For many of us, when life threw questions, we were comfortable either ducking it or answering it. The questions were never out of curriculum from the subject of life. But then there are some for whom the questions are never part of the syllabus. Right from the beginning of the chapter, they have felt insufficient, unwanted, unattended...incomplete; living the questions without many answers. Many among them take it as destiny as they proceed, but a few develop enough courage to face the questions and answer them too. The lives of two polio paralysed but vivific and sthenic individuals is an example.
Courage from water
May is usually a good month to be born. Summer loses its sheen and the cool monsoon begins to show its signs of arrival. So, while Jawaharlal Nehru formed his first government in 1952, a then historical Chitradurga woke up to the first cry of a healthy baby, H T Krishna Reddy. The first few years of growth were usual, but by the fifth year, the diabolical polio crept into innocence, taking away many things that he could have achieved.
But Reddy found solace in water; not to camouflage his tears, but because he knew he could steer through the very heart of water at a pace that not many could match. He put his struggle, his frustration, his disability, into water and propelled every shortcoming into a triumph.
Fifteen years later, he won his first medal at a national swimming event for the disabled. And life ran out of questions for him. He had answers, and now it was his turn to question.
In 1958, when Chalti ka Naam Gaadi hit the screens and went on to tickle the funny bones of the country, Malathi K Holla, eagerly came to life, determined to run with the mood of the year. “My mother used to tell me that I began to walk when I was nine months old,” says Malathi. But by the time she was 14 months old, her life stood still. With only her neck and above functioning till she was five, Malathi was awed at the life moving around her, but because of her innocence, she did not realise that she was missing precious days, that of childhood. Her parents did not lose hope, but Malathi had to endure several shocking moments at the hospital as part of her treatment, which helped her body above the waist to function. But below the waist remained immobile. Someone suggested Andhra Mahila Sabha in Chennai where she could get education, accommodation as well as treatment. And for the next 15 years, she was at the Sabha undergoing education as well as about 19 surgeries as she had contractures every now and then.
It was here that she found her calling — sports. Her hands became her motivator and she coupled the loss of her legs with the strength of her hands. She could wheel past at a pace not an able-bodied person can ever imagine, and she started throwing back every question that life threw at her, and she threw them really far. Shot put, discus, javelin...for her, all were tough, heavy questions of struggle and in her mind she knew the only way to answer them was to throw them as far as possible. And she triumphed. Winning umpteen medals, the Arjuna award as well as the Padma Sri. “Sports teaches you everything,” she says.
Life did not bother her with questions anymore; it knew she will throw them at a distance, which may not be nearby. Or she will whiz past so fast that the questions will never reach her.
Krishna Reddy joined HAL as a clerk in 1978 through sports quota. “HAL interviewed me thrice but did not appoint me. The medical officer was thinking that I cannot sit continuously for 8 hours and so he branded me as ‘we cannot accommodate such people’. But National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped or NASEOH officials took me to the chairperson and convinced him of my abilities. In 1991, I received the national award for efficient physically disabled employee. Now there are about 300 employees in HAL who are disabled out of which 50 are wheelchair bound. In 1978, I was the first wheelchair bound person to be employed in HAL,” says Reddy. At the national level, he has won 38 gold medals, 22 silver medals, and 22 bronze medals. He has also participated in four international events.
Malathi Holla finished her SSLC from Chennai’s Andhra Mahila Sabha and then came to Maharani’s College in the city to complete her degree in Psychology. “In 1975, I came from Chennai to Bangalore and was part of a sports event at Bishop Cottons School. It was an all India event and that is when I met Reddy. After that we have been participating in most events that were held for the disabled,” she says.
According to Malathi, W A Sundaramurthy, who was secretary of NASEOH, had been steadily working towards developing comprehensive rehabilitation opportunities for persons with disabilities so as to facilitate integration into the mainstream of society. "He helped us and our fraternity a lot by conducting many sports events across the country. Later, we both started Sports Council of Paraplegics (SCOPE), an NGO working for the recognition and support of wheelchair athletes in 1980,” says Malathi.
Both of them were part of an NGO, Margadarshi, which was registered in 1980, for helping women with disability. In due course of time, both of them thought of opening a home for boys with disabilities. So they came out of Margadarshi to form Mathru Foundation, which enables education of rural children and also assists in rehabilitation of polio-affected youths.
