February 8, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

The child God gave back

They call him Lucky Ali.

Indeed, few persons in the world could be as lucky as this 5.5 kg cherub, with shining black eyes, rosebud lips and an infectious smile. Or as charming...

Ten-month-old Murtaza Ali -- now under the dedicated care of a team of doctors and nurses at Lilavati Hospital, Bandra, Bombay -- gently gave Death a slip this fateful Republic Day.

Unfortunately, no one knew of it just then.

But, by sheer -- call it divine, if you will -- providence, he was discovered buried alive in the ruins of his house in Noor Mohalla, Bhuj, four days -- 81 hours -- after the earthquake... the youngest survivor in a household that had 11 members. International news agencies flashed heart-tugging pictures of the rescued tot. In peaceful, deep sleep. Safe. Sheltered.

His thumb saved himCuddled in his mother's warm lap, young Murtaza was breastfeeding when the quake struck -- and the fierce hail of cement and steel killed his young mother, Zehnab, 21, his father Mufatdal, 25, and his two cousins (aged one and three), his two uncles and aunts and his paternal grandfather on January 26.

For four days after that, still wrapped in the garments of his now-cold mother and sucking his thumb, Murtaza stubbornly held starvation and the cold at bay. On January 29, his pitiful whimpers were heard by a few Bohri leaders and neighbours, who were conducting a survey of the deaths and damage in the neighbourhood.

Improbable though it was, they were quite certain they heard the wail of a baby. They promptly summoned a BSF commando. He was in the process of trying to convince them it was highly unlikely that a baby could be alive in the heap of rubble; after all, it was four days since the 7.9 Richter Scale earthquake had struck... when he too heard it. He heard a baby cry.

The BSF commandos sprang into action. Careful excavation, led by Diwakar Kumar of the 101 Artillery Regiment, into the rubble that was once the home of a small-time hardware merchant and his family, produced Murtaza, lying alive among his dead family.

His maternal grandfather, Mohiz Gulam Hussain Jamali, 55, says, "He was fully conscious, but cloaked in dust. His eyes were full of dust and one eye was sealed shut due to that. He had wounds on the back of his head and on his face. He was sucking his thumb. I think that was how he survived."

With his nana The BSF troops rushed Murtaza to an army medical officer at the Jubilee Maidan, which had been converted into a large, open-air hospital. He was immediately administered first aid. The Bohri leaders and neighbours who had accompanied Murtaza to the medical camp then wanted to rush him to his grieving grandfather, who they knew was alive and would be delirious with joy when he learnt of the little boy's survival. But the doctor, out of caution, refused. Finally a message was sent to Mohiz, who runs a tiny repair shop across town.

Recalls Murtaza's nana, "On the day of the earthquake, my home in Bohri Bazaar collapsed. It does not exist anymore. I was lucky to escape alive. My wife, though, was trapped in the debris. I managed to go back for her and pull her out. She has a leg injury.

"Then, at 9.30 am, I quickly rushed to the home of my daughter, my only child, who stayed just five minutes away. But the whole house had crumbled and in such a way that it was apparent nobody could have survived. Yet, I went to their house every morning and evening and shouted their names. But there were no sounds, no response of any kind. Nothing. I took it that no one had survived. Then, when I got the message that Murtaza was alive, I could not believe it.

"I rushed over there. He was conscious and gave me a tiny smile. I thanked God for His grace... for returning this child to me. For saving him."

At the medical camp, they felt Murtaza should be flown to Bombay, where his head injury would receive better attention. On the evening of January 31, the grandfather and his injured grandson boarded an army aircraft for Bombay. It was not yet decided which hospital Murtaza would be admitted into.

With his nana"I was very shabbily dressed, in the only pair of clothes I now had. I wanted to take him to a municipal hospital. I knew I could not land up at a private hospital looking the way I did, nor could I afford it. They brought us here in an ambulance and told me not to worry about the cost. And somebody brought me some clothes."

The toddler was admitted -- as were 33 other patients -- whom Lilavati Hospital is both treating and providing other kinds of aid. A CT scan was quickly performed on Murtaza; it showed that the little boy was fine. Now, six days after his amazing rescue, the child, dubbed Lucky Ali by the staff, is well on the road to recovery.

Murtaza has won over the entire ward at Lilavati Hospital. He sits in the middle of his little bed like a ray of sunshine... a vision of hope... offering dazzling smiles to whoever passes by. He has lent new meaning to his grandfather's existence. There is no dearth of arms to scoop him up and cuddle him. Nurses and ward boys fawn over him. A pack of television crews and newspaper photographers have captured his brave grin.

His wounds are healing perfectly. A large surface injury on the cheek was due for plastic surgery but plastic surgeon Dr Samir Kumtha and paediatrician Dr Ravindra Chittal have decided to let Time do the healing. The head injury, meanwhile, has closed up.

Says Dr Chittal, "When he arrived, he had an impending abscess on his cheek because he hadn't been given antibiotics. He had a bad bruise on the back of his head. He had a cut on his leg. Bad bruises on his stomach and back. He was on an IV drip. He was very limp. Dehydrated. And in shock. But the CT scan revealed no internal injuries.

"He has come around very well. He is happy. He plays and goes to everyone. Maybe it is a surrogate mother kind of thing. It is amazing that he survived. Breastfed babies usually have a lot of storage capacity in their bodies. But I have a feeling his mother was alive for two or three days after the quake and was able to breastfeed him. It is medically impossible for an infant to sustain itself for four days without fluids."

Add his grandfather, "He has taken to the bottle nicely. And, yesterday, he even had some chappati."

Peekaboo His grandfather, though, is keen to return to Bhuj. "They took her out on the day before yesterday," he says wistfully. He is talking of Zehnab, his daughter, who was removed from the debris of her home, where she has been entombed for the last 10 days, on February 6. But they can leave only after Murtaza is completely cured.

"His dadi (father's mother) is waiting for him. He will live with her." The boy's paternal grandmother escaped death that day because she had gone to Morvi. Eventually, the boy will be put in her care.

Mohiz, though, has no idea how they will cope. How will three grandparents, who are getting on in age and who have lost everything in the quake, bring up a tiny tot? What will happen to Murtaza? "I haven't been able to think about it even. He has to be looked after and so he will be," he says, as the little boy scrambles into his arms and clings to his grandfather.

Mohiz feels Murtaza is doing well enough without his parents for now. "He had not yet learnt to say 'Mummy.' So he is unable to ask for her. But he and I always had a close relationship. I would visit him every evening. Sometimes, he cries inconsolably. And the nurses say maybe that means he is missing his mother."

The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda. Design: Dominic Xavier

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