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Back on his feet

Looking at Rohinton Panthaki negotiating the crowded roads of Vijay Nagar with assurance today, few would guess that he lost both his legs in a train accident 19 years ago. Here is his story.

Rohinton Panthaki (or Ronnie as he is more popularly known) will never forget that day 19 years ago. The SSC examination was over and the vacations were on. As often happened, he set out for Andheri station in order to go to Grant Road where his school was. His mother told him not to go, but he insisted. That day the trains were unusually crowded. And Ronnie had to let seven or eight trains go, before he eventually got into one. That one too was jampacked and he could only hang out of the compartment. Another passenger climbed on the roof of the train. A short time later he got electrocuted and fell down the side of the train. He hit Ronnie who was pushed down.

This happened at 9.30 am somewhere between Andheri and Vile Parle. Ronnie remembers that he lost consciousness for about half an hour. When he became conscious the first thing he realised was that he had a gash on his forehead and both his legs had been cut off. He also saw that he had been surrounded by a crowd. But no one did anything to help him for fear of being involved in a police case. So he lay on the tracks for nearly six hours and it was only at 4 p.m. that someone finally took him to Sion Hospital.

There someone phoned up a contact number near his home and informed his mother. (Ronnie's father was away on a ship. Fortunately, it was near Cochin and he could come home a couple of days later.) The next day he was shifted to Nanavati Hospital so that he could avail of better treatment. He was put under the care of an orthopaedic surgeon named Dr Shahane, who still practises at the same hospital. Recalls Ronnie: "He told me not to worry. `You will be able to walk. I will save your knees.' " In all, Ronnie spent four months at Nanavati. The pain was horrible, he remembers. Three operations were performed on his right leg and two on his left leg. His left leg was finally amputated 4-1/2 inches below the knee and his right leg 2-1/2 inches below the knee. It took eight months for the wounds to heal. One result was that he lost interest in continuing his studies, though he did complete his 12th standard through a correspondence two years later.

Being discharged from hospital was not even half the battle. Next came the struggle to fit artificial limbs and begin to walk. The first attempt was at the All India Institute of Physical Rehabilitation at Haji Ali. There used to be a contract bus going from Blossom Society to Nariman Point. It began to make a detour to Vijay Nagar to pick up Ronnie, who used to walk on his stumps to the bus and was then dropped off at Haji Ali. But the limbs made there did not work out well and Ronnie decided to try another centre: the Artificial Limb Centre at Pune which was meant mainly for military personnel but also catered to civilians.

The centre first made him a rough pair of artificial legs for him to practise on. Later, after seeing how the rough pair fitted, a final pair was made. Within 20 days Ronnie was out of the hospital though he stayed on for a month at one of the civilian cottages nearby to practise walking on his new legs. A demonstrator named Swami told him to avoid using supports while learning to walk. "If you do so you will need supports all your life and won't gain confidence," he said. Ronnie took the advice seriously. Indeed, he practised so hard and succeeded so well that he gave his parents a surprise by returning from Pune to Mumbai on his own. Says Ronnie: "I felt then that I could finally face the world." The process was of course painful because the whole weight of his body was borne by the stumps. But though the artificial limbs from Pune worked fine there was a problem. Since they were subjected to a lot of stress and consequent wear and tear, they often developed small malfunctions. This was normal, but even for the slightest misalignment Ronnie had to return to Pune for repairs. So when he discovered a doctor at Goregaon who ran a prosthetic centre making artificial limbs he turned to him and is still his client.

For some time after he learnt to walk with his artificial legs Ronnie worked for Hotel Searock at Bandra. But commuting in crowded trains proved impossible and after a time he gave it up. Fortunately he got a call from Orkay Mills at Saki Naka. This job was nearer home and commuting there much easier, so he accepted it. He has been on the job for 14 years now.

Ronnie has been so successful in overcoming the handicap of not having his own feet that most bus drivers won't let him board a bus from the front entrance. It is only after much argument that he can sometimes convince drivers that he is indeed handicapped.

But the journey to this high degree of self-sufficiency hasn't been smooth. Ronnie remembers that he was sometimes tempted to give up the attempt to use artificial legs because of the pain involved. Even today there is some pain. But he decided that he had to do it if he was to lead a normal life. Determination and persistence apart, the help and support of others, especially his own family, mattered. Among other things, he remembers his mother accompanying him to the Haji Ali rehabilitation centre and waiting outside for four to five hours, while he practised there. The family also recalls countless other instances of help received from friends and acquaintances. For instance, when Ronnie was in hospital he needed many blood transfusions. A lot of people from Naina Vijay Society where they live pitched in to donate blood.

For those who feel thwarted by their own real or imagined shortcomings and handicaps, Ronnie is an example to look up to. He is an embodiment of the saying that a physical handicap is only a state of mind.

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