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6th June '2007
Apathy of Lotus Eaters
(Campaign to change attitude to persons with disability)

In Greek mythology, the Lotophagi (lotus-eaters) were a race of people from an island near Northern Africa dominated by "lotus" plants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were narcotic, causing the people to sleep in peaceful apathy. The relevant part from the Odyssey by Homer (Book IX, translated by Samuel Butler) is reproduced: "I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars." The description of the lotus eaters appropriately fits the people of this beautiful valley. Dictionary describes lotus eaters as people who have a strange apathy for this world and live in dreamy indolence. Living in the valley we do not notice this apathy as like the sailors of Ulysses we have all become a part of the tribe. However, any outsider is immediately struck with this strange attitude of the people in almost all aspects of our life. Be it the fast deteriorating Dal Lake, the slowly disappearing forest cover, wanton quarrying of our beautiful mountain sides, pollution of the River of Life of Kashmir and so many other facets of our daily life including our concern for philanthropic causes. The attitude is same. There is also an incomprehensible dichotomy in our attitude. We do not mind wasting large amounts of money on totally unproductive and frivolous rituals and customs but immediately shirk when it comes to spending on humanitarian causes. Material greed has eaten into our vitals. Recently I had a first hand experience of this total apathy to philanthropic causes. The Voluntary Medical Society of Kashmir has set up a Rehabilitation Centre for children with mental and physical disability known as Shafaqat. It is a school for children who are mentally challenged and with multiple disabilities. It was established in 2000 by the Society to look after these children. The Centre was set up and is operating without any assistance whatsoever from the Government. Even though the Centre for Rehabilitation is managed and supervised by Dr.Mir Maqbool Ahmad, yet the moving spirit behind this initiative has been a friend, colleague and one time mountaineering and trekking partner of mine. He is Khurshid Ahmad Malik, a retired IAS officer of the State Government who himself faced this trauma in the prime of his life. His is a story of indomitable courage and will against all odds. I still recall nostalgically our first trek to the famous Harmukh-Gangabal track. It was in 1970, that eight of us belonging to Jammu and Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club started on a week long trek from Sonamarg to Wangat via the high altitude lakes of Kishensar, Vishensar, Gadsar, Satsar and Gangabal. This is the most beautiful trek not only in Kashmir but probably in the entire world. Khurshid Malik, who is basically a botanist, identified a variety of rare flowers on most of the mountainsides on this trek. He was full of enthusiasm and spirit and loved to be in the mountains. We had a number of other adventures in the mountains together. Unfortunately this lover of mountains who spent most of his youth in outdoor activities had a tragic car accident in 1987 in which he severely hurt his spine. He had a neck injury which virtually crippled him and he was confined to bed. His brother who also is a doctor took him to England on a stretcher where he spent about two years. One could not believe one’s eyes when Khurshid returned from England. Even though he was on a wheel chair yet he was fully rehabilitated and could perform all functions without any problem. His brother had also brought with him from England a special car for disabled which could be driven with the use of hands only. Within a short time Khurshid joined back his duties and had a very fruitful and proud tenure in the State Administration and retired as one of the ablest Commissioner/ Secretaries of the Government. During his entire stint with the Government he never let any body feel about his disability and performed all tasks to utmost perfection. It had been his desire to contribute something to the people of the State in this particular line. He was inspired by the efforts of Major HPS Ahluwalia, an Everest hero who too faces same disability due to a bullet injury to his spine. Major Ahluwalia who has climbed Mount Everest and is presently President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation has set up the best Spine Injuries Centre in Asia in New Delhi. Persons with disability are still considered in our society a liability. People are even shy of telling others about their children who are mentally challenged at birth or develop disabilities due to some accident or mishap. We totally give up such a person as a gone case and even feel reluctant to talk about them. We do not even have the decency of providing certain facilities in day to day life for such persons. In the west it is totally opposite. Not only are disabled people fully rehabilitated in normal life but a special provision is kept for them in every sphere of day to day activities. The story of our apathy begins with a couple of functions I recently attended involving foundation stone laying ceremony of a full fledged modern Rehabilitation and Neuro-diagnostic Centre as well as an event held for its introduction to the local people. The first function was held on May 19. Over a thousand prominent citizens had been invited for the function. Not even fifty turned up. Again a function was organized on June 3 on the specific confirmation of Haji Nissar Ali, the State Minister for Social Welfare. However, the Minister failed to turn up thereby demonstrating how much concern Government feels for such humanitarian causes. However, this time a number of prominent citizens did turn up. It was really moving to see all the ceremonies of welcome and other presentations being made by the disabled who had been fully rehabilitated by the centre. It is a pity that the top functionaries of the State Government are busy playing Golf, attending Music Concerts, and entertaining celebrities in Mughal Gardens but have no time for children with disabilities who are an important part of their society. In the present set up where our rulers have a one point programme one would not be so much surprised by their attitude to these finer and humanitarian aspects of our society. However, it is very unfortunate and disturbing to notice the apathy of the general masses towards such aspects of life. A society which does not care for its needy and infirm is doomed both physically as well as spiritually. The initiative taken by Dr.Maqbool and Khurshid Malik needs not only to be encouraged but fully supported by all of us irrespective of caste, colour, and creed. It is the noblest and the highest humanitarian gesture. Let us hope all of us have not become lotus eaters, and we still have some Ulysses like Khurshid Malik who is there to rescue us from the ultimate doom and lead us to finer humanitarian aspects of life!

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