The Weight of Love

Arun Shourie writes about bringing up his son Aditya, afflicted with cerebral palsy for many years now, in his new book, Does He know a mother’s heart? (HarperCollins). Adit’s pain and that of the author’s wife Anita, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, leads him to ask: how can there be extreme suffering if God exists? Suffering, he says, refutes religion. Exclusive excerpts:

Your neighbours have a son. He is now thirty-five years old. Going by his age you would think of him as a young man, and, on meeting his mother or father, would ask, almost out of habit, ‘And what does the young man do?’ That expression, ‘young man’, doesn’t sit well as he is but a child. He cannot walk. Indeed, he cannot stand. He cannot use his right arm. He can see only to his left. His hearing is sharp, as is his memory. But he speaks only syllable by syllable…

The father shouts at him. He curses him: ‘You are the one who brought misery into our home… We knew no trouble till you came. Look at you — weak, dependent, drooling, good for nothing…’ Nor does the father stop at shouting at the child, at pouring abuse at him, at cursing the child. He beats him. He thrashes him black and blue… As others in the family try to save the child from the father’s rage, he leaps at them. Curses them, hits out at them.

What would you think about that damned father? Wouldn’t you report him to the police or some such authority that can lock him up? Wouldn’t you try everything you can to remove the child from the reach of the father?

But what if the father is The Father — the ‘T’ and ‘F’ capital, both words italicised? That is, what if the ‘father’ in question is ‘God’?

Why does the perspective of so many of us change at once? Suddenly, they exclaim, ‘There must be some reason God has done this.’ Suddenly, they shift the blame to that poor child: ‘Must have done something terrible in his previous life to deserve such hardship . . .’

And yet the child loves. He laughs. He is filled with joy at the littlest things — a tape of Talat Mahmood, lunch at a restaurant, the visit of an aunt or a cousin… What are we to conclude? That the cruelties rained upon him by his father have ‘built his character’? That they have instilled forbearance? Are we to infer, ‘See, while to us the father seems cruel, in fact he never inflicts more hardship on the son than the son can bear’?

Were we to say and infer as much, that would be not just obnoxious, it would be perverse. And yet those are the exact things that, as we shall see, a revered religious text says about God: He inflicts hardship upon us to build our character; He never imposes more hardship on a person than the latter can bear.

But that child is our son — Aditya, our life. Adit is thirty-five now. He cannot walk or stand. He can see only from the left side of his eyes. He cannot use his right arm or hand. He speaks syllable by syllable. Yet he laughs — you can hear his laughter three houses away. He enjoys going out to restaurants. He loves the songs of Talat Mahmood, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. There are some songs, though, the moment they commence, we have to rush and turn off the tape — he is so moved by them that he starts sobbing. There are others which he identifies with himself:Tu aake mujhe pehchaan zaraa Main dil hoon ik armaan bharaa . . .. . .Muskaan lutaataa chal Tu deep jalaataa chal Khud bhi sambhal Auron ko bhi raah dikhlaa…

‘Mere baare mein,’ he declares with joy — and laughs even more as in our rendering the last line has been altered to ‘Papa ko bhi raah dikhlaa…’

He loves these singers and their songs. He loves even more the tapes that his grandparents made for him, and the tapes that his uncles and cousins make for him now. He doesn’t watch television — moving images bother him. But he does listen to the news over the radio. The newspaper is read to him — among the things he calls himself is the ‘ghar kaa samvaad-daataa’. He loves poems being read to him. Seeing Adit’s spirit, and how many of his poems Adit knew by heart, Ashok Chakradhar has gifted him many of his books, and even dedicated one to him. Every time you read the books, you have to begin at the very first page, not just the title page, but the very first, blank page — for on them Ashok Chakradhar has written many an endearment —‘Pyaare, ati pyaare Aditya ke liye . . .’ And if, while reading the poems, you pronounce even a syllable wrong, he hoots with joy, ‘Galti’. That was one of my father’s favourite games with Adit. He would deliberately make a little mistake, and Adit would catch him out — hoot, and laugh, beaming with triumph… He loves everyone. Everyone in the family loves him. His maternal grandmother, Malti Shukla, was his life. He is ours.

And that God just does not stop pounding this helpless, defenceless child…

ADIT COMES

…A premature child. Barely four pounds. In distress. Placed in an incubator. As they could not locate a vein in his tiny arms, the doctors had stuck needles through his scalp… A horrible sight for us… His sugar level is not stabilising, some nurse came and said to us. ‘Will you please sign these forms for a blood transfusion?’…

Three days went by. A Pakistani lady doctor used to visit Anita to check up on her. I am not supposed to tell you, she said, and I will lose my job if they come to know I have told you, but something has happened. Insufficient supply of oxygen in the incubator…

Anita came back to our home in Alexandria. Adit stayed on in the incubator. For an entire month. A horrible month.

