Most people will look at a wheelchair and think very limiting thoughts. Kids are an exception; their eyes light up at the prospect of riding one. A wheelchair, then, like everything else, lies in the eyes of the beholder.
I look at my wheelchair and wonder: Is it a chair with wheels, or wheels with a chair? It seems to be the latter. Travel is its very soul.
My wheelchair prefers the outdoors. Over the years, it has travelled down mountains, explored jungles, gone up a river by boat, watched sunsets on beaches, crisscrossed the Western Ghats, ferried across the Brahmaputra. It has also hopped onto airplanes, trains and jeeps, and once rolled itself all the way into the Ganga, my protests notwithstanding.
One of the things my chair loves, almost craves, is some sort of a challenge. I am reminded of the time a few years ago when we went to Mandu, in the Malwa region of western Madhya Pradesh. It was during the monsoon. The place was incredibly green – a perfect time for a chlorophyll addict like me. The terrain, for the most part, was gently sloping and that excited my wheelchair. On the last day of the three-day trip we visited the pavilion built for the famed 16th-century singer Rani Roopmati. A powerful wind was blowing and the sky was overcast. There were very few people around.
Monika (that’s my wife, not the chair) and I decided to go to the terrace of the pavilion. We looked around for some help and spotted a balding travel guide at some distance. We approached him and asked him whether there was a way we could get to the terrace. He looked at the chair and seemed affronted, as if we were abusing his intelligence. ‘My baap can’t walk. I haven’t got my baap here ever, and you think you can get up there on this?’ he said. Monika began a harangue about politeness, but I told her to let it be.
A little later, we came across a group of college students. They were boisterous, but they were also well-built. Before you could say ‘upsy-daisy’, they had me, and my wheelchair, on the terrace. The view was stunning. The wind was strong enough to propel the wheelchair, and I did some lengths of the pavilion to satisfy the chair. Suddenly, I noticed the same guide on the terrace, and before I knew it my wheelchair had sidled up to him. We shared the uplifting view for a while, the guide, the wheelchair and me, and then I sighed and said, ‘You know, you should get your baap here sometime. No point depriving him of such a fantastic experience.’
The man folded his hands, touched the wheelchair, and said, ‘Galti ho gai … Maaf kar dena.’ (I erred. Please forgive me.)
‘Jokes aside’, I said, ‘I seriously think you could get your father here.’
Crowded places scare my wheelchair. It is almost phobic of temple destinations, though it loves Sufi monuments. The one exception I can remember was when it went to Shirdi, in Maharashtra, the home of the 19th-century Sai Baba. It was a hot afternoon when we got there. The crowds were enormous, owing to some holiday. We tried to use the wheelchair as an ice-cutter, to part the masses, but soon gave up.
No sooner had we surrendered to the crowd than a hand emerged from somewhere to our right, grabbed the foot pedal of the wheelchair and pulled at it. I found myself suddenly going up a ramp. Monika could not figure out what was going on, but she had the sense to push as hard as she could. In a jiffy, three sets of helpful hands had emerged on my armrests, though they did not seem to be pushing as much as being pulled by the chair. I looked at the owner of the hands on the left armrest of the chair. ‘Please, please’, he said. ‘Please, let me push, please, please…’ he continued with a pleading look.
The priest who had pulled me up the ramp, unlocked a metal sliding gate, and I along with my ‘helpers’ was suddenly inside a hall. Another quick right turn and I found myself heading straight towards Sai Baba. He was sitting in the exact same position that I was sitting on my wheelchair, with one leg folded over the other. I just seemed to be floating towards him, a bit shocked at the abrupt transformation of spaces – from a heaving, sweating multitude to a serene, scented passageway in a matter of seconds. The moment had a satori-like feeling. The baba just sat there smiling, as if amused by it all, or perhaps smiling knowingly.
A quick darshan and we were ushered out. One of my ‘helpers’ came again and shook my hands. ‘I’ve never had a darshan like this, ever! Thank you, thank you!’ he said.
‘Thank the chair,’ I said. Maybe it was the overpowering emotion of the place, but the man reached down to touch the chair and then touched his hands to his heart.
Bachpan se hai?
While pine or sal forests are the first things that my wheelchair thinks of when you mention a holiday, it has done its share of cultural tourism. The evening light-and-sound show at the Gwalior Fort was a memorable evening, though our real reason for being in Gwalior was the Tansen Music Festival. I was strolling (or, rather, rolling) around the mazaar of the Sufi saint Mohammad Ghouse Gwaliori, enjoying the intricate jali (lattice) work, immersed in the mood of the raga being performed. It was about ten in the morning. A man in white kurta-pyjama, his hair slicked back with oil, approached me and popped the famous question: ‘Bachpan se hai?’ (Since you were a child?)
I usually have some stories ready. As the poet Robert Bly says, ‘If we have no story, we cannot take hold of the wound.’ One of my stories involves a failed parachute, another a treacherous mountain crossing, one a Bollywood-type gang-fight over a girl. But this once it panned out quite differently. I found myself hollering at the man, ‘What lack of imagination is this! You’re obviously a rasik (connoisseur), and all you can do is ask me this dumb question. I’m not answering you. Go away.’
The man was taken aback, so I continued, somewhat calmer. ‘Let’s sit over there and talk a bit,’ I said, pointing to the chabutara of Tansen’s grave. We sat and chatted for a half-hour, during which he told me his family history, interspersed with ‘Wah, wah!’ when the singer displayed some virtuosity. We discussed music and theatre, since his father had been a theatre artist. He told me many fascinating stories. Then I told him my story, and when I arrived at the cause of the wheelchair, we both smiled. ‘So there is your answer,’ I said. ‘Now it’s been done the right way.’ We parted ways – or perhaps, because we were sitting in a Sufiana place, we finally joined ways.
I am reminded of another question that a kid once asked me. ‘Do you take the wheelchair to bed, too?’ The image of a wheelchair stuck to me as I turn sides in the bed is a delicious one!
Anyway, getting back to the silsilah (matter) of wheelchair travels, it is curious how my wheelchair manages to wrangle favours from forest officials. I remember a trip to Ranthambore National Park that had turned out to be a bit of a bore. The motel owner came up to me out of the blue and offered to drive me right up the Aravalis in a four-by-four Gypsy. The next day, we set out early in the morning. On our way, we picked up a forest ranger who regaled us with incidents about encounters with all sorts of wild animals. The funniest one was about an encounter between a Sikh forest guard and a sloth bear. The bear had attacked the Sikh guard but in the skirmish, the guard’s pagri (turban) came off. As the guard’s long hair spilled out, the bear watched the transformation in a daze and then ran for his life.
For me, the high point of that trip was meeting Gopi, a three-month-old Indian antelope calf that was being brought up by the Forest Department. A tiger had apparently killed its mother. When I tried to pet him, Gopi latched onto my fingers and gave them the treatment. It was evidently his mealtime, and the rangers eventually got out some milk bottles so we could feed him. Another time, on a trip to Goa, the wheelchair had persuaded a cheerful bunch of men who called themselves the Bombay Boys (but were actually beer-guzzling married men holidaying away from their wives) to carry it up a steep flight of stairs onto the deck of a boat. In fact, my wheelchair’s penchant for finding drunkards for company will make for another long story.
When it comes to traveling in a wheelchair, I’ve learnt that you just have to surrender to the chair. It has wheels, for chrissake. It knows more about travel than you do, and it finds its ways.
~ Salil Chaturvedi is a Delhi-based writer.