Monday, May 23, 2011

I can't. I can't

“I can’t. I can’t.” Her voice rang out in the deafening silence that followed. The two words were no more than a gasp of pain, a desperate plea for help. But they ricocheted off the walls of her heavy heart and resounded hauntingly in the auditorium. Not a whisper, not a murmur was heard. It seemed like not one of the 500 plus audience was present. But we were there, of course. I was seated in the front row, my breath caught unawares, like many others.

Arpita is an exceptionally pretty, charming young woman in her early 30’s. She has short, jet-black, shoulder-length hair. She wears gold-rimmed spectacles which try but cannot conceal the enthused spark of life in her eyes. She dresses extremely tastefully- bright, pastel shades complemented with vibrant accessories. But I haven’t mentioned one important detail here. And that could change your entire perspective of her.

Arpita suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. She is sentenced to a wheelchair. Maybe, for life.

Changes everything, doesn’t it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Arpita stood on stage that day, speaking to a 500-strong congregation in Mysore. “I can’t. I can’t.” were the two (four) words she started with. But in a way, they echoed the whole story of her life.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. Researchers are not sure what triggers the inflammation. Symptoms vary from muscular spasms to bowel-bladder, eye, brain, nervous, reproductive and speech symptoms. Despite our 4G and mind-engineering-space-nano-nuclear technologies, there is no known cure for Multiple Sclerosis. Arpita is one of the 2 million people worldwide who are affected by MS.

The difference in the before and after of Arpita’s story is shocking. Nightmarish, even. She was living a life that was as fulfilling as could be. At least, it appeared so. That was when MS struck. She was left without a job. She had to abort her unborn child. Her husband abandoned her.


That day, Arpita had come walking onto the 4 feet high stage with the help of 2 volunteers, leaving her wheelchair far behind. She was welcomed onstage with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation before she had begun. Then she stood up straight- without any volunteer or stick. And she started speaking. “I can’t. I can’t”

For the next 8 minutes, I saw not what my eyes were seeing. I saw only what Arpita showed me. Her words painted a picture of the millions of MS patients and even larger number of ‘differentially-abled’ men and omen around this world. Ripping apart the rose-tinted, song-n-dance, happily-ever-after sequences of movies on the subject, she scripted a film reel from her own life, shot on the sets of stark reality.

A story like this would logically progress into a moralistic monologue, where I tell you to be nice to them, look out for them and help them stand up, in every way possible. But that is precisely what you and I must stop doing.

Arpita had contested in the International Speech Competition at the India-Sri Lanka level and made a place for herself in the top 6 Finalists from among 8500 contestants. She did this without any reservation quotas or special privileges. And so can every one of the ‘disabled’ citizens of the world, in the field of their choosing. Maybe even better the others.

Yes, they might need a walking stick, a wheel chair, hearing aids or another form of physical support. But please, that is all.

They do not need constant reminders of their differential ability.
They do not need our sympathy or pity.

They want acceptance, just like anybody else.
They want love, just like anybody else.
They want equality, just like everybody else.

The shining story of Arpita is testimony enough to this. I can vouch for that.

Maybe that was why, after the ordeal of standing on stage for 8 whole minutes, Arpita concluded her fiery speech with the spotlight shining on her being like a mystic halo, both her arms raised shoulder-high, and the closing words, “I can. I can.”

-Avinash Agarwal

Friday, May 6, 2011

Revenge is sweet. But STOP tasting it

“OSAMA GONE, BUT WHEN WILL MUMBAI GET JUSTICE?” screamed every newspaper and tabloid on the morning of May 3rd, 2011. At the end of a decade-long search and the world’s largest man-hunt, Osama bin Laden had been terminated. Shot in the head, some reports claimed. Well done, indeed.

India stood up along with the rest of the world in applause and then turned around to question herself, as if on cue. ‘When will I get justice?’ every voice seemed to shout out loud. The frustration pulsating through the nation was visible- 18 months after 26/11 and no ‘good’ news. Justice delayed is justice denied, as they rightly say. But that brings us to one valid question- What is justice?

Google gives me 397,000,000 results in 0.07 seconds for the word ‘justice’. Not a single one of them makes any sense to me. Oh, the words are all right. But what does it really mean?

Those who are guilty must be punished. Agreed. But to what end? Are we killing the disease or the patient? Do the complicated, often-misinterpreted-misquoted principles of ‘morality’and ‘righteousness’ give us the right to kill people who kill other people? We now want all the Ajmal Kasabs to share the same fate as bin Laden. And rightly so. They are guilty as the devil.

But I fail to see why we have turned a ‘March for Peace’ into a ‘War against Terrorism’- because there’s a world of difference between the two.

If I was given a choice between a tomorrow where a ‘War against Terrorism’ was being waged as opposed to a ‘March for Peace’, I would choose the latter. Without a second thought.

I believe there is more to a ‘March for Peace’ than holding hands and walking the length of Rajpath Marg or chanting slogans at the Gateway of India. There is more to it than just a brightly burning candle reflected in a pair of misty eyes.

No, I’m not trying to undermine the sentiments of those who have loved and lost in these despicable acts of ‘terror’. Never. What happened was cowardly, disgusting and downright evil. There is nothing more painful than the unexpected loss of a loved one-for someone else’s ‘cause’. It’s a wound that the balm of time may never be able to doctor. The culprits must be brought to order- in this life or the next.

But the real question here is- What do I do? How can I make a difference?

Well, you can’t. You can never make a difference.
Not until you become we.

It’s amusing to observe that, despite the million years of evolution, techno-lution and a whole lot of other so-lutions, there’s this habit that is still embedded deeply in our physiology. It’s our habit of developing a habit.

No longer can we walk past a nasty incident with a shrug and say ‘Thank God it’s not happening to me.’ Well, it very well could- tomorrow or the day after. And you wouldn’t want the next not-so-good Samaritan saying the same thing, would you?

Let’s not get used to a bunch of brainwashed midgets deciding when or how we die. Let’s not switch our mental channels every time the same old topic comes up. Let’s not wait for them to strike again, harder and closer.

Let a name, a turban, a beard, a cloth or a holy building not be a reason to fight any more. Let’s kill the devil that lurks in the hearts and minds of men and controls their bodies. Let’s cure the madness that is slowly taking over the soul of humanity. Let’s not forget that a better universe starts with a better U n I

Let peace, love and respect not be hollow words any more. Let’s have a vision, not just plain sight.
Let’s fight. For what is right.

-Avinash Agarwal