Physically-challenged people earn a new lease of life when they get married to each other.
By Shevlin Sebastian
"It was only when my mother gave me a sign saying the baby was okay that I heaved a sigh of relief," says Beena Varkey, 27, about the birth of her daughter a few months ago. She had reasons to be worried. She is deaf but can utter some unintelligible sounds. Her husband, Joy Varkey, 28, is deaf and dumb from birth. They have been married for a little over a year, and it was a tense period when Beena got pregnant.
"We were afraid that our child would also become deaf and dumb, like us, and, yet, we had to take the risk," says Beena. "After marriage, like everybody else, we were looking forward to having children."
But the baby is as normal as a ray of sunlight. Asked how they would hear the cries of the child at night, Joy says, "I put my hand across her body when she goes to sleep. So, the moment, she starts crying, her arms and legs move and I know she needs to be fed."
Beena says she presses herself against the baby's body and when the child kicks, she knows it is hungry. Beena's mother-in-law, Mary Amma, says that if they both miss the movements of the baby, she hears the cries and awakens Beena. (Joy and Beena communicate in sign language, while their neighbour and Joy's childhood friend, Regi Kumar does the translation).
For Joy and Beena, in ordinary circumstances, they would not have met, since they live more than 50 kms apart. But the Prathyasha Foundation placed an advertisement in several newspapers announcing a pre-marital meet for disabled people in May, 2006. Joy and Beena, with their respective families, took part. "I saw four girls, but I liked Beena immediately," he says. Beena says she also liked Joy and was thrilled when her mother and brother had the same sentiments.
Beena says her family wanted her to get married to a normal person but she was against the idea. "I felt that such a man would not be able to understand me," she says. "So I told my mother I would like to get married to a deaf and dumb person. I am very happy with Joy. He is a good man."
Joy had wanted to get married because all his friends had got married and he was leading a solitary life. "Marriage has been great for me," he says. "I have somebody beside me to face the problems of life. But most importantly, I have this gift from God." He points at his black-eyed daughter, Jocelyn, who, having just woken up, has a sleepy look.
The couple lives with Joy's aged parents in a brick house at Veliyanad, 38 kms from Kochi. Joy is a rubber tapper who earns Rs 180 per day, while Beena has been trained as a tailor. She has slowed down now that she has to look after the baby. It is a happy marriage and a happy family, with a crowning glory, a daughter.
But, for another couple, the absence of a child is causing heartbreak. Suresh Kumar, 35, has been blind from the age of 10. Again, like Joy, he wanted to get married and, thanks to a woman, Rachel, whom he met accidentally at the General Hospital, he was introduced to Priya, 31. She did not suffer from a disability, but came from a poor family. "My mother had no dowry to give," she says. "So, the chances of getting married were non-existent."
Rachel told Priya that Suresh may be blind, "but he is a good person." When Priya met Suresh, she did, indeed, like him and they decided to get married, under the aegis of the Prathyasha Foundation. Rachel had got them registered there. Later, the foundation gave her a sewing machine, so that Priya could earn a living as a tailor.
In their two-room house, at the back of a large house, at Kakkanad, a suburb of Kochi, the sewing machine is placed at the centre of a bare room.
"I barely earn Rs 1000 a month from tailoring, while Suresh is jobless,” she says. “The monthly rent is Rs 1000 and the electricity bill is Rs 150. I was in financial difficulties before my marriage and nothing has changed thereafter."
She says this without bitterness and confirms she has no regrets about marrying a blind man. "I always had an empathy for the physically disadvantaged," she says.
For Suresh, apart from the humiliation of being unemployed, he is going through another agony. So far, he has been unable to consummate the marriage.
"To be impotent is a very painful experience," he says. "I am taking tablets, but, so far, there have been no signs of improvement. I am so keen to become a father." Priya says that the lack of a sex life is a problem, but her bigger worry is that they have no place to call their own.
There are different worries for the Thahas who live in the Kochi suburb of Vennala. "I was extremely tense on the day of my son's marriage with Sajitha," says Shamshuddin Thaha. From childhood, his son, Anshaf, 29, was unable to control his urine and needed to go to the toilet all the time. Whenever he went outside, a tube would be attached to a plastic packet.
It was not that Shamsuddin had been deceptive. He had informed Sajitha's elder brother about the disability, but he had kept mum: he wanted the marriage to go ahead. Till then, no man had been willing to marry the polio-afflicted Sajitha.
