Sarah Ismail reviews an autobiography titled “One Little Finger” recently published by Malini Chib, an author and leading advocate of disability rights from Mumbai, India about her extraordinary life.
Malini Chib’s book, One Little Finger, was first described to me as the autobiography of a woman with a very severe form of Cerebral Palsy. So, when I first saw the title, I thought she was missing a little finger!
In fact, her ‘one little finger’ is her lifeline, her ‘powerhouse of strength.’ She uses it to type, first on a typewriter, then on a computer and, much later, on a mobile phone to send text messages. Malini Chib’s little finger, I quickly realised, can be compared to another very famous limb of a person with Cerebral Palsy – a certain Christy Brown’s left foot. We never find out which hand the little finger is attached to, but maybe that’s because this tiny detail doesn’t matter.
As a British Asian woman with Cerebral Palsy myself, it didn’t take me long to realise that I have more in common with Malini Chib than our disability. She describes how her parents moved from India to England when she was young, leaving behind a good life because they knew her needs would be better met in England. She describes growing up in a close family with her loving parents, ‘normal’ little brother, aunts, uncles and cousins, who she treated like her brothers and sisters. Her tales of these times with her family took me back to my own childhood.
In England in the late 1960s/early 70s, Malini spent a few years at Cheyne Walk, a special school in Chelsea which still exists today. Its recent pupils have included Ivan Cameron. At Cheyne Walk, says Malini Chib, she ‘received the best treatment and educational management.’ It was here that an IQ test revealed that she has ‘an intelligent mind with a disobedient body.’
From a young age, Malini travelled with her parents, spending winters in the Bahamas as her mother could not stand the cold in England. This is an interest which continues and is obvious throughout the book. Her descriptive language and fast pace of writing about the places she visits made me feel, at times, as if I was with her, travelling the world by wheelchair.
After the birth of Malini’s little brother Nikhil, the family returned to India. India in the early 70s was not the best place for a severely disabled child. In the hospital where she was treated, Malini felt as if she was ‘just a patient and not a human being.’ The difference in attitude towards disability in India and England is a recurring theme in the book. In England, Malini has freedom and is able to be independent, while in India she feels restricted.
No schools in India would take Malini, so her mother set up a special school based on Cheyne Walk, called The Centre For Special Education. She was joined in this project by a physiotherapist called Pam Stretch. Anyone who knows anything about physiotherapy knows that this is a very appropriate name for a physiotherapist!
Malini says, however, that her time at special school in India was ‘the darkest period of my life.’ From her own experiences, she strongly supports the idea of inclusive education – a view that I share. She feels that the chance to be in a ‘normal school,’ and to see able bodied children interacting, would have encouraged her to be independent in her communication.
Communication – and more specifically Malini’s own speech – is a constant theme in the book. Malini is dysarthric – her speech is slow and monosyllabic, and not always clear. This seems to be the thing that affects Malini most about her disability. In all areas of her life, at every stage, she feared that her speech would not be understood. For many years, her speech impediment made her lack confidence to meet people her own age. Throughout the book, each time she met someone new who understood her speech, or took the time to try, her excitement and pleasure was very clear to me.
She has used communication aids from the age of 13, first a Canon Communicator, which was slow and ‘laborious’ to use and later a Toby Churchill which she describes as a smaller version of Stephen Hawking’s communication device. However, this only has a male voice, understandably not the most pleasant thing for a young woman! When she describes discovering the Internet and email in the 90s, her excitement is obvious again, as now she felt that finally ‘people with poor speech can interact easily.’
In 1981, Malini came back to England to attend a special boarding school called Thomas Delarue. There she took her GCSEs and learnt to ‘grow up and be responsible for myself.’ She becomes assertive and learns to organise her time. It is at Thomas Delarue that she is given an electric wheelchair for the first time. ‘Who cared if I could not walk?’ She asks. ‘With an electric wheelchair, I could run.’
On her return to India, Malini attended St Xavier’s College – a place that anyone who has seen a 1990s Bollywood movie will surely recognise. There she, along with three other students from the Centre For Special Education, made history by ‘making the concept of inclusive education in higher education, a reality in India for the first time.’ However, St Xaviers, like most places in India, was not the most accessible place for a wheelchair user – there were two lifts, but neither one went as far as the library. From this point onwards wheelchair access becomes another constant worry for Malini and an important theme in the book.
After achieving a first in her college exams, Malini took a BA at St Xavier’s. There she met Zubin, a student teacher who became a close friend. She later developed romantic feelings for him, which were not returned. However, she does write in detail about how, like any woman her age, she wondered at this point in her life whether any man would ever notice her.
During her first Masters degree, which she took at the Institute of Education in Central London in 1998 in Gender Studies, she applied theories of feminism to disability and disabled women. She describes this experience as ‘intellectually invigorating and emotionally empowering.’ This course allowed her, for the first time, to accept her identity as a disabled woman, and, she says, she was finally ‘proud of being one.’
The book ends with the most current stage of Malini’s life – she now has a job in India as an event manager at a bookstore. As a lot of this job can be done online, she is able to combine it with her other interests – campaigning and giving talks at the Institute of Education. She writes her last chapter sitting in Russell Square, reflecting on her life and all she has achieved. She ends with a realisation that any British Asian can easily identify with – India will always be home, she will always return home, but a part of her will always belong to London. Finally, in terms of accepting her disability, she has come full circle. She has realised that she does not know what ‘normal’ is. As she puts it CI know only me. I like me.’
By Sarah Ismail