Tek Bahadur Bafnett and his wife Krishna Maya rejoiced when the fourth of their seven children was born 48 years ago in Chinzey village, Rumtek, east Sikkim. However, when little Ambika Chhetri was a mere six months old, she was felled by high fever. They didn’t know it then, but it was meningitis. The couple turned to home remedies, _jadi buti_s and exorcism (_jhaad-phunk_) instead of modern medicine. The infant lay near comatose for a fortnight when she was finally taken to a doctor. However, it was too late and the baby’s eyes had by now turned white, with the left eye completely sunk in.
Ambika says she was completely blind for the next four or five years. Gradually, the whiteness covering her retina in the right eye started declining and she gained partial eyesight. Her left eye never recovered and she now uses a prosthetic eye. She only has vision, albeit low, in her right eye.
These vicissitudes led to late schooling. An average student, she faced discrimination, and taunts from relatives and at school. Even so, she used to do household chores, go to the market by herself and look after her three younger brothers.
When she reached Grade 9, she had to relocate to her uncle’s village, Sadam, in south Sikkim to continue her higher studies. She completed Grade 12 from Sadam Senior Secondary School. Meanwhile, she earned some pocket money taking tuitions for some children nearby. In 1997, she got her B.A. degree from the Sikkim Government College in Bachelor of Arts, Gangtok.
In Gangtok, she fell in love with a man and married him in 2000. He was less educated than her and was doing a series of temp jobs. Her family was not happy, but Ambika was, particularly when their daughter was born. Two years into the marriage, her husband joined the Sikkim police. His demeanour changed and he became abusive. Ambika bore the torture for 14 years till he started having affairs. She slipped into depression and became an alcoholic. In 2014, when he threatened to burn her along with the house, she left for her brother’s house, taking her daughter with her.
It was only then her family knew the extent of the abuse which had left her a wreck. They and some friends rallied round her. One of them persuaded her to do a seven-day meditation course with the Brahmakumaris, which, she says, helped her with her addiction. She got a job as a receptionist in a small hotel on a modest salary. Her family continued to support her on all fronts.
Way back in 2008, Ambika would frequent Sikkim Divyang Sahayata Samiti, an NGO whose founder-president, Droupadi Ghimeray, a Padma Shri awardee, always had her welfare in mind. So after her divorce, she approached her mentor again who hired her for a very basic salary till she found something better. Two retired government employees, Dr Sarita Hamal and Mrs Purnima Sharma, also took her under their wing.
Soon opportunity came knocking. In 2016, ADAPT (formerly known as Spastic Society) from Mumbai, Bandra, sent an invite to the Samiti for a six-month training course, Community Initiatives in Inclusion. Ambika was sent to Mumbai to help her upskill and become employable. It opened her to a wider world. She came across people with different disabilities. “They also have struggles in their life.” It did wonders for her self-esteem, helping her shed unwanted baggage.
On her return to Gangtok, Ms Ghimeray helped her apply for a job in the Education Department. She was given the role of a Special Educator on a temporary basis in the Samagrah Shiksha Abhiyaan (formerly Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan), a Central Government project. She will be made ‘permanent’ once she completes the B.Ed. degree she is currently pursuing. She oversees all the inclusive schools in her block, ensuring that no child with disabilities slips through the cracks. Her work includes counselling the children, parents, caretakers and others who handle the children.
The hilly terrain of Gangtok can be daunting as Ambika has to travel to remote areas on home visits to meet the children and oversee physiotherapy and accessibility to services. Often there is no public transport and she has to improvise. But she says she is happy. Her work brings changes in the lives of so many people, giving them direction and hope.
Apart from her full-time job, she still volunteers with Sikkim Divyang Sahayata Samiti, and also Mayalmu Shelter Homes, a shelter for homeless women and women with physical and intellectual disabilities.
She likes travel, adventure treks and camping, and listening to old film songs, mostly Nepali and Hindi songs. Her daughter is pursuing a B.Sc. in Forensic Science from Lovely University in Jalandhar, Punjab.