She gave’ missed calls’, her way of asking me to call her and I responded each time. Having never gone to school she had no knowledge of alphabets and saved my number with a ‘star’ symbol to which she made several calls in the six years since our first meeting. Rajitha’s stunted growth was a result of fluorosis while she was in her mother’s womb in a small hamlet in Nalgonda village of Telangana. Rajitha’s hands and feet were mere appendages and she could barely manage to crawl. Her mother carried her around like a little baby. At 25 she looked like a three-year-old and was made to sit on the oval glass table in my studio where she participated in a discussion on fluorosis. She could not be seen in the frame seated on any of the high chairs around the table. Four other victims, Swamy whose brittle bones had been broken and set a hundred times, Sirisha whose bow shaped legs prevented her from continuing her middle school education and Vijayalakshmi whose mother cursed her everyday about her deformity were part of the panel discussion that included social activists and NGO’s. I anchored a similar discussion on another channel six years earlier and although there was a good response from the government and discerning viewers, efforts to make the state “fluorosis free” remained at the level of rhetoric. I persisted and more than six years later continued to draw focus on the fact that water, the life giving elixir was indeed a ‘life taker’ resulting in abnormalities for over 70,000 victims in Telangana’s villages. That people’s representatives used mineral water even in their bathrooms was a sore point and participants vented their ire over the injustice of it all.

Rajitha was a sunny personality whose courage was evident in the manner in which she smiled and embraced her vulnerability. She spoke about her difficulties and looking into the camera without hesitation pleaded for a teacher who could teach her how to read and write. ‘Naaku teacher pampiste nenu chaduvukonta, Madam’ (If you can send a teacher to my house I will learn to read and write) she said with a winning smile which left my crew charmed and saddened at the same time. Chirpy and full of life Rajitha never let her physical condition dampen her enthusiasm taking an interest in political and social developments around her. She was overjoyed when safe drinking water was provided to schools in villages in her vicinity after our episode was telecast. She gave her famous “missed call’ to get me to talk to her cable operator to provide a connection to my channel which at that time was not available in her village. Once this was done, she would watch my programme every Saturday night and the repeat telecast on Sunday morning without fail. “I can watch you speaking” she would say concluding every conversation with “madam nuvvu challagundali” (you should be hale and hearty). Each time she got me to call her she would enquire if I was fine, whether I had eaten something and how my work was going. Three years ago when she heard that I was down with a simple fever she even took a vow to visit a Shiva temple on a hill top in her grandmother’s village.

 I helped her get a monthly pension from the government given to people with disabilities but she wanted to earn some income apart from this and help her family instead of sitting helplessly at home. She managed to set up a small makeshift store with a donation given to her by an actress and anchor, impressed by her desire to do something.  Rajitha sold sweets, chocolates and small trinkets that her brother procured from a nearby town and earned around 1000 rupees per month. Villagers would go to her shop and buy things, dropping money in a glass jar kept on the counter. Rajitha sat on the floor of the shop talking to her customers as they walked in. “It’s very hot inside my shop”, Rajitha had complained one day and I decided to take a table fan to help her sit in comfort during the summer months when mercury levels soared and the dry heat made life extremely difficult. I drove to her village a good one and a half hours from Hyderabad and gave her the fan. She took several pictures sitting next to her fan and sent them to me. Rajitha’s positivity and confidence never ceased to amaze me. She not only fought for all the benefits due to her but set up her little shop to boost her family’s income. She wore matching bangles and earrings and took selfies without any worry about her deformity. She had long conversations with the villagers who came to her shop and enquired about their well-being and proudly posed with her brother on a special vehicle given to her by the government. Rajitha was a sought after ‘victim’ so to say as many channels and papers covered her story and her zest for life despite all the difficulties she faced.

Pain was however her constant companion and Rajitha popped pain killers to relieve her from body pains, an ordeal familiar to scores of fluorosis victims every day. As a result, her kidneys were damaged and worsened with every passing day until she was taken to a private nursing home in the town.  I got her last “missed call” before she succumbed to her disease. Her voice was feeble and she kept telling me about the money spent on her treatment. “Call me again” she said and I promised I would. One day later I got a message from her brother “Rajitha Chanipoyindi” (Rajitha is dead). Her pain and struggle had ended. The sunny girl trapped inside a body that could barely move had lived her life in the best way she could. Her 30 years were a valiant struggle with pain and penury but she wagered on. I am happy that she is finally at peace and relieved of all the suffering but her death leaves a great void. I miss you my friend and all the love you showered on me.  I sincerely hope that we win the battle with fluorosis so that there are no more victims like you.