Crawling in a ‘polio-free’ country

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In March of last year, it was announced that polio had been eradicated in India

Photographer Elena del Estal couldn't help but wonder about those already living with the disease

CNN  — 

Imagine sitting on a dusty, busy street in New Delhi, crowded with vendors and people running quickly about the market. A woman’s lapis-colored sari swishes past you in the golden-colored dusk. You’ve been here since morning.

A tourist extends a hand with a crumpled paper bill. You try to lift your hand to accept, but you can’t. The muscles are paralyzed, and your mind can’t command them to move. You use your knee to balance your arm and grasp the rupee. Then you use your foot to pick up your bag and head home for the day.

This is everyday life for Bipin Kumar. Kumar, known as BK, contracted polio as a child, and he has learned to adapt to how he moves and lives. Kumar has no brothers or father to provide for him, so he moved to New Delhi 10 years ago to pursue the only means of income he could – begging on the streets.

Photographer Elena del Estal was in India last year when the World Health Organization announced that polio had officially been eradicated from the country. It had been exactly three years since the last contracted case. Del Estal was fascinated by this. She couldn’t help but wonder about those already living with the crippling effects of this horrible disease.

Photographer Elena del Estal

She traveled to a small village near Kolkata to meet a little girl who was India’s last case of polio. This gave her the inspiration to begin a long-term project on those suffering in a country that’s now “polio-free.”

First she met a boy named Dharmender who lived in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. Even though his village was poor, his family took good care of him. Del Estal spent time with him and accompanied him during a surgical procedure in New Delhi. She said that while Dharmender is very fortunate to have the opportunity for surgery, he will still never have a “normal” life.

“His daily life is hard. … Everybody around him was working and having a family, and he cannot have this,” Del Estal said. “So on one hand, it’s (a) hard situation, and on the other hand, it’s easier than the other boy I met.”

She’s speaking of Kumar, the young man who moved to New Delhi to support himself and his elderly mother back home in a village up north. Del Estal first met Kumar when she was wrapping up the first segment of her project. From the beginning, she said, he was very trusting, allowing her into his daily life.

Del Estal was intent on capturing an authentic portrayal of Kumar’s life – the everyday logistics of moving through a city without one’s limbs at command. She said she was amazed at how adept he was at maneuvering his world. He could carry notebooks with his neck, grasp a pencil in between his clutched fingers, smoke a cigarette using his feet and prop his arms on his knees to move them forward.

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    Between the two of them – Del Estal speaking a little Hindi and Kumar speaking a little English – they wove a patchwork language of friendship and understanding. Kumar told her of his love interest – a girl who had feelings for him as well – but her parents would never allow their union.

    Del Estal said that while Kumar wants a job, employment is next to impossible for someone in his condition. But his spirit is tenacious. He knows how to read and write and he is skilled at taking care of himself. Before heading to the main bazaar in New Delhi every day, he washes and dresses himself. There are no days off for him. As shops open and tourists fumble through a foreign world in flip-flops and Bermuda shorts, Kumar positions himself in a visible location and smiles and greets everyone who passes with, “Namaste.”

    Del Estal has been so impacted by his friendship that she said her next plans are to do a project on his life.

    “I want to go to his village to meet his mother and keep taking pictures about his life because he is such a beautiful person,” she said. “It’s such a sad (circumstance) yet amazing life. I want to keep documenting his (story).”

    Elena del Estal is a Spanish photographer based in India.