When Taba Kalakar was born in 1982 in Krishnapur village, Lakhimpur district, Assam, she had four older siblings and would eventually have four younger ones as well, so that she was well and truly the middle child among six girls and three boys. Their father, Mohan Singnar, and mother, Kanduri Singnar, belonging to the Karbi tribe, had no formal schooling. As the years went by, everyone saw that Kalakar was missing some milestones as she was not walking even when she turned three. Then one of her older brothers taught her to walk holding a stick. All her siblings grew to average height but Kalakar did not, as she was affected by dwarfism. In a few years she had discarded the stick and has been walking without assistive devices to this day.
We spoke to Kalakar in Hindi, which she does manage to speak, but she is fluent only in Assamese and the language spoken by the Nyishi tribe to which her husband belongs. From what we gathered in our conversation with her, she stopped going to school after Grade 1 for a few years, perhaps because of her early mobility difficulties. Then her father encouraged her to go to school along with her younger siblings. In this manner she studied till Grade 6 in a local Assamese school.
Mohan Singnar died, and Kanduri eked out a living to support the family. Kalakar told us that her mother raised hens to sell eggs besides doing “pahadi kheti” (terrace farming) on “some khali jameen (vacant land) she found on the hills”. She seemed to imply that anyone in the tribe could start cultivating any patch of land lying untended in that mountainous region.
Kalakar was very young when Taba Ratan, a daily-wage labourer belonging to the Nyishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, sought her hand. She was not very keen as he was of average adult height and had no living relations such as parents and siblings. She also worried that their height difference would lead to practical difficulties such as cooking and keeping house for him. Her family was also against the union since he belonged to a different tribe. Still, Ratan won the day and took her away.
The couple started living together, without any formal marriage ceremony, in Tapik Colony, which is a village of around 200 people, in Banderdewa, Papum Pare district, on the Assam-Arunachal border. A year later, Kalakar gave birth to a daughter who was stillborn (“She came out _ulta_.”). However, after two years or so, a son was born to them. Taba Rahul, who is 21, finished his schooling from St. Francis Assisi School and has reached 12th grade in the Government Higher Secondary School, Doimukh. He has selected Arts as his major stream. It comprises Economics, History, Geography, English and Political Science.
Kalakar’s life with Ratan did not last as he abandoned her, taking up with another woman nearby. The latter union produced four boys and a girl. He visits Kalakar occasionally but does not support her financially. Kalakar has been working in a Primary Health Centre (PHC) in her area since 2013. It is walking distance from her hut, which is built of bamboo in the traditional style of the Nyishi tribe. Her work involves cleaning the PHC premises every day, sweeping and mopping. When she has to reach objects at a height, the nurses help her, she says. On Tuesdays, when the PHC conducts vaccination for children, she has to stay there the whole day as she has to clean up after the children. She also has to take photos of each child who comes for vaccination there and submit it to the doctor in charge at the end of the day. She gets a monthly salary of ₹10,000.
Posing standard questions to Kalakar about coping with disability or her hopes for the future elicits no significant responses. Dwarfism has caused her no trouble in life, she says. She works, she is independent, she supports her son, and has no great plans in her head. All she concedes is that she “wouldn’t mind some help from the government”.