“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
Over the last four years, Jitendra Mane, a 32-year-old teacher from a village called Tilwani in Kolhapur, has been inspiring kids with this famous line by Martin Luther King Jr.
When his students met him for the first time in 2013, they were curious and concerned, a reaction Jitendra frankly did not expect. What he anticipated was a different reaction – ‘a reaction which has let down many disabled people in society’ as he says.
Disability haunted him even before its signs started to show. It all started when he was a child – every time the weather changed, he would get a fever that lasted a week.
His family decided to take him to a local doctor to understand why the fevers were such a regular occurrence, but the only one available was in a town 7 km away from their village. After the check-up, Jitendra, in class four at the time, was given news he couldn’t fathom. The diagnoses was that Jitendra had Rheumatoid Arthritis, but the doctor did console him and the family saying it can be completely cured by the age of 18. This restored a sense of peace at home.
The fevers continued to be regular, affecting Jitendra every time the weather changed till he was 22. And it’s here that his health took a turn for the worse.
Jitendra’s struggles got much worse, but it was the story of this struggle that continues to inspire kids in rural Kolhapur. One day, when he was 22, Jitendra caught a fever after getting drenched in the rain. In two days, Jitendra started to feel a stiffness in his body and was horrified when eventually he could not move.
His family rushed him to a hospital in Belgaum, which is a 115 km from Tilwani. After conducting the required tests, the doctors realised he had Juvenile Ankylosing Spondylitis, a type of arthritis that affects the spine and areas where muscles, ligaments and tendons are attached to the bone. It causes inflammation of large joints and the spine, resulting in stiffness and pain.
“I was disappointed when I got to know about the disability and cried for several months,” said Jitendra.
“A few days before the disability took a severe turn, I remember Jitendra riding his Splendor bike like a normal man,” recalls his 67-year-old retired father Sarjerao Mane, who has been a constant source of support in Jitendra’s life.
Doctors suggested a hip surgery to alleviate his condition but warned there was no cure for the disease. Sarjerao didn’t find this statement convincing enough and decided the best thing to do was get his son some physiotherapy. After a few years, Jitendra began to show signs of recovering.
The disability did not allow Jitendra to attend college regularly – causing him to miss a couple of months while he did his B. Ed. This affirmed the worries of college authorities, who were reluctant to admit him with his condition. Jitendra, however, was not going to stop. He decided to complete his course, never looking back.
Jitendra passed with flying colours and later went on to become a teacher. With a B.Sc in Chemistry, Jitendra went on to finish his B. Ed, and later added M.A. in Hindi to his list of accomplishments!
Jitendra became a teacher because of his passion to teach kids. He started by assisting a teacher who taught science to grade VI students in the local government school. Soon, students from grade X approached him and asked him to take math classes.
Jitendra’s father proudly recalls, “I had to get the first floor of our house renovated for his classes.”
Meanwhile, Jitendra kept giving competitive exams and filled forms for the post of a teacher.
After applying for several interviews, he got the job of an assistant teacher in Tadasar village of Sangli district, 90 km from his home. While he was ready to take on the job, administrative lapses and ‘senior school authorities’ were not keen. Jitendra fought back and successfully got the job of an assistant teacher in a Government school in Takawade in 2013, 12 km from his village.
Jitendra is a permanent faculty member. He commutes to and from school with the help of the local and state buses. Jitendra is said to be 40 percent disabled, and as a result, cannot sit properly, so he stands while teaching and correcting papers.
He teaches four secondary classes and interacts with over 300 students. Not only does he teach children the subjects he is assigned, but also about how compassion to those with disabilities.
“Initially, I thought kids would not respect me, but their acceptance came as a surprise. Even my colleagues never made me feel uncomfortable by asking questions related to my trauma. This support has helped me focus on my teaching and becoming a better teacher,” says Jitendra.
Sarjerao is a proud father, who credits his son’s success to the hard work he puts in despite the odds. “My son works for more than 12 hours daily, he also started taking extra classes for kids now. It’s his passion to teach kids, which has kept him alive,” says Sarjerao with a smile.
Since 2005, the Mane family has been spending between Rs 5000 and Rs 10,000 a month on treatment and medicines.
Jitendra was supposed to get his hip replaced on 8 November 2016, but the demonetization did not help. “Now, we’ve decided to not go for the surgery, at least till the near future, because there’s no assurance of him coming back to normal. I’ve personally seen a few horrible cases,” explains Sarjerao.
Jitendra spent his share of time grieving about his disability, spending many months in tears. Talking about his earlier days at the school he says, “The kids never made me feel uncomfortable, instead they would praise my teaching in the entire village.”
Looking back at the struggle today, Jitendra inspires a lot of students in rural India to never give up and keep moving ahead, as he says today, “there lies a beautiful territory in a journey called struggle.”