Born with Spina Bifida
Meera was born with a rare condition called Spina Bifida, otherwise known as a Split Spine. A sac-like feature was present on her back when she was born- the options presented to her parents were to leave it as it was or surgical intervention. She underwent the surgery at the tender age of 3 months after which a few nerves to her legs got detached from the spinal cord. This resulted in a length difference of her legs along with some extent of external rotation.
Her parents were worried if she would have issues like hydrocephalus, but later realised the effect was on her legs. She didn’t walk until the age of six. Every time she would place her foot on the ground, she would experience ‘spasticity’, the feeling of pulling back. It took another 6 months since she first set her foot on the ground to take her second step.
In spite of this, nothing got in the way of her love for dancing. She practiced Bharatanatyam, as part of her treatment to improve her mobility. Two chairs were placed on either side of her. She would then be instructed to do the steps alone- while doing the hand movements, she would remain seated. She even performed in Guruvayur and Chottanikkara. Unfortunately, this hobby drew to a close following a fall where she injured her patella which put strain when she would attempt doing the Aramandalam position thereafter.
She remembers a trip to Mumbai when she first got caliper shoes. She began feeling conscious- this became especially troubling to her when, in secondary school, all her classmates switched to salwars, while she continued to wear the skirt. This made her feel awkward and she felt like people treated her like she failed a year, because she had to continue wearing the uniform from the previous grade.
In 8th grade, her condition took a turn for the worse. Meera’s right foot began growing forward while her left began to grow in the opposite direction which resulted in a reduction of her height. She says that her body began to appear crippled at this stage. It was then that she visited Manipal for the first time, underwent a major ligament and tendon tightening surgery and left with dreams of studying at the University.
“I always wanted to be a journalist..”
Meera was steadfast in her vision of what she wanted to do in her life.
She completed her graduation in Journalism from Manipal University after which she worked with Cognizant for a year before doing her postgraduation in the Amrita School of Arts and Sciences. All through her college years, she was at the top of her class- she was a gold medalist- and she seemed to have her eyes on the prize.
She took up a job with a leading Indian newspaper and it was then that she realised that her mobility issues were posing a hindrance to the job. When she would step out to cover stories, she would need someone to accompany her- help her get in and out of the bus. She recalls her chief telling her that they needed to pay two people to get one story. She recognises that the way it may be put seemed brash, but there was truth in his statement. Her lifelong dream of being a journalist came under the microscope- keeping the transportation issues aside, Meera says that journalists need to be able to manage themselves alone- and that’s something she has trouble with. She decided to take a break for a year after which she began looking for work-from-home opportunities to avoid travel time. She soon took up a job with an Oman-based media company as a social media manager and a content writer.
Degrees and then some
Meera then decided to explore MPhil as an option- that was the first year that Amrita College began its PhD in Visual Media. On successfully acing the exam for the course, she enrolled as the first full-time student for the course in the college. She has even received the Rajiv Gandhi national fellowship for 5 years for her PhD!
Her PhD is based on the representation of disability in Malayalam cinema. She says that the reason that she picked this is simple- she wanted her study to be rooted in disability and loves watching Malayalam movies. She says the process of rewatching movies she has seen before to be studied- not long ago, this was for leisure, now on a more serious note. Cinema is a representation of society, Meera says. She explains that there are seven stereotypes when it comes to disability in cinema- while six of them are negative, the only positive one being heroic. According to her study, old Malayalam movies like ‘Karumadikkuttan’ and ‘Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum’ represented the characters in a sympathetic view. Earlier terminology labelled those with special needs as cripples, handicapped or physically challenged. Now, there is a shift in terminology to more sensitive terms like vulnerable or differently-abled.
After 2000, Malayalam cinema has begun exhibiting disability in a positive light. She compares the positivity of Jayasurya’s quadriplegic character in the Malayalam movie ‘Beautiful’ to that of Hrithik Roshan’s character pleading for euthanasia in the Hindi movie ‘Guzaarish’.
She is also supporting her studies with a PG Diploma from IGNOU on Women and Gender Studies. For the PG Diploma, she is doing a comparative study of the portrayal of acid attack victims in the Malayalam movie ‘Uyare’ and the Hindi movie ‘Chhapaak’. She also intends to do a course in Disability Studies soon.
When asked about her plans after the PhD, she reveals that she always wanted to become a teacher. Not a university professor though, as one may expect, but a kindergarten teacher. She intends to someday open a school of her own. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the country pushes for inclusion in schools countrywide, there still are special schools. Placing a child who may be deaf and mute in a special school is, in a way, alienating them from the community. She recognises the subjectivity of these criteria and the teacher’s ability to instruct them, in such instances, may pose a challenge. She speaks of how schools teach numerous subjects which have no application whatsoever, teaching school students a course in ‘Disability Studies’ with classes in basic sign language or Braille would make a world of a difference.
She says that if those who are differently-abled sit with us and if healthy interactions take place, only then is a sense of normality achieved.
Meera’s Little Family and her adventures as Momma Bear
Meera met her now-husband Kamal as a young 16-year old and they soon became best friends. They began dating when she was in her final year in Manipal in 2011. Meera and Kamal have been married for 5 years now and a year ago, they brought in an adorable little angel called Vrishti, known fondly as Bhanu, to the world.
She documents her journey with little Bhanu, as she watches her one-year-old grow, applauding her milestones and recording it all for the world to see via her YouTube Channel Meeka Unwinds and blog called ‘Amma Karadi’ translating to ‘Momma Bear.
Meera has not shied away from talking about what people may perceive as weaknesses and has transformed circumstances- making this a story of Strength, Smiles, & what once was a Split Spine.
This article has been written by Neha Nambiar.