The 20-year-old frail, anaemic woman sat cowered at a corner of Safiabad police station. Two well-built women constables were guarding her.
At another end, in front of the station house officer’s (SHO) room, pandemonium prevailed. A jubilant family from the Old City, consisting of the father, grandparents, relatives, police personnel and at least a dozen of my counterparts from the print and electronic media surrounded the SHO.
“Sir, how did you nab the baby thief? Is the woman part of the burqa-clad gang that had been stealing infants from hospitals the last few months?” A reporter from a local television channel asked the police inspector.
“Investigation is on. We will interrogate the culprit to find out if she is linked to that gang,” answered inspector Rao.
The city’s government maternity hospital, notorious for infant thefts, comes under the jurisdiction of Safiabad police station. Missing newborns are hardly tracked. For a change, this time not only was the baby recovered, the culprit was nabbed too. And it was no outsider job – but by a woman from the post-natal ward.
“Sir, when did she interchange the babies? How horrible! Imagine giving away her own infant and stealing the healthy son from a mother!” I heard a camera-person commenting.
I had already heard the details from the nurses, medical superintendent and the police. I recalled the words of my old boss, “Look beyond the apparent news. Get some human interest angle to your story. All the papers will report this infant theft and recovery tomorrow, but we have to package it ‘zara hatke.’” (a bit differently)
But how? Should I speak to the family, who got back the baby – the agony the mother underwent when she discovered her newborn son, her first child had been replaced by a puny, sick baby girl – I nudged my way through the camera persons and photographers and found the family members were already narrating their horrific experience to media.
I could hear the voice of the infant’s grandmother– “Last night I had left my daughter’s bedside for a few minutes to go to the washroom. When I came back, I saw the baby and the mother fast asleep. I didn’t suspect anything in that semi-darkness and slept off. In the morning, I was awakened by Farzana’s shriek and it was then that I realised my grandson had been stolen and instead somebody had replaced it with a female baby. We filed a missing complaint with the police and are thankful to the inspector saab for finding our ‘noor’ (light), our grandson,” she said.
Thanks to the CCTV, I thought. For once, the hospital CCTV had functioned.
The thief woman had a normal delivery whereas Farzana had a Caesarean two days ago and was to stay as in-patient for a week. The culprit had escaped the hospital in the early hours with the baby in her arms. The security at the gate must have dozed off. Within 15-20 minutes, the entire hospital staff and patients were alerted about the missing baby and an intense search followed. The CCTV footage identified the culprit. Her address in the hospital register was enough to nail her within two hours.
I decided to speak to the culprit and her version directly. One of the two lady constables Subhadra, was known to me. I requested Subhadra to give me just five minutes with the culprit – the cruel thief who didn’t hesitate to abandon her own baby and steal someone else’s. “These are the types that sell babies, resort to female foeticide or infanticide.” I thought.
Despite my revulsion, I put up a professional, unbiased demeanor and followed Subhadra towards the lock-up.
“Hurry up! She is not supposed to speak to the media. Nobody came for her bail still. It isn’t easy either. The CCTV footage has clinched the case,” averred Subhadra.
Snehalatha faced me with absolute stoicism. “Why did you do it? Just because she was a girl child..?” I asked.
“I did it to save her. Save her from a torturous death in the hands of her father and my in-laws. I knew my daughter would at least survive in that family. I had overheard it’s going to be Farzana’s first child and they won’t have killed her if it were a girl.”
“But my in-laws and husband had threatened me with dire consequences if the third child is also a female. They would kill her by stuffing her with paddy husks and my husband would remarry a distant cousin of his and kick me out. I don’t have anywhere to go. My parents are dead and relatives have shunned me because I married on my own,” she continued.
“You tell me madam, which mother would give away her own child after bearing her for nine months – give away to an unknown family of altogether different Faith and culture – I’m the monster of a mother, but I did it to save that innocent child. They ill-treat my two other daughters at home.”
“Today, for the first time, my husband and in-laws spoke to me nicely, when I showed them the male baby. They let me come inside but within an hour, when the police came, they disowned me.”
I recorded Snehalatha’s narration and tried searching for tears glistening in her eyes or remorse in her voice that would lend credibility to the human interest angle – but Snehalatha was calm, composed, and expressionless throughout while speaking in a monotone.
Subhadra motioned me to hurry as her seniors might arrive any moment.
While leaving, I asked Snehalatha, “With you in the lock-up and your in-laws abandoning you, what will now happen to your baby?”
In the same tone, Snehalatha replied, “I got to know from the police that just hours after my arrest, my girl died in the hospital. Fortunately she died.” For the first time I traced a smile in the painfully twitching corners of her mouth.
I texted my boss – “Sir, I have got my story – zara hatke!”