His upper body enclosed in a bright blue parka, Mohammed Iqbal lies on his stomach on the sofa, head and shoulders up, withered limbs limp. His strong face looks relaxed, but actually Iqbal is seething. He and 30 other disabled people have an appointment with Leh-Ladakh’s Deputy Commissioner (DC), and they’ve been kept waiting for more than six hours. Iqbal wants to prod the bureaucracy into following the law that says that three percent of government jobs are reserved for the disabled. When the government recently asked for applications and a large number of disabled responded, not one was called for an interview. Iqbal’s limbs may not be capable of doing much, but there’s nothing wrong with his head. Now, despite his anger, he’s working out how best to get through to the DC.
When Mohammed Iqbal was born 43 years ago, it seemed inconceivable that this baby with misshapen, feeble limbs due to a rare congenital disorder that contracts the joints and weakens the muscles, would one day become one of Ladakh’s leading social activists. A forbiddingly high desert bordering Tibet and snowbound half the year, Ladakh is India’s second largest district.
Many Ladakhis, like most Indians, consider disability a stigma. But Iqbal’s family and neighbours were different. His family carried him everywhere, and children included him in their games. He was the umpire at cricket matches, and he could play chess and other games using his mouth and tongue. Iqbal’s parents also tried sending him to the village school. But he threw tantrums. Nobody had the heart to scold him, so he was allowed to stay home—much to his later regret. His father and grandfather taught him to read and write basic Urdu.
As a child, Iqbal never thought of himself as handicapped. It was only when he was around 20 and his siblings and friends started getting married and taking up jobs that the implications of his physical condition hit home. “I became very depressed,” he recalls. For two years, Iqbal lay in bed, sick with despair. Then the moulvi of his mosque began visiting and encouraged the boy to pray five times a day, like all true Muslims should. He also taught Iqbal Arabic so that he could read the Koran. “When I prayed or read the Koran,” Iqbal recalls, “I was uplifted. Gradually my mental strength returned.”
But then, Iqbal’s father developed a heart problem that stopped him from augmenting his meagre pension, and his elder brother married a woman his parents didn’t approve of and moved away. As the second son, Iqbal—then in his late 20s—became responsible for the family. His energy and intelligence no longer crippled by depression, he got down to work. The family owned some land in the bazaar that was being used as a garbage dump. Iqbal had the land cleared, built shops on it and rented them out. He started a brick kiln. He hired workers to break up rocks and sold the stones to contractors.
By the late 1990s, Iqbal had become reasonably well off. He found good spouses for his younger brother and sister and celebrated both their marriages. Still, Iqbal’s horizons were largely limited to his village. Then, in 2001, he met Vidhya Ramasubban, a social worker who’d recently
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