Sunday, April 8, 2007

Let me live…. Or let me die

Those are the words of Ramachandra, the teacher at Akshaya, a school for children with disabilities in Renigunta, about 20 miles from Tirupati, which I visited yesterday afternoon. That’s Ramachandra and his wife in the picture above. Ramachandra, at the age of two, contracted polio and has been unable to use his legs ever since.

Ramachandra is a beautiful man.

I’ve known him for only a few hours, so how can I say such a thing? Simple. Because I choose to do so, and because I sense that this is so.

Life is constantly thrusting at us realities which we choose to either accept or deny. One day, about two months ago—every day seems like an age here in India where my experiences are so frequently fresh and new, like those of a new born baby—there was a knock at my door in the guest house. In walked Thasleema, with her friend Madhu.

That’s Thasleema, wearing the off-white sari third from the left in the front row of the group picture above.

I’d never met Thasleema before. I had met Madhu. We bumped into each other by chance at the Mother Teresa convent next to the Catholic church where I go every now and then for Sunday mass. On one side of the convent compound, the sisters and their aides take care of the elderly; on the other side, they take care of children with severe disabilities. I wrote about them in my blog in January.

Madhu was at the convent with some of his Hindu friends, distributing food to the old folks. Ours was a chance acquaintance, like ships that pass in the night. I never expected to meet him again. But we’d exchanged business cards, so anything was possible.

A few days later, along comes Thasleema, brought by Madhu to visit with me and ask for my advice. She’s about to defend her dissertation. Any day now she’ll be Dr. Thasleema. Her area of expertise is Special Education; it’s been her passion all the way through her undergraduate and graduate studies. She’s driven to help people with disabilities.

“What do you recommend I do, now that I have my doctorate in Special Education?” she asked.

“Why don’t you start a school for children with disabilities,” was my reply. I expect she already had this option in mind, but maybe she needed to hear someone else say it to give her the courage to go ahead. Who knows?

Fact is, Akshaya, Thasleema's school for children with disabilities, has been open for two months.

Like the Don Benny school I visited a few days ago, Akshaya is a beautiful place, out in the countryside, surrounded by the sun-burned, fractured, gnarly hills of the Eastern Ghats, with lush green rice paddies nearby. The school grounds are blessed by a steady, cooling breeze that softens the air, especially at dusk, and sighs soothingly across the wide open plain.


But paradise with a purpose. These children need help. The challenge is well nigh overwhelming if one dwells on the huge scale of human suffering, of human disability. We all suffer, of course. Indeed, we all have disabilities of one sort or another. But there are so many whose suffering is extreme.

My friend Yvonne was born with severe cerebral palsy. Ramachandra has been without the use of his legs since the age of two. In the United States, with all our magnificent medical care and limitless supply of cash, there are 54 million people who are registered with a disability. That’s one person out of every five or six of the population.

If your family doesn’t have someone in it with a disability, count yourself lucky.

In India, the ratio must be at least equal to that of the United States. So I estimate there must be around 180 million people in India with a disability. From what I’ve seen, many, many more of those people than in the United States have a severe disability, like Ramachandra.

But people with a disability like Ramachandra don’t want our sympathy. They want our empathy; they want us to understand their plight. They don’t want us to feel for them; they want us to feel with them. Above all, they need our help.

Thasleema’s husband, Latif, who has supported her through school and who provided the seed funding for this venture of hers, was on hand for my visit. Latif and Thasleema are Muslim. Madhu is Hindu. I’m Christian.

Latif, Madhu and I joined hands and had our picture taken to capture the simple symbolism of our common brotherhood.

It’s not about religion. It’s about human compassion and human love. Those are the eternal values that make a difference in this world of ours.

Before he got involved with the Akshaya, Ramachandra wrote a story about his life and gave it the title: “Let me live… Or let me die.”

“Help me,” he pleaded. “I’m trying all I can to overcome my disability. I’ve put myself through school and qualified as a teacher. Someone, please give me a job. Let me use my skills. Let me do something useful, too—-or let me off this hellish merry-go-round we call life.”

People with a disability anywhere in the world, regardless of qualifications, have a notoriously hard time getting meaningful, gainful employment.

Ramachandra's article caught Thasleema’s eye when she read it in the newspaper. She remembered him when she came to start her school. She needed a teacher for her children with disabilities; Ramachandra needed a teaching job.

Perfect fit.

Thanks to Thasleema and Latif and the community they’ve gathered around them, Ramachandra and his wife of two months now have a lot to look forward to, as the beautiful smiles on their beautiful faces attest.

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