When Dr Kusumlata Bhandari (66) of Jodhpur contracted bulbar polio that caused neck-down paralysis at age three-and-a-half, many people told her parents that she was better off dead! Kusum’s father was a medical doctor and he and his wife Sita took the child to hospitals across the country for various treatments. The best advice came from a doctor in SRCC Children’s Hospital in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai: “Focus on what she is left with: an active mind.”
Sita was bent upon making Kusum self-reliant. She enabled her to utilise the limited movement in her hands to stitch and do household chores. But her formal education began by sheer chance. Her older brother had a home tutor because he fell behind in studies since Sita was busy caring for 11-year-old Kusum and her three-year-old sister. Kusum was intrigued by her brother’s lessons and would ask the tutor many questions. He decided to introduce her to the Grade 1 curriculum.
She was a fast learner. In just three years she was ready to sit for Grade 10 exams, an experience she so thoroughly enjoyed that “it was like going for a movie!” She proved her tutor’s prediction right by passing in her first attempt. After graduating from a women’s college she chose a co-ed college to do M.A. in Political Science, interacting with boys for the very first time. Talkative and outgoing Kusumlata topped her class and passed M.A. with a gold medal.
Sita visualised her daughter teaching, and whenever her husband raised doubts she would retort, “If no one makes her a lecturer I will open a college for her!” Well, she didn’t have to go that far. Dr Kusumlata became a much-loved and respected professor at Jai Narayan Vyas University, Jodhpur after she got her PhD (and a law degree to boot).
When she realised that many disabled students on campus couldn’t afford books, fees or a place to stay, she tapped into her network of colleagues and friends. One of them lent her two rooms, a kitchen and garage of her mansion. Others donated utensils and mattresses and paid for gas and electricity. That was the birth of Pragya Niketan. In its current avatar the hostel accommodates 100 visually and physically disabled students for whom it provides free board and lodging and assistive devices.
Dr Kusumlata lives with her student and companion Dr Nirmala Bishnoy, and enjoys gardening and stitching on her motor-driven electric sewing machine. A tireless activist, she has wrought path-breaking changes for disabled persons in Rajasthan: fee waiver for Jodhpur University students, home district posting for government employees, and postal ballots. The old Mukesh song “Kisi ki muskurahaton” captures her core belief: to bring a smile to someone and relieve their pain — that is what life is about.