no one had been in.
"It was the villagers who sent word to the family that we had come. When we inquired after the boy the mother took us to the hut. He had been there all throughout. He was seated on the ground embracing his feet with his head resting on his hands. I went inside and spoke to him and he just looked at me and made faces. He was very calm.
When Susantha was brought to the childrens home, he had at first, shown signs of restlessness. "We had to keep a close eye on the boy. But his behaviour seems normal", the official said.
The only thing Susantha does is clap and shout.
"He eats only rice. Things like biscuits and other sweetmeats are not taken, said Mr. Munasinghe.
Although the parents said that he had no control when it comes to eating, Mr. Munasinghe observed that Susantha takes his meals with the other children. He eats well but sometimes he throws the plate away. Since he has had no proper human contact, he is somewhat backward in the company of the other children, Mr. Munasinghe said.
"This changes at times when the children are playing, then he too starts screaming.
When The Sunday Times visited the home in Nattandiya, Susantha dressed in a pair of shorts and a T- Shirt was in a corner of the garden. He looked dazed and seemed to find it difficult to stand steadily.
Dr. Windsor Perera, Child Specialist at The Negombo Hospital who did a thorough check up on the boy says he had some brain damage at a very young age.
"It is possible that Susantha would have had some brain damage. This would have occurred after birth. As proper medication was not given, with time his conditioned worsened." Dr. Perera said a CT Scan would reveal the extent of damage.
"It seems too late for surgery. Curing him by treatment is doubtful.
However physically the boy has developed like any other twelve-year-old. The parents have fed him well but neglected his sickness," explained Dr. Perera.
Seeing this twelve-year-old who appears today like a normal boy, though his actions are those of a toddler, one can only be appalled at the suffering that such superstitious beliefs have caused.
The boy who spent his childhood in darkness is slowly emerging into the sunlight of a loving atmosphere. Samantha, the boy who once lived caged up like an animal, has long past the stage where he refused to be in the company of people.
After spending nine months in the Swarna Nama Padanama, Samantha is no longer the frightened outcast.
It was a surprise to see Samantha walking very steadily in the garden and trying his very best to express himself. He freely moves around the place, even making gestures with his hands. The boy who refused to look straight at a person in the eye is now laughing and running.
Mr. Munesinghe, head of the childrens home said that his rehabilitation is a long and slow process but the end result is worth it. The only problem he has is his speech. But we hope to treat him for that. He is given vitamins and an egg daily. He is also treated for epilepsy.
He no longer shuns company but still hates people trying to hug him or touch him, which is understandable given his terrible experience.
Dr. W.º Perera, paediatrician at the Negombo Base Hospital who treats Samantha said that he has suffered immensely, both mentally and physically. He has shown some progress but he will always be sub-normal. He is very slow in his physical growth. He still shows no signs of physical maturity, but with time should develop, explained Dr. Perera.
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