In an un-illuminated narrow alley deep inside the Naik Nagar slum, at least four curious neighbours climb up a wobbly metal staircase every day to enquire, “Judwaa bachche yahan rehte hain (Do the twins live here)?” An exasperated Shahin Khan attempts to drive them away. Ever since she came home from Sion Hospital with her conjoined twins, her 10X10 ft dwelling has become well-known in the slum as “judwaa bachchon ka ghar”.
The lean Shahin, 26, delivered the rare set of dicephalic paraphagus (two heads on one torso) boys on July 27. They are joined sideways, with a fused thorax, common heart, abdomen, stomach and pelvis. Their faces and vertebrae are separate, and between them, they have three hands and two legs.
Sixty percent of such twins die shortly after birth. Gurfan and Mohamed are now a month old. “See, they are breathing. It’s God’s will,” the young mother smiles.
That itself is another miracle. Gufran has a lung and Mohamed has none. Doctors note with some amazement that Mohamed breathes through a tiny fused trachea attached to his brother.
The hospital had advised the poor couple to allow a separation surgery or at least let the babies remain admitted there for three months. However, Shahin and husband Irshad Khan, who works as a shoeshine man at Dadar station, brought them home after 15 days. The hospital provided a free nebuliser in case Mohamed needs it.
“At least they are alive,” reasons Shahin. “If surgery is done, one of them will surely die. I thought a lot about it. How can I willingly allow my baby to die?”
Dr Paras Kothari, head of paediatric surgery at Sion Hospital, admits they are “surprised”. “The weight of the twins has increased from 3.3 kg to 4.1 kg,” he says.
On a cot that takes up most of the space in the one-room-dwelling, the month-old twins share one large soiled yellow vest and a diaper, of a size meant for a nine-month-old. A sleeping Gufran accidentally hits Mohamed in the face, who wakes up crying.
Besides the cot, the room has a stove and a tiny table, now covered with clothes.
Shahin and Irshad also have two daughters, aged 2 and 4.
Once 28-year-old Irshad has left for work in the morning, Shahin must feed the twins every half an hour by turns, while finishing her chores.
The couple came to know about the condition of the twins only when Shahin was six months pregnant and underwent her first sonography, after registering herself at Sion Hospital. By then it was too late to abort the babies.
Shahin admits she hadn’t undergone sonography at the time of her daughters either. “No health worker comes here. I did not know sonography is important,” she says.
She recalls that she could hold the twins for the first time only three days after they were born through a Caesarean.
Now, despite all the difficulties, Shahin and her husband consider it their “farz (duty)” to protect Gufran and Mohamed. “Uppar wala utha lega jab chahe (God will take them when he wants),” the mother says.
Shahin is also planning to go meet Riddhi and Siddhi Pawar, conjoined twins born in 2013, who live at Wadia Hospital in Mumbai’s Parel area since birth after their parents stopped visiting them. “I can’t understand how parents can abandon their babies… They are god’s gift,” she says, slowly swinging the twin’s cot.
While those twins underwent a separation surgery and survived, she and her in-laws remain adamant not to put Gufran and Mohamed through it. Apart from the fear that one of them might die, the family also considers it “against Islam”.
The subject of much admiration and curiosity in the Naik Nagar slum for how they have managed, the couple admit they are tired. “At the hospital, the media kept bothering us. Here, locals keep coming to take photographs,” Irshad says.
The babies are stirring by now, in time for their half-an-hour feed. As their four-year-old sister rushes to their cot, Shahin gingerly puts her hand under both their necks to help her pick them up. “Please leave,” she says. “Mujhe inhe sambhalne do (Let me take care of them).”