WHEN I was 11 months old, on a train journey with my parents from Patna to Deolali, my temperature hit 104 degrees. At the end of the journey, doctors announced that the fever was just a symptom; I had polio. “But I must congratulate you,” the doctor told my mother. “Your child has survived.”
I walked with a limp all my childhood, my right leg shorter, thinner and weaker than my left. I needed corrective padding on my right shoe and spent hours on physiotherapy. No other child in my convent school had polio — in the ’70s, people like us, sons and daughters of middle-class, urban officers of the Indian Army, had better access to medical care. I was an aberration, a curiosity.
If these things didn’t remind me every day that I was different — a somewhat lesser child — there was the word: lungdee (cripple, in the female form). Children would whisper it at me and run away, giggling. As I grew up, men in the streets would, on any given day, have the choice to either throw a catcall or a leering “Ay, lungdee!” my way.
I would even hear lowered voices in our family kitchen. Visiting aunts would tell my mother that my parents should save a large dowry because a good groom is hard to come by for crippled girls, even one as beautiful as me. Beautiful. The physical attractiveness of my face, people said, would help with the sorrow of my leg.
The thing is, I never felt beautiful. I had low self-esteem. It wasn’t that I had polio. Clearly, polio had me.
Years later, after a 10-year career in journalism, in which I sought stories of other lesser people to write about, I was driving one day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I was working on my PhD. My son was with me in the backseat when a driver hit my car and it went hurtling into a tree. My child was safe, but my left leg, which had carried me all my life, took the impact. My ankle was mangled in the brakes and lost forever. Surgeons reconstructed things in there with plates and rods and eventually a fake ankle, an implant.
Confined to a wheelchair for a few months, I gained weight. For the second time in my life, I spent hours on physiotherapy. My doctor told me that the only exercise I was allowed for a while was swimming. Painfully self-conscious of my misshapen legs, I hadn’t put my body in a bathing suit since I was a child, even though I loved swimming. But, now, I had to exercise. The muscles in my polio leg were atrophying with the immobility of my body.
I struggled into a swimsuit. I looked in the mirror. The surgical scars, the extra pounds, the atrophied muscles, unwrapped, on display, pulled themselves together to present a picture of a remarkably striking woman. I was shocked. I stood there, waiting for the feeling to pass, the feeling that I was, in fact, beautiful. But it didn’t. And I am not talking about inner beauty. I am talking about a dead honest, sharp, straight-on sense of physical beauty.
I have no idea what happened in the mirror that day, but as I hobbled down the deck of the pool on my crutches, I smiled at people and noticed that they were looking into my eyes, not at my legs. If they did look at my legs, it was to help me down into the pool. I felt dazzling.
That feeling hasn’t gone away. I am in chronic, often debilitating pain, but I enjoy putting together my clothes as a statement of an inexpensive-yet-stylish personal aesthetic. As I walk down the streets of Seattle, I know I am limping, more than I ever did as a child. But it took broken bones and naked disabilities to reconstruct my sense of my physical form. And though I will never place a premium on physical beauty, I cannot help that the woman in the mirror thinks that she’s drop-dead gorgeous.