My son died when he was only 23. He had studied till 8th standard, and then stopped. He said he did not want to study. He would stay at home. His father would scold him for idling away his life. So he joined his friend Thomas, and the two of them began working at the thermometer factory. Thomas died tragically in the tsunami.
The two began work at Pond’s in 1997. My son was quite excited. He would talk a lot to me. He would tell me about his work. I would ask him if they made Pond’s cream at the factory and if he they would give him some. He said this was a different factory, and his job took him all over the factory. He was in maintenance, he said. One day he would be fixing a broken pipe; another day he’d be clearing broken thermometers. “Amma, if I keep working hard like this, one day I’ll get permanent,” he would say.
For some days, things were good. And then, he began complaining of severe headaches. The headache wouldn’t go away. He began taking a lot of tablets, and he’d tie a handkerchief tightly around his forehead. He would come home totally washed out. After two years, he quit his job in 1999.
He then started driving a taxi. But it was not a regular job. He’d work a few days a week. He’d get tired very easily. He’d bring home some Rs. 1500 a month.
One time, he went to Bangalore driving a taxi, and came back after four days. I don’t know what happened, but he came back dead tired. He came home at about 4 or 5 p.m. He went straight to bed and fell asleep.
At about 6 or 7 p.m., he woke up. It was dark. There was no electricity. It was raining heavily. He called out to me and said he felt nauseous. To get to the bathroom, you have to climb a few steps from the kitchen. But he couldn’t even make it. He stood on top of the kitchen steps and threw up. It was dark. To clean up, I held up a lantern and found that he had vomitted blood. I panicked. We rushed him to Dr. Ilamvazhuthi. He took a blood test.
“His urea levels are more than 500. His kidneys have failed. How did you not notice,” he asked. “Take him down to Madurai,” he advised.
Both his kidneys had failed. The doctor in Madurai also showed us his lung x-ray. He pointed to the top portion and said there was something mist-like there. He had to have dialysis regularly, two times a week. Each dialysis cost Rs. 1200. Then there was doctors expense. The doctors and the hospitals took away everything we had – my jewels, house, cows, land. We lost Rs. 6 lakhs in treating him. We curse ourselves for asking him to go find a job.
Finally, we brought him home. The very next day, he started feeling breathless. “Amma, take me to the hospital,” he begged. I didn’t know what to do. I only had Rs. 3000. I borrowed some money and left to Senbagam hospital immediately. His father stayed behind to raise some more money. At about 11 p.m., they called me to sign a paper. There were two or three doctors in the room. They insisted that I sign the paper. I asked if it could wait till my husband came the next day. They said, not to worry and that the big doctors were waiting. My son looked at me and began crying. I signed the paper.
Early next morning, they asked me to take him back. It was raining so hard we couldn’t see the road. I remember it was Ayudha Puja that day. We reached home near the observatory at about 11 p.m. Just he and I. We were home for three days, and then my son wanted to go visit my elderly mother. She was 116 years old at that time. He was very close to his grandmother. She lived in Pambarpuram. We spent a night in my mother’s house. Next
morning, he was still lying on my mother’s lap. He stretched out his hands, and called out to me to take him to the hospital. He called out two more times, and then his hands dropped and he died.
-Esther Rani, 65, & Edward, 73
Mother and Father of Salethnathan Wilburt Britto, ex-mercury worker (1980 to 2003)
As told to Nityanand Jayaraman. Photographs: Amirtharaj Stephen, 2015.
Mercury harms the kidneys. Exposure to mercury can cause kidney failure. Join the campaign against Unilever. Sign petition at Jhatkaa.org/Unilever. If you are in Tamil Nadu and wish to get involved in on-the-ground organising, please send an email to: [email protected]