[Pic Credit: Amisha Desai]
by Sunayana Kachroo
Nakamiyon ko dil se lagaya hee nahi
Aisa jeena hame raas aaya hee nahi
Meri raftaar ka andaza tumhe kya hoga
Maine pairon ko zamin pe lagaya hee nahi
I saw her struggle from the balcony of the 2nd floor of my college hostel. She was striving hard to get her wheelchair out of what seemed like a very small pothole made by the incessant recent rain. I saw that her wheelchair was stuck, ONCE AGAIN and this time near the boy’s hostel gate.
Our hostel campus had three separate buildings strategically located one after another. Two of these, Vinay and Vidya Vihar, provided accommodation for boys and one Vanita Vihar for girls. Although the similar names of the buildings made them sound like siblings, the residents had no “sibling-y” feelings for those in the other Vihars. In fact boys often confessed to have wanted “Vanita Vihar” nestled between Vinay and Vidya. Ah, only if wishes were horses, I would have married George Clooney. The Hostel rector, Prof. RVK, a strict disciplinarian, a no nonsense administrator with an unparalleled work ethic, commanded a lot of respect. In our culture respect often translates into fear, which was probably needed to keep the buzzing youngsters like us in check. He also had this knack of spotting talented and smart kids quickly and if you were one then you could enjoy some leniency and his generosity. Now you can imagine how I would know that.
Our hostel was adjacent to the college campus and there were a couple of gates that connected the two areas. The gate which offered a shortcut to the college was not accessible to the girls because it was located right next to the boy’s hostel. Letting girls walk in that area would have been extremely scandalous and amounted to the violation of the “Line of Control”. This was one of the unwritten rules that was very strictly followed. Crossing that Laxman Rekha had consequences that every Sita and Gita of the hostel was well aware of. Teju however was an exception! She was allowed to use this gate as this was the only way to get the wheelchair into the main college campus. There was a process and a workflow to this activity which involved opening the gate at specific times for her, often the hostel-help a.k.a. “Mama” facilitated this.
I had seen Teju struggle many times before and she detested the sympathetic looks especially during these moments of her life. Friends and hostel-mates would always be around but wouldn’t help until she was done trying and that often meant waiting patiently. She was known for her fierce attitude, grit and her “zidd” to stay independent. We respected her for that. While girls her age wanted fluffy gooey cute things, Teju just wanted to be treated as an “Equal”. Little did she realize she wasn’t EQUAL, she was much-much stronger than most of us.
I was a year junior to her but as fate would have it I landed on the floor where seniors lived. I got admitted to the college a little late and by that time all the 1st year rooms were taken except for this one bed that was available in a room on seniors’ floor. My roommate AD was a first year student as well and we bonded well. In retrospect being on this floor turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. My seniors took me in with a lot of love, pampered me, and became my family, co-conspirators, money lenders, notes suppliers, chai buddies and most importantly emotional anchors. Before I even realized I was a part of the band of the sisters thick as thieves and very loyal to the creed.
Our hostel housed all kinds of creatures – sadistic ones who were gossip material, snitchers who distributed the gossip laced it with am-telling-only you-because-you-are-trustworthy, quiet ones who watched at a distance – somewhat entertained somewhat disinterested, discreet ones who inspired investigative endeavors. Hostelites were quite a tease and provided enough fodder to keep the end-of-teenage minds tickled. And then there were people like me switching between artistically entertaining to emotionally atyachari (such people frequently use lines like ‘yeh sirf mere saath hee kyun hota hai’) without any prior notice. Our lines of morality and ethics were mostly drawn on sand and we took stands only when it involved a friend. We missed family and food and our culture, glorified this newly found freedom as our path to maturity, bunked classes religiously, attended get-togethers even more religiously; we had Jilebi(Dessert) eating contests, illegal chai making kettles (which formed many a friendship for me). We had secret crushes that we never revealed until it was mentioned in a fish-pond anonymously followed by a fake shock look on our face and Oh! and in case I forget to mention, we did manage to drag ourselves through exams courtesy those last minute-30 paisa per page Xeroxed notes. In the midst of this bazaar of madness and chaos some people like Teju stood tall. Just a few moments with her and you would realize that she is SOMETHING ELSE!
Every day I had seen her crawl through the stairs up and down gracefully and nonchalantly while chatting about a movie, a book or just something as simple as the breakfast options at the hostel canteen. I am sure it must have been daunting to push herself through the stairs. What was just a flight of few steps for us would take an agonizingly long time for her to get down. Yet she never wanted help…NEVER EVER. At an age where hormones confused our intelligence and made us cry rivers over silly heartbreaks and politics around group-ism, Teju somehow remained un-impacted by all this or so we thought. She never complained about these things as her struggles were different. In addition to her everyday trials she also had challenges to face during rains, those-days-of the-month, very hot summers and all other not so kind situations. Yet she never stopped pushing her wheel chair – on and on – as if revolting against the fate, threatening it with a silent war cry of ‘Bring it on’. Her fingers were extremely coarse and hard, decades of manual hand paddling would do that. Medical grade lotion or new fairness creams in the market could not erase those marks. For her those were the badges of honor.
Smart, sharp and just as temperamental as anyone at her age, Teju was studious yet fun too. Not only did she learn well she also took part in other cultural activities. She was a total team player and ready to be with the group for any kind of misadventures. I recall an incident when the girls at an impulse decided have a cup of tea at the legendary “Café Paradise”. Teju didn’t shy away and was completely in on this adventurous trip.
