As a part of my work, I started interacting closely with people with disabilities and naturally even more with the visually impaired community. Breaking away from Rahul was not easy but I realised that my work gave me solace, and the disabled community found a new spot in my heart, which was very fragile and very empty at that point. And this was when I met the man who changed many definitions of life for me.
Ashutosh and I knew of each other. If you are visually impaired in Mumbai and connected with the blind community, you inevitably know of most of the people and even the gossip about them whether you want to or not. I always jokingly say that I had believed, because of my incredible parents, I was out of the line of fire of the closed gossipy cultural community that I belong to, but I ended up in the blind community, which is more closed and, god save us, more gossipy. In fact, I remember that we were both at a common event where I had not introduced myself to him, because I had thought that his questions to the facilitator of the program were irritating and quite disruptive. I didn’t know that the voice asking questions belonged to his more outgoing friend. For some reason, he had not come up to me and said hello either. But that event was the catalyst that changed our relationship from strangers to forced friends to more, much more.
I was meant to have coffee with someone else from the blind community. When I arrived, I was told that more people had been invited, and Ashutosh was one of them. I ignored him as much as I could. I started animated conversations with the others. But perhaps sensing my irritation towards him and not knowing the reason, he tried to dip into my conversations with his other close friends. For me, it was another proof of his supposed disruptive behavior and to add to it, he did the thing that annoyed me the most: he tried to smoothly pay the bill in a group. Aggravated, I shoved my share of the bill in his hand and hopped into a rickshaw and yelled goodbye to the group. I didn’t know that it was really the beginning of a beautiful friendship– a relationship of love, respect, fondness, criticism and support.
The first compliment he gave me was that I had long artistic fingers right after I shook hands with him. Not used to being checked out non-visually, it was, quite frankly, the creepiest compliment I had ever received. But he really deepened my understanding about disability and its complexities.
He seemed to be an introvert, someone who spoke very little and observed carefully. He was shy but sharp, big on ability but small on show, non-confrontational and quiet.
I say he was like that, because in five years of friendship, he has remarkably changed. I remember asking him, around six months after we began hanging out as friends, ‘You seem much more confident, can I ask you what changed?’
He promptly replied, ‘It is you. Before you, no girl has gone out with me or rather asked me out even just for a coffee or just to chill alone. It was not something I experienced at all. Thank you for just reawakening that human side of me and infusing it with confidence and warmth.’
I always knew that people with disabilities lost out on so many social interactions. Having always had friends, I had not struggled with this so much. But I knew that socialising was very important, and this was the first time I was seeing its impact on a person, and believe me it was a beautiful transition. I learned from Ashutosh that engagement with social networks can be transformative.
People continued to say that Ashutosh didn’t speak much, that he was silent and private and he always needed someone stronger around him to take the lead, but the Ashutosh I knew was smart and funny and talkative. In a couple of months, I knew his silliness, his fears, his procrastinations and the things that gave him a high. I knew that he didn’t drink, that he was lazy when it came to exercise, and that he always first wanted to see the good in someone no matter how obviously wrong the person was- something on which we have had multiple fights.
When Ashutosh and I had begun to chat, I had successfully closed a project with an NGO, and I was searching for more work. I was depressed because the man I had loved for years, albeit one-sidedly, had tied the knot with someone else. I was jobless, I felt directionless in my personal life. Nights were scary and mornings brought no enthusiasm. Loneliness was thick and strong. Ashutosh was not the beacon of light in that darkness, but he just held my hand and showed me that the darkness can be lived through in comfortable and happy ways. Instead of the warm emotion and empathy I felt I deserved at that point, he said, ‘Shut up and look at yourself. You are not pitiable, nor is your luck. This is just a phase and I can tell you are going to be big in life, no one will be able to stop you, no man, and no heartbreak.’ And this was not just pep talk. Ashutosh is known for being very blunt with me, and me to him — to the point of rudeness, This was his conviction, his gut feeling, his objective assessment of me. He would often say, ‘Goyal, for me you are royal, but move your ass and stop pitying yourself.’
In our initial months of friendship, I would often lie awake at night, mulling over the next day, hoping it would not be even worse than the one just gone by. That is how depression envelopes you. It is dark and smothering and definitely seems unending. During many of these sleepless nights, Ashutosh, by then Ashu for me, would simply stay on the other end of the phone while I lay awake miserably.
One such night, he asked me a strange question: ‘Will you come for a film with me?’
In no mood for jokes, I irritably reminded him that we didn’t live five minutes from each other, and that in any case it was past midnight, and no cinema halls would be open.
Ashu said that his battery was low and asked me to join him on Skype. Reluctantly, I did. When the call connected, I heard faint excitement in his voice, but I was too depressed to notice till the music began to roll. And then we began to watch one of my all-time favourite films together. Except, unlike the other versions of this movie I’d seen, this one was audio-described. Audio description is a pre-recorded soundtrack that describes non-verbal scenes in a movie, which means that you don’t need to be able to see the screen. It was pretty much the only way I could have shared a full movie-watching experience with Ashu that night — and he knew it.
I remember easing into my bed to watch the movie, with Ashu’s presence on Skype as warm as a physical hug. I could hear his laughter at the same moments I cracked up, we felt each other’s silences during tense moments, and with my earphones plugged in and my laptop resting on the bedside table, I soon fell asleep.
Ashu was, and continues to be, ‘just’ a friend, but that night, for a few surreal moments, I thought, ‘What if?’ And although it wasn’t meant to be between us, I’ll always remember that as the most romantic mid-night date I ever had.
Excerpted with permission from Eleven Ways to Love: Essays, published by Penguin.
Nidhi Goyal is the program director of Sexuality and Disability at Point of View. An activist working on disability rights and gender justice through research, writing, training, campaigns, advocacy and art, she is the founder and director of the Mumbai-based NGO Rising Flame. She is India’s first female disabled comedian and is a pragmatic dreamer and a strong believer with an indomitable spirit to live life to the fullest
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal