"Bayapadatha saami, unna vella thookiduvon. Amma ingu iruken" ("Don't fear my child, we will get you out. Amma is here)
These were the last words that 28-year-old Kala Mary said to her son Sujith on October 25 as he yelled out in fear from a 600 feet borewell in Trichy district. The two year old was stuck at 25 feet from the ground, and it was only his mother's assurances that could stop his horrified wails from the well.
But four days later, desperate cries were heard again, from a cemetery in Pudur where Kala was slumped over a small coffin, inconsolable over a promise that could not be fulfilled. No words from those around could help contain her despair.
At 2.30 am on Tuesday, over 80 hours since the rescue began, Sujith was declared dead and NDRF personnel at Nadukattupatti moved to remove his mortal remains from the borewell. All they managed to retrieve however were decomposed and dismembered parts of the toddler's body.
"Kala was hopeful till the very end that he could be saved. She kept saying Sujith will come back,"says 39-year-old Julia, Sujith's aunt, holding back tears. "Even when the government officials told us on Monday that he was not going to make it out alive, we didn't stop praying...not until we saw the coffin," she adds.
The tiny coffin, only four feet long carried along with Sujith's remains, the hopes and dreams of parents who wanted to give their children the life they didn't have.
The struggle for their children
Sujith's father Britto Arockiaraj and mother Kala Mary have worked multiple jobs to sustain the family in their six years of married life. Relatives say they survived on a hand to mouth basis, saving every penny for their two sons.
Britto who is from an agricultural family works as a mason and was in fact working on a construction site in the neighbouring village when news reached him of his son's fall. Seven years ago, before he was even married, Britto's father had dug the borewell in an effort to bring in water for crops. But he had no luck and soon covered the well with mud to prevent any mishaps. Over the years, the land where the borewell stood remained largely barren, except for a crop of wild corn that was sown every year by an optimistic Britto. But lack of adequate rain in the region meant the crop often failed.
"For years Britto has prayed for rain to revive his fields and help his crops," says 60-year-old Arul Mary, Kala's aunt. "And this year his prayer was answered but at the cost of his child," she adds, her shoulders shaking in grief.
The heavy rains in the region while allowing his crop to grow up to 4 feet in height, also washed away the mud that was used to cover the forgotten borewell.
"Kala didn't even know this well existed or she would never have let the children go there," says Arul Mary. "Sujith, his brother and cousins were playing near the house and were going to their uncle's house nearby. They usually take the road behind the house but this time they playfully went through the crops and that is when he fell into the well," she explains.
When their efforts to lift the child up failed, the family contacted the police, leading to a massive rescue operation. Even Kala pitched in, as seen in a photo, by stitching a cloth bag to help retrieve the child. "She works for daily wages and also does tailoring to supplement income," says Arul Mary.
While the parents lived sparsely, they ensured their children got the best.
"They worked hard to send their elder child who is four years old to a private school," says Julia. "Britto failed his 10th standard and Kala has studied upto 12th. They wanted both the children to study well and get good jobs," she adds.
Relatives say Sujith was a friendly child.
"Sujith will run up to anyone and hug them and was very sweet tempered," says Arul Mary. "He would shout Appayee (grandmother) when he saw me and come running. He brought laughter and happiness everywhere," she describes.
For four days, the family lost track of time as they prayed together, skipping meals and forgetting sleep. All except for one resident, 4-year-old Puneet Roshan, Sujith's elder brother.
On that fateful evening of October 25, it was Puneet who noticed his younger brother fall in to the well. He immediately ran home to alert his mother.
"If not for him we would have never found out where Sujith went," says Julia. "He is perhaps the closest to Sujith in the whole family. You can't see one without the other," she says, clutching tightly to the green pallu of her saree.
"We don't know how to explain that he is gone to Puneet," Julia laments. She points to him dressed in a red shirt and blue pants. He playfully smiles at teary-eyed adults near the cremation ground, holding two packets of chips. While he steadily devours one, he keeps the other by his side, a protective hand on it.
"He has kept the other one for Sujith," says Julia. "He says it is for him when he comes back."