No one believes Vishal Jayram Patel when he says that he is the father of a 6-year old. At 32, his youthful exuberance makes them question their flawed notions of what parents should look like. He’s got a warm, welcoming smile that spreads from ear-to-ear. Behind his solid smile, though, is a steep learning curve, with a graph that is plotted by hardships, acceptance, and triumphs.
A few years back, Vishal was a short-tempered man, anxious about working in a red-light district and unaware of his latent transphobia. In 2013, his job as a supervisor with the BMC on the RNTCP (Revised National TB Control Programme) introduced him to Kamathipura. He says, “I was reluctant to work there, I had heard bad things. My friends used to tease me. My mother asked me to stick to my work. I remember being solicited by a lady outside Alexandra Cinema once.”
As time passed, his monthly visits to the area undid his apprehensions to an extent; but a complete change of heart was set in motion when he came on board the Barefoot Researchers for Better Communities fellowship at PUKAR in 2014. His group, Swayam, comprising paraprofessionals trained in social work from Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, studied the politics of stigma attached to spaces such as Kamathipura and its consequences on the residents.
Vishal’s observations of the problems faced by female sex workers in Kamathipura played a crucial role in shaping the group’s topic. The research turned out to be the perfect opportunity for Vishal to expand his universe as the study brought his own deep-seated misconceptions to the fore. One of the women opened up about how she escaped the clutches of her considerably older husband, who regularly abused her, and landed up at CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) where she was lured by a lady into the world of Kamathipura. Vishal saw the storms that had decided the fate of these women and left them in no position to steer the course of their own lives.
As a child, his school years had been underscored by a weak financial situation at home, so when female sex-workers narrated their hardships of putting their children through school, he could relate to their stories.
The fellowship became the mirror which reflected his shortcomings and his strengths. Vishal explains, “I understood myself and my values through the fellowship. I learned to listen to people with a different point of view. My time as a fellow has taught me that respect is a two-way street.” It is perhaps this idea of respecting and treating people as equals that has permeated into the relationships he forms and the things he does. Some of his closest friends are transgenders, his feelings have transformed from an outright fear of the community to unconditional love and support for them.
In the fellowship, dissemination is of key importance; it marks the time when fellows take their research back to the community to start a dialogue. For Vishal, dissemination is of key importance in life; he leaves no stone unturned to create awareness about TB and HIV irrespective of the setting – bus, train or market – as he engages with people who are willing to lend him an ear.
As a Senior Treatment Supervisor on the RNTCP, Vishal often goes beyond the demands of his job, be it negotiating space for immunisation against TB or identifying a lab for testing. “I spend my free time visiting old-age homes and orphanages to contribute in whatever way I can. My wife complains that I don’t spend enough time at home.”, he adds.
Today, as a mentor for one of the groups on this year’s Youth Fellowship Programme, Vishal has come a long way. As enthusiastic as he is about his role, one of his main attractions is the chance to learn more through the experience. His thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, his spirit indomitable and his desire to do good burns bright. He acknowledges that the road to change will always be fraught with difficulties but he will keep marching on, with his hand on his heart, saying, “All is well!!”.