'Have a right to be out & about' - Sindhu, only wheelchair user to attend Kerala festival
Regarded as one of the world's largest festivals, Attukal Pongala in Kerala is also exclusively for women. One person who has become a familiar presence here is Sindhu Sudevan. A wheelchair user, Sindhu never misses the festival despite the large crowds or inaccessible roads.
Every year, thousands from women from across Kerala gather at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, to honour the goddess Attukal Devi and give offerings. Women devotees sit by the roadside to cook porridge for the goddess.
Present among the large crowds, is Sindhu Sudevan. Sindhu is the only wheelchair user among the devotees and nothing can keep her away from the festivities, not the bad roads, large crowds or the scorching heat.
Sindhu has a spinal cord injury, the result of an accident in March 2000. She was married at the time and working as a lab technician. Three years later, she gave birth to her son Adarsh, who is now 14 years old.
Sindhu says she was always keen to attend the festival as her mother and aunts would talk about the festival and attend regularly.
It was considered to be a festival for older women. I started attending for the last five years because apart from giving an offering to the Goddess, I want to make the point that disabled people need not be confined to the four walls of their homes. They must come out and do things just like how any other person does. Most of the people think that a wheelchair user cannot achieve anything nor do things on their own. I was determined that I would participate in the festival and show that I can do it too. -Sindhu Sudevan, President , All Kerala Wheelchair Rights Federation, Thiruvananthapuram
Backing Sindhu in his are her son, mother and sister-in-law who joined her for the Pongala. She was there in the scorching hear along with many others despite the shock and surprise on faces all around.
"People ask me why I have come outdoors and say things like I should stay inside, says Sindhu. "Some tell me things like the Goddess is everywhere so I should stayed home and give offerings. How is that fair? I want to go around and do things just like how a person without a disability does.
By making herself visible and present, Sindhu wants to show the world that people with disabilities have needs like everyone else and want to be out and about.
This is easier said than done. The roads where the Pongala is conducted are inaccessible and not disabled-friendly at all and not many people are willing to help someone on a wheelchair.
"A disability just throws more challenges on your way. A disabled person cannot even go alone to their favourite restaurant or textile shop to pick up a dress, says Sindhu. "I request authorities to make our public places more disabled-friendly. We also would love to explore. To those disabled women who want to attend Pongala next year, do not hesitate. Come outdoors and see what you can do.
Suma Sasikumar, her sister-in-law, is proud of Sindhu's drive and determination. "It was a proud moment for all of us to see her come outdoors and participate. I always accompany her to places. says Suma.
The point Sindhu is making is valid for people across India. Time and again there are reports of people with disabilities being unable to enter or even turned away at religious places of worship. How long will they have to struggle to access this most basic right?