Until a couple of years ago, I was in assured in my belief that I was not a person who could get influenced, coaxed, or coerced into doing something by another individual. I was firmly entrenched in my opinion that the human spirit acts on its own will, and that ‘influence’ is, simply put it, an excuse for the weak-kneed. I could never see myself emulating drug addicts, or getting influenced by an alcoholic or a smoker—all quite in abundance around me.
But you see, the problem was in me. I was being myopic in my definition of ‘influence,’ thanks to some stupid, ‘in the box’ thinking on my part. But life has its own share of surprises. It brings us to ‘roads’ that we thought we would never walk upon. We are all firmly encapsulated within our own comfort zones, coming out of which seems as unlikely as the sun rising from the west.
We think of ourselves as immune to those forbidden paths, questioning and answering at the same instant with, “Oh! There are so many others from which fate can choose. It is never going to be me, ever.” Unfortunately, the next time round, we find ourselves on that unlikely, forbidden path, and what’s more—without a return ticket.
First, here are the facts. It’s been 3 years since I dived into the swimming pool in my school. No, there’s nothing very special about that. I have been diving for as long as I can remember. But this one dive changed my life. I hit my head at the bottom of the pool, broke my spine, which crushed the spinal cord inside. I was told by my doctors that I would never walk again. I have been confined to a wheelchair since then. In hindsight, nothing seems odd about those moments now. But at that point of time, I was devastated. For a fifteen year old, it was one of those nightmares that I was going to live in forever. My schooling was uncertain, leave alone the perpetual worry of what I would do with my life ahead. Its different now with college etc. in the story.
When I was put in a wheelchair, I realised that I was now on one such forbidden road, one which I had once thought myself far removed from. Again, as is with ‘roads’, people too come into our lives, who we think of as transitory. But it is in that transition that so much transpires, that looking back, the forbidden ‘road’ doesn’t look so bad after all. Our fellow travellers make the demure ‘road’ so lively that for once we start looking at, and loving all the ‘fruits’ that trees on the forbidden ‘road’ have to offer. That is real ‘influence’ which I should have understood a long time ago. Influence which ‘influences’ one to adjust to the situation, however and by whatever means.
The person who has had a very significant influence on me is a dynamic, warm and considerate (brutal when it came to exercises!) gentleman by the name of Arun Sondhi. To introduce him to the reader—he is wheelchair bound like me, is a rehabilitation trainer, and is one of the most positive people on the planet. What’s more—he is a gold medallion holder in weightlifting at the Paralympics. Arun stays in Sweden, but comes to India in the winters every year, and that is how I met him.
It is seldom that one meets people like him who exude so much confidence; are hell—bent on doing everything, even with personal limitations—without assistance; can accomplish anything that an ‘abled’ man can—and do it better, and yet have no airs about themselves.
On the technical side, he can climb ten flights of steps, and come down all of them—all the while sitting in his wheelchair. He can drive all alone through Europe in ten days. He can teach you how to smile at your adversary in his face; or go beyond the limits of your endurance when you feel that your muscles would sag and your bones would be crushed by your heaving body, with no legs to support it.
At times he can be hateful for all his pushing, all his enthusiasm. But his charm and simplicity make a dangerous combination, and before you start to spite him, he already has you laughing. And he has been at this for the last twenty seven years.
When I hurt myself, the world came crashing down. I had times ranging from sheer pleasure when one of my toes started feeling the sensation of air around, to times when I felt like breaking my head, and my family’s, with a brick. At times I wanted to party, while at others, I wanted a cliff to materialize in my room for obvious reasons. Basically, I was wreaked beyond redemption.
Distressing times those were for my parents and me, when we had no clue as to what I would do the next day, leave alone the next year or five. It was here that Arun came into our lives, and it was here that the paradigm shift occurred. He just told me one thing, “You have two options to choose from. Either you lie on your bed for life, do nothing, and remain a leech sucking blood from others, or you get your butt up, and try till you die, to lead a normal life.”
This acidic remark singed me. But I bit the bait, and am, till date, slogging it out, and plan to do so till my time comes. This is one of the main reasons why I want to come to the United States. The US, besides the education, would provide me with an environment where I can be independent and self sufficient.
