It is the early 1970s, and the scene is Sisiri, a farming village in Belgaum district of Karnataka in the south of India. A small boy is sitting on the last bench of a classroom in the village school, listening carefully to everything that is being taught through the day. Even though the teachers have not admitted him to the school, merely allowed him to sit in on the lessons, the boy is remarkably bright. Like a sponge, he absorbs everything he hears. Soon, he is able to work out maths problems orally. By the age of six, he is reciting tables up to 250. But it won’t be until the age of ten that he would get to attend a school formally. For that to happen, he would have to travel a long distance, to the big city of Bengaluru, the capital of his state, with his parents, who will find a special school for him to fit into. Meet Mahantesh GK, who was once this little boy and is now a pioneer among change-makers in India.
Mahantesh was the much-adored first child of a joint family of thirty people. In the months leading up to his birth in 1970, the ancestral home in the village was given a grand makeover, decorated all over to welcome the arrival of the baby. But along with boundless happiness, the boy also brought great sorrow. When he was six months old, Mahantesh caught typhoid, a terrible disease that took away his eyesight.
In India, millions of children are born with disabilities or become disabled during the course of their lives. These could be blindness, loss of speech and hearing, or any other physical deformity. In 2011, when the government ran a census in which they counted the population of the country, the number of Indians living with disabilities was found to be around twenty-one million—though activists and social workers believe the actual figure to be as high as sixty to seventy million. Most of these people belong to the poorer sections of society or, even if they don’t, they mostly do not get the kind of support and opportunities they need to enjoy a full life.
Luckily for Mahantesh, his family loved and cared for him dearly. They never doubted for a moment that he deserved the best chances, like any child, to make a mark for himself. So his parents sent Mahantesh to a school for children with special needs in Bengaluru, where he performed well, and especially shone as a cricketer.
Cricket was an early love for the young boy, since the time he lived in the village. In those days, television was yet to arrive in India, but people loyally listened to the radio. Little Mahantesh was inseparable from the transistor, which became his best buddy, especially when a cricket match was on. He would listen to the commentary with rapt attention and even picked up a working knowledge of English from it. At his school in Bengaluru, he pursued his love for the game by playing it himself.
Eventually, his sporting talent would take him to England on a tour with the blind cricket team in 1998. None of this would have been possible without the excellent support system of Mahantesh’s family and, later on, his teachers, who never made him feel limited by his blindness.
It is no surprise that as Mahantesh grew older he wanted to extend the opportunities he was fortunate enough to get himself to millions of others like him—not only to people who were visually challenged but also to others with different disabilities. So, along with his close friend L Nagesh, Mahantesh started an association of blind cricketers. They formulated special rules and created customized equipment for this version of the game. In 2011, the Indian blind men’s national cricket team was formed by the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI), which is affiliated to the World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC). Mahantesh would head both CABI and WBCC.
You might wonder why Mahantesh focused on cricket, when there are so many other ways in which blind people can be helped. But the question to ask is, why not cricket? Why should physical disability come in the way of a person’s right to do what they love and are good at?
Through his personal experience of growing up as a person with disability (also sometimes referred to in short as PwD), Mahantesh was keenly aware of the problems that ran through Indian society. The biggest hurdle was an attitude of easy negativity that no one seemed to be bothered by too much. Even if parents wanted to admit their child with a disability to a regular school, the standard response from the school authorities was a loud no. Why? Because their school did not have the right set-up for children with special needs. The same logic was repeated by companies and workplaces—their offices did not have the facilities to fit in disabled workers. The obvious response would be: If you do not have the facilities, such as toilets, that a disabled person can use, you should build them! The same goes for desks, chairs and other disabled-friendly furniture. If your building does not have a ramp to enable access to people in wheelchairs, it’s time to change the design. And last, but not least, if an activity requires speech, sight or hearing, faculties that a disabled person may lack, invest in and build new technologies to solve the problem! After all, technology, as Mahantesh said in a TEDx talk, does not discriminate among people; it is only human beings who do so.
Somak Ghoshal works with Mint. Excerpted with permission from 10 Indian Heroes Who Help People Live With Dignity, Duckbill imprint of Penguin Random House. The book was released on 9 August.