Salman Khan does not know that among his millions of fans there is one teenaged boy in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh who yearns to meet him. Prem Sagar Khande will turn 14 next month but his intelligence is that of an eight-year-old since he was born with an intellectual disability (ID). The firstborn of Manoj, a cycle rickshaw puller, and Kamalesh, a domestic help, Prem dreams of meeting his hero.
Manoj recounts how Prem’s teacher once told him a phone number of someone she knew and joked that it was Salman Khan’s. Prem innocently believed her. Although his retention is weak he memorised the number. From home he started dialling the number repeatedly on the family’s mobile. He continued to do so despite Manoj hitting him several times. Finally the person at the other end responded and Manoj had to apologise and explain the circumstances to him.
Prem has never been able to sit still during his waking hours. After undergoing cataract surgery in both eyes at a government hospital when he was just four, he was admitted at age six to Balmukund, a private school in their neighbourhood, Talapara. He couldn’t sit still in class, wasn’t afraid of the teachers and didn’t listen to them, and couldn’t focus on his studies. Other kids were nasty to him and even beat him up. Acting on a teacher’s advice his parents contacted a special school in Vaishali Nagar, but they were told that retaining him in a mainstream school would benefit his learning and allow him to progress over time.
The same teacher then advised them to approach the State Mental Health Hospital in Sendri village, Bilaspur district. Doctors diagnosed Prem’s ID and prescribed “medicines”. After two years of medication his parents switched to Ayurveda, which was cheaper, but when the pandemic hit, they could not afford even that. It was just four years ago that Kamalesh started working in order to supplement the family income.
Were the medicines meant to treat his restless behaviour? We don’t know. No medical papers would have survived when their house was demolished. They used to live in Sanjay Nagar colony in Talapara but the whole colony was razed and they were relocated to Madhuban in January 2023.
Because their new home is nearly 7 km away, the parents could not afford the transportation to school for Prem and his younger sister Poonam (8). They started taking the children along to work: Kamalesh, the girl; and Manoj, the boy. The kindly teacher suggested that the kids be tutored at home and attend school solely for their exams. Both children are now being tutored by an educated girl in the neighbourhood. If Prem passes, he will advance to Grade 9 and Poonam, to Grade 3.
Prem adores Poonam and is a protective older brother. They are inseparable and he was heartbroken when she once went to visit her Mamaji (maternal uncle). But they argue like any other siblings over the use of the mobile phone, besides pens, pencils and other items. Poonam is aware that her brother is a little slow and is always reminding him to be cautious, dispensing advice like, “Don’t touch an electric wire or you will get a shock.”
The children’s Mamaji is in the police force, and Prem aspires to join it as well. When we asked him what he wanted to do, he answered that he wanted to be a cop. And what would he do if he became one? He said, “Choron ko pakad kar jail mein daal doonga!” (I will catch thieves and put them in jail). Manoj said his father was a pandit who played the tabla. Prem enjoyed playing his grandfather’s tabla but he kept thumping it so vigorously that he broke it! He also enjoys spicy food – chicken biryani in particular.
Kamalesh says that Prem has never given her any trouble but she is worried about his future. It really bothers her when people keep telling her, “He’ll never be able to live or do anything on his own.” As for Manoj, he hopes his son’s dream of joining the police force comes true. But let’s not forget his biggest dream – to meet Salman Khan!