Funny story. A couple weeks ago, I went to a local shopping mall, shopping for kicks, hoping to cash in on some end-of-winter deals.
“Local”, I say, not because any of its stores or their merchandise were Indian, but because the mall was located in Vasant Kunj in New Delhi, a few minutes from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, where I was staying.
In fact, this “mall” was actually three Westernised multi-story malls in one massive compound (I think the half-page Times of India ad called it a “commercial development”) off Nelson Mandela Road, with a fourth mall under construction, just to round things off nicely.
Say what you like about the externalities of capitalist growth and industrial expansionism, you have to admit that even numbers are somehow “rounder” than odd numbers, right? Take Ragven Chauhan, for example. He used to have one leg but today, thanks to Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti limb-fitting society in Jaipur, he now has two again.
A few weeks ago, I met Chauhan, a 25-year-old agricultural worker from Murena, at the Society. he told me that he had travelled to Rajasthan by bus with his father after being bedridden for two years as a result of losing his right foot in a bike accident. We had visited the Soceity on the same day, I a journalist, he a patient, and by the time we met he was already satisfied with the prosthetic right foot with which he had been fitted, free of charge.
“This is the most widely used foot in the world,” said Mr D.R. Mehta, founder of the non-governmental, voluntary, non-religious, non-sectarian, non-political limb-fitting Society, whose outer lobby felt like any public primary healthcare clinic back home. Long lines, hard benches, long lines on hard faces. This is India, I thought.
Inside, though, the scene was a lot less familiar. It was more like a factory, with a conveyor-belt, assembly-line limb-manufacturing operation involving zig saws, heat guns, drilling, measuring, moulding, modifying, aligning, measuring and sand casting. It is, in fact, the largest limb-fitting society in the world, located a short drive from the ancient walled city of the Maharajas. Mehta, a grey-haired man, speaks slowly, loudly, clearly and with a slight British accent.
“It’s one of the best prosthetic joints available in the world right now,” he says.
Later he explained that, while it is partly self-financing, the Society’s annual expenses of some about US$3.5M are covered mostly by donations, as well as support from the Government of India. The philosophy behind the free clinic is not to belittle patients’ human dignity, but to enhance it.
“They come as human beings in need of assistance,” Mehta said.
Back in the Delhi commercial development, on Level Three of Ambience Mall, a teenaged attendant greeted me at the entrance to the Puma outlet.
“How can I assist you today, sir? Please come inside. What are you looking for?”
Good questions. Not so funny story. Sorry, India is a not so funny place. A one-legged man in Gualiwar may be smiling but my feet feel weird in these new 3,000-rupee Puma cross-trainers.