My memories of Sailenda – Tribute by Shampa Sengupta, disability rights activist
Veteran disability rights leader Sailen Chowdhury passed away in Hooghly, West Bengal, earlier this week. Disability and gender rights activist and Joint Secretary, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, shares her personal experiences working with him in this moving tribute.
When I met Sailen Choudhury for the first time, I was very scared of him. He was president of West Bengal’s largest disabled people’s organisation which had a huge membership. I talked to him with reverence in the initial days but we became close very soon. He was always eager to learn about what’s happening in the disability field across India. Once he asked me, “You use a term cross-disability. Does such a term really exist?”
Sailenda was a blind man who started a school for children with intellectual disability. He was leading a mass organisation with members who have visual/orthopaedic/hearing impairments. He was keen to include issues of mental health within his DPO’s work. So when he asked whether a term like cross-disability exists, I was not sure how to respond. Sailenda taught me terminology does not matter. What is important is to believe in one’s work.
Late blindness forced Sailenda to drop out of school
As our friendship grew, he started sharing many personal experiences. He started losing eyesight at early age and had to drop out of school because no one in his family was aware that blind children can study in school. But he did not regret missing formal education. After telling me this anecdote, he would laugh out loudly and remind me, “You might have completed your post-graduation and done research on disabled people, but I know more than you”.
Indeed, his knowledge was astounding. He depended on his radio for information of outer world. His connection with a large number of human beings gave him the understanding at ground level. He never used a smart phone but would remember hundreds of phone numbers.
Known for his personal touch
Before every protest meet, he would call leaders from all districts, the NGO heads and disabled people, reminding them where they have to reach and at what time. His calls were not just about the meetings, he would ask about the well-being of every member. He would remember every small detail and I would look at him in wonder – that one could be such an active organiser without using the Internet or English language in this era was unbelievable.
Genuine concern for others
I learned many things from him. To be curious of life, how to keep in touch with fellow activists, how to never bring one’s own impairment to the forefront. He told me many times, “I am blind, but I acknowledge that generally common people are kind to blind people. Hearing impaired people do not receive such kindness.” He was keen to understand my mental health issues and asked me many questions about how I am coping.
Shyly he once told me, “My only regret in life is that I will never be able to see parrots again. I know parrots are green, I have seen them. I remember all the colours”. Many late-blind people will resonate with this.
I regard myself as among the most fortunate of people who got the opportunity to travel with Sailenda. Once we travelled by train for 43 hours. During one journey, he whispered to me about a certain team member who came from a poorer background and reminded me to serve more food to him.
There’s long journey ahead for all of us at the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). We promise to bring to the forefront the issue of poverty within the disability movement. That is the only way we can offer a tribute to him.
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