The Different Lives project looks at disabled people’s lives in different cultures. In this section the central theme of telling individual’s stories is continued in Kolkata, India. This was my daughter Anna’s idea. Like many on the autistic spectrum she views the world from the safety of a coffee shop or, as in Anna’s case, via the internet. She’d seen a programme on child slavery in Kolkata and then a video of the wonderful work of The Hope Foundation and announced, “I want to help disabled people in Kolkata”. When someone on the spectrum develops a special interest you follow it and nurture its growth.
The World Health Organisation estimate that 15.3% of the world’s population, i.e. 1 billion people, deal with disability of one kind or the other. India, with a population of 1.34 billion people, has about 27 million people have a disability. On my travels around India in the past I’ve passed them by and I’d like to redress that.
The focus is on ‘The People We Pass By’ by which I mean we the tourists, and we the ordinary people of India, who habitually pass by street people with disabilities. They may be disabled people we don’t see every day because they aren’t found at tourist sites, or they don’t move out of their homes or out of the institutions in which they live. Maybe we don’t take notice of them because they are untouchables who live on the very fringe of a society. They are not seen and not heard because they have no ‘voice’. Often they don’t even have official names, have no birth certificate, and will have no death certificate – it’s as though they never existed.
India is my favourite country in the world in which to travel. I love the richness and variety of its culture, its art, music and food, but above all I’m attracted by its vibrant and exciting people. The best and worst of what it means to be human is represented in Kolkata. It’s a city of extremes. The noise, crowding, grinding poverty and makeshift housing, make everyday existence hard but much harder for the disabled of the lower castes. All strive to carve out a marginal existence which is only possible with the support of family, neighbours or strangers.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to ‘the people we pass by’; Kaushik of Kolkata Walking Tours (http://walkingtoursofkolkata.in/home/); and The Hope Foundation (http://www.thehopefoundation.org.uk/); for their support.