Late one night in January, I misjudged the steps at a haveli in Jaipur. I lost my balance, twisted my ankle, and lay on the ground in excruciating pain. I was in the sprawling city of palaces and forts at the eponymous literature festival where I was to speak and moderate a few panels. The hotel staff gently lifted me and settled me on a bench, and I felt my festival was going to end before it had really begun. I was worried I may have broken my ankle. My host came looking for me, got me painkillers, asked if I wanted to be rushed to a doctor, and when I said no, he held me and took me to the dinner table.
After dinner, two friends firmly held my shoulders and guided me to a car through a labyrinthine path, avoiding the myriad footsteps that separated the dining area from the imposing main entrance. Later that night at my hotel, another old friend and a helpful member of the hotel staff took me to a hospital next door. The emergency ward doctors didn’t notice any damage but I was in pain.
I spent the next few days in Jaipur on a wheelchair, seeing the world from a lower height and with different eyes. Everyone who looked after me was unfailingly courteous, kind, gracious and helpful—from settling me into the wheelchair, enabling me to get off and slide into a car seat even if it took me almost forever to fold my leg and stretch it again on the car floor, helping me rise out of the car and get into a wheelchair again, and pushing me through large throngs of people, patiently taking me to the venues I had to reach, and then to a quiet area where I could relax before I went to the next session. I felt awkward and uncomfortable with all the attention and pampering, yet grateful for the concern, warmth and care.
But I realized what I had, until then, taken for granted—that many destinations in India, especially those which attract a large number of people, are not friendly to the disabled. There are long distances to walk, there are frequent steps even at places that don’t require them, such as in toilets and while entering one part of a building from another, and the surface is usually uneven, if not treacherous. The wheelchairs are hard, and their footrests often don’t align with the gradient of an injured foot.
After I returned to Mumbai, I went to a senior doctor who confirmed my suspicion—I had a fracture, and he sealed my leg in plaster. I realized the impossibility of using public transport. Suburban trains and buses were out of the question; the act of getting in or out of them is almost impossible for someone unable to stand up or walk. I relied on taxis, but soon discovered that the ubiquitous yellow-and-black cabs were simply too difficult for me to get into.
Granted, I’m not the thinnest man in the world, but my problem was not my size, but the loss of flexibility in my leg, and my inability to manoeuvre my leg in a way so that I could slip into the car without aggravating the pain. With the Ambassador car having disappeared from the city’s taxi fleet, my sole option was to use Internet-based ride-hailing services, with their fleet of modern cars, and those worked. But such services are biased in favour of those who have smartphones, who know how to use the app, and have the resources to spend on long rides.
Out of curiosity, I turned to travel magazines and books, and noticed an overwhelming bias towards destinations that are meant for the fit and the able-bodied. Many publications, including Lounge, routinely publish articles on action-filled, activity-based tourism—scuba-diving, sky diving, snorkelling, hiking, sailing, or white-water rafting. Nothing wrong with any of that—these are exhilarating activities, and I’ve done some of those. But for senior citizens and the disabled, be they temporarily or permanently disabled, such activities are impossible, if not irrelevant.
Tourist guides need to be innovative in serving tourists with diverse needs. I remember when I had gone to the base camp of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, hoping to catch a glimpse of Africa’s tallest mountain, I had found the hike strenuous. I had met an elderly couple who had decided not to continue walking with me and my guide, because the steep gradient of the walk was too much for their knees. My guide called an assistant, who took them back, and then drove them to a point a few miles away, from where they could see Kilimanjaro.
I have now put aside my four-legged medical walker whom I’ve named “Aadhaar”, since it offered support and it was impossible to go anywhere without it, whether or not I liked it. I am beginning to learn to walk again, with a walking stick (which too will go in six weeks). I am fortunate; my disability has been temporary. But what of those who can’t step out of their wheelchairs? It is important that destinations are redesigned to make them truly inclusive, and those who market tours, or write about them, remember that not every tourist is a champion athlete. The disabled may not climb the mountains, but there are other ways through which they can experience the joy of reaching the top of the trail.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.