I’ve known Justin Vijay Jesudas since 2007, when he was my colleague. He is a good friend now. He has been famous in our circles for being the life and soul of any party, the enthusiastic one in the office, someone who received multiple promotions, the favourite of bosses and colleagues alike.
By December 2009, I had moved on to another company in Chennai and called Justin a little before Christmas to wish him a merry holiday season. When his wife answered the phone and told me that he was in the hospital since he had met with an accident, I was shocked. But even then I didn’t realise the gravity of his injuries. Over time, I spoke to a mutual friend who told me that Justin would have to be in a wheelchair for life. It took me a long time to digest this and truly believe it.
I wanted to visit him, but he kept visitors away and focused on getting better. He took his physiotherapy sessions very seriously.
Meanwhile, I’ve always had a weight problem since the time Justin has known me. A couple of years down the line, with guidance from a friend, I worked on losing weight for the first time in my life. I didn’t know how to react when Justin called me and congratulated me on my weight loss, even trying to motivate me to lose more weight by promising me a book or a present every time I lost three kgs.
I realised then that most people are bogged down by trivial problems while Justin faces insurmountable challenges with a positive attitude and even goes out of his way to motivate others.
He has never once complained or sounded depressed while talking to me. Obviously, he would have gone through a gamut of negative emotions, but he has overcome them on his own without spreading any gloom. I am ashamed to say that I have often whined about small things but am proud that my friend has never been that way.
It is this indomitable spirit that differentiates Justin from ordinary people. And it is this spirit that has shone through in his recovery.
Imagine my surprise when he called me and said he was planning to drive to Bangalore! I know of people who have merely scratched their cars and been afraid to drive for weeks after that. I myself do not drive as I am afraid of traffic. I was nearly speechless that after such a horrific accident, he was able to get right back up.
From being completely immobile after the accident, he has won four gold medals in the State Paralympic Swimming Championship, taken part in special fashion shows for people with disability, played wheelchair basketball, participated in wheelchair marathons, done scuba diving in Kovalam, come to visit me in his modified car all the way to Vandalur in the outskirts of Chennai, where I stay, been a guest on a Chennai Radio channel, and a host of other things that many people without disabilities wouldn’t do either. He’s now a celebrity. He’s even been featured in The Hindu.
In paralympic swimming, athletes with physical disabilities are classified from S1 to S10, where S1 is for the ones who have the most disability, S10 is for the ones who have the least. Justin is an S2 class athlete since his disability is severe. He took part in the freestyle 50m and 100m and backstroke 50m and 100m. He won gold in all the four events.
Justin says, “All those years ago, I did not have the choice to do away with my disability but I had a choice as to how to live with it. At every stage, there were challenges – physical, mental, social and architectural barriers. The swimming pool was inaccessible; the travel was 40 km, waking up to a spastic frozen body, sympathetic stares and so on. I saw only the possibilities to overcome them.”
“What can I say? While the world around finds excuses to disable themselves from doing something, I find reasons to enable myself. There’s a scientific calculator for measuring disability, there aren’t any for ability!” he adds
Justin is an inspiration to all of us, who do not face 90% of the challenges he does, but are lazy and find excuses. His story is a triumph of mind over matter, of the spirit over body. It shows us that a strong will can overcome all the odds. Every time I talk to him, I try to remember that my friend has overcome so many challenges. After having a cheerful conversation with him, one is likely to forget that behind his cheerful demeanour lies a story of struggle, pain, challenges, frustration, and heartbreak.
We often look to public figures and celebrities for inspiration. Famous basketball players or sportsmen, actors and writers, without realising that sometimes, heroes reside in who we call ‘ordinary people’ – our neighbours, friends, relatives or colleagues. And until the story is highlighted for people to know about, they remain unsung heroes.
I’m glad Justin’s story is reaching people. But the more people it reaches, the better I’ll feel.