Life & Style | People

Rajinder Johar's story

In April, Friday ran the story of Rajinder Johar whose life was turned upside down during a botched robbery attempt. Now his daughter Preeti tells the story of growing up with a dad who became a quadriplegic, how she found inspiration in his determination not to give up and how she is running a trust he started.

  • By Nilima Pathak
  • Published: 00:20 September 5, 2008
  • Friday

  • Image Credit:
  • Preeti Johar's growing up years were unlike those of many of her peers. Her father could not accompany her to the park. He could not hold her hand when she wanted to go for a walk or buy her an ice cream from the street cart vendor.

In April, Friday ran the story of Rajinder Johar whose life was turned upside down during a botched robbery attempt. Now his daughter Preeti tells the story of growing up with a dad who became a quadriplegic, how she found inspiration in his determination not to give up and how she is running a trust he started.

Preeti Johar's growing up years were unlike those of many of her peers. Her father could not accompany her to the park. He could not hold her hand when she wanted to go for a walk or buy her an ice cream from the street cart vendor. He couldn't help her on to her bicycle or help her when she fell off.

She remembers the tears of resentment that filled her eyes one evening as she stood outside her school hall with her brother. They had just finished attending a school function and the parents of almost all their friends had come by, picked up their kids and gone home. Preeti and her brother were the only two children whose parents had not come to pick them up.

"I knew it was not that our parents had forgotten to pick us up. It was just that dad was unable to come and mom was too busy taking care of his needs,'' she says. But seeing the other children holding their parents' hands and skipping along home brought a flood of tears to her eyes.
***

Preeti's father Rajinder Johar was a senior occupational therapist at King George's Medical College, Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, India.

On March 30, 1986, when Preeti was barely four, the life of this 37-year-old man and his family (which included his wife Shashi, son Pankaj and daughter Preeti) changed forever.

It was late in the evening and Rajinder had just returned home after a hard day's work when he heard a knock on the door.

He opened it to find three men who forced him aside, rushed inside and asked him to hand over all his money and the valuables in the house.

In the ensuing scuffle, one of the men whipped out a gun and shot Rajinder. The first bullet hit him in the chest. Before he could flee with his family into another room, the thieves fired again. The second bullet struck his neck and the father of two fell to the floor. Seeing the blood and hearing the cry raised by the family, the intruders fled.

Rajinder was rushed to the hospital that he worked at and was operated on. But at the end of the surgery, the doctors had to reveal the sad news to his family: the bullet that struck his neck had affected his spine, Rajinder was paralysed and there was no hope of recovery.

A new world

After five months in the hospital, Rajinder was discharged and the family moved to his hometown, Delhi. His wife who worked in Allahabad Bank in Lucknow sought a transfer to Delhi so that she could be with him and take care of all his needs.

From being the breadwinner Rajinder became a man totally dependent on others for even his basic needs. The dreams he had for his and his family's future came crashing down like a house of cards.

"The first five years after the incident were really tough for dad," says Preeti. "He would be in different moods – agitated, frustrated and waiting for the inevitable; he had heard and read that quadriplegics do not live long.''

Though she doesn't remember that harrowing evening very clearly, "I was three-and-a-half at the time'', she does occasionally think of taking revenge on the men who wrecked her father's life. "Several times it crossed my mind to find the man who was responsible for harming my dad," she admits.

Did she ever imagine what life would have been if her father had not been paralysed? "I always saw him in bed and could not imagine him in any other state. [I believed] that's how a father is," she says.

"As a child, I used to take my toys into his room and spend all my time there. I would learn dance at school and perform before him. He taught me everything in life, from the English and Hindi alphabets to framing sentences, counting numbers, reciting nursery rhymes, how to tell time, social etiquette... Whatever I am today is all due to him.

"Of course, as I grew up and saw my friends playing or walking with both their parents, I realised something was amiss.

But on the positive side, he was always there for me at home. I could never complain that I missed him or that he was not able to spend much time with me."

