The Mother of 68

Over the last two decades, Sulbha Surve has lovingly fostered infants and toddlers before they found their way to forever homes.

Sulbha Surve sits in her small house in Virar, the soundtrack of her suburban home playing around her. There is the incessant chatter of budgies in the living room, her three grandkids are involved in a giggly relay of slap-the-cousin, and the eldest of them, Niranjan, is asking them to keep quiet. The cacophony is completely out of sync with Sulbha’s mellow recollections on this warm June morning.

The 59-year-old Sulbha sits on a threadbare divan in her living room, running her veined hands lovingly over a photo album. It’s an old one, the kind with flowers on the front cover. The plastic has curled at the edges and the photos inside have yellowed with mildew. But for Sulbha, this album is everything. Inside are 10-odd pictures of children of different ages – infants and toddlers, who she has fostered lovingly over the last two decades, before they found their way to their forever homes. Pictures of the other 58 were washed away in the 2005 Mumbai floods.

With a kindly, wrinkled face and large bottled glasses, Sulbha’s appearance is unremarkable. If you passed her on the road, you wouldn’t know that this fragile lady had come to the rescue of 68 children when they needed it most. You’d write her off as an ordinary woman living an ordinary middle-class life.

And you’d be so wrong.

***

The year was 1994, and Sulbha Surve was bringing up two teenage sons in a modest one-BHK apartment in Malad. One summer afternoon, Sulbha’s younger sister, Shanti*, who worked with the Indian Association for Promotion of Adoption & Child Welfare called her. The NGO, which took in abandoned children and those of single mothers, said that they were over capacity and needed someone to foster a child. For Sulbha, who had grown up taking care of her nine younger siblings, it would hardly be a task. Besides, it was only for a couple of weeks.

As she sat down to discuss the fostering with her husband and sons that evening, she did not know that those two weeks would turn into ten months and that that those ten months would change her life forever.

Sonu was a 15-day-old, severely dehydrated baby. When Sulbha lifted him off his crib at Kelkar Hospital, the child howled in pain. The dehydration had left sores on his back that were beginning to peel off. Sulbha brought him back home and stepped back 13 years in time, to when her elder son was born. It was hourly feeds, nappy changes, constant crying, and sleepless nights all over again.

Two weeks passed. Sonu was getting better and no longer cried as much. The skin on his back had nearly healed and the dehydration was a thing of the past. Sulbha was settling into a routine; she had a little help from her husband and sons, who would take over from her once they returned from work and school.

One afternoon, juggling Sonu’s feed and household chores, Sulbha got another emergency call from IAPA. Deepa’s adoptive parents had returned her to the NGO, because her new mother “did not like her”. Would Sulbha step in again?

My jaw drops a little when she tells me that it took her just a moment to make her decision. I try very hard to steer clear of judgements, but all I can think is how a suburban housewife, who’d never worked outside the house, didn’t bat an eyelid when it came to such momentous decisions. Homemakers deal with day after day of work that is back-breaking, repetitive, unpaid, and unnoticed, even when they don’t have to raise children – and Sulbha had agreed to take care of two more little ones. It certainly wasn’t the ₹500 stipend that she got from the NGO to cover a child’s expenses. I ask her about this and she just shrugs her slight shoulders. “I was also initially surprised that I was doing it,” she tells me, simultaneously asking the grandchildren to pipe down. “But I used to think about these children, on their own in this world. They must be so scared without their parents.”

Little Deepa who came in that day, was scared too, having suffered the loss of two sets of parents in the one year she had spent in the world. She was timid and introverted, and in the initial days, wouldn’t allow Sulbha or any other female figure within an arm’s distance of her – a clue into what she must have endured with her adoptive mother. It fell to Sulbha’s husband and sons to take care of her. It was only with time (and observing Sulbha’s interactions with Sonu) that Deepa grew a little closer to her temporary mother.

And then, it was time for both Sonu and Deepa to leave. Deepa’s new home was in America, while Sonu’s was going to be going to Paris. Sulbha shows me an Eiffel Tower postcard, inscribed with the staccato prose of a non-native English speaker, and a picture of Sonu, a bonny little boy who looks nothing like the undernourished child Sulbha first brought home.

Even now, there’s a slight catch in her voice when she talks about him. “It is terrible to see them go,” she says. “Aisa lagta tha ki ye kaam hi nahi karna hai.” Some days, she tells me, she felt like taking the advice of her sceptical neighbours who asked her why she wanted to take care of strange children – but only because some partings really rent her apart.

Pranav was one of them. He was assigned to Sulbha in an emergency. She still doesn’t know the name of the condition he had, but remembers he’d get about 15-20 seizures in a day. Even as Pranav’s weight ballooned, they discovered that his sight was regressing. He needed constant care and attention, and Sulbha was by his side every minute. After eight months though, Pranav had to be admitted to a hospital, where his condition worsened. Sulbha, unable to get him out of her mind, befriended a nurse at the hospital, who she could call twice a day to check on him. “Then one night, I dreamt about him,” Sulbha tells me. “He was all grown-up and healthy and good. I was so happy.”

The following morning, she got a call from the hospital: Pranav had died the night before. As she speaks, Sulbha’s eyes have strayed away from me, and the noise the children are making doesn’t seem to affect her anymore. “He was the only one who died,” she repeats, and it becomes clear that this loss weighs heaviest on her.

Even as more children came and left, the partings never got easier. In her heart she would always want them to stay back. And then one of them did: Niranjan.

When I first entered the house, I presumed the short, quiet child who was asking the other children to behave themselves, was an older grandkid at the cusp of teenage. Sulbha tells me he has been with them for the last 22 years.

Niranjan was visibly different from the other children who had come into Sulbha’s care. He weighed a little over a kilogram and wouldn’t sleep on his back. He’d stay in the foetal position he had assumed while developing in his mother’s womb and didn’t move a lot. He didn’t even cry as much as the other kids.

A month in, the Surves decided that they need to put Niranjan through a medical check-up. Tests and scans revealed their worst fears: Niranjan had a form of dolichocephaly, characterised by an abnormally long skull, and his brain was not going to develop enough to function fully and properly. Chances were that he’d never be able to speak or walk, which pretty much wiped out any chances of him being adopted – nobody wanted a disabled child.

IAPA offered to rehabilitate Niranjan if Sulbha didn’t want to take care of him anymore, but she would have none of it. “What kind of a woman would I be if I gave up on a child who had nobody else,” she tells me.

Over the years, through sheer perseverance and ignoring the doctors who told her to give up on Niranjan, Sulbha ensured that not only could he walk and speak, but also got an education and is able to take care of himself to some extent. Niranjan can speak three languages (Hindi, Marathi, and English), loves to cycle, and goes to Swami Parijnanashram Educational and Vocational Centre for the Handicapped, where his favourite thing to do is screen print t-shirts.

Two hours have passed and I feel like I’ve walked through Sulbha’s life with her – but I’m still unable to understand the source of her strength and tenacity. What I am leaving with, however, is another reminder that families are of all stripes, and each one is borne out of hard work and loyalty; that the umbilical cord is but a tenuous link between a mother and a child.

As I take leave of this incredible woman, our goodbyes are interrupted by her screaming granddaughter who is complaining at the top of her voice, prompting Sulbha to scold her for the first time in the last two hours. “They’re a nuisance because of their school holidays,” she tells me apologetically. “None of the other children were ever so much trouble – not one of my 68.”

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