For Raju

Yesterday, when I read the news, I thought of Raju.

Raju lived with him parents in the shanty just beyond the high walls surrounding the house where I grew up. His father leased a rickshaw; his mother was a maidservant.

Raju had five siblings, and I could have only told them apart by height when they were kids, over a decade ago. In fact, I only vaguely remember Raju’s brothers and sisters. They all came to play cricket in the galli with a ball made of plastic and rubber-band; and a bat made of a splintery wooden plank. Raju did not play cricket. He did not chase after kites like the other boys did, after they had been cut loose. He did not chase the barafgoli-wala in the torrid summer months. But he was always there. Of all the kids that played on the dusty streets, I still remember Raju the most.

It was not that Raju did not want to do all of these things. I imagine from Raju’s wistful expressions that he wanted to run in like Wasim Akram and bowl out all the other boys and that he wanted to show everyone how many kites he spotted and plucked from tree-branches.  It was that he was different. The other boys were always patient with him, never saying a mean word or growing impatient as Raju willed himself through dirt, mud, and dung on the streets on the strength of his arms – his legs too weak from childhood polio to support even the weight of his gaunt frame.

How ironic that the son of a rickshaw puller, who carried able-bodied children in bright colored uniforms and their corpulent parents, could only drag himself with his hands! How cruel that the son of a maidservant, who washed dishes and swept floors in houses of those who could physically do these chores themselves but had enough money not to – would need extra effort to fend for himself.

But this is not a patronizing story of how Raju defied the odds. It is not a tale of humiliations the Rajus of the world suffer in anger or resignation. I do not have the moral right to write that story. I live on the other side of a high-wall. The cards I was dealt were different- my parents were educated, well-off, and part of the Majority, and through an equation requiring a combination of these elements, well-respected in society. I prospered and when I have children they too will see the world with the asymmetry intact. What do I know about the struggles of the masses on the other side? What do I know about being crippled, poor, Muslim, and illiterate in the glorious Republic of India?

The last I heard of Raju was over a decade ago. I was about to leave for the United States to become a microbiologist. Raju’s father had somehow obtained a handcycle for him: using the monstrous contraption, Raju had carried himself with his hands over two miles to a Polio Prevention camp. He was not a doctor. He was not a philanthropist. He had no obligation to go. And yet he was there. He was there to tell parents, “Please make sure your child is vaccinated. You don’t want your son or daughter to turn out like me. This is important.

It is not often that I think of him, but yesterday, as I read a report that India had gone one year without a single case of polio, all I could think of was Raju.