“Welcome to Haal Chhero Na Bondhu! This is your favourite channel and I… am RJ Den!”
So begins Sayomdeb Mukherjee every morning from his wheelchair, talking into the microphone at Kolkata’s Friends FM studio, his voice as crisp as his shirt. Mukherjee, or ‘Den’ as he’s called by listeners and friends, hosts a show which can now be dubbed ‘interesting’ after actor Aamir Khan has made social causes cool. But unlike Khan, 31-year-old RJ Den is not a celebrity, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. In fact, his mundane hairdo and bespectacled, pencil-mustached face almost give you a ‘village simpleton’ vibe. However, this RJ is nothing short of a hero, for he spoke his first words only after turning 25.
‘Haal Chhero Na Bondhu’, which translates to ‘Never give up, friend’, is a slot when listeners call, text or write in with their problems, keen to seek RJ Den’s solutions or simply his keen ear. Den hadn’t dreamt of having this work profile through his childhood, growing up with what was believed to be ‘neuromuscular dystrophy’, a disorder that impairs the functioning of muscle groups. “I was very ambitious when I was young too; I couldn’t attend school as the teachers wouldn’t get my speech, so I started watching cartoons to learn English,” he tells us. He wasn’t totally mute in expression though, as the AAC, the Augmentative Alternative Communication method (spell boards that help silent people communicate, the type that Stephen Hawking uses) would help him ‘talk’. “Unlike other users of AAC who point at alphabets, I could just use my eyes,” he adds. The only person in his world who would not require even the AAC to know what he was feeling was his mother.
Den’s life before he began speaking wasn’t any less intriguing, as his thirst for knowledge led him learn History, Geography and Politics. On one hand as he withdrew himself from local socialising, on the other he began travelling – to conferences on AAC and other disability issues in Washington, Denmark and Brazil. He presented papers and met advocates, which lay the foundation of Ankur, a disability awareness and advocacy group he established in 2003. “We try to instill in the disabled some confidence and in the society some awareness! I’ve also been fighting for infrastructural rights – so while the Metro’s wheelchair-friendliness has happened, much work with the bus and taxi syndicates is remaining” he informs.
It won’t be sensationalist to see Den’s life in two parts, and a miraculous moment in between; that’s how he sees it too. On November 17, 2005, a dreary morning after his doctor father had given him dopamine-boosting medicine, he felt uneasy. After nervously tossing around for a while and seeking the concern of his parents, he uttered the first words of his life: “Baba, oshudhita click kore gache!” (‘Dad, the medicine has clicked!’). As tears rolled down all their eyes and Den began to utter more and more words akin to a two-and-a-half year old, he found himself in a new world of speech. “It was a miracle,” is all he says of that moment, but we’d like to give credit to medicine too.
“My condition was discovered to be dopa-responsive dystonia (lack of the neuro enzyme dopamine), whose symptoms were similar to neuromuscular dystrophy,” he explains. Did the frustration of ignorance ever hit him? Surely this ‘accident’ could’ve happened earlier, we say. “No, I don’t believe in ifs and buts. That was the only available diagnosis then, this is a new phenomenon,” he reacts, “I’m grateful that I can speak now.” Den, who’s still wheelchair bound, now has to live with taking four dopamine pills a day for his entire life, small cover charge for entering a new world.
In life’s version 2.0, the little man eagerly delved into education, at age 25. A 10th and 12th standard certificate later, he is now pursuing English majors, the exams of which are round the corner. His accidental fall into the ocean of speech was not as overwhelming for him as we assume it would’ve been, as he was perfectly ‘communicative’ with his AAC. He was excited, yes, and still is, while sharing slices of his life with strangers on Friends FM.
But the radio channel’s most special jockey will soon have to choose between learning further plus furthering Ankur’s activities and doling out words over the microphone. “I cannot choose. That day will come, but I’d rather not think about it,” he admits. Even if he opts out of his radio job, Sayomdeb ‘Den’ Mukherjee would be happy he shared the biggest lesson of his life with the world every morning at six, ‘Haal Chhero na Bondhu!’
(An initiative of Trinayani, a nonprofit NGO founded by Ritika Sahni, the THIS ABILITY articles celebrates the intriguing lives of persons with disabilities. Trinayani works towards Disability Awareness and Support, communicating through workshops/seminars, print, radio, films and other electronic media. Visit www.trinayani.org or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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