Maverick: Leave Lakshmi Alone
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, Nov. 13, 2007
Who is Lakshmi? No. The right question would be: What is Lakshmi? She is an item number. Born with eight limbs, the two-year-old has just undergone a successful surgery that has given her two legs and two arms, like normal people.
We are noticing our doctors with newfound respect, as we must. This is a time to celebrate.
It is also a time to ask whether Lakshmi’s miracle surgery will cure our society of looking at physical disability differently.
I am scared that this little girl will become a mere 'case study'.
With Lakshmi getting prime-time space, Indians will adopt her, pray for her health and we will be transformed into this wonderful village of sentimental people. Where are our emotions and sentiments when children walk around like zombies with bloated hungry stomachs, who die before they are born, who have their limbs cut off, incidentally by helpful doctors to facilitate the beggar racket?
There is a tele-serial on air now called Amber Dhara. It is about conjoined twins and is a heart-warming story about their trials. The problem is the pressure on triumph. Why do we put such a premium on success? One is not suggesting that those who are not born with their body parts in a certain way ought not to dream. But does not success for them turn into a pantomime, playing to the gallery? Aren’t they too seen as animals in a zoo when they go about transforming mud into gold? Do we realise that forget respect, even acceptance for them comes only after they realise those dreams when millions of so-called normal people can go about as failures?
Let us not see isolated examples as the norm. It is Lakshmi’s good fortune she could make the journey to a reputed hospital. How many of our wonderful doctors would go to the villages and tend to many such children who die from ordinary diseases? Isn’t there a romanticisation regarding the strangeness of this child’s body? Isn’t her display against basic norms of decency?
If it is to applaud our skilled surgeons, then can we not do so whenever they perform a difficult operation on a less unusual case? For, how many hydra-limbed kids are there in our country or even the world?
Lakshmi may end up being given a cheque by the government, blessings will be sent by politicians. When will they do something basic like have proper railings, special traffic signals and ramps for the disabled?
I cringe when I see Lakshmi’s old clips on TV, laughing, unaware that she is as good or bad as a circus artiste. Don’t drown us with images of X-Rays and the delicate nature of the surgery. Of how 36 doctors worked on her. These feel-good stories push all the dirt under the carpet.
For a while I used to teach at an institute for the blind. Yes, the institute uses the word blind, so let us not get silly about political correctness. I realised how ignorant I was. The first day I tried playing 'concerned citizen'. Adjusting the microphone I started talking. I heard a voice loud and clear, "Ma’am, we are blind, not deaf!"
I got the message. Slowly, I was brought down to earth. "What are your qualifications?" one asked. And he was right. He was more educated. His disadvantage was that he was not educated in English, and he could not see.
They also made me realise that a chi-chi non-regional accent was not going to help them. "Ma’am, you speak like English lady. This won’t help us, we will become telephone operators in some government office."
I dropped the idea of telling them how to enunciate and where to emphasise syllables. I felt no pity, but it hurt me to think that if they could argue and discuss major world events and have opinions, then why were they denied what I got as a matter of course?
These are fairly self-sufficient people. There is the larger world where I have seen moments of despair. K was a music teacher whose services were suspended because he was alleged to be homosexual and was exploiting the other blind students at the hostel.
A former colleague of his was shocked, "They discovered his homosexuality after 22 years?" I was told that this accusation is often used as a trump card to harass them if they do not toe the official line, which might include little things like not touching the walls and soiling them. They argue, "We cannot see, so sometimes we do take the support of walls. What can we do about it?"
Compare this with the attitude towards the famous disabled. Firdaus Kanga, who suffers from a debilitating neurological condition that has paralysed most of his body, is gay. He wrote about his experiences in his first book and his second. I had sounded a note of caution at the time, saying that of all those who were praising his work how many were doing it out of sympathy and how many due to its literary merit? And would he himself be able to come out of the trap and go beyond his handicap?
Not everyone has that choice. Lakshmi is not public property. She will have a private life and not as charmed a one as she is now getting. Therefore, must we use a personal tribulation as "time-pass" and in turn transform an unlikely candidate into a heroine? We are just vultures trying to satiate our miracle mania.