Like Sajitha, Anshaf had been born with a problem in his spine. A botched operation resulted in his legs becoming partially paralysed.
Shamshuddin knew that on the first day after the marriage Sajitha would become aware of 'the problem'.
"It was a shock when I saw the tube," says Sajitha. "But I have accepted Anshaf's disability. Nowadays, it is I who boil the tube to keep it in a hygienic state.” The loyal Sajitha has not told her parents about Anshaf’s malady.
Sajitha had met and liked Anshaf at the pre-marital meet held by the Prathyasha Foundation. "The only issue was that I was a year older, but Anshaf's family did not have a problem with that," she says.
Anshaf's mother, Ishabeeby, a former headmistress in a government school, says, "Prophet Mohammed was 25 when he married the 40-year-old Khadija. So, this marriage would have been pleasing to God."
The couple looks happy in the two-storeyed house which they share with Anshaf's parents, an elder brother and a younger sister. Sajitha has a small tailoring shop nearby, while Anshaf works at Prathyasha.
"We are able to make ends meet," she says. Both are happy they are not alone. "It is when you are going through problems in life that you appreciate the presence of a companion," says Anshaf. Sajitha nods.
Anshaf says their only problem now, after two years of marriage, is that they don't have any children. As he says this, there is a sudden silence in the room.
Finally, Ishabeeby says, "God will provide."
(Some names have been changed)
A Norwegian excursion
Nina Anderson, 32, is doing a TV and film course at the Westerdals School of Communication at Oslo, Norway. Every year, the class would go on a field trip to different countries. This year, the students felt that India would be an interesting country to visit.
Since Nina and fellow student, Mari Dotseth, 24, had been working with the disabled in Norway, they decided to make a documentary on the subject. Both of them searched the Internet and came across the Prathyasha Foundation at Kochi. So, they got in touch and arrived in January for a month's stay, accompanied by cameraman, Lars Braatho Rangtveit, 23.
"We focused on the work of the Foundation," says Nina. They were also inspired by the life of founder Simon George and traced his career, how he faced his sudden disability at age 21 and the reasons behind the setting up of the Foundation. "We also interviewed the people who received help," says Nina.
What struck the team was how difficult it was for the disabled to function in India. "In Norway, the government helps the disabled financially," she says. "Most of the buildings, parks and public transport have been designed in such a way that the disabled are able to get an easy access," she says. "This is not the case in India. The disabled seem to be ignored by everybody."
Asked about the most interesting event during their trip, Nina mentioned the pre-marital meet which they attended. "It is a unique concept," she says. "There is nothing like this in Norway. When we showed the clips in our school, the students were amazed."
The Pratyasha Foundation
Doing good work
All three couples and a few others like them are grateful to the Prathyasha Foundation (www.prathyashafoundation.org).
The organisation was set up on June 25, 2004, by Simon George. At the age of 21, he had a mysterious illness and was paralysed from the waist downwards.
"Thanks to my disability, I realised I needed to do something for the physically challenged," he says. "In India, if you become physically challenged, you feel a sense of hopelessness. You are isolated from the family, society and from life itself."
George said that when he met up with disadvantaged people, they had two intense wishes. "One was the desire to get married and the other was to get a job," he says. "That was when I got the idea of starting a pre-marital meet where physically challenged men and women could come from all over Kerala and see whether they could find somebody suitable to marry."
In December, 2005, the first meet was held at Kochi and it became a huge success. Thereafter, seven meets have been held and more than 100 couples have tied the knot. George has plans to start a job fair and a rejuvenation centre.
Astonishingly, he says, the poor treat the physically challenged in a far humane manner than the middle and the affluent classes.
He tells a true story of two brothers in Calicut. "One is normal, while the other is physically challenged,” he says. “When the normal brother got married, he ensured that his brother did not tie the knot because that would mean the division of the property." Sometimes, he says, the normal brother tortures the other; the aim is to kill him off slowly.
Even parents are biased. "Physically disadvantaged children are not given an education, because parents feel there is no point in investing money on them," he says. "They are usually treated like servants, or hidden from view.”
Parents are also hesitant to say they have a physically challenged child. "In India, unlike in the West, the attitude towards the physically challenged is negative,” says George. “It is regarded as a curse. People are unwilling to ask for help, as they feel it will damage the image of the family."
(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)