In the beginning, I hated Arun for his lack of pity and sympathy that I had found so much in others. But that was his trick. Had he not hurt me then, I would have always searched for people who were ready to shower me with pity. And that would have been my end. Why? Because people with pity have nothing else. They shower you with their melancholy, and leave you to ruminate on your own misfortune. They don’t feel anything for you; they just portray it. They just remind you of your sad life; they do not help you in overcoming it.
Arun taught me to be self-sufficient. He once explained, “Life for you now is never going to be a walk in the park; it will be a surfing spree. You’ll have highs and you’ll have lows as the waves change. And you’ll have no one to accompany you all the way. If you try your best and strive the hardest at low tide, it’ll pay off. Relax and be melancholic at that time and you’ll fall. Things will never be easy. Opening doors for visitors at night will be one big pain in the neck; living on your own in a foreign nation would be an incomparable accomplishment But if you want to be more independent than an ‘abled person,’ then take things head on. Break your head in the bargain, but have the satisfaction of nursing it later; be proud to wear a scar on yourself; and sleep at night with the feeling that another day passed and you lived it through without anyone’s intervention. Get a life—but not from someone; make it on your own.”
Arun told me things about sexuality after spinal cord injury. It is one of the biggest worries for anyone like me. In India, there aren’t many who know about things in this field; even if some do, they’re too reluctant to discuss it. Frankly, sexual health for us will never be normal. Our injuries will affect it. He told me, “Don’t let that bother you much; don’t let yourself be intimidated. The girls will always have a soft corner for you; they’ll take care.” How right he was.
In effect, all his irritating push, his wide grin, his infectious enthusiasm, and his optimism has helped me pull myself out of the quicksand of Fate, and allowed me to do something of worth in life. More than anything else, he has taught me how to believe in myself.
When he made me climb my wheelchair up a few steps, I thought he was mad. When he made me reach onto a plinth four feet high from the floor, I thought he was a lunatic. When he told me to take my anger out, and rid myself of all frustrations, rather than keep them swelling inside like a pressure cooker, I thought he was misleading me. When he told me that I would go to college, he provided me with a final proof of his madness. And when he pushed me on, rather inconsiderately, I hated him more than anyone else in the world.
But looking back today, with all his ‘madness,’ he resurrected me from a half dead vegetable. He made me capable of living on my own, breathing the good air without assistance. He showed me that the ‘forbidden road’ still had enough juice to offer to last me a lifetime, if not two.
Arun believed in the journey to Ithaca. He believed that all of us—walking, rolling on chairs, or lying on beds—all of us are here for a purpose. He often quoted from the poem ‘Ithaca’ the following lines, to boost my morale: “As you set out for Ithaca/ Hope your road is a long one…/ Full of adventure, full of discovery/ Keep Ithaca in your mind/ Arriving there is what you’re destined for/ But don’t hurry the journey at all…
I am not a perfect man. Post injury, my temper does run high. There are times when I am blind to others’ sensitivities. I can be scathing in my behaviour. Basically, I can, and do get frustrated with things. But that’s it. It is transitory, as is with other ‘normal’ people. And I know—as long as it is transitory, its normal, even good. Because if it doesn’t happen, there is something wrong somewhere. Our souls are like pressure cookers—the more steam (melancholy) inside, the more chances of bursting.
Arun’s story would take a lifetime to describe, and so would all his influence on me and my family, and because of constraints of space here, telling you all about him in this much would be an absurdity, if not a disgrace to him.
If there is a god that exists, which I believe there does, then I ask him to give all contentment to this man who lit a lamp in my dark room. I do not ask of god to make Arun walk, because however inconsiderate this may sound, he never will. But I ask of him to provide Arun with enough of that charming ware, so that people like me can be influenced.
There is surely more to life than grief; surely enough on that forbidden ‘road’ to last us all a lifetime. “Oh Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why/ This beauty is wasted on the Earth and Sky/ Tell them dear/ That if eyes were meant for seeing/ Then beauty is its own excuse for being.”
It is for us to see that beauty in the ‘road’ that we follow or are thrust upon. The rest instantly would fall into place. That is what Arun taught me…that is how he influenced me.