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Undaunted by adversity

An accident 30 years ago damaged Chandrashekhar Bhalerao's spine and turned him into a paraplegic. But though it has confined him to a wheelchair it hasn't been able to destroy the poet in him.

Chandrashekhar Bhalerao lives at the Cheshire Home at Chakala. Like other residents of the home he is a paraplegic and his mobility is therefore severely restricted. But like so many other handicapped people he has been able to call up hidden reserves of strength and develop a myriad talents. His life is an inspiration not only for the handicapped but also for people with all their physical faculties intact. This is his story.

Thirty years ago Bhalerao fell 30 ft from a bridge on the highway between Mulund and Thane. For 28 days he remained in a coma. When he regained consciousness he found that he could not use his hands and feet or even speak comprehensibly. His spinal cord had been damaged and doctors at KEM Hospital told him that he would never be able to sit up again. "But God is the biggest doctor," says Bhalerao. After undergoing intensive physiotherapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture and acupressure treatments he regained the use of his upper limbs. But his lower limbs were useless and he was (and is) confined to a wheelchair. Even this, however, was an improvement on his earlier situation and Bhalerao set out to make the most of what he had. Fortunately for him, he was admitted to the Cheshire Home where he has lived ever since.

He soon discovered that he had a talent for sports. The events he has participated in at various levels include table tennis, throwing the javelin, throwing the shot put, archery, and chess. In 1972 he participated in the Para Olympic Games at Heidelberg in what was then West Germany and reached the quarter finals, the first Indian to do so. At the national level he has never lost a match. In all he has won more than 80 medals. Some of them adorn the walls of the Cheshire Home but most are tucked away out of sight.

Bhalerao also found that he had a gift for music. He was fortunate in finding a tutor in Krishnaji Barde, a musician who was also a resident of the Cheshire Home. From Barde, Bhalerao learnt to play the tabla and the harmonium. The banjo and other instruments he picked up on his own. But easily the most impressive of Bhalerao's abilities is his poetic talent. He effortlessly reels off couplets in Urdu, Hindi and Marathi. Nor have these been simply learnt by rote. They are poems that have lighted up his life and helped him to come to terms with reality.

Iqbal, he says, calls life a struggle, a sacrifice, a renunciation. "You never gain something without giving up something." About the accident that handicapped him, says Bhalerao, "I am not sure whether it is a curse or a blessing." He admits that it has confined him to a wheelchair and made him dependent on others. But if it had not happened he is not sure whether he would have been able to develop his talents. And after all, he notes, it enabled him to go to Heidelberg. "Always be an optimist," he says. "My motto is: where there is a will, there is a way and I will find that way." Shakespeare, he observes, said that life is a stage and all of us have a part to play on it. "If the part that has fallen to me is that of a clown I must play that part as well as I can instead of complaining about my fate."

Bhalerao writes poetry himself and some of his poems have been published. His day is not entirely spent meditating with the poetic muse, however. He spends part of his day working on his sewing machine. He also teaches Hindi and Marathi to boys in the area. But if he is more optimistic than others it is because of his poetic and philosophical bent of mind. He recites the Lord's Prayer in Hindi not as many Christians do, as a meaningless string of words, but as a touching poem. Then he switches effortlessly to a Hindu hymn. "To garner good thoughts and distribute them that is religion," he says. He adds that the most difficult thing in the world is to set aside and devote time to others. His parting gift is a Hindi couplet:

Jahan na pahunche ravi
Vahan pahunche kavi

(Where the sun does not reach,
There the poet does.)

(Cheques in the name of Cheshire Homes India can be sent to Cheshire Home, Bethlehem House, Mahakali Road, Mumbai 93. Ph: 8324515. The Cheshire Home is run by a committee made up of people of all faiths. It has 50 inmates at present, most of them paraplegics.)

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