By Salil Chaturvedi
“You never take into account my disability,” I was complaining to a friend who had booked movie tickets for us. The cinema hall was not very accessible which was to be expected, but what had got my goat was that our seats were way up towards the back. I was annoyed that my friend had not thought of choosing seats that were easier to access. The anger didn’t last long, as it never does with good friends. He carried me up to the seats and we enjoyed the show.
On the way back, he apologised for not thinking about the seats and said something that’s still fresh in my mind after fifteen years, “You know, one doesn’t think of you as a disabled person even though you are on a wheelchair. I just feel you’re the same as me.” At that time I retorted, “Sure, the fault is all mine!”
In reality, my friend’s admission was a big revelation to me. I thought of other times when I felt frustrated, helpless and therefore angry. One of my pet peeves with my parents had been that they would leave things out of my reach, shut doors with latches on the top rather than the ones at the bottom. I would fly into an indignant rage, “If you as my parents are not sensitised then what can I expect from the world?” I would exclaim, my anger tinged with heartbreak.
But that one remark from my friend put things into sudden perspective. The love and support of my parents, my brother, my relatives and friends has been instrumental in making me independent and confident. My parents’ attitude of you-can-do-anything-you-want has given me the strength to go out and achieve my dreams, whether it was playing wheelchair tennis in Australia and Japan, going out on holidays, deciding to marry, running a company of my own and more recently, acting in a television serial.
My friend had taught me that being disabled and thinking of oneself as disabled are two separate things. How you imagine yourself also influences others’ imaginings of you. I’ve also learnt to hang strings from top latches so I can pull them open.
The same friend and I had once gone to an Air Force Officers’ Mess to play billiards. We were teenagers growing up in an Air Force camp near Allahabad. Our fathers served in the Air Force and we would often go to the Officer’s Mess and spend hours playing billiards and snooker. This day, as we were exiting the billiards room, a senior officer almost bumped into me. He sprang back to avoid collision and as I passed him, he looked at my friend behind me, and with a sympathetic cluck of the tongue asked, “Polio?” Without pausing to think my friend replied matter-of-factly, “No, Salil.” We laughed heartily after that but today when I look back at this incident, I feel that only if most people took a leaf out of my friend’s book the world would be different. For one, Corporate India could learn from my friend to recognise the person and not look at the disability while hiring people.
Another incident that comes to mind involves my elder brother who is in the army now. After my accident, which left me with a spinal injury and my family in a state of shock, it took me a long while to find the strands of life again. During that period I was encouraged to try and walk with callipers with some support. My brother would sit on the wheelchair to lend stability to it and I would hold the pushing handles and walk slowly as he moved the chair. One evening, as we were doing this, my frustrations welled up and I started berating my brother because no one else was around. To my horror he simply got up from the chair, which left me with no support. I swayed uncertainly for a moment and then came crashing to the ground. His words resound in my years till this day, “Don’t think you’ll have it special because you have a disability.”
But the seeds of independence were sown much earlier. Within days of my accident, as I lay in the Intensive Care Unit of the Command Hospital, Lucknow, I was given a card signed by my father, mother and brother. It showed lively dancing girls on a stage with hands entwined behind their backs as they were kicking up one leg in a gay dance routine. One of the girls was missing from the row. The card simply said, ‘The Show Must Go On.’ I am certain that the card was chosen by my father, for I know his habit of examining cards in detail before deciding on the right one.
Thanks Dad, I’m still trying to keep the show going.
Salil Chaturvedi’s motto in life : read, think and be merry.