Salma Parbin knew. Her husband would not believe her for three months. The hospital would take two years to admit it. But within days of giving birth in March 2015, she knew: the baby she was cradling was not hers.
The way her husband, Sahabuddin Ahmed, recounts the story – which has become national news in India – the truth about the child should have been obvious. Indeed, it had been staring back at them.
On the same day at the Mangaldoi civil hospital, in the north-eastern state of Assam, another woman had also given birth to a son. She belonged to the Bodo tribe, an indigenous community with a distinct eye shape that more closely resembles Tibetans than people from the subcontinent.
“My wife said: ‘This baby has the same eyes and the same features [as Bodo people],” Ahmed recalled. “She was very sure: this child is not ours, this child belongs to that family.”
Ahmed, 48, immediately took his wife’s suspicions to the hospital superintendent. “The in-charge told me: your wife has some mental disease,” he said. “You should take her to a psychiatrist.”
The following month Ahmed filed a right to information request, asking for the details of every person who gave birth at the Mangaldoi hospital that day in March. “The records showed the timing of a baby who was born as my wife was giving birth,” he said. The mother’s last name was Boro, an alternate name for the Bodo people.
Ahmed ventured out twice to the village where the Boro family lived. Twice he returned home without speaking to them. “I didn’t have the guts,” he said.
In the meantime, Parbin told him she felt a gap between her and the child, whom they had named Junaid. “She was getting distracted and distant. I reminded her continuously: this is our child, we are supposed to take care of him.”
The third time Ahmed went to the Boro house he left a letter. It was delicately phrased and heavily qualified. “My wife thinks our children have been exchanged,” he wrote. “If you have the same feeling, get in touch.”
The note was an unwelcome delivery in the home of Anil and Sewali Boro, whose son, Ryan Chandra, had just clocked his sixth week and whose eyes – larger than those of his parents – were a source only of wry amusement. “I had no suspicions the child was not mine,” Anil Boro said quietly. “It was only when the teacher came to my place.”
He knew instantly. “As soon as they put the two babies together, I saw my son there, I saw the resemblance,” he said. “I realised there was a mistake from the doctor’s side.”
Boro too thought the mix-up was obvious. Yet he resisted any question of exchanging the children. “Whosoever comes to my house, this is my child,” he said.
Parbin, on the other hand, became very angry, Ahmed said. “She was not ready to stay away from that child for one minute.”
Ahmed told his wife he was still unsure, that the resemblance might be coincidental. But he applied to a laboratory to conduct a DNA test. The results came back after four months.
“The relationship [between Parbin and Junaid] was very good,” he said. “She was feeding the child every day. Slowly she became connected. So when the report came, she was not very much bothered.” The report said the possibility that Parbin was Junaid’s mother was zero.
Ahmed filed a police report and sought tests on Ryan Chandra. Forensic work in India’s overburdened labs can be a laborious process, made longer in this case by police mistakes that delayed the release of the final report until November 2017.
“The report came back and said, yes, the baby was exchanged,” Ahmed said. But Parbin had changed her mind about returning Junaid, now nearly three, to his biological parents. “She’s very attached,” he said. “I also love him a lot.”
This month both families formally told a court in Assam they did not want to exchange their children. “I just wanted to find out the truth, that’s all I wanted,” Ahmed said.
He hopes to stay in Ryan Chandra’s life and possibly to fund his education. But the truth has been less comforting to the Boros.
“I don’t like talking too much about this,” Anil Boro said. “When your child is yours, you don’t want to hear it’s someone else’s.”
Asked whether he wished Ahmed had simply dropped the matter back in 2015, he laughed bitterly. “Perhaps that would have been best.”