Dhanya Ravi is a motivational placard for hope. Though afflicted by the very rare brittle bone disease while still an infant, it could not crush her spirits or shatter her dreams. While the body curtailed her movements, her mind soared above its limitations proving that "Ostrogenesis Imperfecta," the genetic disorder that left her crippled, would never succeed in bridling her determination to give the differently-abled a meaningful perspective of life.
Dhanya was at her talkative best when Manorama met her. The venue was a special meet held by Thandav, a Bengaluru-based group, where Dhanya had come as a motivational speaker. The Social Welfare Department of the Central Government had recently honoured her with a national award for her selfless service to the cause of the differently-abled.
Gazing up at the wheelchair-bound braveheart was a young admirer who sought to know how she had come up so far in life despite her limitations. "I'd been longing to see you for quite a while," said the speech and hearing-impaired little boy, who was helped to conveying his signs across to Dhanya.
Dhanya flashed her cheerful smile and said, "I never set limitations on myself. Not only was I able to surmount my ills, but I also helped others to triumph over the confines of their physical disabilities. And that's why I got this award." The kid wore a glow on his face after listening to Dhanya.
The programme over, Dhanya was all set to get back home. She sought help from none. She dialled Uber for its disabled-friendly van which arrived spot-on. The van rolled out its special facilities to get Dhanya inside. Once the wheelchair was inside, the driver secured it with special belts.
The pain behind the smile
Dhanya, too, was born like any other cute baby. But things took an unexpected turn within a couple of days when the infant started crying non-stop. This continued for up to three months when the medical verdict came that the baby was suffering from a rare genetic disorder termed brittle bone disease. Worse still was the revelation that the ailment lacked a cure. In all her 28 years, her bones have broken more than 300 times.
"Initially, the only option was to keep the baby as still as possible, for even the least movement would crush her bones. But this was next to impossible. How can you keep a baby still? The hospital became a regular feature, as each effort I made got my bones in bits. Finally, my father learned how to bind me up in plaster," says Dhanya.
"Way back in those days, the most roads were bad and with each jerk in a gutter my bones would crack again. That was how I decided to stay put at home. I dreaded the thought of going out," she recalls.
The disease was too painful for words and till she turned 10, Dhanya was put on painkillers. She remembers that it was her mother who gave her the pills unable to see the excruciating pain her daughter was going through. When she turned 10, Dhanya herself decided to shoo away those painkillers.
"I was born to bear pain and I thought I might as well live with it. Anyway, all the bones that got broken would usually get set in a month's time. That's how I learned to smile even while pain was taking a toll on my cheer. It was precisely that steely determination which helped me land a job of content writer. But without my family I would have been nowhere," she says with pride.
Dhanya's father K Ravi is a retired government employee and mother Nirmala, a home-maker. Brother Rajesh Ravi, a software engineer, is married to Seshma. The couple has two kids Adhwik and Ayaan. The family belongs to Palakkad, but Dhanya's parents have now been in Bengaluru for donkey's years. Even as one keeps listening to her, images of the wheelchair-bound Sara, of Bangalore Days fame pops up. Dhanya, too, smiles at the same image, for the character has not been lost on her. Both share the same similarities.
Angels and saviours everywhere
Dhanya has an endearing name for herself. 'Divine design,' that's what she calls herself. "For, I'm a piece of broken and joined bones." However, by teenage, though the frequency of breaks had come down, it left its mark on the young girl in the form of frequent ailments like bone disability, bronchitis, impaired vision, and tooth decay.
"But still, I believe I'm blessed," says the ever-cheerful Dhanya.
"There were days when I was gloomy and sad. But then I started accepting my reality. I knew I was born this way and this would be my life. That sort of an assurance I gave myself got things working for me in a better perspective. I realized I was truly blessed. To begin with, I had such wonderful parents who cared for me so well. They tried to give me all that any physically normal child could have.
"While a child, I remember going out with other kids to play with them. They would tell me stories and never once reminded me of my limitations. 'It's impossible for you,' is one sentence they never brought up when I was around."
But Dhanya's illness kept her at home most of the time. She could not just go into any school. But then help came in the form of their neighbour Victoria aunty who said she would tutor Dhanya. She taught her for free till Dhanya got into class ten. A friend gave her all the books she needed. "I did the same texts they used in school. Victoria aunty had four daughters and she taught me along with them, but gave me more attention than the others. However ill I would be, Victoria aunty would come to teach," says Dhanya.
The young lady had a reason to rejoice recently. There was this chechi who used to tutor Dhanya till class three. She then left the place and lost contact with her ward. When Dhanya got her award and was on TV all over, that old teacher somehow got her number and called Dhanya. That was one happy moment for the teacher and her old student.
