Every one has dreams, hopes, ambitions and Affirmations: Nicola Naylor was no exception!
In her early Twenties, she was full of life, confident, attractive and driven. At University studying languages, she had already completed a few commissions for the BBC, and her forays in to print media were already blooming in to a promising journalistic career. Above all, Nicola dreamed of touring around India and the far East just as soon as her studies were over; in truth, it was her dream that got her through the tedious lectures and the late night exam revision. Only, within months of completing her degree, Nicola began to lose her eyesight, as a result of a lifelong congenital condition. Within a year, Nicola was completely blind! The speed and absolute nature of her new condition drove Nicola in to a chronic state of complete depression and loss. She had been in hospital for a year; and saw no point in carrying on with an existence she neither understood nor desired. The idea of being limited to sighted assistance, guide dogs and white canes was just too much to stomach. She fluctuated wildly between suicidal thoughts, and battling her inner demons to get beyond the fear of the present, and what lay beyond. When she finally found the courage to rebuild her life, she decided to study aroma therapy, and went on to set up a highly successful private practise in London. Despite her many successes however, Nicola still felt like she had not achieved her real goals, there was something more she wanted, something still undone. In this vein, her dreams of India came back to visit! Nicola wanted to tour around India, researching alternative health and the production of natural oils so that she could bring her learning back to her clinic! That would have been fine, only, Nicola wanted to tour India on her own, as a blind woman, with little to no assistance! And that is exactly what she did!
Jasmine and Arnica, is her vibrant, moving and personal account of just how she did it. The book was Nicola’s first attempt at returning to journalism since the loss of her sight, and each word is carefully selected and crafted with the passion you would expect from some one using every atom of their being to reach for the stars and hold them. The book is a roller coaster of emotions that will have you laughing and crying in the space of one page; Highly charged, it takes the reader on a sensory experience of the sub-continent that few fully sighted writers would be capable of equalling. Her account is touching, optimistic and inspirational, but there is allot more to it than that! Nicola tells a unique story, not just because of the undoubtedly unparalleled nature of her independent travel, but because of the realism with which she brings it to life. While there are many novels and non-fiction books about blind/disabled people, most of them are of a heroic nature: strong, yet debilitated souls who battle against the odds and their afflictions to prove either to themselves, or to the world, that they really mean something. Nicola’s book does none of that. Nicola travelled around India because that is what she had to do, because she could, because the question of her being worth it never entered the truth of what she would, and could do for herself. She is no heroine, rather, she gives the reader a free and frank account of the ignorant people she meets and her assertive, sometimes fierce interactions to achieve something as mundane as booking a hotel room for the night! Never before have I witnessed a disabled writer talking so openly about the concentration living can take, and the chronic headaches acquired as a result. Or how the every day trials attached to something as simple as getting the buss or crossing the road can often induce such phobic feelings that its sometimes easier to drag the duvet just a bit higher over one’s ears till the feelings subside! We don’t talk about this, because we can’t! because to inadvertently signal defeat is to play knowingly in to the hands of the silent majority who, though they may not even know it themselves, still believe that disabled people are the stuff of charity. Who need help rather than empowerment, and who need things done to, rather than Independence! Living is often like walking an ever diminishing tightrope between self-determination, and the realisation that, as a non-sighted individual, I shall, whether I like it or not, require eyes from time to time if I really want to equal my rivals!
…, Oh that word! Rivals! Sighted people are not my rivals! Yet in existing, it becomes so! Even Nicola’s wonderful heart-felt book still echoes the capitalist millstone of ‘you are, what you output! I.e., to have a sighted demeanour is to be successful; and to be educated, professional and aesthetically pleasing, is to really have made it! Nicola actually embraces this so intensely that there are feckless accounts of her crossing the road without her cane so that others don’t blow her blindness cover, or pretending to read a newspaper because that is the ‘sighted cymbal of normalcy. That said, while the book made me scream out loud in places, its overwhelming aura was to me, related to regaining one’s sense of self; liberating the soul from the conditioned and acquired baggage described above. While she may be foolhardy, Nicola does accept assistance; and she travels with plenty of contacts and support networks to hand! However she reaches a point, where she knows she has to throw caution to the wind, along with all the other barriers that were gifted to her when she lost her sight! People like me, who were born blind, don’t always see these barriers as other people’s unfounded anxiety, because we are taught to view the world through the sighted lens of our limitations! I used to climb trees happily as a 5-year-old, but was stopped by my mother because, “its too dangerous for you!”. I was bundled off to the ‘special school because “people like you don’t go to the normal school”. Through-out education, and the world beyond it, you are gently, yet firmly indoctrinated in to what you CAN’T and will NEVER, do! You can’t drive a buss, or become a pilot, or read a restaurant menu, or be a doctor, or go out on your own, or study geography, or read a map, or travel without booking assistance first or …, you get the point! Nicola brushes off her guides, assuring them when she gets on her 50th buss that, she has arranged for a friend to meet her at the other end! But, there is no friend, there is no support! And while she takes some arguably senseless adrenaline governed decisions, the earth doesn’t fall apart! She doesn’t get raped, or murdered or hurt! She stays in a hotel, travels around the city alone, and catches a buss safely to her next destination in Northern India! You might wonder, why do that, why put one’s self through such tension and be subject to so many dangers! And here again, its about proving a point! The heroic novels I referred to earlier are cultivated in the same sentiment; to be ordinary is for the most part, to have failed to the world! I remember when my cousin was born with the same congenital eye condition as I, but with an additional learning disability, his Grandmother commented to me; “what worries me the most is that, he will have to spend his life working on a supermarket checkout!”. In the sighted world, there would be nothing wrong with cleaning the toilets for a living, removing the trash or digging the roads! Ultimately, the person is independently earning his/her living! But for a disabled person, its seen as a failing; both in the disabled, and the non-disabled spheres of existence. To the non-disabled, it’s a sign of pity; a poor tragic being who had nothing better to do; and for the disabled, it’s a weak entity who lacked dreams of any thing better, and who let our side down by not fighting! Some people climb mountains, others partake in desert treks, some undertake copious amounts of international charity work for their people; while Nicola and I decided to take off!
