My early life was spent in Nanpara, a forgotten little village in the heart of Uttar Pradesh where I lived with my family of five siblings and my parents. If there is one thing that I remember of those early years, it is the stark poverty that stared us in the face every single day. My parents were illiterate and slaved endlessly for various landowners, whose fields they worked in so that they could feed their six children. And because they were away for most of the day, my siblings and I spent the days with our grandparents who lived in the neighbourhood. Looking back, I think that the poverty and the constant shortage of even the most basic things never made a difference in our lives. We were too young to notice that we did not have anything much in life other than the rationed-out portions of two meals a day. But even so, I spent my days happily running around in the fields with my friends. Studies were only a small part of our existence and we went to school only because we had to.

And then one day, all of that changed. Since my grandparents were too old to go to the market or get their everyday chores done, we children helped them by running errands. On that particular day, it was my turn to take the wheat to the flour mill so that my nani could make rotis for our dinner. My friend and I handed over our wheat bags to the flour mill owner and hung around watching the wheat being crushed by the giant electric mortar, the speedy conveyor belt that made the entire thing work, and how the finely ground flour emerged magically from the gaping jaws at the other end of the machine. Even after all these years, I am still not able to fathom how exactly I managed to get myself entangled in that machine. One moment, we were standing by its side and the next, I felt myself being dragged by my right hand and before I knew what was happening, my hand had got entangled in the crushing machine and it had managed to wrench it off my shoulder socket! I remember my shocked child’s eyes watching my hand being swallowed up by the machine and thrown out at the other end, all crushed. I remember the commotion around me as people shouted and my friend’s attempt to save me, but nothing after that. When I woke up, I was lying on a hospital bed and my parents were by my side, my mother sobbing her heart out. I weaved in and out of consciousness for a few days but woke up one morning, fully conscious. My father told me that the sleeve of my kurta had got entangled in the machine that pulled me in. What he said after that was even more shocking: my friend who tried to save me had also got his hand entangled in the machine, in a bid to save me. Thankfully, he had managed to escape with just a fractured arm, but I, on the other hand, lost my arm in the accident.

Mohammad Sharif in front of Navjyoti, the NGO that helped him find employment.
Mohammad Sharif in front of Navjyoti, the NGO that helped him find employment.

But miraculously, the kind school teacher’s words worked their magic on me when he turned up the very next day and started teaching me to hold a pencil and write with my left hand. It was a laborious and frustrating experience but he never lost his patience or gave up on me. Back home from the hospital, I practiced hard to write legibly and my efforts soon bore fruit when I was able to write effortlessly with my left hand and could go back to school.

Two years after my accident, however, my parents decided to leave our village and head to the big city, in search of a better future for us. We children were puzzled by our parents’ decision because they grew up in that village, but one day abba said that I would have very little future in a village, given that I was a disabled person now. I did not know it when we boarded the train to Delhi, but it was a journey that would set the course of the rest of my life....

In 1987, when I was in the 7th grade at school, IPS officer Kiran Bedi came to our settlement and opened a branch of her NGO, Navjyoti. She was already a reputed police officer who had made a name for herself in rehabilitating criminals and for offering women and children ways to develop and improve their lives. Our settlement, full of migrant labour from all parts of the country who took to crime due to unemployment, was a place that urgently needed her attention. Then, miraculously for me, I got an opportunity through their social workers to go and teach the kids at Navjyoti’s school. I was awed at the prospect but enjoyed being in the company of children who seemed to like me a lot. In addition to teaching them alphabets and activities, I taught them to act which, too, was my passion, and soon, we were all having a great time. It is said that God looks after those who believe in him. The team at Navjyoti realized my passion for acting and sent me to a neighbourhood acting school to further develop my talent. It was a joyful moment for me when I returned after completing my acting course and was promptly employed as a drama teacher to the kids at Navjyoti, and I took up the challenge, directing them in street plays and impromptu performances.

Mohammad Sharif with his students at a performance.

Soon I had learnt the sargam, alankar, and raag from my music teacher and I was overjoyed when he said one day that he had filled out a form for me to learn music at the Allahabad Prayag Sangeet Samiti. It was possibly the most joyous day of my life when I got admission there. I had always dreamt of being a singer and a musician, and the years I spent at the institute made me the person I aspired to be. When I left the institute at the age of 22, I had a Masters in Music and a life full of promise.

Almost as soon as I returned from Allahabad, I was appointed by Kiran Bedi as a music teacher at Navjyoti and that was the beginning of the next chapter of my life.

Edited excerpts with permission from Random House India.

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