By Vinayana Khurana:
“Don’t forget the wheelchair!” I squealed with excitement from the car while waiting for my parents to drop me off to college. It was a cloudy day (as I like it!) and the day of my college trip, and my friends and I did not sleep a wink all night. Only one thought kept recurring in my mind, “How beautiful would The Taj Mahal be? Would I be able to see it in proper light?” And as I lay in my bed thinking about it, the sun rose.
Ten of us from the same class – Siddhi, Nisha, Sandhya, Suparva, Priya Saklani, Shweta Sharma, Priya Nagar, Vaishnavi, Vidushi and myself, were going and as instructed, we reached half an hour early. In the middle of our chattering, we were told to board the bus. I suddenly grew very attentive and slightly tense; I now needed to request help in folding my wheelchair in a proper way. It was a new experience for my friends, and once they had followed my instructions, carefully, I felt relieved. It was my first year at Vivekananda College in Delhi, and my friends were trying to know each other. But more importantly, they were trying to know me and my disability better (I have cerebral palsy, which impairs the control of some body movements). So, this trip could give me the opportunity to mix around with friends as well as teachers. I felt grateful that my college had not objected to me taking this trip (subconsciously, rejection is something I have come to expect. Perhaps this is why I find myself often apologising to people around me. If a person talks to me with a smile, I feel gratitude).
As the bus started its engine, we roared “Jai Mata Di”, an Indian tradition of proclaiming God’s name before any trip. We played songs and games and it was a delight to know my seniors, who were very helpful as well as encouraging. On reaching, we got to know that we had to take an electronic-rickshaw; cars and buses are not allowed around the Taj Mahal, as this would increase pollution, which is harmful for the marble. So, my teachers planned to put my wheelchair on one rickshaw and get someone to sit along with me to prevent it from falling. It was a little difficult for me to board the rickshaw because of its height, but my friends helped me and we somehow managed. As we started our journey towards the Taj Mahal, my eyes were filled with astonishment by the beauty and grandeur of the Mahal’s structure. As we moved closer, it appeared to be moving towards us. It was as if I had seen the most beautiful thing in the world, and I couldn’t help but just stare.
When we alighted from the rickshaw, one of the girls pushed my wheelchair towards the Mahal. But on reaching the building, we realised that while it had a ramp, it was unusable; the slant was much steeper than usual. As a result, wheelchair kept sliding back each time my friends pushed it forward. Eventually, they got tired, and we took the help of our male teachers who carried me and the wheelchair up the stairs. When we reached the main tomb, I felt relieved. I had made it to the most beautiful monument in the world!
As I wheeled around with our group, the travel guide shared that the Taj Mahal was built in such a way that if ever an earthquake were to occur, the four minars would bend outwards, so as not to fall on the main tomb. I can never resist sharing this fascinating fact. Yet, strangely, even though we were at possibly, the most astonishing monument on earth, it was I who was the centre of attraction; my lecturers kept quizzing me about my well-being. “Are you hungry or thirsty?” or “Are you feeling tired?”. It made me realise that they really cared, and this gave me a good feeling. My only issue was that I had difficulty with the public toilets; they were neither maintained nor accessible! Many public toilets are slippery and everybody has to risk their life to use one! As for me, to go to the washroom is simply beyond question.
At lunchtime, we discovered that the nearby restaurant had no ramp. Once again my classmates had to help me. And even when we sat down to have our lunch, I found that the level of the table at the restaurant was higher than my wheelchair. This made it very difficult for me to eat my food on my own, and my friends had to feed me.
For me, this was most disheartening – that Agra, one of the major cities for tourism in India, is inaccessible to wheelchair users. I have my dignity, and so do many wheelchair users like me who don’t wish to be a burden on others every time there’s a step in the way.
As an avid wheelchair wanderer, I have also had the chance to observe the attitudes of people, quite closely (though they may not even realise it!). Many behave most strangely around a wheelchair. Some look very uncomfortable. Some simply stare as if they have seen a flying saucer. And many ask silly questions. Some of the silliest are: ‘Is she not able to walk?’ , ‘Is she able to understand me?’ , ‘Can she speak?’ The questions, I noticed, are almost always, never addressed to me. Perhaps, because they think I am one brainless creature! Some people start interrogating me right away about my physical condition. When I say that I have Cerebral Palsy, they think that there’s some problem with the way I think. The most cruel question, however, is this – ‘Why did you bring her here?’ Hello, do I, as a citizen, not have a right to travel in my own country?
No doubt such experiences dampen my spirits for a little while. However, a true traveller, has a seeking spirit; she never stops and never loses hope, so how can I? I am a traveller on a wheelchair and I will continue finding new paths and undiscovered places to visit. And one day, people will become accustomed to seeing me on the road, and all they will see is my boundless passion for travelling.