They talk six to 10 times a day. They barely exchange words. For Sheetal Thakur and Anjana Thakur, it is enough to have someone to cry with. Shimla knows them as the mothers whose children got swapped at birth and have been returned to them since. Friends and relatives call to congratulate Sheetal on “a battle that has been won”. Torn between the child she raised for five months and one she now knows as hers, Sheetal breaks down, “Mujhe bilkul samajh nahin aa raha ki main khush hoon ya dukhi… Mein khush nahin hoon (I can’t make up my mind if I should be happy or sad… I am not happy).”
On October 26, the two families held ‘Annaprashan’, a ceremony to mark a baby’s transition towards solid foods. At the ceremony, a restless Jannat was handed over to Anjana and husband Jatinder Thakur. When it was her turn to hand over the quiet Nitansh to Sheetal and Anil Thakur, Anjana couldn’t do it herself and Jatinder had to step in.
Along with her “son”, Anjana gave Sheetal a bag containing the clothes and toys she had bought for him, apart from a meticulously documented feeding and sleep schedule.
Then, the two couples took their new children home, separated by about 9 km.
A British-era, 170-bed institution, Kamla Nehru Hospital is located almost equidistant from Sheetal and Anjana’s homes. One of Shimla’s premier ‘mother and child’ government hospitals, it gets around 150 patients a day and handles between 500 and 600 deliveries a month from across the state, including during the extreme winter months.
Both Sheetal, 30, and Anjana, 32, had their elder children too at Kamla Nehru. While Sheetal’s elder daughter Aradhya is now 3, Anjana’s son Netik is 8 years old.
On May 26, Jannat and Nitansh were born 3 minutes apart, at 10.07 pm and 10.10 pm respectively. Both Anjana and Sheetal had normal deliveries, without any complications. Both the babies weighed a healthy 2.8 kg.
Kamla Nehru’s records show there were only three deliveries at the hospital that night — two girls and one boy. Over the period of that day, the hospital saw a total of 22 births.
As per normal procedure, Jannat and Nitansh were first taken to the ‘newborn baby care’ corner, next to the delivery room, and brought back to the mothers within half an hour.
When she was handed over a girl, Sheetal was immediately alarmed. She remembered an attendant congratulating her in the delivery room and telling her she had given birth to a boy. She tried to raise this with the staff nurse, but was laughed down.
On the bed next to her, Anjana was sobbing silently. She had hoped for a girl, and was disappointed she had another son.
Sheetal remembers they barely exchanged a word during their time at the hospital, despite being on adjacent beds.
Sheetal thought about taking up the matter officially, but stayed quiet fearing what would happen should she be proved wrong. The next day, when she was on her way home after being discharged, she finally shared her fears with husband Anil.
While initially he was sceptical, the couple decided to get a DNA test done at a private medical lab. The first test, on June 15, showed Jannat wasn’t a match. Anil admits it took a while for the fact to sink in. Then, armed with the medical records, he lodged a complaint with Kamla Nehru Medical Superintendent Dr L S Chaudhary on June 30. The hospital authorities declined to do anything, standing by their records which showed Sheetal had given birth to a girl.
On July 15, the couple went in for a repeat test. The report took 20-25 days, and confirmed the first result.
Sheetal and Anil then approached the Shimla police, and when it showed no urgency, went to the high court. On October 5, a bench headed by Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmed Mir ordered Shimla’s superintendent of police to submit a status report.
The police asked the hospital administration to get blood samples of the couples and the children and to send them to the state Forensic Science Lab (FSL). “We sent the exhibits to the FSL, and it took perhaps 15 days to get the report,” says Shimla SP D W Negi.
On October 18, police filed the DNA reports in the high court, which showed that Jannat and Nitansh had indeed been handed over to the wrong set of parents.
The two couples, who were both present in court, were told to find an amicable solution, and exchange the babies as per convenience or after a ritual if they so wished.
The court gave them a week’s time.
The two couples had held most of their discussions and meetings so far on the court premises, in the presence of Sheetal and Anil’s lawyer Ritu Goswami. By October 18, it was clear to all that there was no use prolonging the agony. “I could not bear the pain Anjana was going through. I could see her swollen eyes,” Sheetal says.
Anjana had planned an Annaprashan ceremony for Nitansh, or “Ansh” as she called him, at their house on October 26, and asked Sheetal and Anil if the function could go ahead and the babies exchanged there. The two agreed, and the court was informed.
