Hosanagara Nagaraje Gowda Girisha is praying for gold in 2016. If you're asking, 'Hosanagara who?' then you're probably not alone. India's only silver medallist at the 2012 Paralympics is used to indifference. But today, finally, he's conscious of the weight of his achievement.
It's an achievement which is not unsubstantial when you consider that since 1962, India has managed to win only eight medals at the Paralympics. Contrast this with China's 231, this year in London alone. "I am dedicating this medal to every physically challenged person," the high-jumper says on the phone. "I am hoping it will inspire others."
Like many athletes in India, Girisha has overcome poverty. Unlike most, he's also dealt with a disability that has rendered his left leg without sensation. It's been a long journey for the 'naughty boy' who would get beaten at home for returning late from school because he wanted to swim in the pond on his way back. Yet he has no complaints. He says he is very happy with his welcome reception. He is thrilled that Sachin Tendulkar congratulated him. He is moved by Saina Nehwal's personal Rs. 2 lakh reward (in addition to the cash rewards by the government and a job offer by sports minister Ajay Maken). Life is good, he says. "I have proved something."
Reality is a different story. We are still hard-pressed to name the nine other athletes who represented India in London. The showcause notice issued by the sports ministry to the Paralympics Committee of India (PCI) for the reported mistreatment of athletes confirms a pattern of callousness that leads lawyer Rahul Mehra to ask that the PCI be disbanded. And national broadcaster Doordarshan's failure to cover the games is only symptomatic of a larger indifference to the disabled in India.
The country with the world's largest number of disabled people has the world's poorest standards in disability. "The government has not introduced disability into the system even 65 years after Independence," says Mithu Alur, founder-chairperson of the National Resource Centre for Inclusion (formerly the Spastics Society).
And yet, 80% of the world's disabled live in developing countries. In India, facilities such as ramps for wheelchairs are the exception, not norm. Airlines still sometimes refuse to fly people with disabilities. In many families, disabled members are stigmatised. A 2004 UN-sponsored study in Orissa found, for instance, that nearly all women and girls with disability were beaten at home while 25% women with intellectual disability had been raped. Young women with disability are often forcibly sterilised. And barely one lakh of the seven crore disabled people in India have jobs, according to a study by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.
Ironically, the 2012 Paralympic Games was a sell-out in London and received saturation coverage in the British media. "What was astonishing was the level of participation," says Sathi Alur, Mithu's husband who was in London during the games. "There was no element of pity. It was just exhilarating to watch."
That, of course, is the point of the Paralympics. Its stated aims include breaking down social barriers of discrimination against the disabled. It reminds us that these games are about ability not disability. As sports writer Ayaz Memon says: "True Olympian heroes come from amongst these guys." Heroes like Oscar Pistorius straddle the world on carbon fibre legs, competing in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Heroes like Girisha teach us about possibility.
More than the silver medal around his neck, Girisha tells us that a person born with disability can no longer be seen as someone to be ignored or pitied or derided. Every citizen regardless of whether he has one leg or two or none, regardless of whether he's visually impaired or has cerebral palsy, carries his weight, contributes to society and has the right to a dignified life. It is for this reason, and this alone, that we need to salute our Paralympians. And it is for this reason that you need to remember the name Hosanagara Nagaraje Gowda Girisha.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.