Disability Rights Alliance


Sunday, 29 June 2008

2008, Salil Chaturvedi

I finally wrote on the form, my hands shaking: ‘Main Bimaar Nahin Hoon’

Salil Chaturvedi Is 39 years old. He acts in a children’s television serial, writes and designs for civil rights organisations and lives in Delhi

THERE WAS SO much I wanted to say to her but all I could manage was a sorry “So?” I wanted to tell her that I recently acted in a play directed by Feisal Alkazi. I wanted to tell her that sometimes children come up to me and asked, their eyes brimming with excitement, “Are you Jugadoo?” That’s the character I play in Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Indian adaptation of Sesame Street. I wanted to tell her that she was hurting me and breaking my spirit, but all I could manage was a befuddled stammer and a “S... S ...So?”

It was a clinching argument, as far as she was concerned. “But you are on a wheelchair, aren’t you?” she’d said. Since I was on a wheelchair, I was a sick person and I would have to sign the form that was meant to be signed by “sick” people when they boarded a plane. “But I’m not sick,” I said. “See, I’m travelling independently.” “But what are you sitting on? A wheelchair!” she chided me.

The face of the Brigadier flashed through my mind. “You’re still around,” I thought to myself. After all these years, you’re still around. You’re dressed as a ground staff member of SpiceJet, you’ve changed your gender and you’ve changed your age, but you’re still around. The retired Brigadier had been working at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association (DLTA). I had made a presentation to Muktesh Pant, who used to be the CEO of Reebok at that time. He had been excited about the tournament and had decided to pay for the airfare and to kit the two-member team. The kit was sent directly to DLTA (although I knew its contents) and when we received it, I found that the jogging shoes were missing. So I asked the Brigadier about them. “But you are on a wheelchair!” he said. “So you won’t need to jog.” It had hurt then, too — for someone to look you straight in the eye and say you were lesser because you were on a wheelchair.

Back to the SpiceJet counter at Delhi airport. Since I insisted on not signing the form, the lady went to her senior, a young man who spoke to me like someone speaks to a child. “You will not board the flight if you don’t sign this form,” he said. Here I was, parked in a corner behind the desk, the other passengers wondering about my stubbornness. I felt everyone was against me. The whole damn system was singling me out. I finally wrote on the form in large letters, my hands shaking uncontrollably: “Main Bimaar Nahin Hoon” (I am not sick) and I refused to sign.

On the way back from Chennai it was nicer, but only for a while. I didn’t have to sign a form and the supervisor, on his own initiative, kept the seat next to me empty so I could put my legs up if I wanted to get more comfortable. Perhaps this flight will be different, I thought. But things changed quickly. I insisted that they board me before other passengers, as was the international norm. But they didn’t and I was carried down the aisle by two untrained porters, who carried me like a sack of potatoes while I tried to keep my trousers from slipping and closed my eyes to save myself from the embarrassment as all passengers turned their heads to look at me.

As the plane started its descent at Delhi I asked the air-hostess to make sure that my personal wheelchair was brought to the aircraft so I could sit on it directly. But the wheelchair was taken to arrivals, instead. It was midnight and I was exhausted, but the body pumped in some adrenalin to wake me up. The flight steward shook his head at my stubbornness. “Why can’t you use the airline chair?” he asked me. “It’s against the rules to give your chair from the hold.” That was a new one. How could I tell this clean-shaven, smart, cheerful young man that a wheelchair is not a wheelchair is not a wheelchair. He wouldn’t understand how I had spent the last two months recovering from a fall at the Bombay airport because I was on an airline wheelchair.

During the flight I had been re-reading Ben Okri’s Songs of Enchantment and had spent most of my flight mulling over one line that had sprung up from the page. “Love is the real power,” Azaro’s father says to him in the novel. It had held me in trance because of the magical way the line had been set up in the novel. I asked Ben Okri, as I waited in the aircraft, security staff and flight attendants irritated by my insistence, “How does one love all this, Ben?”

I thought about my wife, waiting for me at the arrival for the past two hours. For no reason I suddenly recalled how she stood on top of the bed so I could reach the end of her sari and adjust it for her. And I felt relieved and smiled to myself. Love, indeed, is the real power that guides us through our lives. SpiceJet too needs to learn how to love. So what if I’m in a wheelchair? •


Paraplegic abandoned in aircraft


It was a rather turbulent flight for paraplegic tennis player Salil Chaturvedi, who represented India in wheelchair tennis at the Australian Open in Melbourne. On Friday night’s Chennai-to-Delhi SpiceJet flight, he was not provided his wheelchair to disembark from the aircraft and was left cramped in his seat for over an hour.

On Thursday, when Chaturvedi flew SpiceJet to Chennai, he was neither offered priority boarding nor an aisle chair to board the plane. His urine bag was also yanked off. He told HT, “I was carried along the aisle by untrained porters like a sack of potatoes, while I tried to keep my trousers from slipping and closed my eyes to save myself from the embarrassment, as all passengers turned to look at me.”

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation rulebook, effective from May 1, stipulates that a passenger’s wheelchair should be returned to him at the time of disembarking. It is mandatory for every operator to provide ambulifts to enable disabled passengers embark/disembark the aircraft. But despite this, the crew insisted that Chaturvedi use the airline wheelchair. “They wouldn’t understand how I have spent the last two months recovering from an airline wheelchair fall at the Bombay airport,” Chaturvedi said.

SpiceJet regional manager (north) Rahul Bhatkoti said, “We have apologised to the passenger and will take corrective action. Clearly, the crew lacked awareness.” Chaturvedi, who has acted in a Feisal Alkazi play and the Indian adaptation of Sesame Street, was offered Coke after the trauma ended. “I have stopped drinking Coke. Not wanting to hurt their sensibilities, I took a sip and threw the rest when they weren’t looking,” he said.