Bits and bobs from the world of diffability..
Maahi Ram speaks in a strange tone. Doesn’t seem genuine. High pitched, nasal and almost complaining. All the time. Why does he do that?
This is what intrigued Shekhar. For a long time Shekhar did not even realize that someone like Maahi Ram lived in his neighborhood. That day, Shekhar had gone out to the phone booth on the road, because his cell phone was not working. While returning, he chanced to glance left, in the narrow lane, branching off the road.
A kutcha house, a little wayside temple, an unfinished courtyard, a few cattle tied in the lane and a few children playing in that congested, confused space, totally oblivious of the cattle around. Beyond the children, he saw a man huddled in a plastic chair. Grey head, heavy, creased features, shabby clothes, eyes focused in the mid-distance, on nothing particular.
Shekhar lives here but works in Delhi as an IT professional. He comes home only for short trips and even when he comes home, he keeps in touch with Delhi, with two cell phones and emails. Infact, many children in this neighborhood do not even recognize him.
Maahi Ram, as the story emerged, when Shekhar took courage in his hands and decided to find out who this immobile figure was, - yes, Maahi Ram is the third brother of Nandlal, who stood for election as ward member in this rural locality recently, but lost. His is one of those Purabiya families, which were brought here by colonialists in the early twenties, to work in the tea garden near by. There is a fourth brother too, who is quite short but normal in intelligence. Nandlal himself is under 5 ft. But Maahi Ram was the tallest among them all, six feet or so- and the strongest too. He could climb any of the trees in the tea garden. Cutting the branches, taking off honey, and tying the red flag of Lahura-beer on the highest branch of a Peepul – all this was child’s play for him. But one day when he was 24 years old and still unmarried, he slipped and fell. It was a 40 foot drop. It was late evening in winter. The women working in the garden had gone home.
He lay there crying out for help for hours, as he had lost the power to move. Someone cycling down through the garden heard him and informed Nandlal late at night. Nandlal’s wife went and sat by him while Nandlal organized a rescue party.
Months of treatment saved his life but he lost all power of movement below the neck. Crushed spine turned a six foot frame into a small hump back, almost halving his standing height. Later contractures developed in some of his limb muscles. Paralysis of the legs improved a little with time. He was able to walk short distances with a stick. But the scissoring of his legs, made movement slow, awkward and prone to falls. Walking with a ‘walker’ was better but even that tired him, since his arms too were affected and weak. His bowels were sluggish and moved once in five or six days- and then he would have to sit in the squatting type toilet for hours. Sometimes getting up after finishing, would be another ordeal, requiring help from family. This is where and how, Shekhar began to see, he developed that high pitched whine. It is a protest against fate and a call for help, since he knows that a normal conversational tone, might be overlooked in an atmosphere where everyone is struggling with day to day life.
This family runs an eatery at the roadside. Three young children and Nandlal himself, along with his wife must work in this shop to make ends meet. But they take turns. The young girl Rukma, is by nature kind and good but gets impatient with her uncle Maahi. The daughter in law, has two young children of her own, demanding her full time. The two sons in Nandlal’s family, both work at the shop, do odd jobs on the side and keep on looking for a regular job. So, in the morning, Maahi comes out in the open courtyard and sits in a broken plastic chair in the sun. The family gives him the key of the locked house and go to the shop or on other errands. He sits there peering in to the middle distance for hours. Till someone comes and gives him lunch.
What could be the use of such a life? Shekhar wondered. What esoteric purpose can such a life serve?
A talk with Anthony in the hospital solved the problem. Shekhar just had to write an application and deposit a security. The wheelchair came. Maahi looked at it suspiciously: This wont work! He was emphatic: Front wheels are too small. On these unpaved streets, they will get stuck at every step. Shekhar had to use all the selling skills, he normally reserved for his BPO clients.
In this conservative rural neighborhood, it was a strange sight: An IT professional pushing a paraparetic in a wheelchair along the village lanes. Children would smile. Adults often do a double take.
Is it Maahi Ram? Why, yes it is him! Where has he been all these years? I thought he was dead!
Maahi too would look at them smile, raise hands a little. Some people were dismissive- as if he did not exist; others, more in number, would be genuinely pleased to see him. The other day, he made a grunt, as a signal for Shekhar to stop the wheel chair, in front of a little mud courtyard, facing the road. A woman was sitting with a girl on a low woven bamboo cot- charpai. Then, after a silence of a few seconds, he began crying when the woman, in her fifties, recognized him from those years, when they both worked in the tea garden; he used to leap up a tree like a monkey and she used to pluck tea leaves, till the sun set over the mountains to the north.
What did Shekhar think of all this?
His back was much better now. And his understanding was even better. He understood, what esoteric purpose a life like Maahi’s could serve on earth. He understands his grunts better now! He also understood that while Java applets will certainly whir in digital space, Gill Bates and Linux will keep fighting for bigger market shares - life after all was not just about IT and networking. There was more to it; there was a substratum of another kind of networking, open to all.
25th December 2006