I have been disabled temporarily various times in my life, after having broken this that or the other from sports injuries. I’ve been on crutches with a one leg injury, and on wheelchairs in the case of both leg injuries, and a sundry other painful injuries.
These times I had to move so slowly, my slow-moving mother with two knee operations, who goes down the stairs one step at a time, would verily race past me. I’d entreat from behind her, ‘MA! Don’t leave me behind!’ Struggling not to laugh, she’d slap her forehead and supplicate the heavens for having gotten an idiot of a daughter.
And I have seen specific city responses to disabled people. I have heard anecdotal information from parents of the mentally differently abled. These experiences range from the comical to gallant, and downright ghastly. It gave me insight into the life of a disabled person for a time.
The first incident was when I had overdone running training and busted a calf. I was laid up for three months. Then I took to painfully hobbling on a crutch. One day I went to work by Delhi metro with that crutch. As an economic necessity and social experiment, this experience blew my mind. I was standing at the platform waiting for the HUDA City Centre line, the train wasn’t in sight, and I was pushed by the woman behind me. Enraged, I asked her why she pushed me. Her impatient response was, why did you take the Delhi metro if you are disabled?
The way back on that metro line, in the women’s compartment, no one offered a seat despite the crutch advertising the disability. I was in so much pain from the walking, I burst into tears. Then came the sympathy, from the absurdist of quarters. ‘Are you a standup comedian?’ I nodded affirmative through my tears, my head in my hands. ‘I’ve attended one of your shows. You are great!’ She then proceeded to evict someone from their seat, took me up my metro station, escorted me into a scooter, then left. My takeaway? Delhiites are sympathetic to the disabled if they know how great you are.
Mumbai has a disabled passenger coach in the local train. I boarded that once, by mistake, and fortuitously had a broken thumb that couldn’t stand for jostling. No one but injured and ill people were on that. Unlike Delhi, no men trying to enter the women’s compartment, no hale and hearty people wresting respite in the less populated disabled compartment (Delhi doesn’t have a separate compartment for the disabled).
I was in Chennai once, and had to swim in the ocean for training. I discovered a scorching beach that barred my way to the ocean, the sands of which were so hot, I developed two large burn blisters at the bottom of my feet, and one tiny blister for each of my toes. My friends laughed at my blister – look, it’s a tiny blister foot – its just missing four toes! I looked through my tears, and they were right. I was completely unable to wear socks, shoes, or put my foot on the ground, it was far too painful. To my utter embarrassment, I had to be wheel-chaired through the Chennai and IGI airports. At the security checkpoint the guard asked me, ‘can you get up?’ (just for a second, so she could scan me). I did, and immediately burst into tears, so painful was it to stand on the pus-filled sloshing blisters. She wiped my tears with her hands, and in a gently chiding tone, said, ‘nahin, nahin, rotey nahin hein’ [no, no, don’t cry].
On the flight, we were three wheel-chaired passengers. I imagined their handicaps more permanent than mine. At the time of de-boarding, a passenger actually climbed over both their laps rather than wait for them to de-board with assistance.
Whereas in the US each intersection is beveled to enable wheelchair traffic (each intersection costs $170,000 to make it usable by people on wheelchairs, a statistic shared with me by a city official friend), in Delhi the curb is so high, getting on and off would constitute a high jump; none but the most athletic can navigate Delhi’s curbs.
Two dear friends of mine have differently abled children. They are not wanted in the education system, not allowed for in Delhi’s physical or social infrastructure. One of those friends tells me when their children go for an excursion to the local zoo or public place people yell ‘paagal aa gaye, paagal aa gaye’ (the crazies are here!) and run from them. Cheeks flaming from the humiliation, these mothers and fathers bite back their tongues, dry their tears and in a daily act of heroism, walk tall through the mayhem christening them pariahs in India.
I have read blood-curdling accounts of attendants of homes for the mentally impaired (aren’t we all?), taking advantage of their tender mental age to commit unspeakable crimes against those under their care.
I have found more humanity among Mumbaikars, and among the poor in Delhi. Once on a crutch, I had to take a cycle rickshaw to go the hospital. He slowed down each time we came to a bump, so as not to jostle me, got off, and pushed his cycle rickshaw even, and on returning home got me as close as possible to my front door to minimize steps I had to take, out of his consideration for my disability.
On a flight from Mumbai to Delhi, Shashi Tharoor had the 1D seat, next to him, a child with special needs accompanied by his mother and a maid. Seeing the need for the maid to be in close proximity to the child, he immediately relinquished his seat for the maid. On boarding the bus to the airport, he insisted on carrying my bag, perceiving that one of my hands was injured, despite my protests that my other hand was perfectly capable of carrying my bag.
On this last trip to Mumbai, I met a woman at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS); she said she’d assist me with some endeavors of mine. While we were talking, I noticed her weepy eyes from behind dark glasses. Suspecting emotional trauma, I asked her, ‘What’s up with your eyes?’ What’s up with my eyes, she replied, is, I lost my sight 20 years ago by taking anti-malarial drugs. Here was this woman in front of me, a fully functioning professional at one of the leading educational institutions in India, going about her business with voice-aided devices! I can only imagine the trauma she must have been through when her eyesight was taken from her in her early youth. Today, not only does she help herself, she works in the prison system, helping those perhaps as underprivileged as her. This woman does not just stand; she stands in service and gives back despite her debilitating disability.
When I was taking her leave, I asked directions to the new campus. Take a right along a small path, she said, and you’ll follow it curving to a small gate. Ask there again, and they’ll guide you; it’s just across the road. Waitaminute, the comedian part of my brain leapt up. Here is a blind person giving me directions. ‘A blind person giving me directions! If I get lost, it’ll be entirely your fault’ I said. She laughed.
Married with a lovely daughter, living a full, compassionate life, Penelope Tong is a hero of mine. As is Mumbai, the city that provides for her, and thousands like her, allowing them to regain a semblance of normalcy they perhaps once knew.
Some of us are disabled from birth, some from unfortunate accidents or deliberate assaults. The costs of these disabilities are tremendous, emotionally, financially, and entirely drown the image of India as a civilized, advanced society.
The next time we talk about democracy, social justice and fairness, speak to the parents of these children. They’ll tell you if their society provides support to them to grant the independence they desperately crave for, or violently takes advantage of their disability.
For as long as these Indians are not provided for as a society, this nation has no reason to hold its head high.
In a world where dolphins come to the rescue of humans in incredible acts of inter-species compassion, I wonder sometimes if the disabled Indians aren’t the ones who have been unable to engage their humanity despite being human.