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Hariram Kohli

Hariram Kohli Another day, another afternoon. My 8,909th as a tetraplegic. And 8,338th here at the army's Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in Pune.

It was around 3.30 in the afternoon. I had finished my usual after-lunch nap and was ready for the evening.

From my room in the 'B' block, I steered my battery-powered wheelchair towards the dining room. Though my body is paralysed neck-downwards, there is still some feeling left in my hand and I can steer my chair by using the knob on its armrest.

Halfway down the long corridor which cut through the middle of PRC's four parallel buildings, next to the dining room, I could see a few inmates grouped. There was an unfamiliar face with them -- a petite, jean-clad girl, with two cameras slung over her shoulder. All were listening intently as she talked. I moved towards them.

The girl was talking about photography. More importantly, she was talking the way I like people to talk to me -- casually, man-to-man. Good. It is not often we get to meet such people here. Usually our visitors are all ill at ease. They watch us through pitying eyes that refuse to meet ours, talk in a voice oozing with unwanted sympathy and generally succeed in making us almost as miserable as themselves.

But not this girl -- there was no trace of sympathy in her matter-of-fact words. I liked her for that.

"Anybody here know anything about photography?"

"We can't handle cameras, ma'am." That was Gangappa Gaud. We have a lot in common. He too is a tetraplegic, and is a noncombat injured like me -- if I, an ex-air force personnel, had broken my neck in the service gymnasium, Gaud had met his accident on the wrestling mat in army colours.

Hariram Kohli "Nonsense!'' the girl scoffed, "Why can't you handle a camera? Here, I will fix it to your chair." The camera, mounted on a mono-pod, was quickly fitted on to Gaud's chair. He could sight through the view-finder. If it was on auto-focus then Gaud could manage it. He could point it towards wherever he wanted by turning his chair, and I was sure there was enough power left in his fingers to click. Rewinding would be a problem; someone would have to do it for him. But that was enough for elementary photography. I said so.

"Do you know anything about photography?'' the girl turned towards me, interested.

"Yes. Used to shoot quite a bit before my accident," I told her, "Had four cameras, including a Minolta...still have them, in fact, though I can't use it."

The camera was a present, but I had never used it. Never got a chance, actually -- I received it only after December 16, 1972, the fateful day of my accident. I was 19 then.

"Oh, can I see them?" the girl asked, "Now you paint, right? Can I see your paintings?"

Mouth-painting was something I had taken up after I became an inmate at the centre, and I am particularly proud of my work. My paintings were shown at many mouth and foot painting exhibitions and sold well. But more than the fame and financial aspects, it is proof that even a person as incapacitated as myself can do things, and do them well.

I wheeled the chair around and started for my room. The girl followed.

Like most rooms at the centre, my room too is a large, high-ceilinged one which four of us inmates shared. Each has a cot, a small bureau and a window to himself. A few of my paintings survey the room solemnly through dusty eyes from above the pelmet. The girl scrutinised them carefully.

"Hey, great stuff" she commented, "Can I see more?"

Though I must have done over a thousand canvases since 1978, I have but a few with me. I am an active member of the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting artists and the majority of my work has been sold. I had maybe 65 canvases with me, and they aren't much to see. But the girl was insistent.

The canvases, together with my easel, brushes and colours, are kept in the cupboard outside. That is my studio, where I work every morning from 6 am to 10 am. The canvas is usually placed on a trolley, and I can reach it comfortably with the brush between my teeth. The easel is on the right side, beside my bowl of brushes, within easy reach. Once somebody gets ready my colours and puts the brush in my mouth, I am as independent as any painter.

I indicated the cupboard and the girl opened it. Inside were my paintings, stacked untidily and covered with dust -- it was a long time since someone had wanted to see it. The girl gingerly removed a few from top.

"Can I photograph these?" she asked, "Tell me which ones you did recently?"

