On October 17, Irfan, one of the 10 survivors of the Karikkakom school van tragedy, will turn five. But in all probability, he will not know it. The child is still in a “vegetative” state, undergoing neurological rehabilitation therapy in a hospital in Vellore in Tamil Nadu.

Six nursery children and their caretaker had drowned on February 17 when the van in which they were travelling to school plunged into the heavily polluted Parvathy Puthanar canal.

Emergency services rescued nine of the 15 occupants of the van, including its driver. A similar accident had claimed the lives of four primary school students near Kadhinamkulam on September 26.

G. Ashok Kumar, one of Irfan's doctors, says there was “no sign of life” in the child when he was brought to hospital. Rafik, 4, who was admitted along with Irfan, died a few days later.

Sewage had contaminated Irfan's lungs, causing severe pneumonia. Doctors put him on life support. They incised his neck and inserted a tube through his trachea to facilitate breathing. Surgeons opened his abdomen and inserted a “gastric feeding tube” into the stomach to nourish him.

Irfan battled for life for several months. Finally, when his vital functions stabilised, he seemed incapable of talking, hearing, or seeing. The child had been in the canal for 25 minutes before he was rescued. His brain had suffered severe damage due to oxygen deprivation.

For Irfan's parents, life has never been the same again after February 17. Shajahan, 40, and Sajin, 28, had him nine years after their marriage. “He was a blessing for us after years of angst and prayers for a child,” Mr. Shajahan says.

The small-time rubber trader was on his way to open his shop in Vithura when relatives informed him of the accident. Mr. Shajahan would not open his shop for business again. “From that moment onwards, our lives became inextricably linked to hospitals and doctors,” he says.

The couple has no house or income of their own. They survive on the charity of their relatives. The State government pays Irfan's medical bills. But Mr. Shajahan is often required to trudge the corridors of power to get the funds released.

Irfan breathes on his own now. He mildly responds to external stimuli. He is still connected to his gastric feeding tube.

The parents, who keep constant vigil beside Irfan's hospital bed, sustain themselves on the thin hope that one day their only child will ascend from the black hole of coma to the bright lucidity of consciousness.

After all they named their son, Irfan, which means “awareness” in Arabic.

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