Anjana says the next 10 days were hell. “I would wake up mid-sleep. I would cry feeding Ansh or giving him a bath. I would keep checking whether he was breathing alright in his sleep, and hold him to my chest softly. The night before October 26, I asked my husband if we could defer the ceremony by a day,” says the 32-year-old, who cannot talk about the two children without breaking down.
Sheetal and Anil drove with Jannat to the ceremony, along with a friend from Bhattacuffer locality, where they live in a rented accommodation. Anjana and Jatinder live in a joint family with his mother, brother and the brother’s family, and they were all present for the Annaprashan. They received Sheetal and Anil warmly, welcoming them with a tilak.
The family had decorated the house, with a room kept aside for the babies.
Before the ceremony started, Anjana bathed Jannat and dressed her in a new baby suit which she had bought alongside the one for Nitansh. The religious rituals lasted two hours, before the moment came for the two mothers to hand over the children to each other.
The next day, all the Thakurs went to the high court to inform the bench the formalities had been performed. It was the first time Jannat and Nitansh were taken to court.
It’s been three weeks since.
On the day that the babies were swapped, Sheetal, who had led the fight to get her son back, had been the more composed one. Now, she says, she can barely contain her tears thinking about Jannat.
Sheetal, who is a nurse, and Anil Thakur, a school teacher, live with daughter Aradhya, 3, and now Nitansh in a two-room, rented house in a multi-storey complex in Bhattacuffer locality on the Shimla bypass.
What breaks her heart, Sheetal adds, is that all those months that Jannat was with her, she was caught up in the court battle. Besides, there were the medical tests and visits to the police station. They never even named her, thinking they would have to give her away, and Jannat is a name given by Anjana and Jatinder. The latter had decided on the name soon after Anjana got pregnant, convinced that she would deliver a girl.
With the talk at home almost always about the court battle, Aradhya too took to picking up a newspaper, and pretending to read the headline ‘Shimla ke hospital mein bachcha badla (Children get swapped in a Shimla hospital)’, Sheetal says, adding that she feels guilty about not having had time for the three-year-old too all these months.
Sheetal has been working with the Indira Gandhi Medical College Hospital (IGMC) for the past seven years. In the five months of this fight, the maternity leave Sheetal got after birth has got exhausted. Her plea seeking extension of leave from the IGMC was turned down by the high court.
Now, she hopes the health minister or chief minister will agree to her request so that she can give time to “Ansh”, slipping easily into the pet name given by Anjana for Nitansh. “For me, Ansh is like a newborn. I have to give him the best so that he adapts to the change,” she says.
Sheetal admits the thought that she has to return to work worries her. And that, at these times, the fact that Anjana is a stay-at-home mother stings.
Sheetal is also concerned that Ansh is not as active as Jannat. “She is a healthy baby while Ansh is weak and lives only on my milk. Jannat is on milk, liquid diets and Cerelac. He doesn’t play as much with Aradhya too, unlike Jannat.”
Adds Sheetal, “How can I forget her? After all, I breast-fed her for these months even as I was convinced she was someone else’s baby. I cuddled her, sang loris to put her to bed… I sometimes ask God why he is testing our perseverance.”
To those who say that she “won” as she got a baby boy, Sheetal says, “It is like a bullet to my heart. I feel split between two kids.”
152. That’s how many days Ansh was with her, Anjana remembers, flipping through the picture gallery on her mobile phone which is full of photos of him. One photo of Ansh dressed as a girl, during the Navratras, is displayed prominently in the drawing room.
It was more than one and a half months after they had brought Nitansh home that Anjana and Jatinder were told that he may not be their son. Two women police constables knocked on their door and informed them about the other couple’s complaint. A stunned Jatinder rushed to the hospital authorities to cross-check, but the Medical Superintendent assured him that there had been no mistake.
Since the babies were exchanged, Anjana has been unable to eat or sleep. Restless, she says, she keeps calling up Sheetal and Anil, and switches over to video chat to see Ansh, and see his response to her face, her voice. She keeps asking if he is eating properly, sleeping well, if Sheetal is sticking to the feeding chart she gave her.
The saddest part, Anjana says, is that all along, she had wanted a girl. She had quit her job at a local cosmetic store as a beauty consultant to devote her time fully to the next baby. She and her husband had decided on the name Jannat too, as a combination of their names (Jatinder-Anjana) and their son, Netik.
“After I was told I had given birth to a son, I couldn’t stop crying. I was told that the other woman (Sheetal) next to me in the hospital had given birth to a daughter. I even wished at the time if I could exchange my son with her. The hospital staff snatched those golden moments from me.”