Perhaps that’s why I loved this book so much; for a few hours, I was back in my own budding radio career, or back on the plane that took me to Karachi for the very first time, with just a suitcase to my name and with neither funds, nor a place to stay! I totally got where Nicola was coming from; and loved her for telling a story that few have found the guts or the courage to tell like it is! Only, as I read, I kept wondering how/where I lost it. Where had that harsh, zany, unfaltering, uncompromising, feisty female gone, who once stuck 2 fingers up at the world and carved out her own path, to boldly go where no one had gone before! As some of you know, my adventure in Pakistan did not end as well as Nicola’s. I was violently attacked, and was then forced to return to the UK unexpectedly when my Grandfather became critically ill. When I analyse it today, I realise that my biggest mistake was perhaps attempting to fit in to the stagnant life I had left behind. I got a job, because I needed money, and took on a mortgage because my family wanted me to put down routes here. Sure I had obligations, but no one forces another to do any thing; in the same way that no one can live your life for you! I could have stood firm, have gone back; but this realisation has less to do with Pakistan, and more to do with not carrying the learning forward! Pakistan worked for me because, there were no barriers, there was no sighted lens! And I utilised this fact to my own advantage! I created the lens for them; by living, existing, working, and doing every thing just like every one else! 99% of my colleagues wouldn’t have known a blind person if one had jumped up and bitten them on the head; so I had the honour of creating the yard stick for them. When you have no line to follow, you can let your real colours shine through! The hidden soul, the inner child, call it what you will! Perhaps that is why I still yearn for the best days of my life, which I believe were those spent in Karachi, and why, a few years later, I became hopelessly infatuated with an Arab American blind man who had grown up in a similar barrier free universe; where he made the yard stick, and then subsequently broke it with his catalogue of International achievements!
Fast forward to the present; I am married, and relatively happy despite our current uncertainty! But allot has changed; and in reading Jasmine and Arnica, my heart definitely mourned the personality I once was, and will probably never be again! Some people desire to be the first Blind Man on the Moon; I just desire the ordinary! It took me years to find the man I wanted to be with; and when I did, suddenly, cooking rice, hoovering the carpets and nursing babies took precedence over direct action campaigns and changing the world Rosha style! And maybe that’s OK; maybe in embracing the average, the ordinary and the mundane, we achieve real equality; rather than chasing a mirage of acceptance through showy trips and media generating gestures of grandeur. Maybe I just want to be your average stay-at-home Muslimah, and maybe that’s OK for me now; maybe I’ve walked the boards and got all that fighting and pretence totally out of my system! And maybe that’s all good! But as Reza and I discuss a possible overseas move, and as the real ramifications of marital change, children and the like come upon me; I realise just how much I need that precocious Roshni I used to know. Nicola Naylor came back, but she expanded her business, got back in to media and also published Jasmine and Arnica! She went on to publish another book; dealing more specifically with the business of Aroma therapy healing and practise; and then went off on a tour of the Far-East on a tandem bike ride with a wonderful friend who, became so Wonderful to Nicola that, they decided to spend their lives together, and now have a beautiful baby daughter! To regret is pointless, though its impossible for me to read a book like Jasmine and Arnica without feeling a twinge of the same. Still, as Nicola points out, life is just a series of doors that lay ajar, partially opened for us to investigate; and when you can’t see behind them, it becomes all the more necessary to just hold your breath, open a few of them, and jump!!
And Maybe, if Nicola can do it, I can do it again, too!