“Once, we both were sitting at the HAL bus stop. He was working at HAL and I had come to meet him as I was frustrated for some reason. I told him that all these years I was living for myself, I was financially
independent, I had won medals for myself and the country, but what was I giving back. That was when he suggested I use my popularity and help the disabled, as we could relate to them. He told me that he would give me the required administrative support. That triggered the beginning and while Margadarshi was already helping the girl child, we decided to focus on the boy child with disability. We started with two children,” says Malathi.
Today, the foundation has 17 children. But the going was never easy. It was in 2005 that finally Mathru came to being. “We had a lot of trouble finding space and it was Krishnadas Nair, former chairman of HAL, who came to our aid. Incidentally, Malathi and Krishnadas Nair were awarded the Padma Shri in 2001. So he knew her, and when she approached him with a request to allot one HAL quarter for Mathru, he was more than willing. He gave us a one bedroom quarter of 536 sq. ft. HAL management helped a lot in terms of renovation and continues to do so, even today,” says Reddy.
In 2005, another quarter was allocated to Mathru and they could bring in bunker beds and accommodate upto 25 children. But with new authority coming, there is often some kind of pressure. “Last year, HAL gave us a notice to vacate. We spoke to them and they agreed to give us time,” says a senescent but circumspect Reddy, who is now retired with less worries as both his daughters are well settled.
Over the years, the duo did come across some people who helped them mainly because there was general sense of hail-fellow-well-met, because of their reputation, intentions and struggle. In 2009, Ravichandra Rao of Pragati Printers, who had two sites of 30x50, each, at Sarjapur, donated both to them. With the help of philanthropists, they purchased a site adjacent to these. “On these sites, we will be coming up with our new facility. It is a Rs 2 crore project and funding is a big issue,” says Reddy.
Apart from ensuring that students get an education in schools across the city, they also provide corrective surgeries, performed free of cost by Dr R Srinivasan. “Though he does not charge a fee, other expenditures come to about Rs 30,000 per surgery.
The grant is purely from the public, there is no government grant. There are people who do help, especially Syed Kirmani, our chief patron. He and his family have always been of great support,” says Reddy.
While all other such NGOs provide for a hostel as well as a formal education on their premises, Mathru is the only one providing hostel facility and taking care of their education by providing integrated education in normal schools and not special schools. And with the new premises, which should be ready in a year, they are looking at accommodating about 200 students.
Currently, the duo is running the show on a catch-as-catch-can basis. “We have more work to do, and our ambitions are greater but we are restricted by funds and space. We also want to start a rehabilitation centre for the disabled and enable them to be independent by providing them with some job in various industries. Support staff is another issue.
We currently have three acolyte staff members, but not many are willing to work with disabled children and on top of it, the salary is also low. These days people want a minimum salary of Rs 7,000 to 8,000,” says Reddy.
The duo knows the struggle that the children go through because they have lived it themselves and thus their relationship with the children is special. It is evident, when Malathi comes back in the evening from her job as senior manager at Syndicate Bank. The entire bunch surrounds her; obeisance and love oozing out.
“Every year, we had to undergo one or two operations. The pain of growing up with the disability is well understood by us and when it comes to these children, we understand them and they too relate to us,” says Malathi, who seems to be perennially juvenescent, and confident that she will soon work full-time for Mathru.
Now her ambition is to take care of the girl child too. “While we were involved with Margadarshi, through Mathru, we want to take care of the girl child too. I want to serve our own disabled fraternity and leave a footprint. I want to live after my death and it can happen if we help people. In five years, I want to become a mother of 100 children,” says Malathi.
Others in Mathru
M K Sridhar, Malathi’s childhood friend is a trustee in Mathru. He is currently secretary, Knowledge Commission, Government of Karnataka. Before that he was a professor at Bangalore University. He was with Vijaya College as a lecturer for 20 years. He too is disabled.
“We also have former international sprinter, Ashwini Nachappa, international cricketer Venkatesh Prasad and leading advocate, Anantha Bhat as our trustees,” says Reddy.
To contact Mathru Foundation, call- 9886015552 or 9880080133