Adds Jatinder, “We expected to return home with a girl child eight years after our son. A big celebration was planned.”
Jatinder, 34, has a transport business and the family lives in a four-storey house, of which he owns two floors and his brother’s family the other two. His brother’s only child is a boy.
Anjana says that in the days following the return from hospital, the disappointment of not having a girl gradually died. She talks about giving Ansh a massage and a warm-water bath morning and evening, followed by breast-feeding — her “best moments of the day”. Even on the day she got the DNA test report, Anjana says, she stuck to this routine.
She also talks about how Ansh got jaundice within a week of birth. She kept awake nights checking his breath and heart-beat. “Ansh is the most adorable child, who never cries even if he is hungry. He only starts sucking his thumb.”
Anjana longs for that “bond”. Referring to the schedule she is trying with Jannat, like she had done for Ansh, she says, “Sheetal had already put her on bottle-feed. I prefer only breast-feeding.”
Lately, apart from milk, she has also started giving Jannat cereals. Anjana says she had to do so as her body was taking time getting used to the new baby. “I never had to take medicines to feed Ansh, but for Jannat, I am taking medicines. I wonder if even hormones get accustomed to a baby,” she says, her eyes welling up.
“Jannat is really cute and an active child, she is playful and seeks attention all the time,” Anjana adds. “But whether it is breast-feeding or Ansh’s bath and sleeping cycle, he was different. It’s like my soul is out of my body.”
Sheetal and Anil say their fight hasn’t ended, and they want stern action against the hospital authorities who, they say, first tried to cover up the incident and then declined to act on their complaint. Two hospital staff nurses were arrested after the mix-up was revealed, but they are out on bail and police have not questioned any higher-ups.
While Medical Superintendent L S Chaudhary refuses to say anything, noting that the matter is sub-judice (the hospital has to file a status report), Dr Santosh Minhas, the head of Kamla Nehru’s Gynaecology Department, admits there have been changes since the episode.
A Standard Operating Procedure has been introduced and systemic loopholes plugged. “We have introduced a fool-proof system, which includes putting a baby to the mother’s abdomen after birth, announcing the sex of the child to her, tying three tags, taking thumb impressions of the mother and the foot and thumb impressions of the baby, and allotting one attendant to the mother till she is shifted to the ward from the delivery room and starts breast-feeding,” says Dr Minhas.
Anil wishes there had been more of a public uproar over what happened to them. “We are surprised not a voice has been raised as to how a hospital could subject two families to mental harassment and quietly wash its hands of the matter and call it human error? You never know how many such cases have happened there.”
Jatinder points out that the hospital kept telling him there had been no mistake. They were advised not to go in for a DNA test and to believe the hospital records. Accusing the hospital authorities of “complete insensitivity and apathy”, he says, “Had they handled the issue with maturity and humanity, things could have been resolved there and then. By the time the court orders came, the babies were already five months old.”
For three days last week, Sheetal, Aradhya and Ansh came and stayed with Anjana. Ansh had developed fever, kept crying and had stopped taking his feed. When doctors couldn’t tell what was wrong, Sheetal brought Ansh to Anjana. The moment he saw Anjana, Sheetal says, Ansh gave a huge smile and almost jumped on to her lap. His condition dramatically improved in the days he spent with Anjana. On Saturday, Sheetal and Anil held a function to mark the return of their son.
Last week was the second time the two mothers had met with their new children after the swap. A day before Diwali, Sheetal had come to Anjana’s home with Ansh, and the two mothers had talked at length about their new babies, their new lives. While Sheetal fed Jannat, Anjana fed Ansh. Anjana also gave Ansh a warm water bath to show Sheetal how to “pamper” him. Then, she admits quietly, she requested Sheetal if she could let her raise both Ansh and Jannat.
It’s Anjana’s condition that breaks their hearts, the couples agree. Says Anil, “Ab jab bhagwan ya inn bachchon ne do parivaron ko jorh diya hai, hum ye rishta zaroor nibhayenge. Maine to Anjana ko bol diya, woh meri bahan hai aur Ansh ke future par koyee bhi faisla lene ka pura haq rakhti hai (Now that God or these children have brought two families together, we will honour this relationship. I have told Anjana, you are my sister and you have full right to take a decision on Ansh’s future).”
Ansh will also call Anjana ‘mumma’ when he begins to talk, it has been decided.
In return, Anjana has told Anil and Sheetal, Ansh was perhaps always meant to return to them. His name, she points out, holds letters of both of their names.