Lessons from a Wheelchair…

2nd December, 1993
11.05am @Tata Consultancy Services, 185 Lloyds Road, Chennai
I was having a cup of extra strong coffee and a cigarette (my fifth that day) with my friends.
11.55am @Adyar Junction, Chennai
I was lying on the road pleading with the traffic policemen in English and smattering Tamil to take me to the Malar Hospital instead of the Andhra Mahila Sabha Hospital for Women, to where they were planning to take me. Luckily, they granted my wish and in five minutes I was in the emergency ward of Malar Hospital.

2nd December, 2013
11.05am @My home, Cochin
I am having a cup of strong tea; no cigarettes, no friends.
11.55am @My home, Cochin
I am correcting the galley proofs of my 50th book which should have been published in November this year, but didn’t due to various reasons that are beyond my control.

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Today is the 20th anniversary of my accident—an accident that rendered 80% of my body useless and put me on a wheelchair. It has been 20 years since my life has been turned upside down in an instant. 20 years is a long time, but for me everything feels as if they happened yesterday.

When I look back, I really don’t know how I managed to survive this long. In this 20 years I have seen and endured a lot. My survival has everything to do with my family, especially my brother, my friends and my well-wishers.

The accident, paralysis, and subsequent years on the wheelchair taught me a lot of things—things I would not have learned otherwise. It was a great learning experience.

