If the system beats you time and again, what you do is beat the system yourself. Renu Bhandari joined four other women to set up Saksham, a vocational and rehabilitation centre for persons with disabilities (<https://sakshambhavansaashray.org/about-aashray.html>) early 2022.
The Bhandaris belong to Amritsar, where Renu worked as Professor of Political Science at the BBK DAV College, for over three decades. Dr AK Bhandari is an ENT surgeon running a hospital (<http://bhandarienthospital.in/index.html>) there.
Says Dr Bhandari, “When Bharat (who is now 31) was three months old, he developed acute pyogenic meningitis, was very sick and remained in the hospital for two weeks.” Subsequently, he developed an intellectual disability. He could hold a normal conversation but his milestones were delayed. “He would have frequent convulsions. This was painful and we had to rush to his school very often. But the convulsions stopped when he was around 15.”
Initially Bharat was put in mainstream schools, but found it difficult to cope. Says Renu, “I used to help him in his studies. He learned to write words only at 13. I then sent him to Delhi to my sister’s place where we enrolled him in a special school called Pallavanjali School in Gurgaon. There they taught him academics and also life skills. This gave him confidence and also helped him feel better about himself. They also had skill training done in the Trident Hotel there.”
However, the Bhandari couple were worried about the “over exposure” in Delhi and brought him back to Amritsar the following year. Bharat joined M.K. Hotels in Amritsar, a place that caters to flights, where he helped make and pack sandwiches for five years. Says Renu, “His boss was very happy with his dedication and lack of distraction. Bharat too liked this place; it helped build his confidence. But such children are very vulnerable. Somebody tried misleading him towards drugs, but as he shares everything with me, we spotted the danger and pulled him out.”
He next worked at a five-star hotel for a year. “He is very good at repetitive things,” says Renu. “He predominantly helped at the laundry department and wherever else he could. He used to be so excited to work there. If his boss asked him to come at 6 a.m. he would wake up by 4 a.m. and start getting ready. However due to his vulnerability, there were situations that were abusive.”
The Bhandaris decided to keep Bharat closer home by getting him to help out at their hospital where he helped with making the beds and so on. When COVID-19 convulsed the world, Bharat was tasked with making face masks and packing them. This gave him a purpose and structure.
The idea of Saksham started in March 2020, was completed in November 2021 and became operational from January 2022. “It has been 18 months and every day there has been a blessing.” The women were helped by Mr Mahendru, the chairperson of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. “He knew about our struggles and trusted us with the space to set up the centre,” says Renu. He handed over the reins to the women and asked them to run Saksham as they deemed fit. “Mothers always have a tough time and there is always the thought of ‘what next’. This centre provides vocational training to 22 adults with disabilities through workshops and sessions. It is financed by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and the everyday administration is managed by my sister, Chaman Mehra. Saksham is a godsend to us.”
Today, Bharat spends his time there from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., bonding “reasonably well” with the children there. “We recently got a very good choreographer too whom the kids love.”
Post-lunch, he goes to work at La Patisserie, which is part of the Mitti Café chain <https://www.mitticafe.org/>, a non-profit organisation committed to the cause of employment and livelihood for disabled people. “He works there from 3.45 to 7.30 p.m. and loves it there. His boss gives him 10/10 for his hard work and dedication!”
Some years ago, Renu and other mothers decided to create a peer group for their kids and started organising get-togethers, storytelling sessions and play dates so that they could bond. As she points out, “He has not had many friends, as friends and cousins outgrow such children. He is a happy child, but needs structure. His behavioural issues surface only during unstructured situations.”
Bharat loves singing. “He gets it from his father who is a very good singer himself. We tried many times to have him trained formally, but he does not practise though he has sung on stage. His favourite is the song, 'Kal Ho Na Ho'.”
A Salman Khan fan, Bharat wears the famous SK bracelet. “Recently at the café, his boss ordered a cake for him which had his and Salman Khan’s picture on it. That made him very happy. We recently got a French bulldog named Laddu and he likes playing with him too.”