For the past two days, I was in Chennai, about 200 miles from Bangalore on a research trip to meet and interview amputees and other people with disabilities. The trip was organized by Prof. Madhu and his team in Chennai. I left on an early morning train from Bangalore and reached Chennai at about 11:00AM. The train ride was quite great – snacks, beverages, a hot breakfast, choice of newspaper and a TV the whole way for just $10. It is nice to see that the Indian Railways are improving.

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After reaching the train station and making my way to the Marketplace Literacy Communities office in Virugambakkam, I met Sudhakar and In Woo. Sudhakar works at MLC and In Woo is a student from Illinois who also has interests with interviewing disabled entrepreneurs. Soon after, we also met Selva, a mechanical engineering senior who came by to act as our translator. After getting a very quick lunch close to the office, we started our first interview.

I was pleased to know that the person we were interviewing was Gandhi, a carpenter. He had previously met with the IPT project group from Prof. Madhu’s year-long subsistence marketplaces class. We had a good discussion about his life and how he does his work. He is a pleasant fellow always looking to tell his story completely. He had lost his arm at 18 years of age by falling into a well. Inadequate medical care caused his arm to get infected and the only way to save his life was amputation. One of the things that really surprised me was that he didn’t tell anyone about this accident until after the amputation, not even his family. However, after recovering, he tried carpentry again. He used his feet to replace one of his arms and got very good at it. He now runs his own carpentry business where he employs 5-6 people. One of the things that really stood out from his interview was the pride he took in his ability as a carpenter. He does not see himself as a victim in the slightest and is extremely confident that he can compete with other carpenters who have both hands. He also accepts the amputation as part of life and just sees it as another obstacle to overcome. It was very heartening to see that he has dealt with his amputation so well.

The next interview was with a young man named Shankar. He was affected with polio since a young age and couldn’t walk. Initially, he wasn’t very open about his life but after a while, he became more comfortable and told us more about himself. He recognized that his life has been hard and will continue to be hard because of his disability. But he too, was very proud of what he has accomplished against the odds. He has 

supported his entire family through jobs like polishing metal and screen printing. He seems content with life but hopes to create more revenue for his family in the future.

Jet lag was catching up with both In Woo and I at this point, so we checked into our hotel, rested for a while and got some Indianized pizza for dinner. The next day was an early start. We left to the airport to pick up Roland Gau, a professor from the University of Texas at El Paso who was also a former student of Prof. Madhu. His flight was delayed by about three-quarters of an hour so we took the time to take a walk into a nearby village market. This market was crazy. Firstly it was a temporary market where anyone who has something to sell sets up shop. We saw everything from used clothes, to used laptops and washing machines. We also saw emus for sale! Apparently people eat emus here, I didn’t know that bird was domestically reared for its meat. However, it was a sad sight. The animals seemed in very bad shape and were being handled quite badly. We also saw these tiny chicks that had been dyed in different colors. It is a terrible thing to do to these little baby animals – they usually don’t survive more than a couple of weeks.

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After an hour at this very interesting market, we headed back to greet Roland at the airport. Once he was out, we headed straight to Kadambur, a village about 80kms from Chennai. MLC has its rural headquarters here. It is a house off the main road that leads to the hub town. The living room in the house is used for running marketplace literacy training. As soon as we got there, we took a walk into the rice fields to take a look at the surrounding area. It was pretty cool to see some farmers planting rice saplings.

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We then sat down for two more interviews. The first person we talked to was also an above elbow amputee. He is a farmer who lost his arm when he was about 10 years old due to a dislocated shoulder. He said that a local doctor wrapped his hand too tightly and as a result blood flow was cut off to most of his arm. The condition deteriorated till his arm had to be amputated. He has since learnt how to farm with just one arm. He owns about 1.5 acres of land and is also helped by his younger brother in taking care of the farm. Again, I had the feeling that there was an acceptance of the situation and that a high degree of adaptation had taken place. When asked about his future plans, he described that he wanted to start a retail business but he hadn’t had the capital to start it. He wore a cosmetic prosthesis that he obtained in Chennai for Rs.1500. He also said that he was aware of functional devices but hasn’t bought one because of the cost. It also felt from our conversation that he really valued the cosmetic device for public situations but did not mind wearing a functional device if it would help him do tasks that he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

The final interview of the day was with a 60 year old man who was affected by polio. His main job is as a farm laborer. He expressed that his life was hard because he couldn’t do all the jobs that other people could do. However, it seemed like his social capital and close knit community helped him work about 3-4 days a week.

We then headed back to Chennai to get Roland settled at his hotel room and get dinner. I headed back on a bus back to Bangalore at about midnight.

by Sudeep Gowrishankar