Living with grace and dignity, beyond disability

I first recited St. Francis of Assisi’s poignant prayer (a.k.a. the Peace Prayer) sincerely but without much thought as a teenager at the St. Francis Junior College in Secunderabad. It fell to a brave man to bring alive for me its true meaning, over three decades later. The Hindu temple of Toledo, Ohio, as part of its annual Gandhi Jayanti celebrations, invited me, an India-born Canadian scholar, to introduce Indians there to a distinguished Indian demographer who had dedicated his life to promoting Gandhian ideals and to a scholarly treasure created in his honour by the University of Toledo. My stay was arranged at the home of an Indian doctor couple, of whom I knew nothing, other than that they lived not far from the Hindu temple. My talk was scheduled for October 13, 2018 at 11 a.m. The evening before, UT president D. Johnson, a friend of this couple, drove me to their palatial bungalow. As I stepped into a dimly lit foyer, a low-hanging chandelier shimmered in the distance. Beneath it, on the cream-coloured carpet, a slightly bald, grey haired gentleman with his back facing us, stood — on his knees. “There is Dr. Satish Sood,” said Johnson. By the time we neared the drawing room, Sood had, using his knees, reached his red and black wheelchair, on to which he heaved himself. On hearing our voices, he looked up. As our eyes met, his cherubic face lit up and his twisted mouth broke into a smile. The long ride from Toronto to Toledo had drained me and diminished my energies both for small talk and for the task next morning: convincing a large group of Indian doctors, engineers and IT professionals about the intrinsic value of the social sciences! But the 71-year-old Dr. Sood’s enthusiasm infected me. We soon connected over our shared passion for human rights, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s comedies and our native city of Hyderabad. After some time, he left to take a nap. Meanwhile, I tried to make myself helpful, much to the annoyance of Doris, his long-standing, tall, red-haired Mexican housekeeper. But I rapidly won her over by expressing my love for Mexican food. Before long, Doris started filling me with the joys and the tragedies that had both brightened and darkened her life. Tragedies reminded her of Dr. Sood. Parkinson’s disease, she said, had struck him when he was 50, slowing and eventually cutting short his successful career as a surgeon, writer, and public speaker. (Later I watched few American television clips featuring young Sood debating animatedly about Kashmir and other Indo-U.S. issues with fellow American doctors.) Thanks to Doris, I sadly learned about two other passions over which I could further connect with Sood: writing and public speaking. But decency demanded that I desist from discussing these topics with him, now and forever. But these were the very topics the Soods brought up during dinner. While Sood’s wife, Rama, wanted to know what I was wearing for my talk, he wanted to know whether I was well-prepared. I admitted I was very tired. Doris now leaped into the conversation, offering a cure: a potion of crushed lime, ginger and parsley. After dinner, the couple graciously turned over their entire living area for my speech rehearsal. But soon, Sood wheeled himself back into the room. “This should inspire you,” he said. I turned to see a colour picture of former U.S. President Barack Obama smiling down at me. Sood was awkwardly holding up a copy of the book, Say it Like Obama . I grabbed the best-selling public speaking guide.

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