In the midst of reading highly disturbing When a Tree Shook Delhi and totally nonsensical The Hindus, No Looking Back, A True Story came as a fresh whiff of air
I’m not sure — at least as I’m writing this review — whether I read No Looking Back as a person with disability, or as a casual reader (casual in another sense, otherwise I consider myself a serious reader). I’m saying this because at a certain plain I felt connected to the author — Shivani Gupta — because we’re both physically disabled. We don’t know each other personally but I remember seeing her in a few conferences and at that time she came across as a very reserved, serious-looking person, but of course, at that time I didn’t know her story, which, now I do.
No Looking Back is autobiographical. It begins with Shivani, the author, struggling with a plethora of conflicting emotions about whether she should attend her college reunion or not. Confined to a wheelchair after a car accident left her a tetraplegic, she doesn’t want to paint a sorry picture of herself in front of her friends who had once seen her running around full of verve and ambitions. She is worried about what people who must have seen her running around in the college campus unhindered by physical as well as mental constraints may think of her when they see her in a wheelchair, being helped by people for her every move. This, I think, is a situation people who are born with the disability (and hence have never experienced walking or doing other stuff people do) don’t have to go through, but then, I may be saying this just for myself.
She abruptly leaves this string of thoughts as she explains how she ends up in a wheelchair, and one never comes to know whether she eventually attends the reunion or not (if I’m not losing a thread).
It’s a gripping story of possibly avoidable tragedy, medical negligence, extraordinary courage, human frailties, and finally, an enduring love that transcends normal, conventional understanding.
Shivani tells the story of her life in a “right in your face” manner without fudging facts and mincing words. The significant detail of the first accident, that they were going around 120 km/h in a car (the car was being driven by higher boyfriend) when she met with the accident, makes you wonder why in the first place they were going at such a speed, especially when in India the roads are not very good. But then, this is how things happen in life. I’m sure any other, less courageous writer, would have conveniently skipped this detail. Sometimes we act quite rashly in the heat of youth without paying due attention to the repercussions. This, is what increases the quantum of the tragedy – that it could have been avoided.
Nowhere she pretends that she was one of those ideal women out to change the world. Her primary concerns were how good and attractive she looked, whether she could retain her boyfriend or not, and how and when she would marry, have children and settle down as a regular wife.
The gory details of how she goes through monumental neglect at the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) rattles you deeply despite the fact that you’re quite aware of the conditions of government (for that matter, even some private) hospitals in India, and the attitudes of our doctors and medical staff. The degree of frustration is compounded by the knowledge that just due to their carelessness and criminal detachment a person has to live a life of severe disability. This is a big problem in India that people at responsible positions don’t have to bear the brunt of their irresponsibility no matter how grave a tragedy they unleash upon the victim of their casual attitude. These people have no business perpetuating their crimes by remaining in their professional positions. They should be arrested and made to pay for their behavior dearly. The frustrating account of Shivani’s first month at AIIMS also brings to fore the difficulties a common person has to go through in India even in order to access basic needs.
From a bubbly young woman of 22, full of dreams and about to embark upon an exciting journey of going abroad and studying, there she is lying on a horrible hospital bed with a 22 KG weight dangling through the holes drilled into her skull by a junior doctor who had no clue of what exactly he was trying to achieve. For one month she stays in the same position, just staring at the grim, stained ceiling, with doctors and nurses treating her like a feelingless and emotionless entity. The conditions under which she is kept are simply bloodcurdling, and it gives one a panic attack to think of millions of other patients who must be going through the same conditions in one way or another in such deplorable hospitals. If you say that you can relate to her condition or you can imagine what she must have gone through during those days, I’m pretty sure you are lying. No one can relate, no one can imagine, but her.
Miraculously she is rescued from that hellhole by a doctor of an upcoming institute of spinal cord injuries. She is shifted to the new hospital, operated upon, cleaned up, encouraged emotionally, and within a few days, she’s on a wheelchair, about to move out of her room.
In the name of rehabilitation of the persons who have become disabled there exists nothing in India. There are physical therapy facilities where you can go and exercise alone or with the help of a sem-trained physician, but these activities don’t really rehabilitate you. You need to rehabilitate yourself. There are no councillors and there are no experienced professionals who tell you how to face the difficulties of life after becoming disabled. Shivani goes through the transformation on her own. She climbs mountains and comes down on her own, she falls into pits and comes out on her own. Neither she nor people around her have any idea of what exactly is happening and what turns the life is about to take. She learns on her own.
This is the void she decides to fill once she has overcome her initial sense of monumental loss and reconciled to the fact that she may not walk again, that her life is changed forever and this is her new reality. The succor that she never got, she decides to provided to other spinal cord injury survivors who have been suddenly rendered disabled with no clue of how to deal with their new situation.
As she begins to chart a new path for herself, most of the traits of her old life begin to recede, including her boyfriend, but there are also new beginnings. She starts providing counselling at the spinal cords injury center and thence begins an extraordinary love story. Classics may not be written about this love story, but when you begin to compare this love story with the conventional stories you must have read, you will realise that your conventional stories don’t even know the “L” of love.
No Looking Back is basically a love story, but with a twist. It’s a story between two real-world persons and in the real world, love isn’t the only thing that happens. People get injured, they meet with accidents, their appearances change (for worse sometimes), they become disabled, they may have to help their lovers sit on and get up from the toilet seat on a daily basis, everything becomes inaccessible and even as simple a task as visiting the Eiffel tower may end up testing your physical and mental grit.
Contrary to what many people may think or assume, in case you happen to know the author, No Looking Back A True Story is not a disabilities issues book. Yes, the protagonist becomes a tetrapelagic and then deals with her life accordingly, and on many occasions the book gives you a deep insight into how a person deals with, and even doesn’t deal with (moves on without dealing) the problems that come with extreme physical disability, as I have mentioned above, it is a love story with disability as the backdrop.
I highly recommend this book. Very tightly written. Not a single line that bores you. Just make sure that if you are buying it from Flipkart don’t buy the digital copy because their DMR is very constraining and almost outdated. Purchase a physical copy.