using public transport, crossing the road, my first ever independent shopping experience and even my first time riding pillion with a friend on her scooter.
As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, I had been (much to my annoyance) sheltered greatly by my mother to the point where I wasn’t sure what I would do, unaccompanied in public spaces. But as will all things there is a first time for everything. So it was with me.
On an especially rainy evening in June 2015, I found out I’d gotten into St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. This would’ve been an occasion to celebrate for anyone else. After all, I’d done fairly well on my exams and “made it” as we starry eyed teens looking for the fun Bollywood-esque “college life” experience would have described it. But for me, this spelled a host of new challenges, that I was certainly anticipating but didn’t recognize the gravity of what lay ahead (well, who am I kidding? Perhaps I did, but I didn’t want it to dampen my spirits.)
Me with my friend who took me on the Andheri Local Train
(Ironically on Independence Day in 2018)
How would I travel over forty two kilometers from home, I wondered, in a city whose trains were brimming with harried, hasty commuters, permanently in a rush to get on this multi-compartment colonial monstrosity that whistled its way past me nonchalantly? It was almost like the train mocked me, for my inability to be among the extremely determined, agile horde that pushed its way into the compartment, something of a rat race worse than any exam I’d ever taken. People jostled right past me, and I heard the whistle blow and the train move, realizing my feet were still rooted in place on the platform, almost like the roots of a tree unyielding despite my desperate brain riding them to lift me into the train in front of me. For the first time in my entire life, I truly understood the meaning of what my surgeon had told my mother seventeen years ago - the weight of his words “ She’s living with an intelligent mind trapped in a stubbornly disobedient body” dawned on me at the ripe old age of eighteen.
A week later, at the insistence of my worried parents, I unwillingly hauled myself into a cab and headed to college. But dare had other plans, and as the old Bollywood adage goes, I found a way to get what I always wanted - a “normal” college travel experience. After some hesitation, I found my place in the hordes of students at Xavier’s - the imposing Gothic structure stared down at me, yet another dreamy eyed hopeful young person, waded (or should I say waddled?) my way through the hordes of students - to the notice bird with my timetable. My classrooms were mostly on the terrace, where the ancient 18th century teakwood elevator didn’t go. So I clambered my way up the narrow staircase and finally entered the class and even crossed the busy streets near CST by myself with a triumphant air about me, as if I’d just experienced my life’s greatest victory.
College Farewell! 2018
It’s been 6 years since that day, and I’ve almost mastered all modes of public transport, except the local train. The turn of events came three years later, when (rather ironically) around Independence Day in 2018, when my set of equally adventurous and (my professors and my petrified mother would agree) rebellious friends, who against their better judgment took me on the train with them. We had to come up with the safest plan and my rather ingenious friends decided to board from Vile Parle (a slow train station and therefore less crowded one). I was barely done taking a horde of pictures from the train (window seat, of course) when the women in the compartment began noticing my unflinchingly gleeful grin, realising with some amusement, that this was my first time.
Just before I received my degree! Graduation Day, 23rd June 2018
When I finally built enough confidence to defy the cautioning words of concerned teachers and peers, I went on a solo trip to the metro, which was a pleasant surprise, as it had ramps with banisters that led up to elevators that took me directly to ticketing booths and the platform. It was less crowded and the magnetic doors meant that unlike trains, there was safety and no possibility of me being pushed off the train. The added thrill of doing this without anyone’s knowledge only inflated my sense of accomplishment.
This episode only served to embolden me, and I soon found myself in a series of firsts. I realised that despite its uncertain frequency, BEST buses were a safer mode of transport, because the front entrance meant the driver saw me and didn’t start until I’d slowly hauled my way up the steep steps. My seemingly “normal” appearance when I was seated meant I drew hateful stares from elderly people, who felt I was “using” their reserved seat, until sending my embarrassment, fellow travellers explained I was disabled. Thereon, it almost felt like yet another contest - a contest of whose suffering was “greater” and therefore, deserved the comfort of being seated on this bumpy long ride home. Initially , despite the vehement protests of fellow travellers, I gave up my seat for these elderly people, until some neurotypical adult guiltily (albeit begrudgingly) relinquished his back end seat for me.
Loitering at Maritime Gardens, Mumbai
Loitering at the Upvan Lake in Thane
These seemingly innocuous struggles made me realise how inaccessible the city was for someone like me. Staircases and even ramps to most public buildings had no banisters, impossibly high and broken footpaths, overcrowded trains and no elevators meant I needed help with a lot of spaces. Naturally, this meant I wasn’t truly as “independent” as I’d imagined. As a woman who bought into the narrative of female independence as a prerequisite to be a true feminist, this did make me feel hypocritical, particularly when I needed to use wheelchairs at museums or airports to avoid missing out on my flight.
My first time wearing the safety hazard better known as the saree at Traditional Day in college
But that got me thinking about spaces and how much easier it is being able-bodied in a country as unaccepting of difference as ours. It made me rethink a lot of things - such as my understanding of the word “disability”. Was I truly disabled by my body, or by the system and the infrastructure around me, that held no consideration for my needs? After all, healthy bodies are ephemeral. Everyone will age, fall ill, or otherwise need assistance at some point. What’s to become of us when the frailty of age or infirmity catches up with all neurotypicals in a society that is so capitalist that it only prizes the productivity and financial viability of our bodies?
About the author- Candice Dsouza is a young therapist who lives with cerebral pasly. She loves reading and talking about everything ranging from politics, social justice, disability rights to the newest TV shows. She thoroughly enjoys the thrill she derives from taking risky local train ridesin Mumbai and drinking countless cups of Iced Tea!