A permanent disability could not stop Mogalamma from becoming a leader of disabled women today. Thanks to her tireless mother who helped her get an education.
Her mother worshipped the village deity Mogalamma for a child. When her first daughter was born to her, she named her Mogalamma. She was a gift of the goddess. At nine months, she fell victim to a soaring fever. It passed within five days, but after that she could no longer stand. She just lay listlessly wherever her mother Ramulamma placed her.
In panic, Ramulamma rushed her daughter first to the village quack, and then for many years to a diverse succession of doctors. Carrying her little child, she would travel far, to many towns, exhausting her life savings, trying every potion and cure each doctor prescribed. In the end, a kind doctor explained to her: it is best that you accept that nothing can be done for the child. Ramulamma was distraught. She explained to me her worries as I sat 20 years later in her village home: “For a child not to be able to walk — more so a girl child — means a lifetime of dependence and shame. Who will marry her? How will she work?”
Once Ramulamma reconciled that her child would never walk, she became determined that Mogalamma should be educated.
It is remarkable that, of her five children (three daughters and two sons), Ramulamma fought only for Mogalamma’s schooling.
She reasoned that since Mogalamma was disabled for life, her only chance to survive with some dignity and self-reliance was if she was educated. This, her unlettered mother was able to see, and this enabled Mogalamma to eventually achieve her place in the world.
When Mogalamma was old enough for school, her mother carried her to the village schoolteacher. He looked incredulously at the undersized crippled girl child, who permanently sat on her haunches, unable to straighten either of her legs, dragging herself on her hands. He was sceptical, but submitted to her mother’s stubborn resolve.
Mogalamma never missed school, come summer, come rain. Even in the deluge of a monsoon downpour, she would cover her head with her schoolbag in one hand, and drag herself to school across the stony pathways.
Mogalamma was the brightest student in class and often spent evenings helping her classmates with homework. It did not take them long to accept her as she was, and if they did not, Mogalamma did not hesitate to stoutly fight and even thrash them. She did not want to be left out of anything, and even would try to clamber up trees with neighbourhood boys.
When she graduated from middle school, her mother had no doubt that she must continue her studies in the secondary school in Sarjakenpet, a neighbouring hamlet a couple of kilometres away. She encountered the first serious barriers to her continued education after she passed her Std.X examinations.
To study further would require her to travel each day 11 km each way by bus to Nainonpatti. How would she climb the steps of the bus? And what would happen if she fell down? Even her mother faltered for the first time. But this time, it was Mogalamma who was determined to go to college. In the end, she had her way. The bus would halt long enough for her each day to clamber up its steep steps.
Around this time, a search was mounted in the village for an educated woman who could maintain the accounts and minutes of meetings of the village women’s thrift group or sangam. They could find no one else, so Mogalamma was offered the job. Her accounts and minutes soon were flawless and the women sangam members could not do without her. Accounts and tuitions occupied her in the afternoons when she returned from college.
In her last year in college, the family had a visitor, Gautam, who spoke to them of a new non-government initiative called “Commitments”, aiming to build organisations of disabled people. Her parents would not hear of her travelling to Hyderabad for the first training programme. But Mogalamma stubbornly fought with her parents for days. She sensed that this was the opportunity she was waiting for. Her parents had to submit finally.
The training programme was conducted by charismatic blind activist teacher Venkatesh. He spoke to them of how important it was for disabled people to claim their self-respect, self-worth and rights and that this could only be achieved by building organisations of disabled people. Because individually they may be invisible and powerless, but together their voice could not be ignored forever.
In these two weeks, Mogalamma found fresh sunlight streaming in through many new windows that opened up in her soul. She realised how rare and precious had been her fortune that her mother had believed so much in her and ensured that she must study against all odds. She learnt how much injustice other rural women with disabilities are forced to bear, and how little was the hope that they could nurture in their dispossessed undervalued lives. Mogalamma knew then that her lifetime’s work was cut out for her.
I met her some weeks back, 10 years after our first encounter, and found that she had evolved into a confident and accomplished leader of disabled people, known for her special passion to work with single disabled women. She helped build organisations of disabled persons, first as part of Commitments, and later as a state government employee. She was now studying for her Masters in social work. She was also learning computers. She chose not to marry, because she felt she did not need a man to complete her life. The disabled children she works for, she declared, are her children.
She is content with her work, taking care of her ageing parents, and supporting her young brother’s teacher-training course.
Her older brother was tragically killed in a local dispute, and her sister’s husband died of illness.
Her parents never imagined that one day Mogalamma would become the principal bread-earner of her entire joint family.