Valuing the Challenged

Valuing the Challenged

 An Unplanned Journey by Naval Pant

---Reviewed by Deepak Sharma

Publishers: Parmahansa Yoganand Society for Special Unfolding and Moulding (PYSSUM - a non-profit organization working for the Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities)

Year of publication: 2023

Price: ₹ 350 INR
ISBN: 978- 81- 964533- 0- 5

Deepak Sharma
Based on true occurrences and beginning with a brilliant literary piece---an intimate conversation between a father and a son--- -Dr. Naval Pant's book AN UNPLANNED JOURNEY beacons our entrance into a world of extraordinary grit, divine compassion and commendable achievement.

The author, a keen follower of Sri Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, is the Founder- Director of PYSSUM (Paramahamsa Yoganand Society for Special Unfolding and Moulding), Lucknow, which was co- founded by his wife Prof. Ranu Uniyal in the year 2005. He is also a Member of Expert Panel for Inclusive Education, State Shiksha Pariyojna, UP.

This book, he says, is 'at once an autobiographical account, a memoir of the institution we built, a chronicle of the heroic struggles of young children, and some of the learnings from serving in the field of special needs education.'

The book opens with the literary piece, a short story, called 'A Gift from God's Hall of Angels'.

 About a child (with special needs) -- 'The Boy'-- who is being drawn closer to his parents when his ‘Dad' makes up a 'Palace of Joy' and a 'Hall of Angels’. The 'Hall' holds Angels like The Boy in need of special attention and care and in the 'Palace' live many men and women, from among whom, God allows The Boy to choose his own parents who will fulfil his wish for a place of learning that was 'special'. The Boy chooses these very distinctive Mom and Dad who are now his parents. The Dad also makes up a magical 'Portal of the Parents' lap' where stand The Boy ' s chosen Mom and Dad right in front to receive The Boy who runs the fastest among the Angels to reach them as God opens the 'Hall' into the 'Portal'.

 In view of this half mystical and half factual account, The Boy gains confidence as the nectar of flowing love envelopes him and his parents with him accepting himself as one of the Angels from God's Hall.

Highly creative and emotional in spirit, the story sets the tone for the next second and third chapters.

The second one deals with the shock and despondency that the Pants went through when they spot their son, Moko, experiencing developmental delays, both physically and intellectually, what with one of the paediatricians declaring most insensitively, ' Your son could be a vegetable all his life', flouting the very spirit of the Hippocratic Oath.

Ensues one more year of frustration with exploratory but inadequate treatment of Moko succeeded by his epileptic seizure. This takes them to the right doctor whose systematic and effective medication for the next three years helped Moko gain weight and his physical health gets improved and he starts growing, though slowly.

The third chapter recounts how Moko comes into his own moving from one stage of development to another, step by step.

From attending two schools-- 'Friendship’, a special school in the mornings and 'The Speech Development ' in the afternoons, having to change his school uniform enroute from one school to the next.

Until at The Speech Development School, a teacher in the habit of hitting the children with cane had also hit Moko causing his head to bleed.

Naturally, he is never sent to this afternoon school after this.

The next phase of his schooling begins at Pyssum Day Care Centre, which has been set up by that time and is brimming with new children.

There his speech gets better with daily coaching and his body movements too respond better with physiotherapy. He develops a new interest in musical instruments and sports.

By the time he reaches his teens he gets selected for the Special Olympic National Competitions in New Delhi and wins a bronze medal in the race and a Silver one in the Short- Put along with Shreya of PYSSUM itself who has also won Gold in the Girls ' Race.

Over the years Moko gains new skills as he matures and graduates to become a vocational trainee at the age of 23 at the PYSSUM Vocational Training & Rehabilitation Centre (PVTRC) where job skills, arts and crafts are taught to Special needs people.

This is a remarkable record indeed where the parents as well as the special son show indomitable spirit and triumph.

It is mandatory here to quote the last paragraph of this chapter:

“Ranu looks at me with a knowing smile sometimes, as if to say, ‘our son, a' could be a vegetable' has turned out to be a winner in his own right.’ I smile back, for I know that look.”

In the next few chapters, Dr Pant writes about the 'exceptional' learners, the 'heroic' teachers and the 'incredible' staff at PYSSUM. About the achievements and successes of PYSSUM.

It is indeed heartening to read about Manas, Tanu, Disha, Puja, Srikant and Yogesh making good progress at PYSSUM.

Manas, fondly called, Bal- Hanuman, got transformed into a well- adjusted adult, specially when in the initial year of his PYSSUM his attention- seeking repertoire had been spitting, hitting and disappearing. But the training of constructive play, drawing and craft and the phrase, 'I love you' at PYSSUM had worked wonders with him and he had made rapid progress in his social intelligence and behaviour.

Again there is Tanu, whom Dr.Pant addresses as 'Hi Princess, Bolti kyon nahin?', who, at age 7,the year she had joined PYSSUM had reminded him of the 7- year old Helen Keller whose teacher and life- long companion, Anne Sullivan, had joined her just at the same age. Tanu was totally passive, made no effort to move, learn, communicate and did not even talk or walk.

