I have so few memories of India. If I was an illustrator I could maybe recreate some of the visuals. I don’t remember any faces of mum, dad, granny, whatever. I don’t remember anything joyful as a child. I just remember everything being grey because I was always in orphanages. I was about three years old when I was abandoned because I had polio.
I didn’t speak for six months after I overheard the nuns talking amongst themselves, saying that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I was a an abandoned child and no one was coming to get me.
When I met Patricia, who was to be my new mother, she had just finished her PhD in nuclear physics and went to India where she met Jane, an English nurse who set up the Rehabilitation Centre For Children, to provide free treatment to children from poor backgrounds. Every week they would trawl the orphanages looking for children they could treat. They had a relationship with the Mother House, the orphanage of Mother Theresa, and that was where they spotted me.
A woman and her child who was infected with polio in a village in Howrah.
I remember getting out of arrivals in Auckland when we relocated to New Zealand. It was a very sunny January day. Instead of listening to the noise of the traffic, it was birds. And there was all this green scenery around. You saw the blue sky instead of all the grey. It was like coming up for a gasp of air.
I spent 18 months in New Zealand and came out speaking English with a very strong Kiwi accent. Then we came to England and I went to Hill House, the school that Prince Charles went to. And then to Beadales. From seven until 18 I didn’t think about India at all. It was just somewhere I didn’t want to know about. I had become a new person.
Then we all had a year out after school and my friends started talking about going to India. And because I had this connection with Kolkata and everyone else was really fascinated by it, we headed there first. I just thought, "yeah, ok". I didn’t appreciate the history that I had with it. I probably pretended I wasn’t from Kolkata. That I wasn’t from India.
When we arrived and it was horrible. It was really humid, really hot. The first thing that hits you is the poverty. It was like someone had just got this video out of my head and shoved it back in, pressed rewind and pressed play. It was this kind of time warp. And I hadn’t prepared myself for any of it.
India still has major polio epidemics. Sanitary conditions are poor, knowledge of polio and its treatment are not well known and many people receive inadequate care.
The first place we went, as soon as we arrived, was the hospital where I has received operations as a child. It was a really horrible place, a place you wouldn’t want to be treated. And I had my mates there with me, and I was like, "shit, I don’t want you to see this". I didn’t like the reality check of who I am and where I’ve come from as opposed to what I’ve become. They loved it. They thought it was this great adventure. And I just thought, "this is fucking horrible".
After returning to the UK I eventually quit university and worked for a few years in the music industry. To rebuild my confidence after that period of my life I went to my mum and my grandparents and said, "look, I want to learn to fly. Will you help me in terms of contributing to the cost?" So they kindly put up half the money and I spent the next nine months training to be a pilot.
Until that time, I never really thought that I had polio. I never really considered myself to be a person with a disability. And it came to me that no one on crutches learns to fly. I had to use specially adapted controls to take off. I had to overcome my disability, and I’d never really seen myself as disabled. So I started to look at other people who had a disability who wanted to fly and now I run a flying school – Freedom In The Air – for people with disabilities. Last year we took about 80 people flying.
I was blogging about learning to fly and that’s how Rotary International in America got in touch. They sent me a letter asking if I wanted to get involved with polio eradication. And I thought, "you must be joking. I don’t know anything about that!" But in the end I just felt that it seemed right to go to India with this organisation.
This woman is a beggar and is constantly beaten up by her husband who drinks. No one has helped her since her child caught polio.
In the first week I went back to India in November 2007 they vaccinated 75 million children in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Last year there were only 1315 cases of polio worldwide. That’s incredible when you think that when the campaign started 20 years ago, polio was paralyzing 1000 children every day.
I persuaded Rotary to send me out to Kolkata for a week to take pictures and I arranged to visit all the places I’d lived in as child. I was almost taking pictures of my past. And it was quite cathartic being able to photograph all of these places that I’d never really looked at. Now I was trying to build the first seven years of my life in photographs.
What I’m really trying to do now is reconnect with India, because until very recently I don’t think I was proud to be Indian. But in fact what I am is both British and Indian, as well as a New Zealander and whatever else. I’m from west London. I’m from Beadales and I’m from Mother Teresa’s orphanage. I’m all of those things, like it or leave it, they are very much part of who I am.
Before I got really unbalanced because I hated driving around the city and watching people live in poverty. But now I just think, don’t be sad about it, do something about it! Rather than just looking and thinking, "that isn’t fair", well life’s not fucking fair, so what can I do to change other people’s futures? This campaign seems to be it.
• Gautam Lewis’s website
• Donate to Rotary International’s fund for the eradication of polio
• Global Polio Eradication Initiative
This mother wanted to vaccinate her children after meeting me but she was afraid that her husband would beat her. It is the men who have the decision-making power in these Muslim families and without the father’s consent she could do nothing.
Caption of first photo: Orphans in India. Seeing the child in the centre of the photograph reminds me of how I felt living at the Mother Teresa House.
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