Difficulties make you a jewel. Anjurani Joy lives up to this maxim. The multifaceted woman cannot be summed up in one or few words as her accomplishments so far have been stupendous. She is an actor, theatre artist, model, entrepreneur, record holder, mediaperson, social worker and whatnot! But many would identify her with just one word: paraplegic. “And one more word: 'She',” says Anju, summing up the societal notions about a woman driven by passion to make her voice heard. “Being a woman, the fight is hard, and being a person with special needs, it's a war, double the fight,” she adds.
Neither Anju nor her parents have ever let the wheelchair fetter her dreams. When their firstborn was diagnosed with paraplegia (a spinal cord injury that paralyses the lower limbs), Joy and Jessy were distraught, but like all the parents who do not decide to give up, they stood with their child, letting her explore everything she wanted to. “My dad was a sports teacher at an LP school near our home at Ponmudi in Kerala's Idukki district. He used to take me to the school everyday where I studied till Class IV. Since UP school was far, I was homeschooled thereafter,” recalls Anju, who went on to earn a graduation in Sociology.
It was after graduation that she tried jewellery-making and became an entrepreneur, running an online boutique named Lis Queen and an online jewellers, Anjoos Collections. One day, while watching the telly, she came across a video where a guy was lifting two teacups with his fingers. Fascinated, Anju tried to do it. Slowly, she started increasing the weight she lifted, and now, she holds two record-breaking titles by Record Setter and Universal Records Forum for her jar-lifting attempts; she lifted with her fingers two 1-kg jars for one whole minute. “Now, I can hold up to 2 kg,” she beams.
At the music concerts of Freedom on Wheels, the troupe of persons with special needs, Anju performs her rare feat regularly, along with exhibiting her ambidexterity – she can write using both her hands simultaneously in two languages and four styles!
Association with Thanal, a paraplegic welfare society, changed her life. “As a child, I was not aware of other persons like me. But joining Thanal gave me a space to interact with many people and be motivated. We hold regular meetups, programmes, annual Onam celebrations and trips as part of the orchestra.”
Anju and her team were part of Chhaya, the country’s very first play featuring only wheelchair-bound artists. They performed in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and at the prestigious Soorya Festival, earning a standing ovation from the crowd. The play opened way to modelling for Anju. She was part of fashion shows and recently graced the ramp of a show by E-unnathi Foundation as the celebrity guest. She has also acted in two films – Simon Kuruvilla’s 'Oru Nalla Kottayamkaran' and Dr Siju Vijayan’s 'Insha', which will hit the screens later this month. “It feels so surreal. Like everyone, I too had dreamt of appearing on screen one day, but never thought it would be possible. I could do modelling and appear in beauty contests and fashion shows. I am proud and happy,” says Anju, adding that none of these would have been possible without the support of her parents and siblings Amal and Ashley.
Outside home, there are people who ask why a girl should roam around, that too when she is wheelchair-bound. But Anju and family ignore cynics with a smile. “People who don’t even know what I do just comment that film industry is a treacherous field unsafe for women. I try to convince those who listen; the rest can just go on with their assumptions,” she quips.
As is everywhere, there is gender discrimination among persons with special needs too. She sums up the stigma into one question, “How many women have you seen on three-wheeler scooters?” Not because there are no scooters, but being a woman, the ‘risk’ is perceived as higher.
Anju’s dream is to open a shelter for persons with special needs. “A place where they can gather, talk, work, do what they want to do – make or watch films, sing, paint, do business – and stay happy and independent. Everything I did so far had the backing of a strong support system. With them, I will do this too,” she says while laying out her plan.
Ask how she overcomes the struggles, she says, “With self-motivation. I have to face the hurdles of both gender and my condition. Converting criticism into opportunities is the only way forward. I have decided not to fail myself and my parents. Their happiness keeps me going.”
Anju is also the media director of Plavila Plus TV, a YouTube channel which runs as a parallel shelter service for persons with special needs. The channel is a platform to express their passion, talents, needs and keep them motivated. “But that’s not all. There’s a long way to go. Kerala was recently announced the first disabled-friendly state in India, but I doubt it. Being disabled-friendly is when a person like me can go out of home independently for a purpose, finish the work and come back home with minimum help from others. If I have to go to get a paper signed from an officer, there is no ramp on the footpath for a wheelchair user. Someone has to lift me to the bus, and if the office is on the first floor or second floor, someone will have to carry me along the steps or the officer will have to come down with the paper and stamps. For a simple purpose like this, I will have to depend on several Good Samaritans. If there are no facilities, why call the state disabled-friendly,” she wonders.
Anju loves the beach. The sight of sunset as the sandy wind kisses her face enthralls her, but Anju has been to the beach only thrice. “Once, my dad carried me in his arms to the beach. The second time, during the shoot of 'Insha', where I could get into the water. And the third time, when an organisation took us to the beach. Beach is an exciting place which is supposed to make a person happy, but when you know that three or four strong persons have to carry you with your wheelchair to take you to the water, how can you be happy? These are moments when we are reminded of our disability, otherwise, we don’t even feel that we are short of anything. I wish there were facilities for people like me to access public spaces independently like others and happily watch the sun melt into the sea.”