Being 'Normal'

13/03/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Central Oregon Coast

This is a true story narrated to the author by a person with a health condition. That person's name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Hi, I'm Violet. I'm your everyday seemingly 'normal' 23-year-old, working at a multinational corporation. Everything seems pretty nice and ordinary about me except the fact that I have epilepsy. I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 13. I thought it was just another illness and never understood why everyone at home asked me never to disclose the same. However, I never concealed this fact as I thought there was nothing to be furtive about. I had committed no crime. I realised my mistake pretty soon when I overheard a group of boys at school joking about how people who visit neurologists are 'abnormal' and 'insane', making references to me and my medical condition.

"I am not suffering from epilepsy; it is this 'normal' society which has caused me to suffer from it and made me an equivocator."

As I became older, I realised my medical condition was different from other maladies. Other diseases were 'socially acceptable', mine was a taboo. If I told the truth, I would be subject to discrimination and stigma that could never be obliterated. It seems strange but a brutally honest person like me was condemned to live a lie by one seizure. As I graduated with flying colours from a college, which has one of the lowest acceptance rates in this country, I faced my first battle with the 'normal society'. The fitness test for the corporation that had recruited me contained a clause: "Person to be non-epileptic". Goddesses of Fate being on my side, I never underwent a CT scan or an EEG. This made me wonder -- I have a relaxed desk job, with no iota of stress or arduousness, my grades in school as well as college have been exemplary, yet I am denied my right to equality.

My fears were not ephemeral. They manifested themselves in the form of marriage proposals. I resisted them despite my family telling me that it is 'normal' to get married at my age; after all it is an unwritten rule in our society that everyone should get married while they are in their twenties. The immanent question has always remained: to tell or not to tell that I have epilepsy. The former option would ward off interested men and the latter would render my marriage voidable. The omnipresent qualm my family has is whether despite my qualifications, affable personality, intelligence, I will be accepted by any man in India. If any man is kind enough to accept me, I may be bartered off to him, however unwilling I may be.

"Other diseases were 'socially acceptable', mine was a taboo. "

Epilepsy is not recognised as a disability under the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995, hence the bar against discrimination is not applicable to people having epilepsy. The archaic Mental Health Act 1970 is ambiguous when it comes to the definition of mental health and whether epilepsy is a component of it. It was only in 1999 that persons having epilepsy were allowed to marry under the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 and the Special Marriage Act 1954. I may be having right to equality under Articles 14, 15, 16 of the Constitution and right to life and liberty under Article 21, but in practice, I am denied the same. Rules framed by States under Factories Act 1948 allow the employer to terminate the services of the employee if he/she is 'medically unfit', the term being couched in a vague manner, thus open to many constructions, mainly majoritarian (or interpretations by 'normal' human beings). The lone silver lining has been the Mental Health Care Bill 2013 which states that mental illness shall not be determined on the basis of non-conformity with moral, social, cultural, or religious beliefs prevailing in a person's community.

In a country that I have grown to love, I mourn the fact that I am subjected to egregious discrimination and have no de facto Fundamental Rights. I have realised that well entrenched customs and societal norms have the force of law or manifest themselves in flawed laws and thus, supersede the Constitution. Having studied Science, I find it incomprehensible to decipher as to why persons having epilepsy are considered abnormal by all and sundry. I am not suffering from epilepsy; it is this 'normal' society which has caused me to suffer from it and made me an equivocator. Who lays down the definition of being normal? Historically, it has always been the dominant class which defines and gives form and substance to linguistic terms. It is my misfortune that being a subaltern, I do not comply with their definitions and thus am abnormal.

"The immanent question has always remained: to tell or not to tell that I have epilepsy. The former option would ward off interested men and the latter would render my marriage voidable. "

The perpetual question looming in my mind has always been: Why is it essential to get married? Are unmarried people abnormal? Marriage, to me, is nothing but a transaction, in which the woman assumes the place of a commodity, her flaws and qualities are weighed on an uneven scale and she is bartered off to anyone who expresses any interest in her. As equality can only operate in a level playing field, I, being an epileptic woman, should happily accept whoever 'takes' me, irrespective of my emotions. However, I ask, what about my own aspirations, desires and autonomy? Does society care about that? Or does my biology affix me to a predetermined destiny i.e. an absence of human rights? Until a long time I thought human rights are inherent in human beings but my faith in rights is constantly disturbed by patriarchal sex stereotypes and hegemonic definitions.

Is it 'abnormal' to contest legitimacy of definitions, conventional norms and traditions? Who lays down these conventions? All I know is that my endeavours to subvert hegemony have made me abnormal. Nevertheless, my interest in knowing what is normal remains unhindered. As the violets in my surroundings remain indifferent to herbicides, I remember my Science lessons that violets, being perennial plants, never wither away. I am one of them.

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