But within the next three years she was coaxed into showing a new willingness to work hard to achieve the goals set by her educators and therapists.

And even walk and say, Mero naam Tanu Hai.

We also learn about Puja and Disha, the daughters of a staffer who could not afford to send them to a school regularly and who had been accepted into PYSSUM due to the formulation of a policy of admitting socially challenged but mentally active children.

Puja, the younger one had a better grasping power and interest for academic learning than her sister Disha, who enjoyed arts and crafts.

But unfortunately, their father died and the mother stopped their training here.

Nonetheless they had picked up learning here to their advantage.

Srikant's case was different though. He was their first PYSSUM angel with autism and had been helped to make good progress both physically and emotionally and even chant Paramahansa Yoganand's chant, “Joy, joy, joy, joy; Ever- new Joy, joy" during his two and a half years spent here but unfortunately was not sent back by his father after the summer vacation.

With the result he remains an unsettled adult with undiagnosed autism due to his father being indifferent towards the needs of his own child. Which is sad indeed.

Then there is Yogesh, the boy, Dr Pant happened to observe at a wedding jumping continuously in the crowd. He later found out that a kind young man Amoolya, had found Yogesh sleeping in a garbage can in his village and had brought him to Lucknow where his parents lived and accepted him as part of their family. They had taken him to a child specialist too and even sent him to a special school with no positive results. On having learnt this about Yogesh from Amoolya he offered to admit him in PYSSUM.

And now having spent almost 15 years there he performs on stage during cultural programs at school and participates in sports competitions, including the Special Olympics.

Dr Pant writes about Imtiaz too very fondly who was their first special needs adult with autism.

Imtiaz had been brought to PYSSUM by his father in 2007.

He had shown great interest in the world map and had good general knowledge too and the craft activities too had captured his imagination and to encourage him he was also given charge of Fancy Envelopes production which he had taken up most earnestly n competently.

He had continued working for PYSSUM   until the end of 2018 when he fell severely ill and most unfortunately passed away in 2019.

We also learn about Abdullah who was another special-needs adult, whom his mother had brought to PYSSUM and where he was transformed first from a listless 19-year-old teen with Intellectual and Developmental Disability into their first vocational trainee to eventually work as a classroom assistant for children in the inclusive education system.

We also have Tanya who spoke about her passing away to Moko a day after she had died. She had Down Syndrome whom PYSSUM had trained to become an active member of their Hospitality group. Her weekly visits to the Lucknow Meditation Centre of YSS with her parents   had brought her close to Moko, who would also accompany his parents to visit the center. The Sunday school and children’s joint satsanga activities had further helped both Tanya n Moko become good friends and she would also call him on the telephone for a chat, even when after a year she had stopped going to PYSSUM as her family had moved to a new home which was far away.

Also from Chandigarh, when her parents had taken her with them to attend a wedding.

But only for a few weeks as she had had to leave the world and her fond memories behind her.

Dr. Pant also writes about Rohan who had autism and was brought to PYSSUM by his parents.

Strangely enough, Rohan had been a very good friend of Moko even before Dr. Pant had met him here.

Rohan and Moko had had a common friend in a dog, whom they had fondly given the name, Brownie. And both the boys used to arrange meals for Brownie, who was not being fed well by his family until one day he was killed by some one in their building. To the great dismay of the two friends.

And soon enough, Rohan too stopped coming to Moko as his family had shifted house.

The book is a powerful recall of the circumstances that prompted Dr.Pant to undertake this ‘unplanned journey’ and to go through it most rewardingly and successfully. And share it with his readers so cogently. With an amazing skill of narration and story-telling. We marvel at his use of different kinds of language interchangeably depending on what he wants to convey. In his literary piece, the short story and in his narration of the cases of his exceptional Angels his language is very expressive and he evokes specific and concrete images with such details that we can visualize, most vividly, each exceptional case that he writes about.   His language is appropriately formal when he writes about the doctors, visitors and neighbours whom he meets at different occasions.

And his language assumes an intimate tone when he mentions his wife, son and friends.

When it comes to various references to his colleagues, specially that to Dr.Anju Misra(Director, Education and Training at PYSSUM) that he  makes in the book, he uses an informative style mingling it with regard and approbation.    

Dr. Pant also includes a thought-provoking and captivating chapter in his book, devoted to the quality of empathy and calls it a healing balm for a suffering world.

He believes his immersion in PYSSUM 's humanitarian work has changed him completely and he finds every day to be a day of new learnings and expanded horizons. Which speaks of his humility and broad vision.

At one place, Dr. Pant quotes Helen Keller:

“The world is not moved only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker."

The book also carries heart-warming pictures of various activities carried out at PYSSUM and by PYSSUM members elsewhere which illustrate how the institution's staff, teachers, students and parents engage themselves in acts of service, learning and human transformation.

Truly the book elicits an overwhelming admiration for both Dr. Pant and his wife, Dr. Ranu Uniyal for their indefatigable spirit and their success story.

Dr. Ranu Uniyal's short poems characterizing a few PYSSUM Angels published at the back page add to its charm.

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