The Prisoner

Lokesh, eight and a half years old

A 5 minute read

I first meet Lokesh at the MD building, a Satya Special School outreach branch on the outskirts of Pondicherry with a big green garden and multi-coloured plastic playground. Fifty or so children are sitting on the lawn when we arrive, about to start a morning yoga session. As usual, they all turn and smile at me, confident. In most of the children it is hard to diagnose any condition with a quick glance. I will learn soon enough that it is often hard to tell without spending time with each child individually. This school is a mixed ability school, for children with varying levels of physical and mental conditions from light to severe.

My speech therapist friend Judy scans the crowd, and says “Our kids are not here. Let’s go and find them.” Back at the main school building are half a dozen ill-lit rooms, full of children. One room is locked from the outside. He opens the latch and goes inside - ten children are sitting at tables, on the floor, walking around, seemingly without instruction or purpose. Lying on the floor in the middle of the room is Lokesh. Judy approaches him carefully, squats down, and whispers into his ear. Lokesh does not move, or show any recognition of any kind. Judy stands up and walks back towards me.

“This is Lokesh. He is severely autistic. And drugged out of his mind.” He explains that doctors here favour huge doses of sedatives that they administer indiscriminately. “He used to be so alive, full of energy. But sometimes he lost control, and this is what happened.”

We sit down looking out at the yoga session on the lawn. A child runs around the group in circles, holding a branch, barely looking where he is going. A teacher approaches him. “I can’t stand that man,” says Judy. “That boy has ADHD, and apart from being full of energy, is perfectly nice, as long as you approach him carefully, and gently. This man likes to provoke him.” The man grabs the stick of out the boy’s hand, and pushes him towards the rest of the group.

We suddenly become aware of someone standing behind us. It is Lokesh. He eyes me warily, and sits down next to Judy. As Judy talks to him, Lokesh puts his hand on his throat.

“He used to grab my throat as if he was trying to tear it out. Now he just wants to touch me.”

Judy tells him gently that it is Friday morning, the time for his session, and does he want to come to the speech therapy room with him?

Lokesh is playing with a blunt pencil in his hands, that he holds tightly as Judy leads him to his room, and then drops just outside the door.

The speech therapy room is bare except for a row of cupboards lining one side, a table and chair pushed out of the way and a musty, purple cushioned mat in the centre.

Judy sits down with Lokesh on the mat. As Judy pronounces sounds that he wants Lokesh to reproduce, Lokesh looks at him mute, and lies down, facing away from Judy. As he looks at me, I look away, aware that he seems uncomfortable in my presence. Previously, all the children that I have seen here will respond to a smile if they are able to smile in the first place. Lokesh glares, and then, his eyes slowly close.

His arms start to tremble violently.

“The drugs,” says Judy.

Judy calms him, touching him on his back and arms. Lokesh allows him to do it for some time, then throws his arms off. All throughout the session, he has not made a single sound.

“Last year he used his voice. Since he was put on these drugs, nothing.”

Judy continues to caress him, humming sounds to him, warm sounds like “Mmmmm” and “Aaaaa”. This is no longer a speech therapy session, but an act of almost parental love, showing Lokesh that he is safe, with somebody who loves him, in a place that he can relax.

Judy continues to talk to Lokesh, reassuring him with his voice, stroking him when Lokesh wants him to, holding his hand when he doesn’t.

“At the moment I see each child for fifteen minutes, twice a week,” he says. “I need to see Lokesh every day. Soon we will open a special centre for autistic children where I will be based full-time. I hope he can come there.”

Lokesh’s fifteen minutes are up. His eyes are half-closed, his eyeballs juddering inside their sockets.

“Lok-eeesh,” whispers Judy. “Time to go back to class.” He tries to lift him up to sitting.

For the first time, Lokesh uses his voice: a high, short, shrill whimper.

“He is very sensitive to noise. He likes my room because it is quiet, unlike his classroom.”

It seems to me that this is only part of the reason - he wants to stay with Judy, this open, generous, wonderful man who loves these children while they are in his room as if they were his own.

Judy tries to lift him up again, and Lokesh screams, louder this time. Now his eyes are open, seemingly fixed on me.

I leave the room, and two minutes later Judy emerges with Lokesh in his arms, and carries him back to his classroom, where he lies down again on the mat, still, in silence.

Their next fifteen minute session will be in four days time.

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