Thursday, November 12, 2009


7th November 2009: 0930 hrs: a Saturday. The alarm rings…

An arm, heavy with slumber, drops on the phone and shuts out the noise. An irritating little voice in my head screams out ‘darn, I’m late…! again…!!’ I roll over, trying to block out that voice but it was too loud… I opened my eyes and looked up at the ceiling… ‘why, oh why, can’t I sleep some more?’ I had been keeping crazy hours, staying awake till dawn chasing deadlines and doing some research over the last three-four days and had slept at about five-thirty in the morning. My body craved for a few more hours of shuteye but duty called… I had this seminar to attend. Now, most seminars, you’ll admit, on the best of days, are rather effective tranquilisers. You could struggle like a headless chicken to stay awake, but like death creeping up on the chicken, sleep will creep up on you, and before you know it, your head would be lolling in tune with the drone from the speakers… until of course your neighbour, by now also in the arms of Morpheus, nuzzles into your shoulder, tickles you with his moustache, dribbles into your ear and lets out a loud snort while snoring… So you wake up with a start, shrug him off, open your eyes wide, pinch yourself and the battle starts all over again.

So, while driving to the venue, I kept thinking up techniques I could use to keep myself awake before the sandman struck. I could pinch my eyelids, I could bite my lips till I bled and I could dream up a few ‘attractive’ possibilities to keep myself engaged… I really didn’t want to embarrass myself at the event, so with an action plan in place, I walked into the hall.

The auditorium was packed to the brim and overflowing at the exit points. By the time I fought my way in, the first panelist was in the swing of things. As I settled in as unobtrusively as possible, I saw the big banner that said, ‘The Indomitable Spirit of Survival’ in bold and had the icon of a phoenix flying across… hmm, this smelt different… refreshingly different… This seminar was celebrating the unconquerable power of the human spirit that under extraordinary circumstances forges ordinary human beings into towers of spiritual strength. As the speakers bared their heart, I forgot to blink… for why else were my eyes moist…?

Let me introduce you to these luminous lights whose stories can light up countless lives…

There were many heroes who were honoured that day at the seminar. One was Captain Mohan Singh Kohli, a veteran mountaineer and a pioneer in the realm of adventure sports, who had defied death to court glory on the highest of peaks and inspired the audience with his joie de vivre and limitless passion for adventure. Though a smart young septuagenarian today, he spoke with the unbridled joy of a boy who had run up a high cliff and jumped off the edge and into the ocean, taking in the view as he fell, and reminding himself that next time he has to do it upside down. Appetite for a challenge and a lust for “views like no other on earth” took this man up the tallest mountains and down the angriest rivers and it is that very hunger, he said, that was responsible for every great moment of discovery and self-discovery in the history of man.

Then there was this young lady who walked up to the lectern and greeted everybody with a joyful lilt in her voice. She spoke about her work as a primary school teacher living a regular life, teaching children, singing, dancing and socialising… and then she signed off with the words, “I live a very active and busy life”. The audience rose to its feet and gave her a standing ovation. That’s strange wouldn’t you think? What’s the big deal, you’d say… but if you took a closer look you would see that she had her head to one side, she spoke well but haltingly at times, and in her eyes there was a faraway look; her eyes spoke of her heart, through an expression that seemed to combine hurt, and forgiveness for those who had hurt, a love for life, a steely determination and above all a dream that one day her body and her mind would give in to her ‘indomitable spirit’… Tamanna Chona was born with cerebral palsy, an ailment that severely compromised her physical and mental abilities.

Spasticity is difficult to live with. I had imagined that to ‘normal folk’, the struggles of an autistic person to attain normalcy might not seem significant enough or might even seem to be in vain. Most live out their lives as dependent objects of pity at best, and usually as victims of derision and exploitation and worse. But that day when a ‘once autistic’ Tamanna stood in front of hundreds and declared her will to live ‘normally’ like everybody else, she was taking a stand for her own self-belief, the faith of her mentors and the call for independence, pride and dignity for all… She truly is a ‘special’ person.

Preeti Monga was next up as speaker and she is one of the most elegant people you could hope to meet. Tall and charming, she has an aura of energy around her that is both infectious and inspiring. A grandmother in her 50s, she has been a model and an aerobics instructor. Her true calling, of course, would have to be her work as a motivational speaker for her words have inspired countless people with visual disabilities like her, to yet again aspire to, and achieve the ‘holy grail’ of independence and ‘normalcy’, a gift that I’ve now learnt to cherish and be grateful for; for I doubt I would have had their courage… Perhaps disabilities (and I will not undermine their tremendous fortitude and courage in this uphill battle with fate by calling them ‘differently abled’) are tests reserved for the strong.

Finally, a tiny figure draped in white walked up to the microphone. The emcee pulled the microphone down so that she could reach it. Time had etched her face into a picture of serene strength. She spoke in Bangla with beautiful simplicity. A translator translated her story for the audience, and on more than one occasion, his voice cracked with emotion.

Suhasini Mistry, illiterate and poor, was married to a man who was dying before her very eyes. He wasn’t dying of an incurable disease but of apathy and neglect. Too poor to afford treatment at a hospital, the man died leaving Suhasini her four children and a 75 paisa inheritance. That day, that diminutive little figure while grieving for her husband, took a gigantic oath. She swore that one day, no matter how hard the challenges, she would set up a hospital where poor patients like her husband would be treated and given medicines for free. That was more than three decades ago. Today, in the village of Hanspukur stands the 35 bed Humanity Hospital, where 25000 patients are treated every year and given medicines too, all without charging the patients a penny. The hospital has 15 visiting doctors and one permanent doctor – Suhasini’s younger son. But it wasn’t an easy journey. Suhasini had to work as a labourer, a housemaid and a vegetable vendor to make ends meet. Her young children (two sons and two daughters) wanted to work but she insisted on their education. Her children studied hard in school. But after school hours they worked harder in the fields and in shops to add to their meager income. Later, when I spoke to the doctor-son, he told of a time when they would share 500 grams of rice and a couple of green chillies, over five days, between the five of them.

But all through the hardships Suhasini ensured that her children had an education, that one of them necessarily became a doctor and that from every rupee they earned, they always saved a portion for their dream hospital (even if that meant going hungry to bed).

The courage, the resilience and the fortitude of this little woman humbled all in her presence.

When pushed by a disability or a disaster, some of us oft en dig in and discover a reservoir of strength that goads us towards greatness. Such a phenomenon is inspiring, admirable but also conceivable. But what eternal flame must guide a Suhasini for her to be able to starve herself and her children for decades, to feed a dream that today has saved countless lives. At one point in her speech, she held one end of her saree and extended her arms, speaking of a time when she had to beg to keep the dream alive, and even in that moment of utter humility, she remained determined and dignified, for she begged not for herself but for a thousand strangers who live off her alms.

That was the first seminar where I saw people moved to tears. It was the first seminar where the audience, no matter what our achievements, felt dwarfed by those giants on that stage. It was the first time I emerged from an auditorium a changed man, inspired, humbled, cleansed and awake…


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