By Nisha Susan
Back in 1996, a woman named Malanbai filed a case claiming that Shah Rukh Khan was her long-lost son Alasab. Alasab was apparently ‘rediscovered’ by a relative during the screening of Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman.
At some point in the long-drawn-out case, the court captured relevant bits thus:
“The respondent No. 2 further alleges that her son Alasab left Bombay without informing her in the year 1984 and went along with (sic) Circus which had come at Bandra that time. In spite of strenuous search Alasab was not traced. Ultimately, respondent No. 2 returned back to Hipparga (Kopdeo). The respondent No. 2 put forth a dogmatic tall claim that Alasab has changed his name as that of Shah Rukh Khan and has developed his carrier (sic) as a film star at Bombay.”
Cut to March 2017 when a couple from Melur, Tamil Nadu, filed a similar lawsuit saying that actor Dhanush is their long-lost son who had run away to Chennai when he was 16. They have certificates to say he has two identifying marks: a mole on his left collarbone and a scar on his elbow. Never mind that he has grown up fairly publicly as the youngest of the four children of a Chennai-based film director. They argue that Dhanush’s parents have fabricated their paperwork. He is their third son, the Melur couple insist and they would like Rs 65,000 per month in maintenance.
After fervent denials went nowhere, Dhanush underwent court-ordered medical examination that concluded on 21 March in the Madras High Court, which proved that he has no such identifying marks. Still, the old couple (and everyone online) has been wondering, did Dhanush have them removed? Gossip has been fuelled by the medical report, which claimed that there once existed a large mole (location undisclosed) somewhere on Dhanush’s body, now removed by laser. The drama continues.
The fascination of the ‘Lost Child’ is endless. It is part of folklore, modern fantasy fiction and soaps and, of course, the staple of gossip.
The Lost SRK story might have been forgotten, but some cases of the Famous Lost Child have Teflon-like resistance to facts. For instance, a well-known Bangalore woman politician is said to be the child of an even better-known politician. Just look at their noses, says everyone. A young Bollywood star is said to be the daughter her star father had with his star ex-girlfriend, not the wife who brought her up. Just look at their foreheads, says everyone.
But The Lost Child is surprisingly often the stuff of real life. Like last week when a man appeared claiming to be Jayalalithaa’s lost son, from the relationship she had with the late Telugu star Shobhan Babu. This takes the Lost Child trope to the next level, rare in life but one without which fantasy fiction would collapse—that of the Rightful Lost Heir appearing at the ain mauka of a Succession Crisis.
Why are we so obsessed with the Lost Child?
It becomes clearer when you read one of its most tragic exponents, written by author and journalist Rohini Mohan. This is the heart-breaking story of 89 teenagers in a terrible children’s shelter in Tamil Nadu, all of whom were separated from their families as day-old infants. They had grown up thinking they were orphans, and were ‘brought up’ by a criminally ruthless missionary couple, who had used them to raise money and line their own pockets. Their parents, under various circumstances, nearly 18 years ago, had abandoned them or been encouraged to abandon them because they were girls.
A series of ordinary-seeming events led to both the girls and the families finding out that they have been living in neighbouring towns for 18 years without knowledge of each other. The story Mohan tells — with great compassion and honesty — is of how these families are now working hard at reuniting with the daughters. The story’s most crushing details lie in the families’ painful and slow reconciliation with the girls, who know now why they had been abandoned.
Every line tells you that everyone involved is working hard at forgiveness or winning forgiveness. But why do the families want the girls back now—they who cast out their daughters in the worst cliché of Indian attitudes towards women? Because in 18 years their world has changed, what they think of girls and what they think of themselves have changed. And because, while every new baby represents what could be, every lost child represents what could have been.
And here lies the fascination of the Lost Child who has been found — can we still have a fragment of What Could Have Been? Who would have Malanbai and her family been if their son hadn’t run away with the circus? What would have been their history if they still had the son who was the kind to run away with the circus? Who would have Kathiresan and Meenakshi been with if they still had the son with a scar on his elbow? Who could Balu Pandian, the farmer, have been all these years if he had his daughter Quela — one of the 89 lost daughters?
Sure, in the case of the Rightful Heirs or where Raju Ban Gaya SRK, there is material gain involved. But in the case of the man who claims to be the son of Jayalalithaa and Shobhan Babu, there is also the question: who would I have been if I had been born there? In a country where we are told everyday that where we are born is forever our destiny and resistance has cruel repercussions, is it surprising that this is a common question?
I have a misty memory of a Doordarshan show that revolved around the wives of various employees of a factory giving birth at the same time (logic: there was a strike and everyone had free time). Cut to a few years later, when the head of the factory-run hospital calls the parents and tells them that the doctor had secretly mixed up all their children after the deliveries. The Sardar couple have actually raised a Tamilian baby and so on. Drama, tears and loving reconciliations ensue. At the end of 13 episodes, the doctor reveals that his claim of switching had all been a hoax and he had done it all for national integration. I remember a contemporary journalist writing how it was amazing that no one thrashed the doctor to death.
I thought of that show recently while reading discussions in online forums of prospective adoptive parents in India. Amidst the many practical issues of paperwork and the CARA waitlist, is the common belief—my child is out there. I might be a Tamil-speaking woman living in Delhi, but when I meet a one-year-old in Jharkhand or Kerala or Manipur, that child was meant to be mine and I was meant to be hers. Of course, I will bring her up with all my prejudices, neuroses and affections, but we were meant to be together. These groups also post stories of families, months or years after adoption and these stories stagger me with the confidence, humility and love displayed. Because every right-thinking adoptive parent anticipates the moments, days or even years of their child thinking: Who could I have been instead of this? Am I the child who was lost, or the child who was found? Hence the title of Mridula Koshy’s 2012 novel about adoption, Not Only the Things That Have Happened.
The Melur couple are still insisting that Dhanush is their lost boy and it’s hard to tell how long this story will last. Will it be a snippet or a legend? What do Dhanush’s parents think of this moment, of having to claim over and over again in public that their son was not found — that he has been theirs all long? One can only guess.
But in reading the story of the 89 girls from Usilampatti it is very hard not to cry —both for what has been lost and what has been found. For the things that have happened, but not only those things.
Co-published with Firstpost.