July 2nd, 2007 | Published in Google.org
We were shooting our third attempt to record an "azhan," a Muslim call to prayer, when we met Gulzar. As a woman, I haven't been allowed into mosques, but I've stayed determined to somehow get my crew inside of one to record the beautiful, haunting, beckoning sounds heard five times a day throughout Muslim neighborhoods all over India. These calls mingle with bad static, reverb, or a low hum over low-quality outdoor loudspeakers. A crude transmission, perhaps, but an unforgettable sound.
That day in Meerut, my camera man and sound man were in the neighborhood mosque while I waited outside, intently listening to what our camera was recording inside. A crowd started to gather around the mosque, not because of the prayers, but because of our jeep — and the two women left alone in it. We were a curiosity. A diminutive man with a wide smile ambled up to our car, "May I kindly know, Madam, what you are doing here in our neighborhood today?" He was paraplegic, with a steel walker around the front of his five-foot-tall body — like a miniature Colosseum. His walker was very worn out, and was at least three or four inches too short for him — in a way that made his back lean over and his smile look up. I explained our film. He keenly listened to every word and replied simply, "My name is Muhammad Gulzar, and I am a polio survivor. Madam, may I help you?"
I'm not a superstitious person, but I couldn't help but feel as I drove away that day with his phone number in my pocket that all of my earlier failed attempts to film a call to prayer (the first time we didn't roll soon enough; the second time a loud generator masked the sounds...) had but one purpose: To lead me to this mosque, on this corner, to this polio survivor named Gulzar.
An educated and unemployed Muslim, Gulzar volunteered with our crew over the next two days and eventually opened his doors to us to film him. After two weeks of filming the effort to eradicate the disease in India, it was there — in Gulzar's home — that we finally saw polio up close and personal. He was 24 years old, but in the privacy of his home he had to crawl like a baby. In public, he wore calipers on his legs, and his hands bore the calluses of someone who carries his own weight every day on a frame of steel. His family (one of the most loving and supportive I've known) clearly makes every accommodation for Gulzar, but the realities of public life can be cruel. There are no handicap ramps into buildings, no adjustable lifts onto buses — no way, I realize, for someone like Gulzar to get around. Here is one of India's best and brightest, but how, I wonder, can Gulzar possibly get to a job? Mobility is his greatest challenge.