I haven't painted much recently. It being summer, I can work only in the mornings before it becomes too hot. (Another limitation of a tetra/paraplegic: Heat affects us much worse than it does a normal person, and we stick close to a cooler -- either that, or keep wetting our bodies frequently.) Still there were about 14 or 15 finished paintings. The girl gathered them, lined them along the corridor and, with me in the background, clicked.

"Now, can I shoot you painting?" she asked, "Will you paint for me?"

Hariram Kohli There was a half-finished painting from that morning. She mounted it and gave me the brush. The painting was nothing great -- just one of those simple leaf-and-flower stuff. The oils were ready -- lately I had exchanged water colours for oils --and I started where I had left off.

I dipped the brush in the easel and with brisk strokes created a leaf. The girl clicked. I created another. She clicked again. I was fast, I knew. If it was a simple painting like this one, I could finish it within two-three days -- for the difficult ones I take double the time. That is pretty good for a man of my capabilities. And a far cry from those initial days with the brush when it had felt thoroughly unmanageable in my mouth...

It was a five full years after my accident that I discovered that life, even a broken one as mine, was still worth living.

At the Military Hospital, Khadki, they kept telling me I was all right, would get well soon. And I believed them. I came to know the truth only after two months. I was out of the intensive care unit by then, and was meeting other patients. One day I asked a patient how many days he had been at the hospital. I still remember his reply.

"Arre bhai," he had said, "abhi din aur hafton ki baat mat karo; mahinoki, saloki baat karo. (Brother, don't talk in terms of days and weeks now; talk in terms of months and years.)" It was then I realised my true status.

I remember sinking into a deep depression soon after, not talking, weeping for months. The doctors used to console me saying there were many things (like mouth painting) I could still do. But I refused to be consoled. I was suicidal and would have taken my life had I been able to.

It took me more than six months to get over my depression. But even then, I hadn't really come to terms with my paralysis. I moved to the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in 1974 where I existed -- just existed -- for the next four years.

I started living again in 1978. The doctors's suggestion about how I could do mouth painting had struck my mind.

My first attempt was at writing, not painting. I had used a fountain pen to scratch my name on a paper. It had blue ink, I remember. Then I made a few leaves, a flower. and before I knew it, I was painting...

"You mean that was your first attempt at painting? Your first attempt ever?" My young guest asked incredulously, "You mean, you never used to paint or draw before?"

It was many hours after I woke up that afternoon. My guest and I were in my room, chatting, with the cooler on full-swing. Even then, I found it pretty hot and uncomfortable.

"Yes, that was the first time," I replied, after an attendant splashed water on my face, "But after I started on it, my whole outlook changed. I was at peace with myself."

Hariram Kohli The initial days were hectic, I remember. I used to work for 14 hours at a stretch. I did a lot of landscapes -- that was what I liked doing most. Later, I started making greeting cards. "When I began on cards I used to take over half-an-hour to complete one. I used to sketch the images before transferring them on to the cards. But soon I was working directly on the cards with waterproof ink. Now I finish a card in 15 minutes!" I said.

Meanwhile, I had started writing -- small pieces on whatever came to my mind. I knew English, Hindi and Punjabi (I belong to Chandigarh) before. After my accident, I had learned Urdu (through correspondence) too, and though I could not write, I could read and understand it well.

"Now I am doing my BA by correspondence from the Indira Gandhi open university. So my working time has been really cut short to 4 or 5 hours every day," I paused, "See, the main thing is to keep yourself occupied. Otherwise your mind will dwell on things it shouldn't. It would make you unhappy... For instance, when I paint, I am oblivious to everything else."

"Have you come to terms with life so completely?" my guest wanted to know, "Don't you ever think of the past?"

"I think of it, but it doesn't make me unhappy anymore. You see, there are four stages in an invalid's life -- nonacceptance (of your fate), anger (at your fate), bargain (with God) and, finally, acceptance. I am in the last stage -- I have recognised my fate and accepted it. So it doesn't bother me anymore," I said, "And I want to show the world that being paralysed is not the end of life. If I can do all this, so can others, especially those who are not as incapacitated as me. This is my message to them..."

As told to Chindu Sreedharan. Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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