To start your afternoon off on a horribly bizarre and sad note, a story in Tuesday’s New York Times profiled a young Indian family whose son Rahul has caught on fire—allegedly unprovoked and without a known cause—four times in his three short months. “We are in a dilemma and haven’t come to any conclusion [as to the cause],” Dr. Narayan Babu, the head of pediatrics at Kilpauk Medical Hospital, where Rahul has been admitted, told the Times.
In what seems like a sensationalized headline ripped from The National Enquirer, some hypothesize the doctors have a case of spontaneous human combustion on their hands. While it’s commonly accepted among medical experts that such a condition doesn’t exist, the theory has picked up some support in recent years. The Times points to an Irish coroner, who, in 2011, listed SHC as the cause of death of a 76-year-old man found charred with no apparent source of a fire anywhere near the body. With Rahul’s tests leading to no other conclusions, at least not physiological ones, some doctors are starting to reconsider SHC’s validity.
After Rahul’s fourth episode late last month, neighbors in the family’s village forced them to leave out of fear of their own homes igniting from the baby’s flames. The family fled to a temple in a neighboring village before the government intervened and relocated them to Kilpauk Medical Hospital in Chennai. Just 120 miles from there, Rahul’s grandmother lives in a village where a highly flammable phosphorous was found in construction materials and burned several homes to the ground in 2004. Rahul and his parents were visiting when he suffered his first attack. “There was a flame on his belly and his right knee, and my husband rushed with a towel to put it off,” his mother remembers. “I got very scared.”
“We are not crazy to burn our own baby,” Rahul’s father told The Times via telephone.“Some people don’t believe us, and I am scared to return to my village and am hoping for some government protection. There is also the fear that our child could burn once again.”
A blue bucket of water sits next to Rahul’s hospital bed. The baby is currently receiving treatment for his burns while his parents undergo psychological evaluation and receive counseling.