The cottage had red bricks and a roof with a chimney. There was thick mist around. The sound of silence. The peace. Chandrika had seen this cottage before. It was the same one she had imagined in the Enid Blyton books she loved as a child.
Two teenaged children ran out of the car and rushed towards the cottage. Their parents followed them.
‘Wow! This is awesome!’
‘This is like a fairytale!’
‘It has a fireplace!!’
Mr. Shamlal, the manager of the property was excited to see what seemed like a large group. “How many people Sir?”
‘Eight adults. And five kids.’ Chandrika’s husband, Sanjeev replied.
‘Kids love our property Sir! You all related?’
Sanjeev ignored him. He hated random questions from random strangers. Chandrika nodded politely.
‘Yes. My husband and I, our daughter. His two sisters, their husbands and kids. The rest of the family is still in the car. We will check out the first place.’
‘Lovely madam… Please come!’
‘Don’t touch anything! We have still not checked in. We are just deciding where to stay!’
Chandrika could hear her sister-in-law, Sameera yelling at the top of her voice at her kids.
Chandrika took a round of the cottage with her husband. They looked at each other and exchanged a look of disappointment.
‘There is no ramp?” Chandrika asked Mr. Shyamlal.
‘Ramp! There are four steps to the cottage. It is elevated. And the steps are very big!’
Mr. Shyamlal took a moment to process what she said.
‘Oh that madam! Where you will find here!! None of the cottages will have. But why you need? Any elderly people?’
‘Our daughter is on a wheelchair.’ Sanjeev replied.
‘No problem Sir. Our staff will pick up her wheelchair. Carry her inside. Just four steps Sir.’
‘No that is not the point’. Chandrika snapped. ‘My daughter is very independent. She does everything herself. She does not like to be carried around. How can you not have a ramp!’
‘We never needed it Madam! 99 percent people – Normal. One percent – handicapped! So nobody ever complained.’
Handicapped. The words pierced through Chandrika’s heart. Her soul. Her entire being.
She remembered the first time she had held her daughter. She was so tiny. Her little fingers and toes. Her barely visible eyebrows. She was so perfect. Was it possible to love something you have seen few minutes ago so much?
‘Sameera, there is no ramp here.’ Sanjiv yelled to his sister who was inside the cottage with her husband and kids. Sameera came running outside.
‘Yes Bhaiya. I noticed too. I’ll get them out. They are not willing to listen’.
‘No no Sir. No need. We have regular rooms on the other side of the property. One person with the handicapped child can stay on that side. Rest all this side’.
“No! We are on vacation. We will stay together.” Sameera told Mr. Shyamlal sternly. She went inside to talk to her kids who were already comfortable on the bed.
‘It is so nice here! Let Chandrika Mami, Sanjiv Mama and Summi Didi stay on the other side. We will stay here,’ replied her daughter.
‘Beta! Those rooms are very far. Other side of the property. Even their restaurant is separate. All you kids will be this side. Summi will be alone. She will feel like she is missing out.’
“Sameera, I think you are being over sensitive.’ Sameera’s husband said. ‘Chandrika Bhabhi and Sanjiv Bhaiya can stay that side. Why should our kids suffer!’
‘Suffer! Not being able to stay in a 15K cottage is not suffering Sunil! They are charging so much. They should understand that this is not acceptable. They have to be well equipped with all the amenities. They are in the service industry. It is only when we start boycotting such places, they will understand how poorly prepared they are!’
‘Miss Sameera! Queen Victoria! She will walk out with her family! And change the landscape of Indian hotel industry.’ Sunil started clapping his hands. The kids laughed in admiration of their father’s sarcasm.
Before Sameera could respond, there was a knock on the door. Chandrika entered the cottage and looked around with sad eyes. Sunil looked embarrassed, afraid that she might have heard her.
Sameera’s daughter ran to her aunt.
‘Chandrika Mami!! We love this cottage! It is the best! Can we stay here. Please! Please! You and Mama and Summi Didi can stay on the other side. We will come there to play with Summi Di so that she doesn’t get bored!!
‘Aashi! Keep quiet. We are not staying here!’ Sameera gave a dirty look to her daughter. She looked at Chandrika apologetically.
‘Of course, Beta. You all can stay here. It is really very nice. Summi would have loved it to.’ Chandrika went outside to speak to her husband. But she broke down.
‘I want Summi to be able to stay in the cottage. Not me. I want to switch places with her.’
‘It is just a cottage Chandrika. Big deal. Don’t get so upset. Please don’t cry!’ Sanjiv tried to console her.
‘Then let me cry for the big deal. I am crying because my daughter cannot walk. Is that good enough reason for you to let me cry? She cannot do the things other kids do without even realizing they can do it. I am crying because I did everything right for my child. I gave her all the vaccinations on time. I protected her from the rain, the heat, the cold, the mosquitoes, the strangers. You name it. I did it. But then one day, she had an accident. And God is so cruel that he took away her legs! Even bad people get to live with their limbs. Criminals. Murderers. Rapists. But my Summi!! The kindest, sweetest child! She had to be punished.”
Sameera came outside and saw Chandrika crying. She watched her brother look at his wife helplessly. In the past five years she had seen this sight so many times.
She stormed back inside the cottage.
‘Get up now. All of you. We are not staying here. How many times do I have to tell you the same thing! Look outside. Chandrika Mami is crying!’
‘She always cries!’ replied her son.
‘We should not go on vacation with them again. Why does Summi Di get all the attention! We can’t do so many things because of her.’ her daughter added.
‘You are not paying for this vacation. Your father and I are. When you start earning, you can live wherever you want, with whoever you want. For now, get up. We are leaving. No more arguments.’
The kids followed her reluctantly.
‘This vacation sucks!’
‘I hate this. Want to go back’.
‘Madam!’ Mr Shyamlal came running after.
‘Only one problem child right! Rest all normal! They will enjoy Madam. My promise! Please stay for them.’
‘Actually, there are two problematic children.’ Sameera turned back to reply. ‘And one problematic husband. But you don’t worry about them. You worry about your services. It is not differently abled friendly, or elderly friendly. You will miss out on business if you are not mindful of their needs. Good luck.’
And the families drove away. The red cottage still stood there. Unoccupied. Untouched. Like a fairytale.
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” – Benjamin Franklin.
Every change begins with a small step, whether it’s a change within your family, or the whole country! India’s hero, Padman, had its digital premiere on ZEE5, on 11th May. Don’t miss this inspiring true-life story, only on ZEE5. Download the app and subscribe now. For every subscription, ZEE5 will donate Rs. 5 towards the personal hygiene needs of underprivileged women.