While the Covid-19 pandemic wrought immense suffering upon the world, it had unexpected benefits for some people. For instance, Tushar Kanti and Ratnabali Ray Sengupta from Agartala in Tripura made use of the lockdown period to teach their autistic son Tribidya to paint and to play the synthesizer.
Way back when their son was a toddler, the Senguptas noticed he was different from his siblings. He couldn’t talk, but could sing. He could say only a few words but not phrases. Doctors in Agartala couldn’t find anything wrong with him so they took him to Kolkata, where a doctor diagnosed him with ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Acting on the doctor’s recommendation, they got him enrolled in a large school but were forced to remove him after a month because of his “disruptive” behaviour. The same thing happened when they enrolled him in the newly started SSRVM School. None of these mainstream schools in Agartala had teachers equipped to engage with Tribidya.
The Senguptas then took their three-and-a-half-year-old son to Nimhans (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) in Bengaluru, where he was diagnosed with autism. The doctors there suggested a ‘special school’ but Tripura did not have any. So when Tribidya turned five, he was enrolled in a special school in Kolkata where he learned to sit and work with teachers there. But this couldn’t be a long-term solution since the family was based in Tripura. The school suggested that the parents themselves establish a special school in their hometown.
After the initial trauma of their son’s diagnosis, the couple accepted that they had to deal with their situation. Ratnabali underwent professional training in order to better care for Tribidya. Even though he is now 26, she still receives instruction from professionals to help with his speech difficulties. Unsurprisingly, the family faces taunts from people around them and although they are used to it, it hurts every time. “_Yeh to pagal hai_ (he is mad),” someone once said.
The couple, together with some other parents of special-needs children, founded the Vidya Welfare Society in Agartala and started a school, Vidya, in 2004. Vidya, which has three special educators, focuses on holistic development and trains the children in life skills through dance, music, art and craft. The society is supported by donations from parents and well-wishers. Attempts to secure government assistance have thus far been unsuccessful. Currently, Most of the 22 students in the school are boys. Children up to the age of 18 get schooling but those over 18 are taught vocational courses.
Ratnabali is now an Assistant Professor in the History Department of the Women’s College. She started teaching there when Tribidya was just six months old and says she has very supportive colleagues including the principal. If she requires time off, she gets it though she makes it clear she does not want to take advantage of her circumstances. She returns from college at 3 p.m. and then goes to Vidya, where she stays until 5 p.m. Tushar Kanti, who retired as a bank officer, now works full-time for the society as its secretary. Tribidya’s condition inspired his maternal aunt, Kathakali, to do a special education course at the National Institute of Mental Health in Kolkata; she now works at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy.
Tribidya has thrived under parental care and enjoys going out and travelling. He loves to listen to music and is entranced by Bollywood songs. “Main koi aisa geet gaoon aur aarzoo agar tum kaho” is his favourite. A foodie, he has high standards and his favourite dishes are aloo bhajaa (fried potatoes) and egg curry. His regimen is straightforward: get up around 7.30 a.m., eat breakfast, study with father, have a bath and go to school with father. He is able to write and is now learning how to read the time. The duo returns home for lunch after which Tribidya has a short nap. Evenings are practice time on his synthesizer. Ratnabali introduced him to the instrument and to sketching and painting since she thought they would be good exercises for hand-eye coordination.
While his parents have done their best, one thing they have to cope with is his aggression when he is angry. Sometimes it gets physical. It tears Ratnabali’s heart, particularly when his anger has grown with age. His parents are worried about his future and want to establish a trust or a shelter home where he will be cared for after they are gone.
“Everyone, whether autistic or not, if they are accepted, then life would be easier,” says Ratnabali, adding that there should be more awareness on autism.