By Nidhi Goyal
I didn’t know that the simple act of cutting a cake for a New Year’s eve party would spark off a new chapter in my life, one that I would hate, love, enjoy, and later cherish. The party was at the house of a college friend of mine, and the cake had been brought by one of her colleagues.
When he realised that I couldn’t see, he started reading out the text on the cake. Some of his friends sniggered, and I sensed his anger at their implicit rudeness about my sight. He shut them up, and our conversations began.
This was nearly a decade ago, and yet it stands out as if it were yesterday. Within a month of meeting up with common friends, and over some cups of hot chocolate, he hinted at, explained and reiterated his attraction – or was it love? – for me. He found me brilliant, intelligent, beautiful, and loving; basically, he felt for me everything that a woman wants her partner to feel for her.
The first time he asked me out was over the phone at 1 am during one of our long conversations. I communicated my first refusal to him through silence. I just didn’t feel like there was enough chemistry between us. So we never dated or became lovers, but he was a friend who coloured my life with experiences that I still remember.
Some of my friends couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t give in to his attraction. After all, this was the first time in my life that a man had ever said that he was interested in me. They just didn’t get why I did not want to be with a so-called perfectly healthy, ‘normal’ man. Their reactions made me feel upset and confused.
I didn’t like talking to him in that way, nor did I feel any desire when I was with him. No matter how much he cared for me, the comfort of his friendship was not the same comfort I wanted from a partner. I didn’t confide in him or seek his support like I would a partner’s.
But wasn’t it better for me to compromise when someone was ready to ‘accept’ me? As a blind girl, did I really have a choice? Would anyone else ever like me again? These were the assumptions – both said and unsaid – that surrounded me. No matter what people said or implied, I guess my strong heart knew the answers.
I assume my refusal hurt him, but either he remained hopeful, or he just didn’t let it colour our friendship. He was happy to hang out with me, he argued with me as an equal, and he was my partner in crime when we sneaked out at midnight for pav bhaji. He didn’t treat me any differently when he discussed his work problems with me, he didn’t treat me any differently when he discussed his spiritual beliefs with me, and he certainly didn’t treat me any differently when I talked to him about my ambitions and plans for the future.
He was a natural at adapting to my disability; he never made it seem like it was a big deal. Once, when we were at a discotheque with friends, I was dancing with complete abandon. I am usually pretty much alone in the middle of the noisy space of a disco despite being with friends, since the visual coordination of steps isn’t possible. But I have a great set of friends who involve me in common dance steps through touch, and that night, so did he. But he also did something that the others had not picked up on – he squeezed my hand every ten minutes or so. I would say this is another way to make eye contact, simply to say ‘I am here.’
He was older, non-disabled, and had an MBA. He was working with an MNC while I was a struggling postgrad student, but he didn’t patronise or infantilise me – not that I would have let him. He liked to spend time with me, and to do different things with me, as he’d do with any other ‘normal’ friend.
One day, he said that he was tired of driving me around, and that it was my turn to drive. I thought he was joking until he pulled me out of my seat and pushed me onto the driver’s seat. Did he seriously want me to take charge of his car – his first love? Before I knew it, he was giving me instructions on the mechanics of driving, and I was following them. The experience of driving without sight, albeit on an empty and straight road, was exhilarating. I screamed with excitement and fear all the way through.
Our friendship grew and matured with time. Perhaps his love for me became intense. But as the days passed, contrary to what he’d assumed, it was clear that I didn’t want him as a partner. Something of his persistence must have shown at his home, because his mother was furious about our growing friendship.
He shared her displeasure with me, and instead of feeling hurt or uncomfortable, I was smiling with joy. This might have been cheesy of me, but this was the first ever time that the mother of a man thought that her son could fall for me, instead of just assuming that I was the angelic, genderless and harmless disabled best friend.
By then, his family had decided it was time for him to choose a life partner. Despite my refusal, he named me as the woman he wanted to be with. What followed was perhaps expected, and yet so painful that even though I didn’t love him, I was hurt. It hurt that his parents dismissed me because of my disability, even though they liked me, and I was otherwise whatever they wanted their daughter-in-law to be. But as far as they were concerned, the idea of him marrying me was absolutely out of the question because I was disabled. They didn’t want their son to be shackled with permanent caregiving responsibilities, because they assumed that I’d be a burden.
Their refusal didn’t matter, because I’d refused too, but what still shattered me as a 24-year-old woman were the reasons they gave for doing so. I had always been aware of the stigma surrounding marriage and disability, but this time it was my reality, and this reality was clawing at my skin.
Perhaps what hurt the most was that he didn’t persist in his efforts to be with me. He persisted when I said no, but not when his parents made unfair assumptions about me. This made me wonder just how equally he really treated me in the end.
Seven years have passed since this incident, and we are still in touch. Over cups of hot chocolate, we still remember those days, sometimes with fondness, and sometimes with discomfort. But we both know now that we would never have made sense together. My initial assessment of my feelings was right, and thank god I wasn’t consumed by any pressure to be with him.
As for him, after seeing me grow up into the stronger woman that I am today, he is sure that we wouldn’t have been compatible with each other. But it is hard for me to forget my first lesson in rejection, not because the man in question didn’t like me, but because assumptions about my disability superseded everything else.