‘My body also has needs’

The just-released Margarita with a Straw highlights the issue of sexuality and the disabled. Why can’t society be inclusive rather than indifferent, ask disability-rights activists.

May 09, 2015 03:39 pm | Updated 08:33 pm IST

Kalki Koechlin in Margarita With A Straw.

Kalki Koechlin in Margarita With A Straw.

Dip Dip is the naughtiest child in school. She plays with the monkeys, starts most of the food fights. And she whizzes through the corridors, simply because it is fun! When my six-year-old read Dip Dip’s story, he laughed at her funny faces and loved her mischievous ways. He barely noticed that Dip Dip is wheelchair-bound. In real life, he doesn’t know anyone like Dip Dip, the heroine of the children’s book, Catch That Cat , by Chennai-based Tulika publishers.

In reel life though, Laila, from the just-released Margarita with a Straw, exemplifies Dip Dip’s spirit and sass. Laila could well be Dip Dip’s older sister. And the movie could quite easily be a portrayal of what is in store for the little girl as she grows into adulthood, becomes aware of her changing body’s needs and experiences the constraints society places on her. Because in real life, children like Dip Dip learn soon enough that they are not like others; when people look at them, they see only the disability.

That is what Preethi Srinivasan found out when an accident changed her life. Srinivasan (35) was born “in control of her body”. She was a star sportsman, a charismatic teen. “People admired me. When my peers interacted with me, I used to see appreciation in their eyes, even flirtation.” A freak accident at age 18 left her paralysed below the neck. Life changed. And people around her changed. “They looked at me with pity. Or studiously ignored me.” Srinivasan had to grapple with her changed circumstances. And drum up the courage to face the world. “I had panic attacks at the thought of going outside, meeting people”, she recalls. Today, she lives in Thiruvannamalai and runs Soulfree, a foundation that helps and creates awareness on the severely disabled, especially quadriplegics and paraplegics. Laila in Margarita with a Straw speaks for people like her, she says.

India has 21.9 million people with disabilities as per the 2001 Census, though actual numbers are probably higher. Yet they are largely invisible. No effort has been made to address their concerns and desires, their needs, their aspirations for love and marriage. Mainly because the disabled are mostly considered asexual beings, or their sexual rights deemed unimportant, points out the 2010 report ‘Sexuality and Disability in the Indian Context’ from New Delhi-based TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues). The report notes that in a society with a premium on beauty, youth and fitness, people with visible disabilities are particularly stigmatised. Things get even more complicated and heartbreaking when it comes to sexual identity, and needs. “Parents of girls are more concerned with managing menstruation and safeguarding them from abuse. Parents of adolescent boys worry about controlling activities such as masturbation and touching of either their own or other boys’ genitals. At the same time, because of negative societal attitudes to sexuality, these parents do not have any access to services, and no way of addressing such concerns,” the report points out.

But can society be inclusive rather than indifferent, embracing than exclusive? Dr. Kshama Metre and her Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD) in Kangra Valley, in Himachal Pradesh, show that is possible. This beautiful land, with its Buddhist influence and shrines dating back to Vedic times, is so much more than splendidly picturesque. It is also where Laila would feel right at home. Here, seeks to make rural men and women self-reliant, and aims to rehabilitate/integrate the disabled into the community. Today, CORD works with around 460 people with disabilities in the valley. These men and women, unless severely disabled or with progressively deteriorating conditions, invariably get married, work and live fulfilling lives.

But the journey to inclusion has not been easy. Physical and sexual abuse of the disabled occurs; families often arrange marriages of convenience; at times, alliances happen because the government gives Rs. 25,000 to a person who marries a disabled man or woman, Dr. Metre points out. But what is important here is that the disabled are not made to feel different.

Such acceptance is easier in small communities, observes Shampa Sengupta, a disability rights activist who runs Sruti Disability Rights Centre in Kolkata. “In a community where everyone is of the same social standing, expectations are lower. In cities, people are identified and judged by labels — their social standing, education, income. Then a disability becomes an additional barrier, an additional stigma.”

That stigma is what Dinesh Gupta, a Delhiite with cerebral palsy, experiences every day, Simple joys are often denied to the disabled, he points out. Which is why he started Friends Organisation. His NGO extends support to the disabled but also organises fun events — celebrating New Years’, going to see a movie, setting out on picnics and excursions... Yet Gupta, like Laila, hungers for companionship and love. “If we say we want to get married, our families respond that we are already a burden; that our spouses will run away. If parents (and the society at large) think that way, why didn’t they simply kill us when we were born?”

Sreenivasan too has desires and dreams but is aware these may never be realised. “I am a woman. My body also has needs.” Laila’s character voices her feelings, she says, “because most people with disabilities are in survival mode every day. Feelings of love, the need for companionship, the desire to have a family, experience motherhood… are luxuries for us.”

Since she has experienced life as a “regular” person, Sreenivasan also has a unique perspective on how society treats the positively-abled (the term she prefers). “Today I am a cripple and yet I feel whole. Sometimes, I feel I am more at peace then the ‘regular’ people around me,” she smiles.

In the film, Laila goes to New York and learns about herself, and her sexuality. In my son’s book, Dip Dip sets off in her wheelchair to look for Kaapi, her friend’s missing kitten. She finds Kaapi, peering fearfully from a tree. Without a thought, Dip Dip steers her wheelchair close to the tree, reaches out to a branch and pulls herself up. And rescues Kaapi.

Dip Dip, you see, is already at ease with her disability. Just like how, in reel-life, Laila is at ease with her body, her loves and her life. Perhaps by the time Dip Dip grows up, society will too. For more information:

>www.soulfree.org ; >www.tarshi.org ; >http://friendsorganisation.info/ ; >http://www.cord.org.in/

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