For Praveen

Praveen was a 26-year old young man with learning disabilities. He studied in Vidyasagar, a school for disabled children and went on to work as part of the housekeeping unit in the Savera hotel. On the morning of 13th January, he went with his mother to the bus-stand to catch the bus for work. The terminal was crowded and he let go of his mother’s hand as she boarded the bus. After the bus started, she noticed that he wasn’t on the bus. She immediately came back and searched for him, but he was to be found nowhere in the vicinity.

She called Vidyasagar and filed an FIR in the police station. What followed was three days of intensive search by people from Vidyasagar, his colleagues at Savera, friends and family. Pictures of Praveen were circulated on social media. But on further enquiries, it was discovered that Praveen had died instantly in a road accident in the wee hours of 14th morning itself.

The FIR on the road accident said that the body was unidentified, but it was not uploaded in the uidentified dead bodies section of the police website. The lorry that caused the accident was not registered. The FIR on Praveen’s case was not filed until the evening of the 13th and not uploaded in the missing persons section of their website until the 16th, 3 days after his death. He is still officially “missing” according to the website. The testimony of the security guard that witnessed the accident left out the statement that the driver was drunk(because tests didn’t reveal any evidence) and so it became a bailable offence.

So many delays, so many loopholes. At the end, it was the system that failed Praveen at the moment when he needed it the most. The facts paint a picture of blatant apathy and indifference on the part of the police.What chance did Praveen have of survival in such anĀ  inefficient environment?

Why isn’t there a connect between different police units in this age of internet? Specialization is fragmentary in nature; and the wheels of justice cannot afford to be fragmented in the issue of providing safety to citizens. For three days, Praveen’s mother held on to the hope that he would be out there somewhere and would eventually return home. But he had been dead all this time. This issue raises uncomfortable questions. If it had been any other person/ a child would there have been these delays? Is equal treatment under law a fact just on paper?

Praveen’s father was in Sabarimala during that week. He was informed about all this only when he came back and both his parents were taken to identify whether it was Praveen who had died in that accident. I cannot imagine what they must have gone through. People go on a pilgrimage to pray for the well-being of their family. How would the father have felt when just after he came back his world suddenly fell apart? If the same thing happened to any of us, would we ever be able to believe again?

I attended a candle-light vigil held for Praveen. His mother was distraught and the father broke down while thanking everyone. A friend said that she couldn’t do anything but weep when she heard of his death. A neighbour said that he still couldn’t accept what had happened, that they still wait for him to come home after a day’s work. It was very hard not to get teary-eyed after this. My heart feels hollow even as I write this.

A good friend. A cheerful person. Responsible. Extrovert. This was how people remembered Praveen that day. One thing that struck me was how he too had people who cared deeply for him. Sometimes, we don’t include disabled people in the community, because we don’t think about them at all. The only time we give them a thought is to express pity/sympathy or appreciate how much they have achieved despite their state. We either degrade them by pity or idealize them as heroes. Either way, we perceive them as different from us. But Praveen was just like you and me and anybody else. A simple, friendly person who had people waiting for him at home.

Praveen lived on in the minds of people, in the undying flame of the candles set on the wall that evening. I spent some time alone with the candles, their flickering light drawing patterns on my face. I needed that time for a sense of closure, for thinking of how all those candles symbolized the affection people had for him, how his spirit was captured in them.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute , in however small a way, in ensuring this doesn’t happen again. Parents of disabled children present in the gathering that day would have dreaded the possibility of the same thing happening to their child. It is the collective responsibility of the society to allay these fears and take the necessary steps to ensure that Praveen’s demise does not go in vain.

Though there were people from outside the disability community in the vigil, they were few in number. The media was more interested in reporting of the vigil than the actual incident. This is something that could happen to anyone’s child. I might forget the way home one day, but I will be able to return safely because I can ask for help. But how do you help someone who does not ask for help? This is why sympathy is not enough and empathy is required. As a society, we need to pledge to create safe environments for everyone, especially the more vulnerable among us.

The necessary systems are already existing in countries llike the US. There, they give out an AMBER Alert when a child goes missing and is believed to have been kidnapped. Descriptions of the child and the suspect are broadcast on TV, radio and traffic signals.They have something similar for people with mental disabilities called the Silver Alert, issued when such a person is missing. If they are on foot, people in the neighbourhood in which the person was last seen are given their description through an automated telephone call. It is an highly efficient system- 95% of people for whom the Silver Alert was issued have been returned to their families.

I cannot help thinking how Praveen could have easily been saved if we only had systems like these. But I guess the best thing to do would be to ensure that these systems come into place in the near future.

I have not written anything for a long time; I struggled a lot to finish this. The only reason I didn’t abandon the effort in the middle was because it would be a disrespect to Praveen’s memory. Writing about it is the first step in the process of finding answers.