“The child will finish your life as you have known it, may finish your life altogether,’ a senior at the World Bank said to me one day. He was a cheerful, warm-hearted person, but was speaking from first-hand knowledge as he had been bringing up a mentally handicapped son. ‘The doctors may well tell you, “We can do little more for the child.” And ask you, “Are you desperate that he lives?” When they do so, don’t let your emotions come in the way. Do you know what you will have to go on doing for the boy — not just now or for a few years but as long as the child lives?…’

That evening I reported the conversation to Anita and my mother-in-law. A person of iron-will, my mother-in-law said, ‘That is just not the case. Handicapped children live perfectly useful lives these days…’

Three months later we were advised to take the child to the head of paediatric neurology at the Georgetown University Hospital [in Washington]. We were exhausted, felled. The doctor was a kind, elderly gentleman. ‘I am going to use a word that you would have heard — it is used a lot these days to raise money. The word is cerebral palsy. It only means that the baby’s brain has suffered injury…’

We were too stunned to ask what exactly this was going to mean for our Adit’s future. I told the doctor, ‘We had planned to return to India. But if you feel that, for the sake of the child, we should stay on in Washington, of course we will. I will take back my resignation from the World Bank.’

‘I have not been to your country, young man,’ that kind doctor said. ‘If you are here, all that we will be able to do will be to tell you how your son is faring against the milestones. But as observant parents you will notice that yourselves…’

‘I have not been to your country, as I said,’ he continued. ‘But from what I have heard, you have strong, well-knit families there. That is what this child will need as he grows up — a net of love and security. So, if I were you, I would stick to your decision, return to your country, and bring him up in the embrace of your family.’

Among the wisest bits of advice we ever received.

We returned to India. We stayed with our parents. Soon, Anita’s mother came to stay with us…Adit became the centre of many lives.

THE SCHOOL

Adit was growing up. Shanti-amma, his maid, would sing to him, tell him stories, take him to the park. She was ever so possessive of him — always ticking off anyone who expressed the slightest doubt about Adit’s condition, or who uttered a word of pity or condescension. My mother-in-law would teach him — from news, to stories, to rhyming games, to poems, to arithmetic. ‘But why arithmetic, Mummy?’ I would remonstrate. ‘Why make him do sums? Why make him learn tables? He is never going to use them.’ ‘But just see his sense of achievement when he gets the answer right,’ she would teach me. ‘And he learns fast. He has excellent memory.’

….One day, as Anita was driving Adit and herself to school, a jeep coming in the opposite direction lost control. It rammed into Anita’s little Fiat. She and Adit were tossed inside the car. They were shaken, of course, but neither seemed to be badly hurt.

Soon after the accident, however, Anita began to feel peculiar sensations on her left side. We thought the problem was a ‘frozen shoulder’. But soon, the stiffness and pain developed into tremors… One doctor after another… Eventually she was diagnosed as having developed Parkinson’s disease. She was just about forty-two at the time — another one of those ‘one in ten million’ blows.

By now the tremors have spread to the right side also. Every time Anita does something with her hands — for instance, when she eats — her legs flail uncontrollably. That is dyskinesia, another one of those words with which our circumstances have enlarged our vocabulary. The symptoms became worse every winter. This winter — of 2009, in which I begin working on this book about Adit and her — Anita has fallen four times…

With my parents having passed away, with Maltiji also having gone, I am now the servant-in-chief, not just of Adit but of the two of them. The help of many friends and relatives sees us through the day. But more than anything, Anita’s strength and equanimity keep us afloat. ‘I had another toss today,’

I heard her tell her sister the other day, describing a fall so bad that we were lucky she had not fractured her skull. And so helpless and shocked was she that, while there was an alarm bell next to where she lay, she could not reach out to it. She now wears another alarm on her wrist… Even though this is her own condition, she manages the entire household; she husbands our savings; she runs everything so that every need of Adit is met — at once; and so that I am absolutely free to do my work.

‘We have to be thankful for an ordinary, boring, eventless day,’ Anita taught me long ago.

Her fortitude is a daily, ever-present example of another one of the lessons she taught me once: ‘You have to remember, there are many types of courage.’

My father’s courage as he evacuated Hindus in July-August 1947 out of Lahore — where he was City Magistrate at the time. The courage with which he settled, comforted and on occasion quelled the raging refugees in camps across Punjab. My mother’s courage as she comforted her mother and father when they lost a young son, as husbands deserted two of their daughters. My mother-in-law’s courage as she went on looking after all of us even as rheumatoid arthritis twisted and turned and crippled her hands and feet.

Malini’s courage, Veena’s courage evident in the dignity and fortitude with which they have borne blows of unimaginable severity, faced life, brought up their children single-handed, and, on top of it, continued working… Here we are: we get so puffed up just because we have stood up to some authority-of-the-moment. And here are these girls: they have stood up to life itself.

‘But I will never get over what God has done to Adit,’ Anita says. How true:Ghaayal ki gati ghaayal jaane Jauhar ki gati jauhar…

Copyright@Arun Shourie 2011

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