Icon to view photos in full screen

“I never think about the past, I only think about the future”

Loveleen Koundal (23) was the first child of Neelam and her husband Deshraj Koundal, who had an export business in Delhi. He was born with six fingers on each hand and they were webbed; the skin between them had fused and they were stuck together. He was taken to Dharamshala where a team of medical professionals from Bombay had arrived. Doctors operated on his hands and separated the fingers.
But Loveleen’s development was slow and his speech and physical movement were delayed and impaired. He received some treatment at Batra Hospital in Delhi but doctors recommended physical exercises at home. In particular they asked the parents to dig a hole, place him upright in it, and fill it with mud so that his body would be supported in a standing position. This was not feasible in a metro like Delhi. At this point, Neelam turned to her parents who lived in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh.
Neelam is the only child of Bhagwan Dass, a soldier with the Assam Rifles, and his wife Subhadra Devi. The couple took their 10-month-old grandson to live with them permanently. His multiple disabilities did nothing to diminish their love and care. Until he was four years old he had to be carried everywhere because he could only ‘crawl’ by lying on his back. Since Subhadra had to work in the fields she would make sure there was always someone at home to look after Loveleen. “We went through a lot for him to be able to walk and be independent today,” she says, describing their method of strengthening his legs and torso. They used to make him stand in a bucket and fill it with mud; similarly they would make him stand in a pit, propped up by mud, for half an hour every day.
Loveleen started speaking when he was almost three years old and has impaired speech. His fingers lack the dexterity to wield a pen but his grandparents were determined to give him a good education, making sure he always had a scribe to help with his writing. He studied in Sunrise Public School till Class 5. “I never had a bad day in school,” he says. “I had so much fun and used to do a lot of masti (merrymaking). Although I had speech problems my teachers were always very supportive.” Subhadra used to drop him and pick him up but when he joined secondary school there was a school bus to transport him. He completed 10th standard in Viswajyoti Public School and 12th standard in Gurukul School.
Meanwhile, Neelam and Deshraj had two other children. Nayansi Devi was born in Delhi, like Loveleen, a couple of years after him. When Neelam was pregnant with Vaibhav she came to Kangra for her delivery. Incidentally, Vaibhav also was born with six fingers in one hand but they were not webbed. He too had problems speaking and walking but they were not as severe as Loveleen’s; both functions have improved significantly. The 18-year-old is in 12th standard while Nayansi (21) has just started working.
Loveleen continues to keep in touch with his natal family, who now live in Chandigarh. He used to play a lot with Nancy when he visited them during his school holidays and he regularly speaks to them on the phone. When it came time for him to answer his board exams in Nagrota, no one was available to help him write. It was Nayansi who came to Nagrota to be his scribe and he passed with a first class. Then he did a one-year Computer course from ITI Dhadi.
Loveleen has been regularly going to Tapovan (as the NGO Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development is popularly known) since childhood. Subhadra heard about the NGO through a CORD field worker and she started taking him there for physiotherapy and to learn basic skills. Even today, when they are invited to an event or meeting at Tapovan they make it a point to attend.
Bhagwan told us that Loveleen had registered with the Employment Exchange but never received a call letter. Finally his grandparents helped him open a small grocery shop two years ago. Although his shop brings him earnings, Loveleen says he would prefer to find a regular job “because I like to meet new people”.
Bhagwan, now 77, says, “I hope Loveleen will find a wife who will look after him once we are gone.” When we asked the eligible bachelor himself whether he would like to get married, pat came his reply: “Who doesn’t?” He wishes he could find a wife who is employed. “I sometimes feel bad that my speech is not clear,” he says. “But I try not to let my speech impairment prey on my mind.”
Loveleen once saw the Burj Khalifa on TV and was mighty impressed. He says he wants to see the awesome edifice with his own eyes, and so Dubai is very much on his bucket list!


Vicky Roy