A disability activist who uses a wheelchair was assaulted in India for not standing up to the national anthem being played in a cinema. The incident triggered outrage over what many say is the rise of aggressive nationalism in the country. Salil Chaturvedi, who has been wheelchair bound since 1984, recounts the incident that left him shaken.
As a wheelchair user in India, going to the cinema is not the easiest thing to do.
So my wife Monika and I, usually keep big screen cinema hall outings to the minimum.
Every once in three months, we summon up what it takes to make that journey. Some places are easy, some are hard, and needlessly so.
Anyway, that Sunday morning a few months ago we had a movie hall sojourn on our plans.
I was excited with the prospect of watching Kabali, the latest release of the superstar Rajnikant – I’d never seen a Rajnikant movie in the theatre before.
I got behind the wheel of my car, a golden-bronze beauty with an automatic gear shift, that’s been modified for my use – accelerator and brakes brought up for hand usage.
I’m a deft hand behind the wheel and driving is exhilarating and liberating. It was a rainy Sunday, cool and green all around as it can get only in Goa.
We live on the island of Chorao, 12km (7.45 miles) from the main city of Panjim and the movie hall. That means a ferry crossing to get to the mainland.
At Panjim, we met a friend, and the three of us enthusiastically trooped to the INOX theatre in Panjim for an afternoon show.
It’s always a well-planned operation going to the cinema: once we are in the theatre, Monika goes looking for the ushers while I stare wide-eyed at all the movie posters for the upcoming releases, ignoring the stares of people who are not used to seeing a disabled person.
Some toddlers usually point me out to their parents asking what a man is doing on a chariot. Cute, but irritating.
Monika finds two ushers and explains to them that we need help to get to my seat and two people will be required to carry me up the aisle.
She tells them to let us in before they open the gates to the public so it’s easy to get to the seat. There’s always an edge to her voice and I wish I can make it easier for her but there’s nothing I can do.
So, this day, we are finally in our seats and I lift myself up and Monika slides my air-cushion under me and the three of us settle in to watch the trailers. The hall fills up slowly, with people and the smell of popcorn.
But just before the movie begins the national anthem is played and everyone in the hall stands up.
It’s one of those moments when I feel a bit singled out since I am the only one sitting.
It’s an unsettling kind of feeling, as if one is not participating, somehow alienated.
I can hear a couple behind me singing the anthem loudly and with obvious pride. I pay attention to their singing, admiring their passion.
Suddenly I get a rude whack on my head from behind. I flip my head back and the man gestures for me to stand up.
Stunned, I turn back to the screen and wait for the national anthem to get over. I should be feeling rage, I think to myself, but my hands begin to shake with nervousness.
When the anthem ends I turn around in my seat and address the man – “Why don’t you just relax in life?”
“You can’t even stand up for the national anthem?” his partner screams at me.
“Look, you don’t even know the story here,” I say. “You should just learn to relax a little in life. Why do you have to get physical and hit people?”
Monika is watching this with surprise wondering what’s going on.
My friend is also clueless about what has just happened.
When Monika hears the word ‘hit’, she just loses it.
“Did you just hit my husband?” she shouts.
“Why can’t he stand up for the anthem?” the woman says loudly from behind. “Do you know he’s disabled, you ******?” Monika screams back.
The man realises his mistake and he leans over and begins apologising to me. The woman doesn’t seem to have caught on and she gets into a slanging match with Monika.
God, this is not happening. It was just meant to be an evening out to enjoy a movie.
Suddenly, an usher appears with a torch and tells everyone to calm down since the people in the hall are getting disturbed.
The woman asks the usher if the manager is on the premises. He sternly tells her to sit down and be calm.
“Are you alright?” Monika reaches over and asks me.
“I’m fine,” I lie.
“Let’s watch the movie, please,”‘ I say, though I would like to go back to my peaceful home in Chorao.
Suddenly, the couple behind us get up and leave the hall. I feel the muscles in my stomach relax a little.
That day, Rajnikant fails to spin his web for me. Strangely, my mind repeatedly travels to the empty chairs behind me.
I keep thinking of the moment when the man would have taken a decision to reach out and knock me behind the head. How was he to know that I wouldn’t hit back?
Was he thinking anything at all? Was it a reflex action on his part?
Was the love for his country (and mine) so overpowering that he felt nothing about physically assaulting someone?
What am I supposed to do the next time?
Should I inform the people behind me that I am disabled and will not be standing up for the anthem?
Should I wear some sort of badge for people to know I am disabled?
Should the national anthem be played at a cinema hall in the first place?
After the movie we wait for the hall to empty and then Monika gets the wheelchair and goes looking for ushers to carry me down the aisle to the wheelchair.
Why do they always forget that they had got me up and are now required to get me back down?
The next morning the children in the school near our house sing the national anthem at the morning assembly.
I lie in bed listening to their tiny voices that are full of national pride.s
I shoot off a letter to the editor of the local newspaper and then send an email to the theatre management requesting them to introduce a slide in the hall asking people to refrain from forcing others to stand up.
I hope I’ll be able to rediscover the national anthem some day.
For now, I’ve hit upon a plan to go see the movies: Book the rear-most seats in the hall.