Right from childhood, her friends and cousins saw to it that Dhanya was always part of their games and fun. They never made her sit aside while they played. Wherever they went, Dhanya too would be a part of their outings. Even to this day, it's to them that she turns when she needs feedback on her content writing. "I owe them a lot and they are my strength," she adds.
Network to the aid
Life changed after class ten in that both Dhanya and Victoria aunty went to different places to live. That brought about a three-year gap in her studies. Her brother was into his engineering course then and her constant exposure to the computer got her familiarized with the web. Since she was very much taken up my music Dhanya soon formed a strong bonding with music lovers on the net and formed a network of kindred souls.
It was around that time that she got to see a post on Binu, a native of Wayanad who shared her ailment. The post was put up by Thiruvananthapuram native Latha Nair seeking aid for Binu's surgery.
Dhanya swung into action and contacted Latha Nair via email. "Latha aunty sent me Binu's blog link and I read his beautiful poems. I told Latha aunty I had no money of my own, but I promised her I would send her message across to others. I forwarded the message to all the forums where I was a member and asked them to contact Latha aunty."
After the surgery, Binu took his baby steps. He now has a walking stick for support. He's at present working in a medical lab in Wayanad. But from then on, I became very close to Latha aunty. Initially, when we got in touch, she did not know anything about me and I never told her anything. It was months later that she got to know of my condition … that I was also like Binu. The truth moved aunty to start Amrithavarshini, a body to help and aid those suffering from brittle bone disease. It was through that forum that I learnt how to make ornaments and pieces of jewelery."
It was again through Amrithavarshini that Dhanya started giving motivational talks and taking up social welfare causes. From 2010 to 2017, Dhanya was a member of Amrithavarshini."I'm still very much a part of them."
To parents who have differently-abled kids, this is what Dhanya has to say, "Don't set limitations on them. Give them the chance to move and interact with others. This will motivate them to soar over their disabilities and they will find their world and their worth."
Happy with her award
The Central Government award came her way under the 'Role Model' category for her selfless service to the cause of the differently-abled. The best part of the award was the widespread awareness we could create about brittle bone disease.
The country as a whole lacks facilities to detect a baby’s genetic disorders, if any, while in the womb and such tests are not mandatory in India. It should be made a compulsory part of conception and delivery, says Dhanya with utmost conviction.
Her Rashtrapathi Bhavan experience was awesome, she says. Dhanya was awed by the ambience of the capital city. But as the president was preoccupied with pressing issues, the award was handed over by Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. It was a very solemn function. But the moment Dhanya was on stage, she asked the Vice President to smile, because she wanted only smiling faces in her picture.
Think President and the big picture that comes to mind is of President Abdul Kalam. Dhanya got the chance to meet the great man a few months before he died. It was through her journalist friend Dr Anand Krishnan that the happy meeting transpired and that too for a full 15 minutes.
"I saw the President walking along and saying 'Hi.' I thought he was wishing Anand. But then he came close to me and said it was to me that he had been saying 'Hi.' That meeting will forever be unforgettable."
Love for music
Music is like an elixir for Dhanya. If there's anything that can revive her sagging spirits, it's music. She wakes up to Yesudas and goes to bed listening to him. Her deep longing to see him also bore fruit and she is now very close to the singer and his wife Prabha. Yesudas came to Amrithavarshini and sang for the kids, says Dhanya
Another tryst with the world of music materialized in the form of a meeting with Chithra. "She's so sweet," gushes Dhanya. "She hugged me the minute she saw me. I actually met her in the morning while the programme was in the evening. I asked her whether she would sing 'Malarkal ketteen.' To my surprise, she sang it. She remembered it and dedicated the song to me." Dhanya is all smiles as she narrates her titbits of joy.
Be strong in your 'strength'
A job soon became her topmost priority … not just for the money, but for the fulfilment it would give. A job gives one a sense of direction and satisfaction, she believes.
"Seeing all that I'd written, Abhijith Panicker messaged me on Facebook. I did not know who he was. I then got introduced to Sheryl Fernandez through Abhijith and that's how I became content writer in her firm 'Creative Cronies.' It was my first job. My first salary took me to the cinemas. I now freelance for several others as content writer and do online columns. Writing is my forte and I'm again blessed in the fact that everybody at various workplaces understands me."
Dhanya is also associated with 'One Step At A Time,' an organization that works for the welfare of the differently-abled.
Here goes her wish list: Provide jobs and facilities for the differently-abled to work from home and design workplaces they can effortlessly access. The world has to see the positives, not the negatives.
"If you look for opportunities, you'll never lose your confidence. That's what disability taught me," says Dhanya in her blog. That's certainly a leap of faith, one that's inspiring.