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Jamie Beddard is Unwell ... in India

by Jamie Beddard

16th August 2004

I have recently returned from a fantastic work/pleasure holiday in India, where despite frantic searches I was unable to 'find' myself, something that I understand is attempted by many travellers to that part of the globe.
There was no cross-legged chanting whilst dipped in sacred oils for me unfortunately, although my burgeoning girth does begin to resemble an early Buddha.

I did, however, undergo tremors of transition. The anchors of mediocrity which weigh down my cynical existence were rattled, and I discovered an indecent lust for life. Back in Blighty for two weeks, though, and I'm rapidly slipping back into tawdry habits and pasty skin, as the tastes, smells, colours and bonhomie of my India sojourn recede from memory.

Such was the charm of the trip that certain highlights and recollections burn as bright as the scorching, if polluted, Indian sky, and I am here to share them with you.
Jamie with a student at the Institute of Cerebral Palsy
Despite arriving at the lonely hour of 4.00am, Kolkota (formally Calcutta) airport never slumbers, and the Customs and Security Services soon made themselves busy barring my entrance. Being disabled and - according to my visa - a 'journalist' were apparently mutually exclusive; they had obviously never read Ouch!

"No, you can't be a journalist. Look at you, you're a cripple."

"BUT I AM!!"

Only a last-minute intervention by the British Council smoothed our passage.

Even at this ghostly hour, the concourse outside the airport was buzzing with peddlers, beggars and rogue cabbies appealing for meagre dollops of cash. My arrival caused much bemusement, and it soon became clear that the profile of disability and provision of access might differ somewhat from what I'm used to.

Though I would normally transfer myself from a wheelchair into a taxi with no problem, around ten helpful people descended on me, dragging and lifting my challenging self into the vehicle.

As the sun rises in Kolkota, so the colourful chaos of daily life begins in earnest. A cacophony of sounds, smells and humanity bombard the senses. Most activities take place on the streets, with people living, eating and hanging out (often literally in the case of men peeing openly) underfoot. This, coupled with the imperious gaze of passers-by, makes life very public. Privacy appears a comfortable Western construct, with the idea of 'personal space' seemingly non-existent.

Unnerving at first, and I assumed a consequence of my disability, I was met by incredulous stares in my accustomed role as slightly wobbly man! The stares could also be to do with being white, as throughout our stay, we came across few Westerners.

Unsettling maybe, but it was never threatening, and one soon gets used to the attention. Indeed as my performing career plummets, so any spotlight will do! Back-street Kolkota may well be my ultimate Palladium!

After a couple of days acclimatising, a five-hour white-knuckle death ride by car through the lawless people and animal-filled roads led us to the dilapidated beach resort of Digha, for a few days rest and relaxation. Outside of the big city, the heady combination of being white and disabled was an even greater curiosity. Eyes were glued to my every movement.

Much to my chagrin, it became apparent that my wheelchair was of more interest than myself. The locals pored, caressed and spoke excitedly over my wheels of steel, rocking the chair - with me in it - backwards and forwards.

Conversing in alien languages with a speech impediment proved easier and more fulfilling than ordering a takeaway pizza in London using the native English! Back home, if I dial up for a pizza and try to order, they usually put the phone down. Here, when ordering a meal in a restaurant, they stuck with me, really wanting to communicate, even though the communication barriers might be considered doubly problematic.

With my mobility aids as a stimuli, hours were spent chewing the fat, with rudimentary comprehension a rare bonus. My disability did, undoubtedly, cause a stir, and made me reflect on the role of disability within Indian society.
Ganesh - the god of disability
Many of the prevalent attitudes of India are ensnared in age old beliefs and traditions. Ganesh, the ancient God of disability, appears to have his work cut out.

It is commonplace for the birth of a disabled child to be viewed as an upshot of the anger of the gods and ancestors, or retribution for sins of the past. There is often a stigma or guilt felt by parents, which is exacerbated by the demonisation of disability, reflected in the commonplace usage of language such as 'useless', 'vegetable' and 'burden'.

When coupled with the extreme poverty felt by many, the plight of Indian disabled people is characterised by isolation and segregation.

Stories abound of children left at the gates of cities, abandoned in institutions or left to live helplessly in the corner of the family home.

However, back in Kolkota, I was welcomed with open arms to The Institute of Cerebral Palsy - an oasis of disability. Never before had I seen so many of 'my own kind' gathered under one roof.

Set up forty years ago as a 'two parents and committed physio' operation in a backroom, the Institute has now developed into a burgeoning organization of strange mobility contraptions, enterprise, industry and unbelievable hospitality.

The sprawling buildings house a beehive of activity, with CP people of all ages engaged in an amazing range of activities. My own childhood horrors of physiotherapy were brought back as youngsters were manipulated into splints, with far more tender care than I remembered. Similarly, rows of children engaging in lessons that I have long since forgotten: long division, capitals of the world, complex analysis of human organs and other such wholesome teachings.
A workshop at the Institute of Cerebral Palsy
Tiddling toddlers had joss-sticks gently wafted under their squat noses to heighten sensory recognition; this worked for me, as I was temporarily transported back to my squalid, stinking, fungi-ridden bedsit at Kent University some twenty years ago. So much for joss-sticks being confined to the 1980s vacuum.

Food was meticulously prepared, and during our week-long stay we ate like kings. Elsewhere in the institute, industry included tie-dye, paper making, information technology and creative writing (supposedly under my watchful eye). Much of the creative writing focused on their personal hardship; thinking and gaining a voice was empowering in an institute that concentrated on gaining independence.

Though I have the opportunity to dabble in acting back home, the idea of a disabled actor was alien to the people at the institute. So when I told them I was there to crack Bollywood, the laughter was loud.

The work was pro-actively sought, led by disabled people, and proper livelihoods gained in a continent where the tremendous hardships of survival and daily existence are magnified by being disabled.

Whilst the same can be said of us here in the West, the climate, environment, poverty, and traditions have conspired to make the lot of us disabled folk even harsher. Organisations and movements fighting for equality, justice and rights are at embryonic stages, and whilst the will and determination for change exists, the struggle will be long and hard.

All is not bleak, however, and India is a fascinating, diverse and pulsating place to visit. Oh, and I can't wait to meet those officials at Customs again when I return - 'opera singer' is my next chosen occupation!

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