Camerapersons: Smitha TK, Jikki Nair
Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
(COVID deaths are not just numbers. This story is The Quint's effort to put a human face to the many tragedies witnessed across the country during the deadly second wave. It was emotional to meet a 40-year-old special needs person, who lost her parents during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. The only word she knew was, 'Amma.' You could support us by becoming a Quint member and help us bring you the stories of India's COVID Orphans.)
For 40 years of her life, all that Megala Bai has known is her father’s hug and her amma's (mother’s) love. She was living in a small house in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam. During the peak of the second wave of the COVID pandemic, her parents fell sick.
On 31 June 2021, when her father passed away, her mother Prema Bai knew her days too were numbered. She wrote a letter to a Chennai-based non-government organisation, Sri Arunodayam, requesting them to take care of Megala, who suffers from intellectual disability.
“My daughter and I are living without any support or family to help us. If I die, I request you to take care of my daughter Megala, with absolute love and kindness,” read the letter.
A week later, she passed away and the NGO adopted Megala.
Megala is among the many kids who lost their parents due to poverty during the coronavirus pandemic. She will not benefit from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's scheme that guarantees financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh for children who have lost their parents during this time. The death certificates of Megala's parents doesn’t mention the cause of death as COVID.
But she too needs a mother, needs to be taken care of, needs a home.
'Where is Amma?'
Today, Megala lives with 30 other special needs children in a home in Chennai. She cannot comprehend the pandemic and doesn't know that her parents are no more.
Every few minutes, she looks to the person next to her and asks, “Amma?”
The caretakers have been pacifying her, saying that 'amma' will be home soon and so she needs to be 'a good girl.' This calms her for a little while, but in just a few minutes, she asks for her amma again.
“I try to avoid using the word amma because if we keep talking about her amma, then Megala could be pushed into depression. We are trying to engage her with games and dancing. We want her to make happy moments here so she will gradually stop yearning for her mother,” said Seena, a social worker.
The Oldest But Still the 'Biggest Child'
Megala is the oldest in the home where all the other special needs kids are below 17 years of age. But she is tended to just as a child, as she needs assistance to do even her daily chores.
“When Megala first came home, she was very depressed as she had lived with her mother for close to 40 years. I had a lot of hesitation as all the kids here are below 17 years of age. Megala is 40 years old but her mind (cognitive abilities) has not grown to that capacity. Even today, only if we place food in her hand will she put it in her mouth. She is dependent on others to bathe her, put on her diapers,” said Iyyappan, founder of Sri Arunodayam.
Soon, the other girls living with her became her cheerleaders, helpers and friends.
Banu, Nithya and Akshaya have been by her side since the day Megala came home, pacifying her, convincing her to wear diapers, helping her during her menstruation cycle and also playing with her.
“First time when I saw her, I didn't know her name. I called her paapa (baby). Then someone told me that her name was Megala. Then she told me she likes being called Nila. I know she loves to watch TV, so every morning I wake her up saying we are going to play and watch television and she gets up with a smile on her face. She is a child and so I talk to her very lovingly,” said Nithya, a 15-year-old special needs child.
The kids also clap and cheer her on when they see her struggling to stand up, which encourages Megala to walk briskly.
Next Mission: Making Megala Independent
For 40 years, till her last breath, Megala’s mother took care of her. The Quint spoke to her neighbours, who said the parents were suffering from blood pressure and old age-related ailments.
They passed away in their home with no access to healthcare or support, something they couldn't afford. Megala doesn't have any inheritance or savings. Iyyapan told The Quint that getting assistance from the government is also quite difficult.
“Megala definitely has many relatives but none of them have come forward to help. One reason could be that she is fully dependent on her caretaker. So, we are trying to make Megala independent... to do her own work. Also she is 40 years of age, so soon she could face other age-related issues,” he said.
When it comes to children with special needs, rehabilitation is possible only in some cases as majority of kids need support for life.
They hope to empower Megala to do her own daily chores, such as eating, bathing and urinating, so that soon she can be given vocational training.