Standing tall on his crutches, 38-year-old Gautam Lewis welcomes us with a broad smile in his makeshift apartment in Kolkata overlooking the busy A.J.C. Bose Road flyover. As cars zip past on the elevated road behind the glass window, racing as it were against time, Lewis settles himself on the sofa nearby.
In town with his documentary feature—Mother and Me—being screened at the Mother Teresa International Film Festival to celebrate the canonisation of the “Saint of the Gutters” scheduled to be held at the Vatican on 4 September, Gautam opens up a chapter of his life he doesn’t quite want to talk about otherwise. Turning the clock back to the time when he was a toddler still. Abandoned and orphaned.
“I was born somewhere in Howrah. That was the time when one out every five children died of polio. I was fortunate to be alive, but polio didn’t spare me. I was crippled. I was abandoned by my parents, who possibly couldn’t bear the trauma of lugging a handicapped child all through their lives. And one morning I woke up at a home in Dum Dum run by the Missionaries of Charity. To be honest, I don’t have any fond memories of my childhood. There was no colour, everything was so grey,” he recounts.
Little did he know what lay in store. Brought up by the Missionaries of Charity sisters in their trademark blue and white pin striped saris, Gautam had a chance meeting with Patricia, a young scholar who had just completed her PhD in nuclear physics. She had come down to Kolkata to volunteer at the Rehabilitation Centre for Children, which offered free services to poor. In between multiple corrective surgeries he underwent at the centre, where he used to be taken painstakingly by the sisters, young Gautam’s bond with 25-year-old Patricia grew stronger and she decided to adopt him after initially discarding the thought when suggested by a sister. The formalities took over a year and he boarded the flight to Auckland with his new mother.
Kolkata was all but forgotten for good as Gautam got admitted to a premier school in London. A school where members of the royal family received their education. “Life changed so dramatically. It was as if I was living a dream. As a child living in Sishu Bhawan in Kolkata, I would often stare at the skies and look at the jet planes high up in the sky. Kites flying in the air used to fascinate me. For me the plane and the kites signified liberation. Freedom from disability. Freedom to chase my dreams. I wanted to fly the kites. I wanted to fly the planes. For a child crippled with polio it surely was fanciful thinking. But England changed my life. Forever,” says Gautam.
Armed with education and bolstered by carbon fibre calipers, the sprightly young man went on to pursue his dream. An avid musician, a filmmaker and a photographer, Gautam spread his wings in the air and set up his not for profit company, Freedom in the Air. Where the less privileged who have been struggling with their physical disabilities are taught and trained in flying aircraft.
“I was born in Howrah but made in London. It is impossible for me to forget Mother Teresa. She gave me a second chance to have a life. She gave me a chance to escape poverty and shape my destiny. I always wanted to get liberated from disability. And she made it happen. After deleting Kolkata from my memory for years, we flew down to the city when I was 18. That is when I met Mother Teresa. She blessed me. She was my third mother,” he recounts.
To pay homage to Mother Teresa and celebrate her canonisation, Gautam chose to land in Kolkata instead of flying to Vatican to tell the world his story. His film, Mother and Me, clocked a full house on the first day of the screening at the film festival. A music video created for the occasion too with rendition of Tagore’s evergreen number Ebar tor mora gaange baan eshechhe... is already a huge hit on social media.