Sacrifice and struggle

"My mother had a tough life," says Preeti. "Although she had a job prior to dad's accident, after the incident she had to take on the role of the sole breadwinner who not only worked in the office, but also slogged at home. She used to go to work, do the shopping, run all the errands and more.

"In our case it was our mother who was always short of time. We barely got to spend time with her. She gave her all to the family. Five years ago she sought voluntary retirement and decided to spend more time at home. I owe it to her that I could give myself completely to the mission I have chosen in my life: to work for the Family of Disabled trust (FOD) that dad started in 1992."

***

Though his body took a beating, Rajinder's mental faculties were intact and he often quoted Richard Bach to his daughter: "There is no disaster that cannot become a blessing and no blessing that cannot become a disaster."

In 1992, making the best of what life thrust upon him, he began using two fingers and a thumb to type and soon began producing a bi-annual magazine, The Voice. The objective of the magazine was to create awareness among the masses and sensitise them to various aspects of people with disabilities.

He also started a trust called Family of Disabled (FOD). With the help of a few volunteers, FOD sought to help the physically challenged and financially disadvantaged by setting up the Apna Rozgar Scheme in 1998. The purpose was to help the physically challenged to seek self-employment.

"I saw my father emerge a winner," says Preeti. "He has always been a man of principle and I draw strength and inspiration from him. His courage and determination inspire me and help me come out of periodic blues. The way he has taken all the adversities in his life head on is astonishing. I have never heard him complain about anything. Rather, he outperforms himself.

"During the past two decades, his health has deteriorated considerably, but like a soldier he is fighting it out. He often experiences acute pain in his arms, which becomes unbearable at times. It pains me to see him suffer like this.''

Shifting course

After doing her English Honours in 2003, Preeti wanted to join a foreign language course and take up a job as an interpreter and translator as it seemed very lucrative.

"Around that time my dad fell very ill and had to be hospitalised," recalls Preeti. "Dad's one major worry was what would happen to me and to FOD once he was gone. He used to advise my brother to take care of me but he had no one to whom he could say, 'Do not let my efforts [in setting up FOD] go in vain'."

Preeti was determined that the wonderful initiative her father had started should not fall by the wayside. She decided to take on the mission, simply because she loved him and could not bear to see him in pain, anguishing about the future of FOD.

She decided to give up her dream of a career as a translator and took on the daunting task of running the trust.

Initially Rajinder was a trifle sceptical. He was not sure whether she would be able to handle all the issues that kept cropping up. Nevertheless, he decided to give her a year to prove she was capable.

"Honestly, at that time, I didn't offer my services to FOD with the purpose of helping people. I did it only to unburden my father. But when I got into it I realised my purpose in life. I could have done nothing else in my life but this. The passion came automatically."

It did not take long for Rajinder to realise that his daughter had the ability to make FOD a success. He was overjoyed to see her use modern management techniques to take the trust to new heights.

Of course the road was not easy. She recalls an incident, in 2006, when FOD organised a major exhibition of artworks by artists with disabilities.

A few days before the event, Rajinder's health took a turn for the worse and he had to be hospitalised.

"Being closest to him, I wanted to be with him in the hospital. But that would have meant postponing the event – something he would never have wanted,'' says Preeti.

"So, to ensure that everything went according to plan, I worked on the exhibition, rarely visiting him in hospital. I could not have got a greater gift: he was discharged from the hospital on the opening day of the exhibition!"

Anything you can do…

Preeti also draws great pleasure in doing what people think she is not capable of. "Dad wanted to publish a special humour issue of The Voice for quite some time, but somehow it never came together. Last year, The Voice completed 15 years of service to its readers and I thought it would be the right time to bring out the special issue on humour. But dad was not sure we would be able to meet the deadline.

"I took it upon myself to collect the material for the special issue. People said, 'What does humour have to do with disability?' They think that people with disabilities have no right to laugh or feel cheerful. But I am glad that I was able to bring out the issue on time."

Life has been on the upswing for Preeti. "I got married recently. Both my in-laws and my husband are supportive and encouraging. And I continue to work for FOD."

Presently, father and daughter are working to extend the reach of their projects to as many people as possible.

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