Pooja Raju is a fifteen-year-old girl with a ready, wide and charming smile. Psychologists measured her IQ to be 57, way below the average of 100.
And yet, at the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, she brought home three medals—a gold for the relay race, and silvers for the 100- and 200-metre sprints.
How did a girl, who at one time was barely coherent, grow to become a champion medal-winning athlete? Thereby hang many tales.
Pooja spent her early childhood in a village in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Her only memories of her childhood are of constant violence. Her mother, a domestic help, thrashed her continuously for low grades in school or for childish pranks. She recalls her father, a tailor, punishing her by suspending her from a ceiling fan. She could neither understand nor explain their unremitting cruelty to her.
But around the age of eight, she decided one day to run away. Without a rupee in her pocket, she mounted a bus to the district headquarters, and from there, took a train to Delhi. At the Delhi Railway Station, people gave her food, and she soon found her way to a drop-in shelter for street children run by an NGO. Her speech was halting and she could only incoherently try to explain her predicament to the rescue workers, who handed her to the police. The policemen were kind to her. They fed her and offered to look for her parents. But she was determined not to return home.
At the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, she brought home three medals—a gold for the relay race, and silvers for the 100- and 200-metre sprints.
She was presented to the Child Welfare Committee, and they ultimately sent her to Kilkari, a residential school for homeless girls near Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi, run by my colleagues in Aman Biradari.
Pooja's sunny temperament helped her settle into Kilkari effortlessly, and she made many friends. But in the bridge classes run by the Kilkari teachers, they realised quickly that she was unable to read, write and speak coherently. The counsellor tested her and concluded that she was intellectually challenged, and therefore would need special schooling.
There were four other homeless girls at the home, with similar problems. After a long search, an organisation called Amar Jyoti was found, which ran a magnificent holistic and inclusive school for children with a wide range of physical and mental challenges.
It was a long distance away, in Karkardooma, but the Kilkari team hired a reliable autorickshaw to take the children to Amar Jyoti each day. They did not want them to move away into a residential special school. Except for their schooling, Pooja and her schoolmates were an integral part of all that transpired in Kilkari.
Pooja blossomed in Amar Jyoti. Her speech became clear, and she discovered a love for dancing. But her real talent turned out to be for sports. 'I enjoy carrom and badminton,' she said. 'But it is in running that I like to win.'
The school entered her for state-level and then national special sports events, and she trounced her competition effortlessly in all of these. She was then recruited into the national team, and went through a flurry of training camps in many cities. She was finally selected to represent India in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games held at Los Angeles.
Getting her a passport was a challenge, but the effort was successful with help from every corner.
She came to meet me before leaving for Los Angeles. I told her, first, to take care of herself, to not allow anyone to touch her body. She said I need not worry, she knew how to protect herself. I then told her that winning was not important, and she should not be disappointed if she failed to win a medal.
I don't remember if I did, but I hope I also told her to have fun!
In the 2015 Special Olympics at Los Angeles, around 6,500 athletes—children and adults with intellectual disabilities—participated from 177 countries. They competed in aquatics, gymnastics, track and field, basketball, football and many other summer sports. Every sports event was a joyous celebration of human courage and perseverance, as participants reached and pushed further the frontiers of human endurance and abilities.
More importantly, they crossed the even greater barriers of the stigma and humiliation they suffered because of their disabilities.
The Indian contingent returned home with 173 medals—the biggest medal haul after the United States and China.
But, remarkably, we barely noticed.
After Pooja returned, she said she enjoyed her first airplane flight, but was disappointed that she did not get a window seat. She loved everything about the United States, she added, except the food, and the fact that people wore clothes that were too short! She made friends with a Chinese girl, but forgot to ask the girl her name.
The Indian contingent returned home with 173 medals—the biggest medal haul after the United States and China. But, remarkably, we barely noticed.
Back in India, we planned a celebration to felicitate her on winning three medals. She was very clear about what she wanted—drummers with dholaks of the kind which received their contingent at Delhi Airport when they returned victorious. Momos. And a DJ. The Kilkari team bargained with her that they could afford the first two, but not the third. She agreed, if they could dance to the drummers. It was a deal.
As we waited for the drummers to arrive, we recalled together her years with us. 'I want to be a champion,' she declared. I asked if she would like us to now look for her parents, even to just meet them once. 'No,' she said firmly. She was clear that she never wanted to see them ever again.
As we were speaking, the loud beat of the drummers could be heard, and she ran happily outside. It was raining heavily that afternoon. The home was flooded. But nothing could dampen the excitement of Pooja and her friends.
As I watched them dance in the slush and rain, interrupted briefly by steaming momos, Pooja at the centre wearing her medals, I felt that somewhere, something was at least a little right.
Excerpted from Invisible People: Stories of Hope and Courage (paperback, Rs 250) by Harsh Mander, with permission from Duckbill.
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