Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In Shera's Den

[This piece was published in CRITIQUE, Vol-1, Issue-3. Critique is a Quarterly brought out by the Delhi University Chapter of New Socialist Initiative (NSI)]

- Rijul Kochhar 

There used to be a time in the University of Delhi when people possessing anything below even a shade of superhuman prowess had to ‘negotiate’ with daily existence. You had to be careful, of a number of worthies—of dilapidated structures and fast vehicles, of roguish sidewalks and earthly drains, of dark minds and nefarious designs. For the disabled then, venturing anywhere for anything really was a venture into the heart of an abyss. One didn’t know whether one would make it in and out with all body appendages intact; but hey, it was an existential game of Russian roulette: you had as good a chance as anybody else, and you knew that! The absence of facilities—footpaths, pavement, toilets, transport, recreation, access to libraries, etc.—was indeed a shame for everybody, but a shame that was cheerfully accepted, borne, and tempered by a genuine desire to help one another. Or, made bearable by the realism of the poverty of our claims, and its resultant apathy. It was an apathy slowly tempered, and it was of great use to us. There was, in this schema, no place for diabolical intent, or deceptive deliverance. 

But we did it happily then: there were hardly any appropriate structures to tread on, roll over, sit on, or admire; that sleek umbrage of a stadium didn’t exist in the very heart of the university grounds; fancy sidewalks — with Braille! — didn’t emerge the night before and promise the hoary land of equal opportunity. All you had were the trees, the good dust, the certainty of uncertainties, and a handful of kind folk in the university offices. You simply made peace with this that you had—a chance to sit in dignity in a classroom and listen to the sonorous rotations of a dangerously clinging old fan, or an even older ‘specialist’ of the field. You walked or rolled to where you had to get to; someone helped. If you were very lucky, you had a friend who lasted; if you were in vogue, you had a pack. 
And then came the Commonwealth Games. A malicious intelligence was now dancing to the tune of stumbling bodies, careless collisions, helpless wheelchairs (and their dwellers), and deadly disillusionment. In the aftermath of promises foretold and crores of rupees of dismemberment, there are sidewalks now that are four to six inches from the surface of the road. They end, in most places, even higher. These are sidewalks you can take—courtesy of Kalmadi and company—and, if you are blind, emerge—stunned—into the deathly light of pillars and precipices. For the rest, if you manage these, there is that diabolical monstrosity of man’s creation—the bollard—guarding entries and exits to these sidewalks. The Braille leads forever on, into the darkness of a patiently constructed, patiently enduring, pit. Trees have been cut and bold signage placed—leading us, the condemned, to spaces where you, dear mortal, would fear to tread. Welcome to the university of the pillar banging, of the pit dwelling. 

This is the land where elevators—those false prophets that promise academic deliverance on the first floor of your college or department or library will—we are told—take their twenty years to materialise; where ramps that will allow entry without discrimination raise their ugly slopes and spoil the visage of the masonry of glorious history and a timeless past. There are bicycle tracks here, but they generously accommodate cars; a unique oasis of a bookstore stands witness to a threatened existence. There are toilets here that do not find wheelchairs worthy of entry. There are books here, and people, but they are not here to read to those who cannot see. There are libraries here, and sidewalks, and markets, and toilets, but you cannot enter. There are classes here, and enchanting discussions, but you cannot partake of them, for they are at another level, forever taunting and tugging, beckoning and condemning. There are planners here, scheming for a better world—but they have forgotten us. 

But mercifully, people here remain the same. Common Wealth Games Organising Committee’s Secretary General, Mr Bhanot has not had his last laugh by reminding us of that insurmountable chasm that exists eastward and West of our civic needs. A smile and a kind word will do wonders here. It will even allow you access—overnight! — to books that have been elevated to that hallowed shelf, that place in library heaven, that forbidden shelf –Not To Be Issued! It will bring the administrative bureaucracy, in good times, down to your level. It will open a door or lift you onto that platform world that separates itself from the nether world—six inches below—of molten tar and puissant pillars and vehicular metal. It will, for a brief moment in your time here, make you believe that you are indeed one of the elected—that rare tribe of perfect teeth and awkward charm. And of course, this place will tell you, in it’s disarming pursuit of a better world—if ‘they’ cannot have sight to see or spaces to inhabit the result of modern grace, let them have cars! 

But the ever increasing sums of money that have been granted for our use—or so we have been made to believe—seem to vaporise in the hot, dead, treeless world of sparkling stadia and swanky buses, where that plastic monstrosity Shera rules and the blind, comically, barge into poles that the Braille has lead them into. Give them cars and they shall get around! 

Rijul Kochhar is a Post Graduate student in the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.


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