“I am S. Karaan. Subramaniam Karaan. Subramaniam, that’s my father. I am only child,” greets the 21-year-old. Apart from his bespectacled eyes, the tongue that lolls out ever-so-often and the unintended spring in his gait, what strikes you as soon as you meet Karaan is how quickly, and effortlessly, he becomes friends with you.
Born with a chromosomal defect, Trisomy 21, which is the most common form of Down syndrome, Karaan falls under the severe category and is 49 per cent mentally challenged. “I am a special child,” informs Karaan, casually. His parents found out about his condition when he was nine months old, owing to a perennial cold. “Such problems are common in children like him,” a nurse told his mother, Geetha Subramaniam, who realised then that her son would always be different from those around him. He’s grown up too, with many physical ailments — thyroid, bowed legs, onus foot and more — all characteristic of his chromosomal disorder. What is uncharacteristic, however, is all that he has accomplished.
A chess player, athlete, an actor and a basketball player, Karaan has excelled in many avenues, for as soon as his mother found out about his disability, she looked for ways to give him a normal life. “Children with Down syndrome have many talents; the challenge is to identify them and bring them to the fore,” she explains. Karaan was enrolled into behaviour modification , physiotherapy and speech therapy classes. His therapist, S. Soundararaja, helped identify his most dominant abilities, and so, he took courses to work on his cognitive, memory and social skills. He also participated in sports and fitness activities to prevent the weight gain common in children with Down syndrome. And all that he did for the sake of his physical and mental well-being has taken him far.
Karaan started playing basketball when he was nine years old, under the mentorship of ICF coach Shahul Hameed, to negate his atlantoaxial instability, which prevents one from holding the neck steady. His mother wanted him to pursue a sport that would require him to look up and aim high. The game not only helped rectify his posture, but also won him gold in the Special Olympics Asia-Pacific (2013) in basketball, gold in unified sports and bronze in basketball at the World Games (2015).
He started playing chess when he was 12 to improve his concentration and memory skills. In a few years, he started competing in inter-school, inter-collegiate and soon, district-and state-level championships, against those who do not share his disability. “It’s a very easy game. You just have to think where to move and how to attack. That’s all,” says Karaan. But he can’t compete at the National-level, simply because he has no competitor in this category, and was presented with an award for the same at the World Down Syndrome Congress that was held in the city, last month.
When he was 15, he started taking acting classes at G-Mime studio, to learn to express better. One day, cinematographer Santosh Sivan visited the studio, was thoroughly impressed with Karaan and asked if he would star in his upcoming project. He was trained for nine months to play the lead in the 2013 war drama, Inam . “I am hero. Everybody is fans now,” grins Karaan, who won the best actor in a supporting role award at the Behindwoods Gold Medals Awards ceremony, for his performance.
“You won’t believe the amount of humiliation we’ve been through,” says Karaan’s mother. Karaan studied in mainstream schools, but was shifted around because institutions were unwilling to give admission to such a child. Everytime he shifted schools, his mother would hang around the premises for the first six months, till he got accustomed to the new atmosphere.
The time, money and effort invested by his parents have been tremendous, but as Karaan repeatedly reaches for his mother’s outstretched hand with the guilelessness of a child, it isn’t hard to imagine what gave them the strength to keep the fight on. “Children with Down syndrome cannot be educated; they need to be trained, but Karaan is now doing well enough to be educated,” explains his mother, while his father adds that it was studying in mainstream schools, that has helped him grow up to be independent.
Now a second-year student of animation at Loyola College, studying there has won him more friends, and soon, will also give him a degree. “Boys, girls, everyone is there. I have many girl friends,” he grins. Karaan has the admiration of well-wishers and the love of family. He loves to sing, is always willing to dance and identifies himself as an artist. And though his disability is a big part of his identity, it only makes him that much more inspiring.