  1. First and foremost is the realization that you alone can control your destiny. Everything depends on how you react to the new situation—a less fortunate and dismal situation. You have two choices—accept the reality and move ahead or blame fate and waste your life. If you can accept and adjust to the reality that you won’t be the same, your life won’t be the same, that your dreams, goals, and future won’t be the same, and even your friends and colleagues won’t be the same, that acceptance will save you from a lot of disappointments and frustration. And the sooner you do it, the better.
  2. The most vital thing you need for mental peace after a traumatic incident is realizing and accepting your situation. There are no ‘ífs’ in life and questions like ‘why?’, ‘why now?’, ‘what if?’, etc. are useful only for making business decisions. In life such questions do not have any answers. Life is not a card game where you can pass up if the cards dealt to you are not good. You have to play the game of life with whatever cards that you have been dealt with. Here acceptance is the key. Once you accept your predicament, you will be able to adapt to your new situation and find ways to live better. This acceptance and adaptation is not an easy task, but as mentioned before, the sooner you do it, the better.
  3. Even in this 21st century there are many people who consider an accident or misfortune as a punishment by God. These people would consider you as some sort of sinner and would either avoid you as if you have some contagious disease or preach you to death. Don’t let such people demoralize or frustrate you as it is a sure way to depression and self-loathing. You have done nothing wrong. Life is a mixture of good and bad, happiness and sadness, successes and failures, and fortunes and misfortunes. Some have one ingredient more than others and that is not anyone’s fault. So that fact that you had an accident doesn’t mean that you are sinner or your parents have sinned. It is life and we say that life is not fair. But it is fairer to someone while being less fair to others. Some people have an easy life while others have to struggle even for small things. Success comes easily to some while others doesn’t succeed even after working hard. So all that happened to you is your fate and you had nothing to do with that. The so called good and fortunate people and the self-appointed mediators of God can preach you to depression and guilt, so avoid them.
  4. After your accidents you and everyone else would be hoping for a miracle. Miracles do happen, but not in the way that you want or expect. If something has to happen, then it will. But there are many people who make a business out of this miracle madness. I had attended a few of the so called miracle sessions during the initial years after the accident. In one place, the sermon was supposed to start at 6.00pm, but from 6.00-8.00pm, the preacher (the miracle performer) was launching the CDs and cassettes of his previous sermons and songs. I don’t think God will be present in such a commercial environment where he is on sale in the form of CDs and cassettes. The only miracle that happened were a few people claiming that their headache and minor pains gone. In another place, the counselor came to the room I was in and asked my dad and brother to leave us alone. He then put his hand on my head, meditated for a few minutes and told me that the accident is because I had cheated a girl. He wanted me to confess my ‘sin’ publicly if I wanted atonement and a miracle. I asked him to clear the room. When my dad and brother came back I told them what the counselor had told me. My dad, usually a very peaceful person, got so angry that he wanted to beat him up.
  5. Handling questions about your condition is another thing you have to learn. There are people who are genuine and there are those who are asking the questions for their rumor mill and for pleasure. Sometimes kids will also ask questions out of curiosity. I treat the questions of the genuine persons and kids seriously and would answer appropriately. If someone want more information, I am only more than willing to pass it to them. But with the gossip mongers who what to know ‘how does it feel?’, ‘what parts are functioning?’, ‘which organs and limbs are not working?’, ‘Are you not sad?’, ‘how do you manage your daily activities?’, and so on so that they can pass on the information to their friends and family, I am rude and I usually show them the door. This attitude has given me a rude, impolite, and antisocial image among the people whom I have snubbed and their associates.
  6. Another thing you have to learn is that when you get out of the protective cocoon of the hospital or rehabilitation center and enter the real world, don’t expect any special treatment. If you get some, then consider yourself lucky. But in majority of cases, you will have to work harder and smarter than the others to stay in the race and win. Here your disability is a real ‘handicap!’ The amount of time available to you for productive work will be considerably less than the able-bodied colleagues. But you won’t get any deadline extensions, soft assignments, lesser workload, or other such things. Don’t expect any special treatment or concessions because of your disability. Instead find ways and device plans to do more and be more productive so that you can do what others do, in less time. You should be prepared to sacrifice a lot of things that you love to do and you used to do.
  7. One important fact that can help you stay out of trouble is knowing your disability. Internet is a wonderful tool to do that. You can get a lot of information about your condition from the Internet. You can get practical tips from disabled veterans, advice from doctors, guidelines from caregivers, and so on from the various forums on the Web. This knowledge will make you an informed patient and will help you when interacting with doctors. Your doctors see hundreds of patients a day and you are just one among them. So, they might forget your special needs, medications that you are taking, your sensitivity or lack of it to certain medicines, etc. You can search the Web and find answers to these questions and if you have any doubts you can clarify that with your doctor. It is your duty to know what is good for you and what isn’t; what agrees with you and what doesn’t. Inform the doctor about your needs so that he can change the medication to suit your needs.
  8. You will have friends before the accident. You will have friends after the accident too. But the number of people who maintains the pre-accident friendship and relationship is a minority—just a few and that too if you are fortunate.
  9. Do not assume that just because you have a disability, people will be true to you. No, in many cases people will use your disability to cheat you or take advantage of you. I have been forced out of a company that I co-founded by my own friends (my co-founders). My first publisher cheated me—he didn’t give me lakhs of rupees that was due to me as royalty by falsifying the accounts. Similarly many people have taken advantage of me, which they wouldn’t have if I didn’t have the mobility problems. Life robs you of many opportunities and chances, so does people—not all of them, but some of them.
  10. Your goals and objectives in life have to be realigned to your new condition. Most of the old goals have to go. You should choose a new path—a path that will use your strengths and give an edge over others. So think hard and find out what are the things that you are good at and which one of those activities you can do. Once you have identified a set of activities that you can do, then concentrate on how you can improve the performance, productivity, and efficiency so that you can be competitive. Once I decided to write books, I tried to become good at it. I learned all aspects of book writing—from idea development to creating a manuscript. I learned indexing, copy-editing, typesetting, graphic design, and a host of other publishing skills so that I could be better than other writers.
  11. If someone says you can’t do something because of your physical limitations ignore it. Except for the fundamental problems associated with your condition like a paraplegic incapable of walking, deaf unable to hear and so on, everything else is possible. If you have the will, if you are prepared to work hard, struggle, and persevere then you can do what you want. Anything is possible, sometimes it will be a little more difficult, but definitely possible.
  12. Education and continuous learning is important. You should always be learning new things. You don’t have to go to a school or college to learn new things. You can take correspondence courses. With the help of Internet and Web, you can learn without even leaving your study. The sites like Coursera and Iversity offer courses on hundreds of subjects from the top universities of the world that you can participate from your home. And the best thing is that all the courses are free. I just finished a course (Creativity, Innovation and Change) from Coursera which was taught by three professors from The Pennsylvania State University and am currently doing one at Iversity (The Future of Storytelling) taught by professors from University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, Germany.
  13. Computer literacy can improve the quality of your life. Learn to use the computer and the doors (or should I say Windows!) of a new world would open before you. Learn to use computers, mobile phones, tablets, and other gadgets. With these gadgets you can be in touch with your near and dear around the world. You can get a lot of help and advice from people who have gone through what you are going through. Use technology to make your life easier and more productive. Internet and WWW are great tools and resources—learn them and make the best use of them.
  14. Don’t ask for sympathy nor should you wallow in self-pity. You should try to move ahead with whatever assets that you still possess and you would be surprised to find out how much you can achieve with those leftovers. As Paulo Coelho says in The Alchemist “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it“.
  15. In order to survive, especially during the occasional bouts of depression and frustration that can strike you, you need a strong support system. Support, love, encouragement, and help from family, friends and well-wishers is very important for survival.
  16. Keep your hours and days full. It is said that an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. It creates all sorts of problems. When you are idle you will get all sorts of negative thoughts and that negative mind-set can be self-destructive. All people have positive and negative energy. But some people are full of positive energy. Being in their company or communicating with them charges and energizes you. Try to surround yourself with such people. I try to do 3–4 projects at any given time. So when I am bored with one, I can switch to another one. This way I am never idle.
  17. Have more than one hobby—reading, writing, sketching, painting, watching movies, listening to music, etc. Creating new things—an essay, a poem, a book, a pencil or charcoal sketch, a beautiful watercolor painting, etc.—will give you self-satisfaction and will keep your mind alive and relaxed. Creation has a therapeutic effect. Watching a good movie, listening to soothing music or reading your favorite author will relax and recharge you more than you can imagine. You will also find out many of your hidden talents. Apart from the technical skills that I had mentioned earlier, I learned pencil sketching, color pencil sketching and painting, water color pencil painting, water color painting, and am currently learning marker sketching and painting. I tried to learn to play a musical instrument and to sing but I had to stop both for various reasons. You can read about those attempts here, here, and here.
  18. Do help others whenever possible. Kindness is a good quality. Help others without expecting anything in return. But always remember people who have helped you and be always thankful to them however small the help maybe. It is our duty to remember others who have helped us and be grateful to them. Don’t expect gratitude from others for what you have done to them but give it on a permanent basis.
  19. Disability is not the end of the world. You still can lead a fulfilling and satisfying life. You can contribute to the society like all others. For that to happen, you must accept you condition gracefully, adapt accordingly, adjust your expectations, realign your goals and learn to enjoy the simple pleasures that life still offers you.

    Related Post: No Regrets…

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