One cannot mention Café Paradise and not explain the phenomenon that it was and the elite status that it enjoyed. It was not your average Chai ki Tapri. Café Paradise had been a Bohemian Grove, a sacred eatery only for the brave-hearts. You did not just go there, you entered its premise with the pride and glory of manhood, almost like the cowboys sans their hats and guns. Café Paradise thrived on this secrecy and even its menu was confidential. Boys would often concoct stories of its exclusivity and flaunt their fraternity. That was until one fine afternoon, a group of rebellious girls decided to end their run by just walking-into this “Adam’s Paradise”. As always I tagged along, we ordered the famous chai rumored to be made with exotic camel milk and stayed on until the onlookers were done gasping with utter surprise. It became the story of the week. Eye witnesses offered exaggerated versions, some believed them and some people even dismissed it as an “impossible thing to happen”. We giggled and high-fived our way back and Teju was right there with us at the forefront, not somewhere fading in the background.
Teju didn’t like to dwell in the past and did not indulge in unnecessary heroism and dishonest praise. In fact she did not talk about her journey that often but when she did, she credited her parents for raising her on a strict regimen of optimism and tough love. From being a child that was unable to even pick a sheet of paper to making it to the college and beyond required iron will but also strong support system, special parents who refused to give up and let her take refuge in her handicap. They didn’t leave any stone unturned to take her through rigorous physical therapy but she had to be at the School too. Physical pain was no excuse for bunking classes nor was her being a girl an excuse for not taking up challenging opportunities. They aptly named her “Tejaswinee” – the bright one. We liked to call her Teju. It sounded cool.
So that day from the 2nd floor balcony when I saw her struggling to get her wheel chair out of the small pothole my instinct urged me to go and help her but experience advised me otherwise. Knowing she wouldn’t call for help even if it took forever, when I could not hold out anymore I ran down the stairs, joined by a couple of other gang members. We decided to just stand there near her while she looked at up, smiled and kept on pushing. At an appropriate time one of us casually just pushed the wheelchair enough to get out of that small ditch. Her face was red by then and sweat was trickling down her ears, she wiped it with her handkerchief…which she always held in her hand… I heard a feeble “thank you”…we moved on while talking about the “happenings” of the day…as if nothing happened…Well Nothing Had!
Over the years I had seen this scene a few times, whenever she got stuck someone would walk to her vicinity and wait for the right moment to help, if needed. She was helped by boys as well as girls and most importantly respected by everyone. No one ever felt sorry for her because she never felt sorry for herself.
The end of the year award ceremony was excitedly awaited by all. Besides the usual events there was the coveted student of the year award. The year when Teju was in her last year of college the award ceremony was special because besides the deserving students she won an award too. She was honored with a special award for her resilience and determination in pursuing her college degree. A standing ovation from everyone echoed through the auditorium. We celebrated her journey and what she had taught us. Just to see her always smiling regardless the physical limitations helped set my perspective many times. I would often look at her and think-What’s my excuse? And I am sure many others felt the same way. Teju always smiled and she still does. Even if you don’t see her, you can hear it in her voice on phone or even in her chat messages. There is an eternal optimism built in her voice that rings through.
When the year ended the seniors graduated and moved on to other options. I moved on to a different hostel as well. Protected and cocooned until then, I soon realized that the outside life was not that kind and I had to learn to live and manage by myself. I lost touch with Teju and many other friends from my hostel. This was pre-Facebook and Orkut days, pre-social media and cell phone too.
I took a job while finishing up my Master’s degree but always to come to the US of A for work. The plan was to work in the States for two years, make money and then settle back in India. Of course, destiny operates at its own timetable. How wonderful would it be if one could just have a quick peek at its schedule, may be once in a while. Let’s just say that I am not that good with surprises.
The process of moving to the US for work was very demanding and involved endless waiting. During one of those testing days I was walking on a road alone…very tired…discouraged with the process… I heard someone honking at me. Well honking has so many meanings in India which may not necessarily have anything to do with the person honked at. More of that another time! I turned back to see Teju riding her automatic custom made bike. I could not believe it. She was beaming!
There is some kind of power one feels while riding a two wheeler or so I had heard but was witnessing it for the first time. Teju didn’t need my help anymore, technology had stepped in and caught-up with the speed of her dreams. There was a sense of pride in me as well. She parked smoothly on my side, we talked for a few minutes and then in a feeble voice she asked …”Sunny kidhar jaana hai aaja lift deti hoon”. (Where are you headed Sunny? Come let me give you a lift! ) How did you know Teju? Or did you? YES I NEEDED A LIFT THAT DAY! A small nudge would have done too.
That very instant something flipped inside me, a moment that has never left me since. Teju giving me a LIFT. Sometimes the scars of emotional handicaps do not show but a lot of people walk around wanting help but never ask for it. That day I was one of them until Teju came to my rescue. Teju my friend I want to Thank you for coming into my life and showing me how to face life head-on, and most importantly picking me up from the road that day in the year 2000…. Probably you didn’t know…I was extremely tired of trying that day.
Last year when I shared this story with her, she just sent me a smiley and said “Sunny do you know I am learning to drive a car now.” I won’t be surprised if someday she flies an airplane or even does bungee jumping. All you need to fly is a set of wings and those she is born with.
Sunayana Kachroo is a poet, lyricist and film-writer. She has published her first collection of poems, ‘Waqt Se Pare – Beyond Time’.