Recently, I had a long, rather erudite discussion with this great-looking guy. On how, despite being blessed with some envious quality, most people’s minds still focus on that one outwardly visible ‘flaw’ which they think they have. Because hey, it’s much easier to give yourself grief over being too short, fat, thin, dark, fair, than patting your back for having something that’s better than everyone else. While talking, the man started to stutter. With a chuckle, he pointed at himself to make the point. “It took me a while to go from the stage of fighting it to embracing it. That’s when I overcame the so-called ‘disability’,” he said. “And that’s why you are Hrithik Roshan,” I replied. The exchange reminded me to re-run one of the earliest write-ups I had penned in this column. For the longest time, some readers have been asking for it. Each word of this is close to my heart. Hope you feel the same way.
It was the summer of ’69. Quite literally. My newly-wed parents had just shifted base from Punjab to Delhi and were traveling on a train with the last leg of their luggage. On the opposite berth, sat a family of four – a thin middle aged man with a moustache heavier than his built, his wife with a built that more than made up for the loss and their two kids, a sweet little girl around six years of age and a teenaged son who kept staring at my mom with the most weird smile ever.
Not able to withstand such an intense gaze attack, coupled with a perpetual amusing grin, my mother grew increasingly uncomfortable and silently toyed with the options of confronting the boy herself or bringing my dad, so far blissfully unaware of the scenario and busy solving the crossword in the newspaper, into the picture. Finally, she settled on the former and made an interrogative hand gesture to the boy meaning to ask, “What’s so funny?”
To her utter surprise and increasing dismay, the boy chose neither to respond nor shy away. His stare got a bit intense and the grin on his face a tad bit wider. However, this rather silent hand gesture by my mom didn’t go totally unnoticed as it was seen by the boy’s little sister who was now poking her elbow quite forcefully in her mother’s waist, trying to draw her attention to what was happening. After a few unsuccessful attempts, her little elbow found some respect through the enormity of her mom’s waistline and she turned her attention to what was happening. She immediately understood what was wrong, and, in an explanatory tone, told my mother, “He’s not looking at you.”
The boy suddenly tilted his head on hearing his mom’s loudly spoken words, and this time, lowered his eyes while his mother further explained, “You see, he has a vision defect.” Before my mother could even react, the man sitting on the upper berth decided to intervene in a typical manner every Indian considers his birth-right and offered this explanation, “Oh madam, he has a ‘looking at London and talking to Tokyo’ type of problem”.
Amidst the silly giggles his remark prompted from some fellow passengers, it dawned upon my mother that the boy had a squint in his eyes — and that all this while, he wasn’t looking at her at all. His parents looked embarrassed and while the boy continued to look down with an expressionless face, his mom glared at the man on the upper berth and said to my mother, in a rather hurt tone, “If my son had been blind, these very people would’ve regarded him with compassion, and felt generous while doing it. But thanks to his ‘funny disability’, he would only be ridiculed all his life. And he still dreams of doing something big and ‘reach for the stars’ someday.”
My mother sat ashen faced with a mixed feeling of guilt and helplessness. The atmosphere had suddenly become very heavy and even my dad was listening now, the newspaper folded on his lap. Suddenly, the young boy with the squint looked up and spoke, with his eyes fixed straight on the window pane, and it took my mother a few seconds to realise that he was addressing her. “Ma’am, please don’t feel bad about what my mom said. I find myself having a rather advantage. If I want, I can look at the answer sheet of the fellow sitting next to me during exams and no one would come to know!” he said cheerfully. “Though I’ve never felt the need to do that,” he added, with a proud expression on his face. At this, his father spoke up, “He has been an exemplary student all along.”
By then the sombre atmosphere had begun to lighten up a bit. “I can even stare at beautiful girls and claim I was looking elsewhere,” the boy joked with a mischievous wink, and everyone around, including the gentleman on the berth above, laughed heartily. “Not everyone has the gift of being able to observe something or someone without getting observed. I do”, the boy said, with his head held high. “I am not ashamed of my vision ma’am. I am thankful to God for it. And just to explain why I was smiling earlier,” he pointed towards the unfinished crossword on my father’s lap, “The eight-lettered noun for ‘a situation with lack of variety’ would be ‘monotony’ and not ‘marriage’!!”
Everyone, including my dad, burst into laughter, and my mother, misty eyed at the sheer spirit of the young boy, told his mom, “You know something, your son should never try to reach for the stars. Because he IS one!!”
Sonal Kalra embraces her flaws, several of them. But still can’t bear Chaddha’s ji’s disability — lack of common sense. May God bless her with sensitivity. Mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and facebook.com/sonal.kalra. Follow on Twitter@sonalkalra.